March 05, 2011

Guttenberg’s Last Stand; Or, The Tyranny of Democracy

The people want Mr. Guttenberg back. Numbers are on their side. Shouldn’t they get what they want?

A friend of mine, when first showing young undergraduates that they had never really thought about anything, used to ask them to think of all the reasons why democracy was bad. Blank looks generally abounded, and so he would say the following: 
There are nine people in a room. A motion is tabled that all nine people should wear yellow. It is put to a vote. Four people vote against, on the basis that yellow just makes them look sickly. Five people vote in favour, so all nine have to wear yellow. Why should five people tell four people what to do?
And here is the rub. If politics is really about what different people want – and let’s be clear about this, politics is about interest – then aside from the most basic of common desires, a political victory for one will always be a political failure for another. The desire for a thing, if it is allowed to be put to a vote, will almost always divide. Coming together, crossing the floor, talking about the common good – all these things work only insofar as a particular want is held in common. There will always be dissenters. When they lose, they will be unhappy. If it is a close-run thing, almost as many people will be miserable as will rejoice.

The question then, for democracy, is who gets to table a motion? If anyone can put their wish to a vote, we shall have chaos, or Switzerland, neither of which is desirable (as anyone who has followed Swiss democracy in the last couple of years would know). Who gets to decide that ‘we should all wear yellow’ should go to a ballot? In sensible places, an executive would veto such nonsense. Politics must be serious. It can not be petty, or foreground petty concerns. It concerns me that this has been so thoroughly forgotten.

A basic rule of liberty is that you may do as you please so long as it doesn’t displease anyone else. So, wear yellow; but don’t try to force me to do the same. These kinds of questions are not, and should not be, political. Democracy is often conflated with freedom, but one sees in this kind of equation that liberty and democracy are difficult bedfellows. It may be your express desire that I do not write this article, and you may find many more people who will back you up than I can find to support me. Will that make a democratic vote on the matter valid? Will it be a good advert for freedom if I am not permitted to publish it? Of course not.

I’m given to write about all this because of the extraordinary outpouring of feeling in Germany at present about the former Defence Minister, and former Ph.D holder, Mr. Guttenberg. It seems that the vast majority of Germans are aghast that this man has been forced to resign for being found wanting in integrity and character. Most people, if the numbers are to be believed, would want him re-instated. It’s one of those times that I really loathe the common notion of democracy. Just because a lot of people want something, they think they should have it. The fact that it is not right is irrelevant to them. The fact that it is not just is also irrelevant to them. And the fact that it is not in their best interests to have such a political leader, seems to have passed them by. Should these people be allowed to tell the others what to do, or what to submit to? Or should we hold to higher principles of the kind of moral fibre we should like to see in our political leaders, and hold fast to those principles regardless of what the popular clamour insists upon? In those principles we shall safeguard our freedom. In blind ‘democracy’ we may risk it.


  1. I have to be honest; I rate democracy very lowly. I swear by the statement that Churchill made that it is the worst form of government apart from all the others we've tried. I don't think that means we should stop thinking about matters of governance and accept the system however the only way to change now is to step back from the idea that everyone should have an equal voice.

    I tend to think this would be a good thing; in coldly rational terms why should people who don't have enough intelligence to differentiate parties and policies be in a position to influence the outcome of elections? I don't think they should. This is not a popular opinion but it's my honestly held one. It raises many thorny questions about who decides who can vote and whether it's an invasion of human rights not to give someone a say. Perhaps there is a way we could give everyone a say, but give those who were willing to qualify with a basic aptitude test a greater say? That way people who have the will and intelligence to be part of the process would have a greater say than those who don't?

    I don't know what the answer is, I just worry that we as a society have stopped looking and settled.

  2. The biggest error modern people make is to suppose that 'democracy' exists in the West today. It does not.

    The Swiss example is probably the closest we have, and even in that case it is assaulted for supposedly not representing the interests of aliens and foreign colonists.

    Multiculturalism is incompatible with democracy, which can only exist in an homogenous polity where participants are rooted in a specific organic community.

    Benoist just published an excellent critique of the modern misunderstanding of democracy:

  3. Doctor, liberty and democracy are not the same thing, but the former can only exist with the latter now. Unless you believe you are the higher class, the few, and that you can hold your own against the many, I advise prudence. The ground of liberty, in order to be protected from the excesses of egalitarianism, must be argued on the ground of democracy. Anything argued on another ground will be rejected out of hand in a democracy. This is the oldest lesson in political philosophy...

    And liberty does not mean not displeasing others; liberty means getting what you want so longer as you can keep it. It is primarily political liberty and it is won and maintained in the harshest of circumstances. And then squandered by weakling anonymous posterity, such as we might turn out to be.

    You are right to say that politics seems to turn more on what we hate than what we love, but that should also tell you a lot about what we are when we are not deluded by comfort... You seem, however, to imply that we could live together without living by somebody's rules and dissenters be damned - that is very liberal of you, but I do not advise you do it with your own property...

  4. when I read this, I had to think of the capital punishment....


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