Democracy: The Philosophic Principles and Mechanisms Part II
The People and Power
by John M. Joyce (May 2008)
(Part I is here.)
This second essay in the series was going to address the concepts of liberty and freedom. I intend to examine those concepts in the near future but I have decided that this essay will deal with the one issue which I did not cover in the first essay, namely that I believe, and stated without justifying it, that in a democratic polity the final and ultimate authority and power must be vested in the body of the people.
Very few people would challenge that statement and I do not propose to deal with such challenges in this essay. This essay will attempt to justify the position of final power and authority that the people hold in our democratic polities today, for many people believe the position occupied by the people as the final arbiters in a democracy is self-justifying (it is so, therefore it is so) and that the issue is one of natural rights, but that is not the case. It is possible to construct a democracy, and a free society around it, in which the final power rests elsewhere than in the mass of the people. A good example of this would be a constitutional monarchy such as the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland where final power rests with the monarch; granted that in the UK it is only theoretically the case today, but up until the late forties of the last century it was so in practice, and yet it would be hard to argue that the UK was not a democratic and free society in those times during which this arrangement pertained.
Other groups of people, apart from the one which might happen to believe in constitutional monarchy, also do not believe that the final source of authority for any government of a polity is the people en masse. For example, some people believe that God is the final arbiter for government and that his directions for good government can be found in some ancient text or other such as the Koran or the Bible, and that erroneous point of view must also be addressed and refuted when considering the role of the people. Yet others believe that some sort of familial hierarchy (tribal organisation) should be extended to govern entire polities – it is that belief which some see as the basis of monarchy. Yet others believe that some oligarchy, perhaps of the best or most intelligent, or comprised of the wealthiest (usually referred to as plutocracy), or of the biggest landowners, or of those who have absorbed and believe in some political ‘ism’ or other, should have all the power and should not be challenged. There are even some who believe in the Divine Right of Kings and yet others who believe in the principle of strongman dictatorships as the natural order of things. All these positions, and more, are, as we know, wrong and, I believe, have to be challenged and proved wrong, which is one of the purposes of this second essay in the series which is designed to complement and underpin the first.
It is important to remember before moving on that the criterion for judging whether or not any particular type of government is desirable is whether or not it fulfils the purpose of government. The purpose of the government in any polity is to provide stability and order; to defend the polity and to maximise its wealth and the wealth of the individuals within it; and to keep arbitrariness out of the law as far as is possible. The governments of democratic polities also have the additional purpose of maximising the amount of freedom and liberty enjoyed by the individuals within it whilst not jeopardising the foregoing. Increasing to the maximum, and defending to the utmost, the freedoms and liberties of citizens is not, however, an obligation of any other form of government and would be injurious to most other forms of government should they attempt to do so1.
So, in a particular order which will become obvious, let me deal with each of the cases which I have baldly outlined above starting with the idea of strongman dictatorships. Such power holding dictatorships are invariably born from chaotic conditions almost always caused by some other non-democratic belief holding body within a polity making a bid for power. It matters not whether the polity was democratic and free to start with, or had one of the other systems of government and societal organisation at its core, for strongman dictatorships usually, almost invariably, arise when pre-existing governmental structures fail under intense pressure, usually violent, from some special interest group or another. Strongman dictatorships usually have as their avowed aim the preservation of the original social and governmental structures, or, where the acquisition of freedom has been the issue in their emergences, the construction of social and governmental structures fitting to the societies in which they have emerged. Occasionally, dictatorships are simply selfish acquisition of power for personal reasons – witness Saddam Hussein in
At their best some dictatorships can aspire to a version of the Hobbesian2 ideal (Hobbes theorised that the production of an all-powerful ruler would produce such good order in a realm so as to make life better for all) and some would argue that General Franco’s
A second type of government which must be considered is that based upon the tribe. Tribal mechanisms of government can be viewed in several ways. If only one tribe exists within a polity then the chief can be either a dictator or a type of monarch – inherited chieftainship is the usual model but sometimes a council of elders, or some such body, can elect a chief and that then would be a type of oligarchical arrangement similar to the election of the Polish Kings in times past; sometimes the chief can simply be the person who was strong enough to seize control of the tribe, a dictator in other words. In a single tribe polity the precise nature of tribalism is a drawback to the advancement of the polity. Most tribal societies have only a very limited understanding of private property. Most tribes make very few, sometimes no, distinctions between individuals. Most tribal societies are altruistic – kin-selective altruism is the basis of most transactions. Almost all tribal societies view the tribal family structure as the most important thing in life. Obviously, this can be a good receipt for survival of the genes but it is a poor basis for the survival of the polity. However, it is theoretically possible, although I cannot think of an example as I write this (peradventure there may no examples but the theoretical possibility remains), for a single tribe polity to change into, over time, a monarchical state. I discuss monarchy later in this essay.
