Friday, June 15, 2007

Democracy in America

“Americans of all ages, all stations of life, and all types of disposition are forever forming associations…In democratic countries knowledge of how to combine is the mother of all forms of knowledge; on its progress depends that of all others.” Alexis de Tocqueville

“In Democracy in America, published in 1835, Tocqueville wrote of the New World and its burgeoning democratic order. Observing from the perspective of a detached social scientist, Tocqueville wrote of his travels through America in the early 19th century when the market revolution, Western expansion, and Jacksonian democracy were radically transforming the fabric of American life. He saw democracy as an equation that balanced liberty and equality, concern for the individual as well as the community. A critic of individualism, Tocqueville thought that association, the coming together of people for common purpose, would bind Americans to an idea of nation larger than selfish desires, thus making a civil society which wasn't exclusively dependent on the state.

Tocqueville's penetrating analysis sought to understand the peculiar nature of American civic life. In describing America, he agreed with thinkers such as Aristotle, James Harrington and Montesquieu that the balance of property determined the balance of political power, but his conclusions after that differed radically from those of his predecessors.

The uniquely American mores and opinions, Tocqueville argued, lay in the origins of American society and derived from the peculiar social conditions that had welcomed colonists in prior centuries. Unlike Europe, venturers to America found a vast expanse of open land. Any and all who arrived could own their own land and cultivate an independent life. Sparse elites and a number of landed aristocrats existed, but, according to Tocqueville, these few stood no chance against the rapidly developing values bred by such vast land ownership. With such an open society, layered with so much opportunity, men of all sorts began working their way up in the world: industriousness became a dominant ethic, and "middling" values began taking root.” Wikipedia

Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is a classic. His penetrating insights into the nature of American society and our form of democracy enabled him to make predictions about its future, many of which are still valid today. This work is credited at inventing sociology.

Looking back at the history of America’s development Heffner points out that, “…our early leaders, even the Jeffersonians, were themselves far from equalitarian in outlook. They believed in government of and for the people, but not by the people. And, more important, they were much too dedicated to the principles of individual liberty and freedom ever to equate them necessarily and irrevocably with equality and democracy.” When Tocqueville was studying America, a democratization process was underway through Jackson. He questioned ,”…whether American’s older concern for individual differences and freedom, could long survive their new penchant for equality and democracy. For as conditions became more equal, Americans seemed more and more to take pride not in their individuality, in their personal liberties, in their freedom, but rather in their sameness. So that as Tocqueville wrote: ‘…every citizen being assimilated to all the rest, is lost in the crowd, and nothing stands conspicuous but the great imposing image of the people at large.’”

“Through out history”, writes Heffner, “kings and princely rules had sought without success to control human thought, that most elusive and invisible power of all. Yet where absolute monarchs had failed, democracy succeeds, for the strength of the majority is unlimited and all-pervasive, and the doctrines of equality and majority rule have substituted for the tyranny of the few over the many the more absolute, imperious and widely accepted tyranny of the many over the few.”

The concept of equality was so important to Tocqueville’s analysis, and to our consideration of the future of democracy, that the history of the concepts’ development is worth repeating. And, since I can’t improve on his writing, bear with me as I allow him to trace the history. “…when the territory was divided amongst a small number of families, who were the owners of the soil and the rulers of the inhabitants; the right of governing descended with the family inheritance from generation to generation; force was the only means by which man could act on man; and landed property was the sole source of power. Soon, however, the political power of the clergy was founded, and began to increase: the clergy opened their ranks to all classes, to the poor and the rich, the vassal and the lord; through the Church, equality penetrated into the Government, and he who as a serf must have vegetated in perpetual bondage took his place as a priest in the midst of nobles, and not infrequently above the heads of kings.

The different relations of men with each other became more complicated and numerous as society gradually became more stable and civilized. Hence the want of civil laws was felt; and the ministers of law soon rose from the obscurity of the tribunals and their dusty chambers, to appear at the court of the monarch, by the side of the feudal barons clothed in their ermine and their mail. Whilst the kings were ruining themselves by their great enterprises, and the nobles exhausting their resources by private wars, the lower orders were enriching themselves by commerce. The influence of money began to be perceptible in state affairs. The transactions of business opened a new road to power, and the financier rose to a station of political influence in which he was at once flattered and despised.

Gradually the diffusion of intelligence, and the increasing taste for literature and art, caused learning and talent to become a means of government; mental ability led to social power, and the man of letters took a part in the affairs of the state. The value attached to high birth declined just as fast as new avenues to power were discovered. In the eleventh century, nobility was beyond all price; in the thirteenth, it might be purchased. Nobility was first conferred by gift in 1270; and equality was thus introduced into the government by the aristocracy itself.

