Democracy’s Origin Story

by Benjamin Studebaker

I have some new thoughts today concerning where the modern emphasis on democracy comes from. Why have so many states decided to become democracies, and why do so many people consider all alternative governments unsuitable? There’s no news story to link you to, no current events connection, this post is just from my mind to yours, dear reader. So let’s get started.

What words do we think of when we think of non-democracies? I imagine “dictatorship” is near the top of the list. Possibly “fascism” or “communism” come to mind as well. There are several common characteristics that modern people living in democracies tend to ascribe to non-democracies:

  • Absence of free speech/liberty more broadly
  • Totalitarianism
  • Indoctrination
  • Propaganda
  • Autocracy

I’m sure the reader can think of others. Of course, by definition, a non-democracy doesn’t have to be any of these things. All a form of government needs to be in order to be non-democratic is one in which the people as a whole do not rule either directly or indirectly through representatives. This doesn’t necessarily mean a dictatorship or an autocracy, and it certainly doesn’t necessarily mean that non-democratic states have to commit to over-arching totalitarian visions of how people ought to live and coerce everyone into following those narrow models.

We nonetheless have the associations because more or less all non-democracies have, to this point, operated in this way. In almost every case, a single individual or group of individuals (as in one party states) rules, and in almost every single case, this individual or group is committed to a specific vision of what society should look like, one that is usually very controversial (e.g. communism, fascism, theocracy, etc.).

Philosophically, there’s a simple way to describe that behavior–when we think of non-democratic states, we think of states that exist to promote very specific visions of the good. In a communist state, being part of the government requires agreement with the communist conception of the good. There is no room for debating whether or not the communist conception is the right conception, and usually specific states embrace very narrow interpretations of that conception such that even many communists are in disagreement–Trotsky certainly did not agree with Stalin’s conception of the good. Similar things happen in fascist states, monarchies, theocracies, and so on.

The most objectionable thing about traditional non-democracies is that they presume answers to questions about which people still disagree. They then proceed to shut off debate about those questions. Very swiftly, their societies become intensely conservative and incapable of change.

By contrast, democracy refuses to make any declarations about the good. It’s a system in which the state’s view of the good changes depending on whatever the majority happens to believe, with revisions taking place at the end of delineated terms. It’s a compromise system of government–it embraces no specific view. The elected government at any given moment has a view about the good and a direction it wants to pull the state in, but the system itself is not wedded to the views of the elected government. There is a firm separation between the government and the state. The government is partisan, but the state is neutral. It’s a compromise form of government by its very structure. A far left party can win an election just as easily as a far right party can, at least in theory.

This is the principle advantage of democratic government over the other forms of government that human beings have tried. The system itself is adaptable and not wedded to an ideology, or worse, a narrow view of an ideology. Totalitarianism is a very terrible outcome. Democracy protects against that outcome, and with the recent totalitarianism of the Soviet bloc and fascism still near in human memory, we’re quite wedded to it, almost reflexively so.

However, the system’s performance is also limited by the quality of the voting population. In democracies, the government reflects the wider population. To the extent that we get by with this, it’s because our populations are substantially more educated than past populations. In say, England in 1100, a democratic election in which the serfs voted would likely produce a Christian theocracy, even more dominated by the church than the monarchies under which they lived historically. Rule by the kings and nobles, while deeply flawed compared with what we have now, was probably better. As we’ve seen recently in say, Egypt, in countries in which education is lacking, the voting population will be unable to choose a government that is compatible with the system, much less a good one.

While we manage to do a lot better in developed states with democracy than poorly educated populations in the developing world do, our government’s performance remains constrained by the average political ability of our voters, which is not exceptional. Nonetheless, we continue to maintain the system of more or less universal suffrage (under 18’s and felons sometimes excluded) because we think that this is the only way to maintain the impartiality we prize. If the system were weighted toward a subset of the population, we worry that this subset would commandeer the state permanently in the name of a narrow view of the good, producing totalitarianism.

In this, however, we make an unjustifiable jump. While it is certainly true that we do not all agree on a conception of the good, it might be possible for us to agree on a subset within the population that is more likely on average to make good political judgments than the population as a whole. We certainly are able to do this with other disciplines–you and I may not know much about medicine. If asked to make medical judgments, we would presumably perform poorly. But we would be able to identify a subset within the population that would be much more likely to get those judgments right–those with medical licenses. How does one earn a medical license? One devotes a given amount of time to the study of medicine, establishes that one has familiarized oneself with a wide array of writings on the subject, and shows one is capable of oneself contributing to those writings in a meaningful way.

There is an equivalent with statecraft–there are individuals who devote many years to the study of statecraft, who can establish that they have familiarized themselves with a wide array of writings on the subject, and who can show themselves capable of contributing to those writings in a meaningful way–university professors in philosophy and the social sciences. These individuals do not all agree with each other and would be no more able to agree on a single narrow conception of the good than the population as a whole. It’s certainly not the case that every one of those individuals has a conception of the good that you or I would agree with, and there are probably some number of lay people who are more knowledgeable than some number of these educated people, but all of this is beside the point. On average, this group of scholars would outperform the population as a whole.

If the vote were to be restricted through some method to this group of scholars, we could have a non-democratic government that still maintained the principle advantage of democracy–it would remain structurally unattached to any particular conception of the good. At the same time, it would benefit from the higher average political aptitude of that subgroup (a subgroup which even I as of yet would not qualify for membership in, though I do aspire to join it). It would not discard the democratic advantage; it would expand from it. That’s the idea with sophiarchism–take what’s good about democracy, but go beyond it. The goal is to venture beyond the government of the median while maintaining structural elements that protect us from totalitarianism, to transcend the mediocre and provide for humanity the good governance it well and truly deserves.