The Meaning of Democracy. by Gary Gutting, Ph.D
The Stone is featuring occasional posts by Gary Gutting, a professor of philosophy at the University of Notre Dame, that apply critical thinking to information and events that have appeared in the news.
Americans strongly support democracy both at home and abroad. But we are ambivalent about referendums (often in California, recently in Mississippi and in Greece), which put major decisions to the people as a whole. We don’t fully trust “the people” to make legislative decisions. Those who remember their civics classes will note that we have not a direct but a representative democracy (or a republic). But many Americans don’t think we are really “represented” by the people we elect, and, recently, the suspicion has grown that we in fact live in a plutocracy — a nation governed by the wealthy. But there are clearly also other elements that exercise political power over us.
Our democracy is not so much a positive force for good government as a protection against extremely bad government.
Plato, in his still provocative “Republic,” proposed that there are five types of government: aristocracy (rule by the “best”, that is, by experts specially trained at governance), timarchy (rule by those guided by their courage and sense of honor), oligarchy (rule by a wealthy minority), democracy (rule by the people as a whole—a “mob” as Plato saw it), and tyranny (rule by a despot answerable to no one but himself). Plato’s categorization is a good starting point for thinking about the nature of our government. Although we don’t fit precisely any one of these type, each seems to express an element of our political system.
Plato’s aristocracy, for example, corresponds to our federal bureaucracy, the various departments and agencies that (despite the low opinion of many) generally keep everything, from relations with foreign countries to national law enforcement, running reasonably well. (The value of this bureaucracy shows up best by contrast with unstable countries that lack a tradition of effective public service). Plato’s timarchy corresponds to our military, with no independent authority but with a culture of competence and character that makes it a reliable instrument of civilian policy (even when the policies are misguided). Our oligarchs are the super-wealthy — the 1 percent — who fund our political campaigns and, especially, the corporations whose power pervades so much of political life. Given our commitment to a free-market economy, such power, despite its obvious dangers, is probably inevitable.
We are, of course, a democracy, but not in Plato’s (Athenian) sense of a state in which all major decisions are made by majority vote of all citizens. Such pure democracy would be possible for us today, with people voting on everything via, say, cell phones. But we rightly don’t trust ourselves this far — or even so far as to make frequent use of national referendums. Nor do we do a particularly good job of choosing competent and honest representatives. Rather, the essential function of our democratic elections is to guard against the worst abuses of power. Our democracy is not so much a positive force for good government as a protection against extremely bad government — ultimately against tyranny. Even so, there is an element of Plato’s tyranny in our system. This lies in our de facto allowance for wide presidential discretion in matters of national security, which, particularly in wartime, can give a president something like dictatorial powers.
We are, in effect, not a democracy but a multarchy (note to classicists: sorry to mix Latin and Greek roots, but political scientists use polyarchy in a different sense): a complex interweaving of many forms of government — indeed, of all Plato’s five types. Our fundamental and enduring challenge is to find the right balance among these elements to protect fundamental freedoms while also ensuring that our leaders have the power, abilities, and character to, as our Constitution says, “promote the general welfare”.
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Much of our current debate over this challenge focuses on the question of whether we have “too much government,” where “government” means the federal bureaucracy. Our “Platonic” analysis suggests that this is at best a gross oversimplificaton. The question, rather, is precisely how should we calibrate the relative strengths of all five elements of our multocracy. Current calls for “less government” actually mean less power for elected leaders and for the bureaucracies that serve them and more power for the “oligarchy” of millionaires and corporations. Such calls also imply less power for the people (the democratic element), since, while elected leaders are directly responsible to those who vote, those whose power is based on wealth are not. In fact, many of us who bristle at any government interference with our freedom and privacy, accept, as an economic necessity, similar interference from the companies we work for or do business with.
What we need is an integrated debate about all the powers that govern us, along with a recognition that all of them have essential roles but also pose dangers. In particular, “How can we recognize legitimate corporate interests while avoiding plutocracy?” is as essential a question as “Is the federal bureaucracy a threat to personal freedom?” Those worried about the evils of Big Government need to look not only at the executive branch in Washington but also at the executive offices of our major corporations.
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