If many tribes exist within a polity then there is usually competition, often violent, for the position of supreme chief. The most important drawback of tribalistic government in a mixed tribe polity is that the loyalty of any citizen is neither to the polity nor to the amorphous mass of his fellow citizens, but to his tribe. Raised in a tribe, inculcated from an early age with the belief that that tribe is superior to all others, no citizen in a many tribes society can do other than support his or her tribe over all others. In a mixed tribe polity the drawback should be obvious – the constant competition between tribes for power and all other resources within the polity coupled with the changes that are bound to take place over time in the numbers of people belonging to any particular tribe and hence the alteration of the relative status of each tribe, means that a tribally governed polity would find it difficult to the point of impossibility to advance its economy or, eventually, to defend itself against other societies with different types of government – note the relative ease with which the colonial powers took control of large areas of the world which were tribal, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.
Now let me turn your attention to oligarchies. Oligarchical government comes in two main forms – all of the elite share power or the elite elect one, or more, of their members to power. There is also a variant type of the latter which we saw plainly demonstrated in communist countries. In those countries it appeared that the various communist parties were large oligarchies electing some of their members to power but in practice the ordinary members of the parties merely rubber stamped decisions taken by small elites, often shadowy and difficult to identify, which were the true oligarchies. Members of the party were, in reality, merely apprentice oligarchs. There is also a school of thought which argues that Western democracies do nothing more than elect an oligarchy for a fixed period of time. I think that this is stretching the meaning of oligarchy a little too far, but I do see signs that Western democracies are electing representatives who are being increasingly drawn from an oligarchical elite: in particular
Oligarchical control can produce very strong and peaceful polities in which limited levels of freedoms and liberties for individual citizens may sometimes be found. Ancient Republican Rome was oligarchic in nature as were the city-states of Ancient Greece and, more recently, the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth, which I alluded to earlier. It can be argued that the Republic of South Africa throughout most of the twentieth century was, in effect, an oligarchy – albeit, one based on skin colour as the (ridiculous, in my opinion) criterion for membership of the oligarchy as opposed to some more esoteric and understandable qualification, such as wealth, lineage, land holding or intelligence, one, or more, of which is more usual in oligarchies.
However, disregarding the theory of the Iron Law of Oligarchies, we have to ask why we do not see many stable oligarchies on the planet today? What are the drawbacks to oligarchical governments? Well, firstly, and I advance here a new way of looking at the decay of oligarchies, most oligarchies, no matter what the political or philosophical bases of the original elite group, almost invariably decay into heritable aristocracies. Members of an oligarchical elite will, by the very nature of the beast which is man, seek to perpetuate their own viewpoints and preserve the status and position of each individual oligarch, and will, inescapably I would argue, see their best chance of doing so in the passing on of accrued wealth and status and power to whichever natural heritor is dictated as such by the society in which they live. Very few, if any, oligarchs would be, or have been, capable of viewing their positions as positions of service to the polity they belong to. In other words, although oligarchy is deeply bound up with the preservation of the polity – without the polity there can be no power, no wealth, no position, no status and no prestige for an oligarch – the members of any oligarchy will become by natural processes solely reliant upon the concept of family (a variant of tribalism, it could be argued), and the families of the original oligarchs will do their level best to turn the system into aristocratic government. There is, I would argue, a fine distinction between an oligarch and an aristocrat. Oligarchies will accept, often reluctantly, new members based solely upon the original criteria which gave rise to them, whereas aristocracies have only one criterion – lineage. My ‘Iron Law’ is that all oligarchies will become lineage dependent aristocracies, eventually. I cite, for your consideration, the ancient Venetian and Florentine Republics4.
