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Government - Democracy

In a pure democracy, the whole body of citizens are not only the source of power, but the actual wielders of it, and hence in the nature of things this form of government is confined to states possessing a very limited extent of territory, or else most of it is governed as subject territory. The citizens assembled in mass-meeting make and construe the laws, and debate and decide upon war or peace, domestic policy and foreign relations. To this assembly the few officers or magistrates employed render an immediate account and are directly responsible.

In short the body of society is, — theoretically at least, — not only the sovereignty, but also the administrative government. All governmental powers are united in one hand, that of the people themselves, or rather a numerical majority of the people, whose voice is sovereign. Hence, in a democracy, it is as necessary to regulate in what manner and by whom suffrages are to be given as it is, in a monarchy, to know who is the prince and after what manner he ought to govern.

The virtues of a pure democracy are chiefly the following:

  1. Equality — It has the merit of preserving, in a great degree unimpaired and in full view, the natural and original equality of men before the law, for each voter has an equal voice with every other, whatever his wealth or social position, in the administration of the government; whereas under monarchical or aristocratic forms of government, the idea of equality may be entirely lost, and with it all semblance of freedom.

  2. Enhancement of the Dignity of the Individual — Again, under this form of government, the importance of every citizen or group of citizens is so decisively felt in public affairs as greatly to enhance the dignity and self-respect of each individual, causing him to stand out prominently, as it were, an essential feature of the body politic.

  3. Cultivation of Patriotism and Intelligence — An indirect consequence of the individualism characteristic of a democratic government is the development of a greater patriotism among the citizens than is usually to be found under the other primary forms of government. Each citizen is conscious of a more direct concern in the interests of the State. He feels that his importance, his prosperity and his happiness are identified with the existence and the welfare of his country. Accordingly he becomes more self-devoted But this patriotism, though a democracy tends to engender it, depends for its right direction, upon the virtue and intelligence of the citizens. All history acclaims civic virtue to be the true and only firm foundation of popular government. And virtue depends upon education,—not merely, nor perhaps chiefly, the education of the mind through the medium of schools and colleges, important as that may be, but that discipline of the passions and the faculties which results in prudent, cautious self-control.88

  4. Honesty of Intention toward the Public Good — Yet another recommendation of a pure democracy is habitual honesty of intent toward the general welfare, or, more accurately perhaps, toward the welfare of the majority. True, such good intent may not save it from errors the most fatal and crimes the most atrocious; but the people, or rather the controlling majority of the people, can never have any motive but their own welfare in the conduct they pursue, however egregiously they may mistake the means of securing it.

It is, to be sure, productive of little comfort to an unfortunate sufferer, trampled and crushed by the tumultuous throng, that in its swayings to and fro the mob, pursuing what it has thought the good, at least of the greatest number, if not of the whole, has left him maimed and disabled for life's struggle; yet, in the abstract and through the vista of anticipation, it is undoubtedly some guaranty, albeit an imperfect one, against systematic oppression, that the assemblies of the people can be guilty of no dishonest concert designedly adverse to themselves or to the majority.

The traits which condemn a pure democracy overwhelmingly preponderate over those which have been mentioned in its favor. Some of the more important vices of its constitution are as follows:

  1. Confinement to a Limited Area — Being a government by assembly of the people themselves (not representatives of the people), a pure democracy in its very nature must be confined to very diminutive societies, and becomes physically impracticable when applied to communities occupying considerable territory. But its other weaknesses are such as to render it inefficient even in states whose small areas might otherwise admit of its application.

  2. Inharmonious Counsels — A democracy demands the concurrence of many wills and the harmonious adjustment of many varying opinions. It is therefore weak in its efforts to afford protection to its citizens. For the same reason, it is in general disastrously slow in its movements or, if it acts with vigor, it is by spasmodic and convulsive efforts, more detrimental than an uniform slowness. "The motion of the people," says Montesquieu, "is always either too remiss or too violent. Sometimes with a hundred thousand arms they overturn all before them, and again with a hundred thousand feet they creep like insects."

  3. Conduct toward Other States — Because of the infinitely divided responsibility, a pure democracy is apt to be of all governments the most unjust, grasping and dishonest towards other states. Each individual feels that the world can inflict upon him personally but a small part of the opprobrium with which it visits violence and injustice, whilst he is strongly attracted by the idea of participating in the glory, falsely so called, and the aggrandizement of the State. His short sighted selfishness, that predominant quality of human nature, urges him on without any of those checks which society and law impose upon him in his individual relations.

