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A fundamental problem for democracies

There is a fundamental problem for democratic societies so called, of which more anon - that is rarely faced in modern democratic societies, and least of all by democratic politicians and democratic voters. 

The problem is that only a rather small minority of the people living in democratic states are democrats in any feasible sense. 

The vast majority of human beings is and always has been totalitarian, and has mostly felt and acted as if they are totalitarian at heart: They love to follow or be absolute leaders, and they love to believe in simple-minded black-and-white political or religious ideologies, in which the goodies are everlastingly protected and remunerated, and the baddies everlastingly punished and persecuted, and Our Leaders are Great Men while their opponents are either Evil Men or - at best - fools, cowards or ignoramuses. 

And indeed, most democratic voters, like most democratic politicians, have little real sympathy for democracy, or for other parties, or for the rule of law: their real sympathies are with their political leaders, with their own ideologies, with their fellow party-members, and with the rule of their leaders. 

The reason why "democracy" in the sense of a fair sharing of power by fair voting is nevertheless important for most democratic voters and democratic politicians is simply that none of them has the democratic majority all of them want and that most of them would use to install their own species of enlightened totalitarianism - if only they dared and hoped to get away with. And the simple reason most democrats are a democrat is that they could not gather sufficient followers to be autocrats - not that they believe "everyone is equal" in any sense.

Furthermore, democracy in practice, i.e. is a state where for several generations all are mostly equal for the law and mostly free to follow their own ideas and interests, tends to regress to the human mean or below it: 

Average human beings just are not interested in high civilization, art or science, and usually are much more interested in plentiful food, drink, games, amusements and sports. Therefore:  A society in which many average men and women have a large influence on the allocation of resources will be a society where there are many circuses and other easy pleasures, and few great universities, and little flourishing great art.

None of what I've said so far is new or unheard of in any sense, for the same sort of things were clear to Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Machiavelli and any great historian, while the tendency of democratic societies to regress to the below the human mean, where life feels easy and demands made on others and oneself are few, simple and not strict, has been quite well and very perceptively been described by De Tocqueville, in Part II of "Democracy in America".

Even so, none of what I've said so far is popular in any sense in any democracy, for these all are based on the false presumption that each democratic voter is as good, as noble, as intelligent, and as benevolent as the next democratic voter, and indeed that any democratic voter, and more especially true-blue and genuine democratic politicians, will be much incensed if his or her humanity is in any way depicted as deviating from the admirable and covetable.

So the fundamental problem of democracies I am addressing in this note comes to this:

The real basis for democratic procedures is that there are too many groups of people with different interests in a society for any group to grab power without destroying most of society.

Consequently, in such a situation one is forced to make do with some way to please everybody in some respects and none in all respects, and this can be done by fair voting and fair sharing of power, which gives everyone some of what his interest group wants (if it is at all strong enough to get a social hearing and following), and also gives no-one all his interest group wants, except in rare cases, and for short whiles.

This has nothing to do with fairness, justice, equality or other high-sounding motives, and has everything to do with the fact that no interest-group in society is strong enough to destroy all other interest-groups, while surviving itself and not destroying society. Hence, all interest-groups decide to agree not to fight but to vote - because all see that in case of a fight the probability they loose is larger than if they vote, and also they have too much to loose to risk a fight.

Next, the more people and interests one has to please as a democratic politician - by promises rather than by deeds, as things go in this world - the less civilized, the less refined, the less artistic, the less directed to individual merit one can be, even if one wanted to be civilized, refined, artistic, and to reward individual merit.

Consequently, democratic societies tend to be ruled by politicians who tend to be rabble-rousers or intellectual and moral mediocrities, and tend in time to regress to a level below the mean of their population in artistic, scientific and moral terms.

Up to a point, this loss of civilization is bought by or paid by an increase in average welfare and average chances, and a less unequal distribution of society's riches. But in the end it leads normally to governments that are so incompetent that the democratic governments collapse, and are replaced by autocratic ones - which also is a phenomenon so regular that Aristotle recognized it.

Hence the fundamental problem of democracy is that it is incompatible with good government and with high civilization, because it pampers the interests of "the democratic masses" too much, which invariably are for more bread, drink, drugs and circuses, and because democratic government tends to be by careerists, liars, incompetents and yes-sayers, and not by independent individuals of high moral norms and bright intellect.

Note that fundamentally this is a problem due to the innate qualities of most men and women - that are such as not dispose them to thoughts of genius or acts of bravery, but to ordinary mammalian pleasures and easy conformism to whatever ideas and leaders in power. Or as  fellow Dutchman long ago diagnosed:

Ach, waren alle mensen wijs
En deden daarbij wel
Dan was de aarde een paradijs
Nu is zij vaak een hel.

Dirck Jansz Coster, 1618

O, if only all men were wise
And acted well
Then the earth would be a paradise
Now it often is a hell

Dirck Jansz Coster, 1618


Maarten Maartensz 
October 22, 2001.

Colophon: Written October 22, 2001.



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