Duty and Democracy

I’m sorry to have been off the air yesterday; I spent a long day with the promising young band Bulletproof Soul at Avatar Studios, mixing some of the material we recorded a few weeks ago. I am also working at the office all day today, so can’t write at length now either — but it appears that our recent post about the distinction between democracy and government-by-consent has sparked a discussion that it would be interesting to continue.

Obviously democracy is far from perfect: as Churchill famously said, “it is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” Bill Vallicella, clearly sensing that the topic was in the air, yesterday linked to a blog post by philosopher Colin McGinn (whose blog, by the way, we have just added to our sidebar). Go and read Bill’s post, and McGinn’s, here.

Meanwhile, our old friend Jess Kaplan (not to be confused with commenter JK) has sent us a link to a provocative article from the Sacramento Bee, in which the author, Stanford professor Joel Brinkley, argues that the United States’ recent bungling and ham-fisted ineptitude have made the promulgation of democracy seem rather distasteful. You can read the article here.

Finally, as I’ve mentioned, I’ve been reading Franklin and Winston, a fascinating account of the wartime friendship between these two great men. In it we have an excerpt from a speech given by Churchill at Harvard on September 6th, 1943, in which he speaks of America’s responsibility to reject the temptation of isolationism, and to accept its inevitable role in history:

There was no use in saying “We don’t want it; we won’t have it; our forebears left Europe to avoid these quarrels; we have founded a new world which has no contact with the old.” There was no use in that. The long arm [of destiny] reaches out remorselessly, and everyone’s existence, everyone’s environment, and outlook undergo a swift and irresistible change. …

I will offer you one explanation — there are others, but one will suffice. The price of greatness is responsibility. If the people of the United States had continued in a mediocre station, struggling with the wilderness, absorbed in their own affairs, and a factor of no consequence in the movement of the world, they might have remained forgotten and undisturbed beyond their protecting oceans: but one cannot rise to be in many ways the leading community in the civilized world without being involved in its problems, without being convulsed by its agonies and inspired by its causes.

If this has been proved in the past, as it has been, it will become indisputable in the future. The people of the United States cannot escape world responsibility.

There is no halting-place at this point. We have now reached a stage in the journey where there can be no pause. We must go on. It must be world anarchy or world order.

So, all of this ought to give us something to chew on! In particular the question of how to reconcile the need for “world order” with the sorry mess that the UN has become should concern us as well.

But for now, back to work I must go.

Related content from Sphere


  1. duncan says

    The question of promulgation of democracy (and success or failure thereof), and your question about the difference between “democracy” and “consent of the governed”, both suffer from some weakness of definition.

    In the former case this is evident in the administration’s interchangeable use of “freedom” and “democracy” (for example, this is often referred to as the “Freedom Agenda”). In their argument, then, these are presumed to be logically equivalent. They are of course not. If you want to discuss the term, it’s useful to formulate a working definition of it: I assume there can be some debate, but generally speaking it refers to decisionmaking by majority or plurality. Freedom naturally implies the right to individual decisionmaking but there’s no natural connection between this and democratic governance; presumably a free person (or people) could choose to be governed by a fiat monarchy, or to subjugate their own sovereignty to a foreign power.

    Similarly, “consent of the governed” is problematic. Consider this country: it is presumably the exemplar of the phrase. In the 2000 election, Bush won with roughly 50% of the popular vote (give or take). That was from about 100 million votes, something like 1/2 of the voting-age population. In the American system, election is used as a means of expressing popular sentiment, but not as a prerequisite for or an indication of consent to governance.

    Nor did the adoption of the Constitution require the consent of everyone to whom it was to be applied. No one that you know voted for it, or even had the opportunity; and yet we acquiesce to it. Union was a one way street: once established, it couldn’t be unestablished, and hence the secession of the South was illegal.

    So in reality we no more consent to our governance than the poor bastards in North Korea, which is to say our consent is implicit only in that we don’t rise in rebellion. The framers constructed a system which was based on popular will, expressed through periodic voting, and which (through this as well as other means) was intended to be less susceptible to tyranny.

    As to democracy: again using ourselves as an example, the American system is not now, nor was it ever intended to be, a democracy. It’s a republic. This idea was central to Madison’s conception and the federal Constitution, and this was in part a solution to the problems that he (and some of the other framers) perceived as endemic to democracy. This comes up in the Federalist Papers, notably no. 10 (the problem of faction), and much of the debate between the Federalists and the Anti-Federalists addressed not whether republic was preferable, but rather whether a republic of the size of the United States – at that time, just 13 states – would work at all, or if it would have the same problems as a democracy.

    But of course these are talismans. In popular phraseology “democracy” just means voting, and “consent of the governed” would appear to mean a system not imposed by force, internal or otherwise. But this simplification of concepts turns out to be exactly the problem.

    In addition to providing for the expression of popular will and attempting to minimize tyranny, Madisonian republicanism provides a mechanism for altering itself. It’s illegal to secede, but the system provides a legal alternative: you can amend the Constitution or discard it entirely, provided you follow the rules (these rules are of course complex, but that’s by design). The framers constructed a system whose legitimacy rested at least in part on its tenousness. Voting is a useful but not requisite part of the system.