That does not answer my original question, however. What, in terms of my assertion that power rightfully belongs to the people, are the drawbacks to oligarchy (apart, that is, from the people not having the power)? To answer this one has to consider the purpose of government which, as I said earlier, is to provide stability and order; to defend the polity and to maximise its wealth and the wealth of the individuals within it; and to keep arbitrariness out of the law as far as is possible. Initially, oligarchies do a reasonably good job of providing stability and defending the polity (as I stated in the last paragraph). In the short term they even perform well at maximising wealth, but it is the longer-term wealth creation, and distribution, that lets them down. Oligarchies tend to concentrate more and more wealth within the elite as time goes by. Eventually the concentration of wealth becomes so great that the whole economy of the polity becomes unstable. Feuds between rival oligarchs and between the oligarchs and other groups of prominent or power desiring citizens (Guelphs and Ghibellines spring readily to mind) can also erupt and obviously these will have a detrimental effect on the stability of the polity and the ability of the population to undertake concerted action in times of threat. Eventually economic stagnation coupled with sporadic feuding will cause an oligarchical polity to either fall apart, face violent internal revolution, or be taken over, but the important point to realise is that this can take a very long time indeed. Oligarchies can be, often are, long-lived and stable and the processes of decay within them are much slower than one might expect. Nonetheless, oligarchies do fail in the end and this type of government is no more successful at maintaining a polity and its people than any of those I have previously discussed in this essay. The communist oligarchies of
Next, let me consider monarchy. Monarchs generally identify with the polity which they rule over to a very great extent. They see themselves as representing the polity and all the people within it. For a monarch, the stronger and wealthier his polity is, and the stronger and wealthier his subjects are, then the greater he, the monarch, must be and will be perceived to be by others. No monarch, in theory, would knowingly and willingly undertake a venture, or follow a course of action, that led to the destruction of his polity and its people. There is also a sort of tribal-chieftainship air about monarchy: many monarchs throughout history have viewed themselves, and encouraged their subjects to view them in this way also, as head of the family. However, it must not be forgotten that monarchy can also be viewed as a heritable strongman dictatorship and some monarchs in the past have certainly acted in vile ways against other polities and against their own subjects – ways which we more commonly associate with dictators.
The strongest concepts which surround monarchy are those which reinforce the subjects’ views about themselves. When a monarch accentuates family, that will find a resonance amongst his subjects. When a monarch identifies himself as head of the most widely held religion within his realm, that will also find resonance. When a monarch appeals to his subjects to rally round him and defend the realm against an obvious aggressor then that, too, will resonate with the people. It is easy to see why thirty-one monarchies still exist today – absolute monarchies have the ability to transform themselves into constitutional monarchies by persuading themselves that this act preserves their dynasties (the importance of family, again) and strengthens, and makes greater, the realm. In fact, modern constitutional monarchs probably believe that they are greater and better than their ancestors were, for they have taken monarchy and their dynasties to the very pinnacle of symbolism and made the removal of their dynasties very difficult to accomplish. For many of their subjects, now citizens, the monarch today still embodies some idea of nationhood and identity and he or she commands a symbolic power whilst in reality having little, if any, real power.
So, those monarchies which are still with us today have ceased to be ruling monarchies and have become reigning monarchies – no vestige of the strongman dictator king now exists; but what of those which have vanished? In the main their polities still exist –
We come, finally, to the elephant in the room – theocracy. A theocracy can be monist5 – the government administration is the same as the hierarchy of the religion, or it may have two divisions but with the secular administration completely subordinated to the religious hierarchy. Can a theocracy fulfil the purpose of government? The short answer is that it can! It can provide order and stability, but only for so long as a very significant number of the people within the polity believe in the religion from which the theocrats originate. It can maximise the wealth of the polity constrained only by any religious teachings about the desirability, or otherwise, of acquiring and holding wealth. It can inspire the people to defend the polity against aggression and to defend the theocracy, if the belief in the religion and the theocrats is strong enough. What a theocracy cannot do is maximise freedom and liberty, for these concepts will be constrained in a theocracy by religious teachings, so freedom and liberty will always be of a particular type peculiar to the religion within the polity – in no sense will there be any absolute and objective concepts of freedom and liberty and even if those objective concepts were considered to have some validity they would still not be used.
There are, however, some serious objections to basing a governing system of a polity on religion and thereby allowing a theocratic hierarchy to rule. The first objection is obvious – such a hierarchy is, in reality, nothing more than an oligarchy the members of which are selected on the basis of religious knowledge and belief. All the strictures which I applied to oligarchies will apply to a theocracy together with one other: a theocracy will inhibit, if not outright forbid, lines of enquiry in all other disciplines which are held to be against any one or more of the tenets of the religion. Eventually, such inhibitions will impoverish and weaken the knowledge base and intellectual life of the polity which, in turn, will impact adversely on the economy. In any case, religious imperatives will also be applied in the economic sphere which will seriously undermine the economic viability of the polity as well.
