The Best Reason for Democracy is . . . Democracy?

Several years ago I read an article where the man interviewed had positive things to say about some developments in Italian democracy.  “The people are now ready to criticize and poke fun of their leaders,” he commented.  “We’ll know we have arrived as a democracy when the people can criticize themselves.”  At the time I read this, I thought, “Good for you, Italy.  One day you may join us.  We’ve got something better here.”  But upon reflection, I’m not so sure this is true.  How many politicians, for example, could get away with criticizing the American people?  How many political documentaries create a divide between us and them, whether they come from Rush Limbaugh or Michael Moore?  It always appears to be “their” fault, never “our” fault.

Judgments about one’s own society, however, are tricky.  To see the nose on one’s face you need a mirror.  Without significant experience of democracies on a historical scale, the example of Athens from 508-338 B.C. will always prove important for us to get our bearings.

Writing critical assessments of things or events can be more fun than offering praise. Critical people can sometimes come from a distant and cynical spiritual place, and we shouldn’t give much weight to their comments.  Sometimes, however, criticism arises out of love, and this should grab our attention.  Loren J. Samons’ What’s Wrong with Democracy does this.  He seeks to get past our modern adulation of democracy, and thus, our adulation with classical Athens.  When we examine them afresh, he argues, we won’t always like what we see.  In his criticism Simons sometimes overreaches and sometimes seems to contradict himself.  But his book is, as historian J.E. Lendon stated, “cleansing.”

Amidst the various topics Samons discusses, I think the essence boils down to the following issues:

What is democracy really about after all?

Christopher Ferrara tackled this question head-on in his book Liberty: The God the Failed.  Samons takes a more indirect approach, but still feels that democracy, standing by itself, may lead to little more than a means to perpetuate whatever we happen to desire.  The only reason we will have for democracy is . . . democracy.

He looks at Athens’ financial history and its relationship to democracy.  He traces a few distinct stages:

  • An early phase where the ‘tyrants’ got overthrown and the franchise expanded.
  • The heralded Periclean phase, often seen as the high-point of democracy.  But Samons points out that this phase of democracy was made possible only by 1) Their silver mines, and 2) The imperial tribute they received from their client states.  The practices we tend to admire about them, such as paying people to attend the Assembly, and large cash payments for their very large juries (101-501) people, could happen only because of their predatory practices abroad.
  • The era after the Peloponnesian War, where they lacked the cash reserves of earlier times, but refused to modify their practices.  This led to serious financial problems and hard choices for the Athenians.  Yet, when faced with the task of defending themselves against Macedon or continuing to vote themselves cash payments, they consistently chose the latter.

Perhaps the Athenians didn’t just simply make bad choices, perhaps the kind of democracy they practiced would naturally encourage them to make bad choices.  If democracy is all about “serving the people” or “giving the people what they want,” then democracies will inevitably choose to short-term gains and quick fixes.  Salmons wrote his book before our own failure to arrive at a budget, or to either 1) Decrease spending, or 2) Raise taxes made itself manifest. Is our own system of government equipped to make hard choices?  Given how we consume energy, we may also have to conclude that our democratic lifestyles have a predatory aspect.

Samons’ next points out that in Athens, their more aristocratic past provided a healthy check on democracy.  Having a different past gave them a compass from which to orient their democratic practice.  It could also serve as a reminder that democracy need not serve as the be all and end all of political life.  In America we have no such check, which leads us to nearly worship democracy as a vital part of our existence.  This in turn, has led to a confused and misguided foreign policy.  On a couple of occasions Athens even voted to switch to a more aristocratic oriented governance, which Samons views as healthy.  In time, Athens banned any alternative to their democracy, and this choice contributed to their eventual conquest by Macedon.  They refused to allow any other method of making decisions, even when they methods they employed to make choices had no real hope of facilitating good outcomes.

On this issue Samons has weaker arguments.  True, I very much wish that we would appreciate democracy because it is ours, instead of investing it with angelic qualities. But the political instability in Athens from 411-400 B.C. was not always as smooth as Samons lets on.  Political exiles and political murders came with such transitions. Having the alternative to democracy came at a price.

However, if a democracy has no reference point outside itself, we should consider whether it may be worth the risk to have such an alternative.  Currently we have no particular ‘North Star’ of religion or virtue to guide our own political practice, and this will lead to everyone scrambling for whatever they can get. We may be in a position now where we could really benefit from a distinct alternative to borrow from, to get some separation from democracy that we might understand its strengths and weaknesses more clearly.  If we have no firm moral guidelines derived from a common faith, the check on democracy may have to come from other viable political ideologies and practices.  Of course such an alternative is entirely unthinkable in our modern context. This may bode ill for us.

This lack of an outside reference point for many modern historians  impacts how they view ancient critics of Athens.  Invariably, whether the ancient chronicler be Thucydides, Xenophon, Socrates, or the “Old Oligarch,” they get discounted due to their “aristocratic bias.”  Now, naturally all historians have bias — even democratic ones. But we cannot dismiss them for this bias alone, however uncomfortable their conclusions may be.  Perhaps the the extreme form of democratic bias comes in the form of the book by I.F. Stone on the trial of Socrates. I applaud Stone for his enjoyable and Herculean efforts to at least partially exonerate Athenian democracy while writing about one of its great crimes.  His book rises to the level of a  great counter-factual history.  But in the text Stone spills a lot more ink discussing Socrates’ “aristocratic bias” then in blaming the governmental system that executed him unjustly.

Critics of Salmons conclusions have two good points.

