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“Democracy” as Meritocracy, Tolerance, and Rule of Law rather than Majoritarian Electoral Systems

February 19, 2010

There are two distinct ways to understand democracy, first as an ideal and second as a set of practical institutions.  Thucydides’ report of Pericles’ famous “Funeral Oration,” given on a battlefield in which many Athenians had died, is a particularly famous and influential statement of democratic ideals allegedly spoken by Pericles himself, leader of Athens, proud birthplace of democracy:

Our government does not copy our neighbors’, but is an example to them. It is true that we are called a democracy, for the administration is in the hands of the many and not of the few. But while there exists equal justice to all and alike in their private disputes, the claim of excellence is also recognized; and when a citizen is in any way distinguished, he is preferred to the public service, not as a matter of privilege, but as the reward of merit. Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition. There is no exclusiveness in our public life, and in our private business we are not suspicious of one another, nor angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes; we do not put on sour looks at him which, though harmless, are not pleasant. While we are thus unconstrained in our private business, a spirit of reverence pervades our public acts; we are prevented from doing wrong by respect for the authorities and for the laws, having a particular regard to those which are ordained for the protection of the injured as well as those unwritten laws which bring upon the transgressor of them the reprobation of the general sentiment.

These are certainly inspiring sentiments which the romantic idealist in me supports wholeheartedly, though of course one could quibble with various specific claims.  Various praiseworthy social characteristics are here associated willy-nilly with “administration in the hands of the many and not of the few.”

While Pericles’ perspective points us in the direction of an ideal, public choice theory provides a more realistic perspective on the governance mechanisms associated with various voting systems.  Although there is a formal discipline of public choice theory, complete with mathematical models, econometric analyses, and so forth, for our purposes public choice theory is merely common sense once one realizes, rather unromantically, that most of the time politicians will say and do whatever it takes to get re-elected, that bureaucrats and judges tend to work to enlarge the scope of their power and influence, that voters are and always will be largely uninformed, and that legislation will almost always reflect the needs of special interests rather than those of the public good because, with respect to their interests, concentrated interests will always be exceptionally motivated and well-informed.  One might add that media will “report” whatever it takes to capture more eyeballs.  Public choice theory is, in short, a profoundly realistic, rather than romantic, means of looking at democratic governance.

The implication of public choice theory is that the influence of government should be limited as much as possible, precisely because every expansion of majoritarian government almost always serves special interests rather than the public good.  Thus just as Winston Churchill said of democracy that it is “the worst form of government, except for all the others,” we are not romantic about large-scale democratic government, and agree that it should be limited as much as possible.  At Let a Thousand Nations Bloom, we are interested in non-violent secession and the entrepreneurial creation of governments (with diverse governance mechanisms) as a system-level approach to constraining the abuses of majoritarian electoral systems by special interests:  jurisdictional competition will increase pressures on governments to allow some economic freedom as well as provide a petri dish for the breeding of new, and ultimately more effective, species of governance.

It is noteworthy in this context that the scale of “democratic” government is relevant; the smaller the government, the more likely it is to be responsive to the public, rather than to special interests.  The romantic Vermont town meeting may have been effective for towns with no more than a few thousand residents.  Athenian democracy in the age of Pericles had perhaps 10,000 actual citizens among a population of 100,000 slaves and foreigners.

In order to create more freedom for experimentation in government, Pericles’ inspiring words should be better understood as an endorsement of the principles of meritocracy, tolerance, and rule of law rather than of large-scale electoral politics.  It is a category error for so many people to have imported some version of Periclean romance for Athenian democracy and social norms for the large-scale interest group politics of the modern nation state, a category error that is pervasive among intellectuals and academics and has been since the American founding, an innocent error exacerbated in the most confused and pernicious manner by Rousseau and his followers.

We need to begin by acknowledging that the Periclean ideals of democratic meritocracy (i.e. that anyone can succeed on merit), tolerance, and respect for rule of law, continue to be worthy of great respect whereas majoritarian electoral politics is problematic at best.

Thus Easterly’s interpretation of “democracy” mentioned in Mike’s earlier post, in which Easterly quotes Lincoln as a moral authority on the value of democracy:

As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master.  This expresses my idea of democracy.  Whatever differs from this, to the extent of the difference, is no democracy.

This is entirely consistent with the Periclean romance of democracy, and yet majoritarian political systems are unrelated to Easterly’s formulation and, in fact, may undermine Easterly’s ideals as stated here (see Mike’s earlier post with a video version of Nozick’s Tale of a Slave).  We need a far more pluralistic discussion of governance mechanisms, with no naive expectation that that subset of governance mechanisms that are currently considered “democratic” are inherently better than other governance mechanisms that may actually provide a more solid basis for Lincoln’s dictum, “As I would not be a slave, so I would not be a master” and Pericles advocacy of meritocracy,  “Neither is poverty an obstacle, but a man may benefit his country whatever the obscurity of his condition,” and tolerance,  “we are not . . . angry with our neighbor if he does what he likes,” and respect for rule of law, “we are prevented from doing wrong by respect . . .  for the laws.”

Gary Wills has pointed out the parallels between Lincoln’s Gettysberg address and Pericles’ funeral oration. In general, in the 18th and 19th century Pericles’ funeral oration was a standard component of the culture of educated Americans, including self-educated Americans such as Lincoln.  Thus the Periclean rhetorical tradition in support of democracy is deeply embedded in traditional American rhetorical defenses of democracy.

What putative opponents of “democracy” such as Hoppe and Moldbug don’t realize is that the sacred principles of democratic meritocracy, tolerance, and rule of law (Whitehead proposed that Pericles’ funeral oration should replace the Book of Revelations as the last book of the New Testament) have become embedded in the term “democracy,” thereby conveying a halo of sacredness over the procedural mess better described as majoritarian electoral systems.  Perhaps all governance systems are problematic, and no governance system should be regarded romantically.  But we still need ideals, and Whitehead’s half-facetious suggestion reveals his profound insight into the invisible structure of the source code of western civilization.  We need to untangle the sacred from the profane in order to make progress going forward.

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3 Comments leave one →
  1. February 21, 2010 2:06 am

    I propose that Moldbug debate Easterly. A much better fit than Hanson.

  2. March 19, 2014 7:54 pm

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