Today’s Assignment

With the presidential campaign now at cruising speed, I thought it might be helpful to offer some readings and reflections on the nature of democracy itself: what it really is, what it isn’t, and how it really works.

Really, if you want to understand this contraption, what you ought to read is a book that I’ve mentioned in these pages before: Popular Government, by Sir Henry Sumner Maine. (You can read it free of charge here, thanks to Google.) But for today we’ll have something at least slightly briefer.

What is democracy? It is a form of government, and nothing more. Given that sovereignty is conserved, and always rests somewhere (though not always, or perhaps even usually, where it is thought to repose), we are always subjects to some sovereign or other; democracy, in theory at least, then becomes nothing more than a kind of inverted monarchy. The courtiers still grovel and flatter, and we, who imagine ourselves sovereign, flatter ourselves in turn that our infinitesimal slivers of power — what Bishop Berkeley, in another context, called the “ghosts of departed quantities” — confer upon us something august, and even more imaginatively, something real.

Curiously, despite the obvious liabilities of universal suffrage, most of us seem somehow to imagine also that every expansion of the franchise somehow improves our position, or at least does not diminish it. Perhaps this reveals a subliminal, and sophisticated, understanding of the irreducible teensiness of infinitesimals, though I rather doubt it. More likely, I suppose, it simply reflects a “good feeling” about democracy — as if it were in fact more important to be able to choose who governs than actually to be governed well — or perhaps it expresses what Mencken called “a pathetic belief in the collective wisdom of individual ignorance.”

Anyway, what I have for you today is an old piece by the pseudonymous Mencius Moldbug, on what, for the sake of discussion, he calls ‘cis-‘ versus ‘trans-‘ democracy: in other words, the various settings of the suffrage-knob ranging from ‘one’ to ‘all’, and on where actual power goes as the knob is turned. Along the way we’ll meet Senator Benjamin Hill, Deng Xiaoping, Lawrence Tribe (be sure to read his letter), Eugene Volokh, and yes, Sir Henry Maine. Astute readers will also note, in the final paragraphs, yet another summary of Auster’s First Law.

The essay is here. Take your time, and read it all.


  1. pangur says

    An honest view of poor old Curtis’ writing yields a few solid conclusions: 1) he is bad at history (ultra-Calvinists gave us modern liberalism!); 2) he’s at best a muddled thinker (he assumes progressivism is a virus when it’s pretty clearly a set of sociopolitical values); 3) the dumb “Cathedral” metaphor; 4) curiously avoiding discussion of Jewish influence in American immigration policy since the 1920s. Why?

    Posted February 10, 2016 at 6:56 pm | Permalink
  2. Malcolm says


    I think MM’s criticism of democracy is generally very good indeed. Likewise, I believe he is exactly right to identify a continuous progression from Plymouth to today’s secularized “mission into the wilderness”; he is hardly the only one to do so. (Paul Gottfried and George McKenna, for example, have done a very good job of this, with more historical detail and rigor.)

    I have no problem with the ‘Cathedral’ metaphor, and have used it myself. There’s obviously something massive and coherent out there that achieves an otherwise unaccountable Gleischaltung, and Moldbug’s name for it is as good as any other.

    Whether an infectious “set of sociopolitical values” is usefully seen as a “virus” isn’t an argument I have the energy for. Speaking just for myself, I’ve always been partial to the “meme” meme, but I know some people aren’t. I think of many highly contagious idea-systems — for example Islam — as “mind-viruses”, and I think it’s an excellent metaphor.

    As for 4): maybe because he’s Jewish. I don’t know. (We all have our biases, of course.) Not relevant here.

    Posted February 10, 2016 at 7:24 pm | Permalink
  3. JK says


    I’ve spent a lot of time on “the news” thinkin’, as you yourself pointed out;

    ” … [A] straight line from Socrates to JK”

    And this night in particular I’m thinking maybe you suggest to Hillary (to get the women) … beside of Huma & the two or so Hillary might get votes from Foggy Bottom …

    Campaign “Promise” Monica Lewinsky the Ambassadresship to Saudi Arabia or maybe, the UAE.

