âMany forms of government have been and will be tried in this world of sin and calamity. No one claims that democracy is perfect or wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms which have been tried from time to time. -Winston Churchill
We all know what “democracy” is, more or less, since it has been around since the days of ancient Athens, around 25 centuries ago. This means that citizens make their own laws directly or make them through representatives they have elected. No kings, no autocrats, no dictators, no communist or fascist bosses. The people govern themselves.
Athens was a direct democracy: all eligible citizens (i.e. non-slave men) gathered on Pnyx Hill, which could accommodate around 6,000 people, several times a month. They spoke and voted by raising their hands.
A few sensitive issues were decided by secret ballot: citizens wrote their names on pieces of broken pottery to vote. It may sound odd, but it avoided suspending Iowan’s chads and apps.
The Athenians had officials, of course, but these people were drawn and served for a year.
Several Swiss cantons have used direct democracy for 700 years. Citizens come together (this is called a Landsgemeinde) in the town square and vote by show of hands. Direct democracy was historically practiced in eight cantons, but for practical reasons there are now only two.
For practical reasons too, most of the world’s democracies today are representative democracies, in which citizens primarily elect representatives to act on their behalf. However, voting initiatives and recall elections remain forms of direct democracy.
Okay, so we know what “democracy” is. But what is liberal democracy in the world? It is, indeed, democracy that is surrounded and, according to most of us, reinforced by special rights and protections. Without these protections, democracy can degenerate into majority tyranny, chaos, or simply authoritarian, albeit democratic, governance.
Examples (indeed, the best examples) of the special protections that democracy must be surrounded by are set out in the United States Bill of Rights (the first 10 amendments to the Constitution) and the other 27 amendments that were added to the Constitution. Constitution since 1789 (including one amendment, # 21, which repealed another amendment, # 18, thank goodness).
In short, most of us don’t believe that democracy would work very well, or last very long, without a whole host of institutions such as the rule of law, separation of powers, freedom of speech, the sanctity of contracts, due process, etc. These protections are also what make market economies possible, as China is about to learn.
These characteristics of liberal democracy have allowed the US government to survive, slowly evolving, for over 200 years, far longer than any other government in the world.
But nothing good lasts forever. All over the world, including the United States, citizens are questioning whether liberal democracy is up to the task of governing fairly and effectively in the modern world.
China, of course, offers a completely different model and – so far the model is only three decades old – a successful model that is not a democracy, let alone a liberal democracy. In places like Turkey, Eastern Europe and Mexico, once promising liberal societies are turning into more authoritarian forms of democracy.
Elsewhere – India, UK, USA, Switzerland, etc. – populist leaders were elected. At least two of the Democratic presidential candidates wanted to eliminate free markets and impose socialism, or some form of it. Worldwide there are only 30 liberal democracies, many of which are quite small, and the possibility of that number increasing is highly uncertain.
Why do so many people seriously question the value of a model that has served us so well for so long? And are these people right? Has liberal democracy passed its expiration date?
One way to try to approach this question is to go back to first principles. After all, liberal democracy did not come out of nowhere. Instead, the collection of ideas that make up what we call liberal democracy was the product of a remarkable intellectual flowering known as the Age of Enlightenment, a period in which human reason began to dominate. religion and superstition.
We can say that the Age of Enlightenment began with Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” (“Cogito, ergo sum”) in 1637, and ended in flames with the bloody French Revolution in 1789.
Before the Enlightenment, human beings were seen as inherently violent and anti-social (proceeding, I suppose, from original sin). Only powerful and authoritarian rulers could hope to maintain order and prevent people from exercising their worst impulses. The “divine right of kings” was, as the expression implies, supposed to be ordained by God. God had blessed these governments and that was the end of the matter.
This tidy but unhappy world has been shattered to pieces by a series of thinkers who have called everything into question. They argued, among other things, that people were inherently rational and sociable, that all people were created equal, and that societies could be run safely by people themselves, without autocratic rulers.
As far as we know, the Age of Enlightenment marked the first time in human history that philosophers have tried to reflect on all of these questions: the relationship between human nature and governments; why governments existed; what forms of government were legitimate; and when it was morally acceptable (or even morally obligatory) to revolt against an existing government.
These were profound questions from a theoretical point of view, but they went even deeper in terms of the practical effect they had on human societies. It is impossible to understand the American Revolution or Anglo-Saxon forms of government without resorting to Enlightenment thought, just as it is impossible to understand the French Revolution or continental forms of government.
We’ll take a closer look at some of these ideas and the amazing effects they’ve had over the next week.