In the course of these seven hundred years, it sometimes happened that the nobles, in order to resist the authority of the crown, or to diminish the power of their rivals, granted some political influence to the common people. Or, more frequently, the king permitted the lower orders to have a share in the government, with the intention of depressing the aristocracy. In France, the kings have always been the most active and the most constant of levelers. When they were strong and ambitious, they spared no pains to raise the people to the level of the nobles; when they were temperate and feeble, they allowed the people to rise above themselves. Some assisted the democracy by their talents, others by their vices. Louis XI and Louis XIV reduced all ranks to the same degree of subjection; and, finally Louis XV descended, himself and all his court, into the dust.

As soon as land began to be held on any other than a feudal tenure, and personal property in its turn became able to confer influence and power, every discovery in the arts, every improvement in commerce or manufactures, created so many new elements of equality among men. Henceforward every new invention, every new want which it occasioned, and every new desire which craved satisfaction, was a step towards a general leveling. The taste for luxury, the love of war, the empire of fashion, and the most superficial as well as the deepest passions of the human heart, seemed to co-operate to enrich the poor and to impoverish the rich.

From the time when the exercise of the intellect became a source of strength and of wealth, we see that every addition to science, every fresh truth, and every new idea became a germ of power placed within the reach of the people. Poetry, eloquence, and memory, the grace of the mind, the glow of imagination, depth of thought, and all the gifts which Heaven scatters at a venture, turned to the advantage of the democracy; and even when they were in the possession of its adversaries, they still served its cause by throwing into bold relief the natural greatness of man. Its conquests spread, therefore, with those of civilization and knowledge; and literature became an arsenal open to all, where the poor and the weak daily resorted for arms.

In running over the pages of our history for seven hundred years, we shall scarcely find a single great event which has not promoted equality of condition. The Crusades and the English wars decimated the nobles and divided their possessions: the municipal corporations introduced democratic liberty into the bosom of feudal monarchy; the invention of fire-arms equalized the vassal and the noble on the field of battle; the art of printing opened the same resources to the minds of all classes; the post-office brought knowledge alike to the door of the cottage and to the gate of the palace; and Protestantism proclaimed that all men are alike able to find the road to heaven. The discovery of America opened a thousand new paths to fortune, and led obscure adventurers to wealth and power.”

And, here we are now with new tools that level the playing field, and value, not in the land, but in ideas growing. Both coming together to open the possibility of new type of democracy. Tocqueville concludes, “…that the gradual and progressive development of social equality is at once the past and future…” of history.

Democracy in America
Alexis de Tocqueville
Edited and abridged by Richard Heffner
Signet Classic, 1984

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism

This is an incredible work of scholarship and insight. It is not an easy read, but a read filled with insights almost on every page. The magnitude of the task to identify and explain the spirit of democratic capitalism that gives the form energy and success is formidable. Michael Novak is almost uniquely qualified to take on this task. He is a theologian, deeply steeped in the Catholic tradition, a history, philosopher and an economist. The Wall Street Journal gave the book high praise when it published that the book was “The most remarkable and original treatise on the roots of modern capitalism to be published in many years.”

Many things, having full reference
To one consent, may work contrariously;
As many arrows, loosed several ways,
Fly to one mark; as many ways meet in one town;
As many streams meet in one salt sea;
As many lines close in the dial’s center;
So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
End in one purpose, and be all well borne
Without defeat.

Shakespeare, King Henry V

Is there anything about human nature that Shakespeare didn’t touch?

Novak begins the book with, “This book is about the life of the spirit which makes democratic capitalism possible. It is about the theological presumptions, values and systemic intentions.

What do I mean by ‘democratic capitalism’? I mean three systems in one: a predominately market economy; a polity respectful of the rights the individual to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness; and a system of cultural institutions moved by the ideals of liberty and justice for all. In short, three dynamic and converging systems functioning as one: a democratic polity, and economy based on markets and incentives, and a moral-cultural system which is pluralistic and, in the largest sense, liberal.”

He argues that “…political democracy is compatible in practice only with a market economy. In turn, both systems nourish and are nourished by a pluralistic liberal culture.”

“The first of all moral obligations,” he admonishes, “is to think clearly. Societies are not like the weather, merely given, since human beings are responsible for their form. Social forms are constructs of the human spirit.”

Or, in religious terms, he writes, “The world as Adam faced it after the Garden of Eden left humankind in misery and hunger for millennia. Now that the secrets of sustained material progress have been decoded, the responsibility for reducing misery and hunger is no longer God’s but ours.”

The book is divided into three parts. “In Part One, I try to put into words the structural dynamic beliefs which suffuse democratic capitalism: its Geist, its living spirit. In Part Two, I examine briefly what is left of the socialist idea today, so as to glimpse, as if in a mirror, a view of democratic capitalism by contrast. In Part three, I try to supply at least the beginnings of a religious perspective on democratic capitalism.”