  4. Want of Wisdom — A pure democracy is lacking in wisdom and in the opportunities and means of understanding the details of public affairs. The people, though capable of calling others to account for their administration of government, are incapable of administration themselves. They are well qualified to choose some of their public servants, but to manage an intricate affair, to make a proper use of occasions, to determine the propriety of a complex law, is beyond their aggregate capacity, though each individual were a Solon, a Pitt or a Jefferson. The administration of the government therefore is too often controlled by parasites and demagogues who flatter and fawn the more successfully to betray. The people in the forum have sycophants as many and as mean as has the prince in his palace.

  5. Liability to Passion and Panics — Like all large assemblies of people, a democracy is liable to gusts of furious agitation; to sudden and uncontrolled impulses of passion; to the contagious influences of sympathy spreading from heart to heart in the public assembly, neither justified by adequate cause nor restrained within reasonable limits; to capricious whims which incapacitate it for grave and cool deliberation; to be forever changing from mere love of novelty; to confusion, strife and distraction in council; to shifting and unpermanent policy, the fatal bane of all prosperity; and finally to sudden panics which paralyse the energies of the state at the moment they are most needed.

  6. Arbitrary Rule of Majority — In conclusion, the pure democracy, being without the checks that modern ingenuity has devised against the unrestrained conduct of rulers, is liable to the tyranny and despotism of the numerical majority, wherever the interests of the majority would conflict with those of the minority,—a tyranny none the less cruel and despotic because it is the abuse of power by the many, rather than by the one or by the few.

The defects of the democratic constitution, adverted to in the preceding section, so discredited it of old that for ages popular government was almost unthought of. Indeed, not until the utilization of the principle of representation84 was such a government practicable. But with that discovery a new era has dawned upon mankind.

The inestimable value of this principle as an element of government lies in this,—that it depends upon the people to do what they are or may be quite competent to do, that is, elect their own chief rulers and legislators, while it excepts them from that direct agency in public affairs for which they are always eminently unfit. The responsibility, immediate and certain, that results secures nearly as much honesty of purpose toward the entire state as if the people themselves should act, whilst the most fatal defects of a pure democracy are in large measure avoided.

But in the investigation of representative government, it is of supreme importance to observe that the constant tendency is toward the representation of the views and desires of those who really, not those who nominally, elect the rulers. If by intimidation, fraud, corruption or the furnishing of necessary campaign funds, particular interests in the community secure the election of a representative or ruler, the experience of mankind has proved that the individual thus chosen is almost sure to represent the views and desires of those interests rather than of the community as a whole, where the two come into conflict; and the fact that his representation of these private interests is secret, and not open and public, makes it all the more disastrous to the public welfare.

The greatest care should therefore be taken, in representative governments, to see that the elections of rulers and representatives are as free as possible from influences of this kind. Indeed this principle has long been recognized in the grosser cases, and the prohibition of force, the stuffing of ballot-boxes, repeating, the paying or receiving of money for votes, and the punishment of these acts as high crimes and misdemeanors are precautions familiar in every country where popular government prevails. But the administration of these laws is often lax; and the more insidious forms of corruption, such as the contribution of large sums to campaign funds, the trading of votes or influence, the conferring of favors, and the supine indifference of many voters in the conduct of the trust reposed in them by the community, constitute dangers to representative government which have not yet been adequately guarded against; nor have they perhaps received the attention they deserve at the hands of statesmen.

Han Zhu, a researcher at the Chunqiu Institute, argues that given that so many Asian statesmen have been jailed with political power shifts, people wonder whether there is something wrong with the Western party system applied to these countries. South Korea, Thailand, the Philippines and Malaysia have implemented the Western political model for more than half a century and it is hard to say that their politics is not adequately Westernized. More importantly, with the Western multi-party democracy developing in these countries for decades, their politics has been intensely polarized. Western multi-party politics introduced in these countries has problems. For a long time, the change in political power due to elections has been seen as the biggest advantage of Western democracy. However, in some Asian countries and regions with the Western democratic models, leaders go to prison after transferring power. Is it because these countries have yet to assimilate Western multi-party democracy or the same system is dividing their politics? To win public support for election, Western parties have become formal big tent or catch-all organizations. Every party claims to represent the public interest. Hence, it becomes difficult for the elites to reach internal consensus. Due to the mode of production, history and culture, political families have a long history in Asia and the mix of family politics and the Western multi-party system exaggerates partisan competition. Besides, except Thailand, other Asian countrie became independent after World War II. Political party system and sovereignty were established almost simultaneously and consensus among the elites has not been achieved. Relations between parties are strained. Under such circumstances, the Western multi-party system only works to aggravate societal divisions.

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Page last modified: 10-07-2018 17:35:16 ZULU