    When we talk about exporting democracy, what we mean is exporting the idea of a legitimate government by, of, and for the people. But because voting is visible and obvious, it’s used as a placeholder or substitute for the larger idea. So when the administration wants to export democracy, it forces other nations to hold elections. The end result is exactly what Madison and the framers would have predicted: tyranny of the majority, or of the powerful, and a lack of popular legitimacy.

    Posted April 7, 2008 at 12:01 am | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says

    Hi Duncan, and thanks for joining in with this formidable contribution. I had hoped you might run across these recent posts, and would see fit to comment, as I know this is an area in which you have great interest and knowledge. I had been hoping to unpack the concepts we blithely lump together under the term “democracy” (and I am as guilty of it as anyone), and this is an excellent beginning.

    It’s late, and there is much here to digest. But a question that naturally comes to mind is: if elections are merely a placeholder for the “larger idea”, what then is the more general instantiation? Or is the larger idea so polymorphic that nothing whatsoever need be held invariant in its possible forms?

    The ideas of “legitimacy”, of government “by, of, and for the people”, of government “not imposed by force” do all approach the underlying ideal from slightly different angles, but are not exhaustive; there are additional freedoms unmentioned in this list that are essential components of what we feel is worth exporting as well.

    But enough for tonight. Thanks again for your thoughtful and provocative comment.

    Posted April 7, 2008 at 12:35 am | Permalink
  3. JK says


    I am a learner.

    I certainly do not have the faculties to ask precisely how this can follow,

    “Freedom naturally implies the right…”


    Posted April 7, 2008 at 2:25 am | Permalink
  4. Malcolm says


    Picking up from last night, then:

    It is clear that there is something that we feel is of value to promote in the world; if “democracy” doesn’t capture it precisely, and neither does “government by consent of the people”, then what is it?

    “Freedom”, you tell us, “naturally implies the right to individual decisionmaking, but there’s no natural connection between this and democratic governance.” I’m not sure that this is true in the sense that most of us would wish; unless there are mechanisms in place to restrict arbitrary limitations of critical freedoms by a “fiat monarchy”, for example, freedom is far from secure. As you say, although we are bound by a Constitution that we never voted for, that Constitution does contain the mechanism of its own revision by the people. That the Constitution is not revised by the people directly, but by their proxies, does in principle allow a swiftly formed cabal to modify it as they see fit, but as a practical matter — even beyond the difficulty of assembling the necessary majority — such a coup would be hindered by other freedoms, namely of speech and assembly, and the right to bear arms. Also, although elections are often decided by a slim majority of a fraction of eligible voters, this is due to the apathy of the voters themselves: again an exercise of freedom, in fact exactly the freedom you mentioned, namely the freedom to waive one’s representation.

    So there are important differences here between ourselves and the “poor bastards” in North Korea; indeed, were there not, one might ask why we don’t see ourselves as poor bastards too.

    Yes, in general use democracy does imply voting, and it is hard, frankly, to see how else a government by-and-of the people — the essence of the idea of democracy — could be instantiated in its absence. There has to be some mechanism by which the people affect the government, and “voting” is a flexible concept.

    The other key point is that of the system’s not being imposed by force. One might argue that I would encounter force aplenty were I to to try to overthrow the US government, but, again, the difference is that in the sort of system we wish to promulgate in the world there are approaches to the modification of the government that are explicitly not to be resisted by force. Again, freedom of speech, the right to bear arms, and a mutable Constitution are essential guardians of this empowerment of the people, and a bulwark against tyranny.

    So the distinction between “democracy” and “government by consent of the governed”, while obviously valid in a philosophical sense, fades a bit in practical terms. Yes, one may freely hand oneself over to authoritarian rule, but this is freedom only in the same sense that one may be “free” in a locked room if one never attempts to leave.

    Posted April 7, 2008 at 9:59 pm | Permalink
  5. duncan says


    I must admit that in the list of things I quickly glossed over I didn’t think that one would be contentious. I was using the term “freedom” in the colloquial sense; that is, to me at least, it means the natural right to make decisions for oneself.

    To the case at hand, in the US Declaration of independence, term doesn’t come up much but marks the absence of tyranny:

    A Prince, whose character is thus marked by every act which may define a Tyrant, is unfit to be the ruler of a free people.

    And more generally, the concept comes from Locke, a significant influence on Madison (along with Montesqieu and Hume). The idea is that in his natural state, man is governed by his needs and wants, and has the inherent power – i.e., the freedom – to pursue them as he sees fit. In Jefferson’s phrasing, this is the inalienable right of man to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. In establishing a society, man gives up this right or rather entrusts it to the government, for the common good of the society.

    What I meant was that this doesn’t necessarily mean a democracy (or a republic, or anything else). If man is inherently free, and can transfer his natural rights to the state, he’s equally free to select a nondemocratic form of government – such as a monarchy. There were plenty of folks who thought this was appropriate for the United States during the debate over the constitution. This doesn’t represent the absence of freedom; rather, it means that a free man or a free people can choose any sort of government he or they want.

    I dunno – did that clear up what I meant? If you think I’m incorrect go ahead and tell me.


    Posted April 7, 2008 at 10:00 pm | Permalink