Salmons offers some good criticisms of Athens in particular and democracy in general. But he proposes no alternatives.  What does he want?  Would he prefer a monarchy or a dictatorship?  I grant this makes the book somewhat unsatisfying, but I can’t fault him for it.  To develop a viable alternative with historical and philosophical backing would require another book.

More problematic is Salmons’ seemingly simplistic take on the problems Athens faced. Surely he realizes that other forms of government have their problems too?  Yes, Athens had issues, but exactly how much blame can we put for their problems on democracy?  Would their problems have been less with a monarchy?  He can say that Athenian democracy made bad decisions, but kings make bad decisions, oligarchies make bad decisions, and so on.  For his book to really work he would have to show that democracies will make more bade decisions, or more catastrophic decisions, then other forms of government.  He fails to do so.

Even still, these flaws don’t bother me that much.  Salmons modestly set out to 1) Give a more balanced picture of Athenian democracy, and 2) Pour some cold water over our ardent devotion to democracy.  He succeeds, and this makes his book worthwhile.

Machiavelli is at various turns a cold man, a dangerous man, and a wise one.  Below I include a section from his Discourses on Livy where he discusses the merits of Rome’s Republic building into its foundation an alternative to the Republic when necessary. This, I think, was Machiavelli in one of his wiser moments.



Those citizens who first devised a dictatorship for Rome have been
blamed by certain writers, as though this had been the cause of the
tyranny afterwards established there. For these authors allege that the
first tyrant of Rome governed it with the title of Dictator, and that,
but for the existence of the office, Cæsar could never have cloaked
his usurpation under a constitutional name. He who first took up this
opinion had not well considered the matter, and his conclusion has been
accepted without good ground. For it was not the name nor office of
Dictator which brought Rome to servitude, but the influence which
certain of her citizens were able to assume from the prolongation of
their term of power; so that even had the name of Dictator been wanting
in Rome, some other had been found to serve their ends, since power may
readily give titles, but not titles power. We find, accordingly,
that while the dictatorship was conferred in conformity with public
ordinances, and not through personal influence, it was constantly
beneficial to the city. For it is the magistracies created and the
powers usurped in unconstitutional ways that hurt a republic, not those
which conform to ordinary rule; so that in Rome, through the whole
period of her history, we never find a dictator who acted otherwise than
well for the republic. For which there were the plainest reasons. In
the first place, to enable a citizen to work harm and to acquire undue
authority, many circumstances must be present which never can be
present in a State which is not corrupted. For such a citizen must be
exceedingly rich, and must have many retainers and partisans, whom he
cannot have where the laws are strictly observed, and who, if he had
them, would occasion so much alarm, that the free suffrage of the people
would seldom be in his favour. In the second place, the dictator was not
created for life, but for a fixed term, and only to meet the emergency
for which he was appointed. Power was indeed given him to determine by
himself what measures the exigency demanded; to do what he had to do
without consultation; and to punish without appeal. But he had no
authority to do anything to the prejudice of the State, as it would have
been to deprive the senate or the people of their privileges, to subvert
the ancient institutions of the city, or introduce new. So that taking
into account the brief time for which his office lasted, its limited
authority, and the circumstance that the Roman people were still
uncorrupted, it was impossible for him to overstep the just limits of
his power so as to injure the city; and in fact we find that he was
always useful to it.

And, in truth, among the institutions of Rome, this of the dictatorship
deserves our special admiration, and to be linked with the chief causes
of her greatness; for without some such safeguard a city can hardly
pass unharmed through extraordinary dangers. Because as the ordinary
institutions of a commonwealth work but slowly, no council and no
magistrate having authority to act in everything alone, but in most
matters one standing in need of the other, and time being required to
reconcile their differences, the remedies which they provide are most
dangerous when they have to be applied in cases which do not brook
delay. For which reason, every republic ought to have some resource of
this nature provided by its constitution; as we find that the Republic
of Venice, one of the best of those now existing, has in cases of urgent
danger reserved authority to a few of her citizens, if agreed among
themselves, to determine without further consultation what course is to
be followed. When a republic is not provided with some safeguard such
as this, either it must be ruined by observing constitutional forms,
or else, to save it, these must be broken through. But in a republic
nothing should be left to be effected by irregular methods, because,
although for the time the irregularity may be useful, the example will
nevertheless be pernicious, as giving rise to a practice of violating
the laws for good ends, under colour of which they may afterwards be
violated for ends which are not good. For which reason, that can never
become a perfect republic wherein every contingency has not been
foreseen and provided for by the laws, and the method of dealing with it
defined. To sum up, therefore, I say that those republics which cannot
in sudden emergencies resort either to a dictator or to some similar
authority, will, when the danger is serious, always be undone.

We may note, moreover, how prudently the Romans, in introducing this new
office, contrived the conditions under which it was to be exercised.
For perceiving that the appointment of a dictator involved something of
humiliation for the consuls, who, from being the heads of the State,
were reduced to render obedience like every one else, and anticipating
that this might give offence, they determined that the power to appoint
should rest with the consuls, thinking that when the occasion came when
Rome should have need of this regal authority, they would have the
consuls acting willingly and feeling the less aggrieved from the
appointment being in their own hands. For those wounds or other injuries
which a man inflicts upon himself by choice, and of his own free will,
pain him far less than those inflicted by another. Nevertheless, in the
later days of the republic the Romans were wont to entrust this power to
a consul instead of to a dictator, using the formula, _Videat_ CONSUL
_ne quid respublica detrimenti capiat_.

But to return to the matter in hand, I say briefly, that when the
neighbours of Rome sought to crush her, they led her to take measures
not merely for her readier defence, but such as enabled her to attack
them with a stronger force, with better skill, and with an undivided