Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Democracies Fail the Test of Adulthood

In my last post, I discussed the harsh financial realities that states must now face and that the federal government will eventually have to face, even if it currently acts as if the piper will never have to be paid. I wrapped up the post by citing Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ contention in this WSJ op-ed that this situation “is a test of our adulthood as a democracy.” I think that Daniels is wrong on this point. Here’s why.

Our nation’s Founders understood that democracies are ill suited to the adult level of responsibility Daniels calls for. Madison, in particular, was keenly aware of the inevitability of a democracy becoming an oppressive force against the minority, as discussed in Federalist #10.

In a democracy there is nothing to stop the majority from voting themselves benefits from the minority, since there is no private property that cannot be construed to be exempt from belonging to “the people.” Thus, as Madison noted, democracies “have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property….” Democracies embrace and glorify the immorality of “might makes right.” (Although they don’t have a corner on that market.)

Madison wrote that those “who have patronized this species of government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions.” Rather, to combat the unavoidable instability caused by the system, democracies eventually transition to dictatorial states ruled over by a strong man or an oligarchy.

Madison opined that a properly designed republican form of government would mitigate many of the problems inherent in democracies without unduly inhibiting the majority. But in his passion for this new structure, he put far too much stock in the ability of the structure to attract the virtuous to public office. He wrote:
“…as each representative will be chosen by a greater number of citizens in the large than in the small republic, it will be more difficult for unworthy candidates to practice with success the vicious arts by which elections are too often carried; and the suffrages of the people being more free, will be more likely to centre in men who possess the most attractive merit and the most diffusive and established characters.”
Ah, if he could only see today’s political campaigns. Madison assumed that the government of the new republic would attract representatives “whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial considerations.” The level headed deliberations of these enlightened politicians would mute the excesses of direct democracy.

The idealistic Madison felt that the ability of factions to have a seat at the table of government would temper both smaller and larger factions and would lead to good government. He apparently could not foresee the development of partisan politics, which arose (with Madison playing an integral role) during Washington’s presidency and was deeply entrenched by the time Madison became Chief Executive. By the time Madison finished his second term, he no longer held lofty illusions about government attracting chiefly politicians of high moral character.

The question, then, is how to deal with the combined realities that:
  • Democracies tend to tyranny.
  • Politicians in republics almost universally act in their own self interest within the economy of the political system.
  • Gaining power in the political realm usually requires aiding and abetting the development of systems that ostensibly oppress citizens (under the guise, of course, of aiding them).
We can put on blinders and believe, as did the Madison of 1787, in the inherent virtue of politicians seeking and holding office. Or we can approach matters with the realities of politics understood by the Madison of 1817. At any rate, neither the 1787 nor the 1817 Madison believed that democracies were capable of demonstrating adulthood, as Governor Mitch Daniels suggests.

Next time I will discuss the kind of adulthood that I think Daniels probably intended when he wrote his statement.

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