By its very nature a theocracy is the most rigid form of government. The religion is almost always an old one with its primary document written by some quasi-mythic figure, or figures, many centuries ago. Although some religions such as Christianity will permit some degree of re-interpretation of the ancient texts, others will not – and one very significant other, Islam, most certainly will not. This type of inflexibility will inevitably set up tensions in the secular society in the polity some members of which will wish to be allowed to use what they see as their own common sense when it comes to certain questions – usually moral or concerning traditional ways of doing things which the rulers now seek to outlaw as irreligious. In turn, these tensions, requests for freedom and liberty if you like, will be met with ever more draconian punishments, almost inevitable sanctioned by the dominant holy text, being inflicted upon dissenters. This process is well underway in
Before leaving the discussion of theocracy there are two more points which I would like to make. Theocratic rule and, by extension theonomic laws, require belief in God and a religion. God, however, is not objectively provable as having any existence. He, She or It, exists inside human minds. Those who believe in God believe that they have a sense of the numinous – the mysterium tremendum et fascinans – and that their minds sense the presence of God and that, therefore, they are made to sense the presence of God and God made them that way. The supranatural is, for them, real because their minds tell them that it is. However, most of them are sensible enough to realise that they could be in error and that their minds could be playing them false so they do not insist that their beliefs and those who most prominently argue for them should be the laws in and the governing people of our polities. They might loudly insist that the moral values which they derive from their beliefs be heavily taken into account when formulating laws and procedures but they do not insist upon a theocracy for they appreciate that simply because they believe in, they apprehend, a divinity with their minds is no basis for asserting other than a spiritual truth – that God exists – and that a spiritual truth, having no objective and concrete proof, should not be taken, in this concrete world, as necessarily real. That is the error that theocracies fall into. They confuse the numinous with the concretely real and in so doing they seek, often using violence, to make the real conform to their supranatural vision. The numinous is not objectively provable and sensible religious people, even the most devout and committed, know this and know, also, that this sense of the numinous may be nothing more than an artefact of their own brains – that it may betoken nothing other than how a brain, a mind, works and is constructed – whilst still maintaining a total belief in God and their religion. The mistake made by the aggressive, fundamentalist Islamists, for example, who demand a theocracy, is precisely this – that the numinous is real and that by its own existence in their minds it proves its reality. That is an endless loop which can never be broken.
The second point is this. Most, if not all, who would argue for a theocracy are opposed to democracy for, they argue, only God may decide things and man has no right to do so. It can be argued that this is obviously fallacious if one believes that God granted total freewill to mankind but is obviously in error on a more profound level. God, if He, She or It exists must be omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent and omni-temporal otherwise what one believes in is merely a secondary deity, a demiurge, in the Platonic mould. God being all-knowing, everywhere, all-powerful and not constrained by time can, therefore, influence the minds of voters in such a way that the outcome of any election in a democracy will always be exactly what God wanted. Even if God chooses not to do that then the outcome will be exactly as God wanted for God knows the outcome of His own non-interference. The processes of democracy are not anti-God, indeed, they are just as Godly as the processes of any theocracy – perhaps more so, some would argue, in that they leave more room for God to act. There is, therefore, no valid reason for a believer to prefer a theocracy to any other form of government. Everything will always be exactly as God wills it regardless of whether or not God interferes or permits the operation of our freewill. No matter what the outcome, it is God’s will. Establishing a theocracy merely limits God’s freedom to act and could curtail a gift from God – freewill – which, it is argued, we have no right to curtail. If that is the case then the Iranian theocracy, for example, is, in fact, running counter to God’s will and should immediately cease all activities.
That is an argument which could go on forever. My only purpose in including it in this essay is to give you, the reader, some flavour of it and to point out that even on theological grounds those who argue for a theocracy may be building their case on very shaky foundations. Let me return to my thesis – that the people are the holders, by right, of power. I have picked five forms of government to discuss in this essay. Of course, there are many more than five forms of possible government of human polities6 but the five which I have discussed are exemplars, in my opinion, for all the other types of government bar one. If they fail, as indeed they do, to fulfil the purpose of government then all the others, bar one, will fail also.
