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What I Think of Democracy

Yesterday, a friend asked me what I thought of democracy as a system of government?

Here is what I said:

* No political system is ever perfect

* The long-term end of most systems pretending to democratic rights is always oligarchy – rule by the few.

* Philip Converse wrote a seminal study on public ignorance in democratic systems in 1964, entitled “The Nature of Belief Systems in Mass Publics.” Nothing has changed, except ignorance is now spread wider electronically.

* He pointed to the main problem with any democracy: the vote of a fool will always cancel the vote of a wise man

* In any society, there are many more fools than wise men

* So “experts” tend to move in to control all political systems. In some democracies such as France, these technocrats are trained in special schools to create what they believe is perfect policy

* The vast majority of experts are left-leaning “progressives” by their own admission. They tend to hunker together in media, and universities, and publishing houses, and always justify destroying what is reasonably good, to create systems they think will be the best ever (paying no heed to the wise conservative warning: “The best is the enemy of the good”)

* Modern experts are technically smart, but not necessarily wise

* Wisdom – especially moral wisdom – can be found in many citizens who are not technically smart

* The main tendency of power at the top of any system is to gobble up, weaken, or absorb lower forms of power. The ancients called this the problem of imperium in imperio (a power within a power, or state within a state). The tendency is always to enfeeble or absorb lower forms of power

* Accordingly, over time, central governments in federal systems such as exist in the USA and Canada grow in size and reach by absorbing/controlling/disempowering the original powers and rights of their constituent parts, by passing federal legislation that cannibalizes lower powers, like the 14th Amendment in the USA, or creating Charter documents such as in Canada, that in effect federalize lower entities either by legislation or by means of fiscal bribery. Those lower entities – states, provinces, regions – in turn cannibalize the powers of their own lower entites – municipalities, cities, towns, and villages.

* Political systems that cannot achieve such ends by legislation, do it by way of court judgements. 

* Hence the ever-more powerful role of judges in all democratic systems, and so the gradual conversion of democracies into jurocracies. The entire European Union, for example, is in effect a massive jurocracy, despite its lip service to democracy. The price of a pound of butter everywhere in Europe is decided not by free markets, but by bureaucrats in Brussels.

* Democratic legislatures then become infantilized because elected representatives soon see there is no use debating crucial issues they know in advance will be decided, despite their opinion, by unelected judges

* Hence the battles by ideologically-opposed parties, to appoint judges with a known moral and ideological record

* Plato wrote the first historically influential political treatise (The Republic) in which he argued for the rule of Philosopher Kings. The book proposed a totalitarian (but not an egalitarian) formula for arriving a perfect society ruled by experts. In effect, a jurocracy.

* He was then invited by Dion, brother-in-law of the tyrant of Syracuse, to create a perfect government for Syracuse according to his plan. But it failed miserably, and Plato was chased out of town by threat of execution.

* All perfectionist totalitarian systems – the English revolution, the French Revolution, the Communist and Nazi revolutions – have eventually been chased out of town,

* The ancients were correct that historically speaking, political systems tend to mutate through a cycle they called “anacyclosis”: from chaos, to mob rule, to dictatorship, to oligarchy, to democracy, to chaos, and around again.

* My conclusion is that for the time being, at least, as the democracy/jurocracy/oligarchy systems of the West continue to decline, their most valuable feature is still the right “to throw the bums out” periodically, and start over. That is a wonderful gift of our ancestors.

* So a statement by Churchill still rings true in this regard:

“At the bottom of all the tributes paid to democracy is the little man, walking into the little booth, with a little pencil, making a little cross on a little bit of paper — no amount of rhetoric or voluminous discussion can possibly diminish the overwhelming importance of the point.”

This Post Has 2 Comments

  1. James Small

    Your observations are poignant as always Bill! I envy your wisdom and ability to think so rationally. YOU are my original Canadian hero. I’ll never forget how I was inspired by reading your first great books, The Trouble With Canada” and “The War Against The Family”. The two best books ever published on almost all political issues hands down. People who reject those books ate the definition of fools. I wish our country had a few million who think like you. It would make the world a much better place.

  2. Mike Milner

    The main problem with democracies (and by that I mean political systems with a universal franchise) is that it is inevitable that they will eventually collapse from their internal contradictions. In a such a form of government, politicians will always be required to make promises they know cannot be kept in order to maintain their hold on office. There will always be a large segment of the population who will be seduced by politicians offering them “free” government services and programs (which are of course not “free”). In other words, robbing Peter to pay Paul will also find favour with Paul. In Canada, look no further than the opaque Federal Equalization Formula, which transfers large sums of money from Western Canada and Ontario to Eastern Canada (particularly Quebec). Of course under this system, there will eventually be a reckoning. From a historical perspective, this unfortunately often provides an opportunity to a demagogue, who will use the crisis to gain power and then attempt to subvert the democratic process into a dictatorship.

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