    Alongside a competition to Bernie something like,

    To break the grip of Wall Street & Goldman Sachs I, Hillary Clinton will give in to their demands and, “talk to ’em at a half million a pop for thirty minutes” (given a President is on the job 24/7/365 except for the annual “Pardoning of the Turkeys” a couple days before Thanksgiving.

    Which, I figure if she can manage the pace of Obama on the links – Hillary should easily match suck success.


    Just a couple ideas came to me like a dream Peter. Run ’em by her I expect?

    Posted February 11, 2016 at 3:50 am | Permalink
  4. Whitewall says

    I’m still rereading “Auster’s First Law” and am marveling at how spot on he is about where we are. Democracy with all its short comings can’t stand up to the corrosive agent of ‘equality’ it seems. This Law is a ‘how to’ the felon Hillary will run her campaign from here on since the aged commie is doing better than expected. If she gets no traction, expect her to develop ‘headaches’.

    Posted February 11, 2016 at 9:21 am | Permalink
  5. Malcolm says


    I’m still rereading “Auster’s First Law” and am marveling at how spot on he is about where we are.

    He is sorely missed by a great many of us.

    Democracy with all its short comings can’t stand up to the corrosive agent of ‘equality’ it seems.

    Liberty and equality are mutually antagonistic; in general you can only have more of one by having less of the other. More on that here.

    Posted February 11, 2016 at 2:54 pm | Permalink
  6. Whitewall says

    Malcolm, I managed my way through Moldbug’s essay with great difficulty until he came to the inclusion of Stalin-Mao-Hitler which proved helpful in bringing things full circle. Then, “Here we see, in cis-democracy and trans-democracy, the late Joe Sobran’s dichotomy:….” is where the entire thing picked up the pace and made more sense. In 2007, 2008 and 2009, absolutely NO criticism of Barack Hussein Obama (pbuh) would be tolerated. We see the consequences. At the same time we see Europe walking down the same path they took in the 1930s, averting their eyes from Stalin, Hitler and now Islam.

    What will become of them is in doubt. For America, we are well down the road of ‘anarcho-tyranny’ with open borders, executive orders, street gangs thriving with the wink and nod of city leaders. We even see sanctuary cities in all their lawless but elitist egalitarianism. Whither from here? I don’t know.

    Our looming election is only interesting on the “Democratic” side, as one candidate seems to have tendencies of half of the Stalin-Hitler-Mao set up, while the other may have tendencies that have some of the opposite side of the trio. Eventually these sides meet in the middle and become a “progressive normal”. Maybe the string has to play out, I don’t know. Depressing.

    Posted February 12, 2016 at 10:07 am | Permalink
  7. Whitewall says

    From the Durants piece; “Nature smiles at the union of freedom and equality in our utopias. For freedom and equality are sworn and everlasting enemies, and when one prevails the other dies. Leave men free, and their natural inequalities will multiply almost geometrically, as in England and America in the nineteenth century under laissez-faire. To check the growth of inequality, liberty must be sacrificed, as in Russia after 1917. Even when repressed, inequality grows; only the man who is below the average in economic ability desires equality; those who are conscious of superior ability desire freedom; and in the end superior ability has its way. Utopias of equality are biologically doomed, and the best that the amiable philosopher can hope for is an approximate equality of legal justice and educational opportunity. A society in which all potential abilities are allowed to develop and function will have a survival advantage in the competition of groups. This competition becomes more severe as the destruction of distance intensifies the confrontation of states.” My God if that doesn’t nail it where we are right now. The Obama campaigns-as well as his in office campaign- the Sanders campaign…all selling the narcotic of “equality” to the groups well below the mean. Easy sell that.

    Posted February 12, 2016 at 11:16 am | Permalink
  8. Musey says

    Malcolm, I just sent a pretty full reply. Lost it. I know it’s not your fault.

    Posted February 13, 2016 at 1:19 am | Permalink

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