I must now consider the one which I barred in the last paragraph, a sixth form of government – democracy, with the people as final arbiters as I advanced in the first essay in this series. Do democracies fulfil the purpose of government? If they do then the position of the people as the final arbiters of power, which I advanced in the first essay in this series, is assured and justified. Well, democracies certainly provide stability and order, but so do many other systems in the short-term and democracies have not been around for long (a scant two-hundred years) so maybe the stability and order which they provide is no indicator of long-term validity. Undoubtedly, so far, democracies have demonstrated an enviable ability to defend themselves, and to co-operate in that defence (World War II springs readily to mind). As for wealth creation, for each democratic polity and for the individuals within it, then there can be no contest with any other system. Democracies have been spectacularly successful in the creation of wealth. That is not to say that there are no poor inhabitants of democracies – of course there are – I’m talking about wealth creation not wealth distribution which is a matter for social legislation within any given democratic polity and, anyway, relies upon having wealth to distribute in the first place. Do democracies keep arbitrary decision-making and judgements out of the law? No, they don’t, but neither does any other system. However, democracies strive to correct injustices when they come to light; democracies have appeal processes for those who feel that they have been badly served by the legal system; and, most importantly, democracies do not see judicial arguments and appeals against judicial decisions, as weakening their systems, undermining social cohesion and giving rise to ridicule, unlike, say, Turkey, or, for that matter, most other countries where Islam is ascendant or dominant and most other non-democratic polities such as The Congo, Iran, Syria, Libya and Zimbabwe (Rhodesia) just for example.
Democracies, what is more, must maximise the freedoms and liberties enjoyed by the people. The limiting of freedoms and liberties, as all other systems do, is primarily about the limiting of, and the controlling of, debate – the belief inherent in deficient systems that debate is a bad thing. Democracy believes that debate produces consensus and a way forward. More importantly, however, democracies use freedom and liberty and the consequential debates in order to keep democracy itself on track. The people debating amongst themselves and expressing the results of those debates to the democratically selected few who run the polity are the regulatory mechanisms which keeps democracy from decaying into some other system. The Iron Law of Oligarchies cannot take effect so long as the regulatory effects of free people having the liberty to debate, and to insist on the conclusions reached in so doing being acted upon, is maintained and encouraged. That is why democracies insist that the people be the final arbiters and holders of power – for the simple reason that that maintains the system, is an integral part of it and is necessary. There is no reasoning appertaining to some inherent natural right, or rights, of human beings which needs to be considered here, although such rights may exist, for the cold fact is that the idea of the people possessing the final power is simply functional and pragmatic7 and nothing more than a necessary part of democracy. The clever bit is that democracy has taken the individuals desire for freedom and liberty and turned that desire into a necessity and the exercising of those ‘rights’ into a primary function of the system, thereby, hopefully achieving stable and very long-lived polities. It is a small wonder then that the primary foci of the attacks made upon democracy by religious extremists are almost invariably freedom and liberty. Islamic extremists, in particular, seek to confuse freedom and liberty with morality – as I pointed out in the first essay – because, I could argue, they know just what an important pillar of democracy the exercising of these two ‘rights’ is.
That is the way democracy is built and democracy, unlike all the other systems, may to be the system which fulfils the purpose of government for a very long time. The big question is, are the regulatory mechanisms breaking down? Have we the people allowed some important parts of our freedoms and liberties to lapse, or be removed from us, so that our debates are curtailed and so that we can no longer function as the final power in our democratic polities? If the answer is ‘yes’, then our polities are doomed to failure, just as all other types of polity, no matter how often they are tried again and again, are. I suspect that, at least within the democratic polities of the EU, the answer is ‘yes’ and that failure is inevitable. I live in hope, however, that the rebellious nature of the indigenous European peoples might yet salvage the situation – that having once tasted power and freedom and liberty they will be loathe to relinquish them.
1.Yes, I know that the Constitution of the
2. Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) was an English Political Philosopher and the author of Leviathan, wherein he advanced this idea. A copy of Leviathan can be found at http://ebooks.adelaide.edu.au/h/hobbes/thomas/h68l/
3. Thomas R. Dye is Emeritus Professor of Political Science at
4. See http://www.aboutflorence.com/history-of-Florence.html for a reasonably good online history of
5. Monist – of the idea of monism, the metaphysical, and theological, idea that all is unity and that there are no basic divisions and that a unified set of laws underpins all nature. See Hamlyn, D.W, Metaphysics,
6. There is Anarchism, Aristocracy, Democracy, Despotism, Dictatorship, Feudalism, Kritarchy, Oligarchy, Monarchy, Theocracy and Timocracy, to name but a few.
7. Perhaps I am, at least partly, a Benthamite. He disliked the idea of natural rights, as I do, and called it “nonsense upon stilts”. However, Utilitarian philosophy is only a partial substitute, philosophically speaking, for the theory of natural rights and some credence has to be given to the idea, much as I dislike it.
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