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.