Novak comments in the introduction to the book that he was a democratic socialist. He know sees this a unworkable and the second part is devoted to discrediting the concept in theory and practice. As a result, I found Part Two of the book to be the least enjoyable or insightful. Part One provides to foundations of the concept of the trinity of democracy, capitalism and pluralism. Part Three is the most theoretical of the three sections and for me, was an indictment of widely held theological concepts that have kept areas like South America impoverished.

No short book review like this can do justice to this work. It is a work that needs to be studied and discussed in depth.

However, the one profound truth that emerges for me from these 460 pages is how delicate the balance is between democratic polity, capitalistic economy and a pluralistic society. And, any attempt to change this balance ought to be viewed with alarm, because I just believe that people in power are not thinking of our pluralistic, democratic, capitalistic system as a whole.

He does not cover the social technologies that extreme democracy covers. Almost in passing, he states, “…in a world of instantaneous, universal mass communications, the balance of power has shifted. Ideas, always a part of reality, have today acquired power greater that that of reality.”

Ideas are even more important now. And, we have tools beyond the mass communications he mentions. We are all responsible for the careful and thoughtful implementation of these tools to improving our pluralistic, democratic, capitalistic system.

The Spirit of Democratic Capitalism
Michael Novak
Madison Books, 1991

Thursday, June 14, 2007

First Democracy

"Democracy is government by and for the people. That is hardly a definition, but it will do for a start. As a next step, I shall propose that a government is a democracy insofar as it tries to express the seven ideas of this book: freedom from tyranny, harmony, the rule of law, natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge, and general education.”

Paul Woodruff
First Democracy

All good principles for an innovation commons.

Read the book summary at

First Democracy

I really enjoyed this book, and I want to thank Paul Woodruff for making this academic research accessible. I think we need a lot more of this right now. We are in a time period of radical change, when much of what we accepted as “truth” is shifting out from under our feet. During times of great change, it’s wise to relearn the basics. Who are we? What are we all about? And, where do we want to go?

Woodruff opens his introduction with, “Democracy is a beautiful idea – government by and for the people. Democracy promises us the freedom to exercise out highest capacities while it protects us from our worst tendencies. In democracy as it ought to be, all adults are free to chime in, to join the conversation on how they should arrange their life together. And no one is left free to enjoy the unchecked power that leads to arrogance and abuse.

Like many beautiful ideas, however, democracy travels through our minds shadowed by its doubles – bad ideas that are close enough to easily mistaken for the real thing. Democracy has many doubles, but the most seductive is majority rule, and this is not democracy. It is merely government by and for the majority.”

So Woodruff goes back to the first democracy – the ancient Athenians. He traces the development of the first democracy and describes its principles. Voting, majority rule, and elected representatives are generally accepted ideas in American democracy, but they were not part of the first democracy.

“These three doubles are not democracy. Voting is not, by itself, democratic. Majority rule is positively undemocratic. And, elected representation makes for serious problems in democracy. I have begun to say what democracy is not. Can I give a positive account?

Democracy is government by and for the people. That is hardly a definition, but it will do for a start. As a next step, I shall propose that a government is a democracy insofar as it tries to express the seven ideas of this book: freedom from tyranny, harmony, the rule of law, natural equality, citizen wisdom, reasoning without knowledge, and general education.”

The tools of the first democracy are unique to the time, culture and size of Athens:

Legal system: No professional judges or prosecutors. Any citizen could bring charges against another, and any citizen could serve on panels of judges that correspond to both our judges and juries.
Governing body: The Assembly consisted of the first 6,000 men to arrive at the Pnyx (a hillside not far from the Acropolis)
Checks on majority rule: The powers of the assembly were limited by law.
Lottery: The lottery, chosen equally fro the ten tribes, was used for juries, for Council of the 500, and for the legislative panel.
Elections: Some important positions were filled by election, especially those that required expert knowledge in military or financial affairs.
Accountability: On leaving office, a magistrate would have his record examined in a process called euthunai (setting things straight)

Woodruff describes the progression of ideas that preceded the Athenian democracy. Then he devotes a chapter to each of principles of the first democracy:

Freedom from Tyranny: “Tyrant (tyrannos) was not always a fearful word, and freedom (eleutheria) was not always associated with democracy. The two shifts in ideas were gradual and simultaneous. By the time democracy was mature, Athenians at least knew what they meant by tyranny – a kind of rule to be avoided at all costs. And, in contract to that, they knew what they meant by freedom. These two ideas we have inherited. And they are priceless.” Woodruff writes. “No one sleeps well in tyranny,” he continues. “Because the tyrant knows no law, he is a terror to his people. And, he lives in terror of his people, because he has taught them to be lawless. The fear he instills in others is close cousin to the fear he must live with himself, for the violence by which he rules could easily be turned against him.” He warns that democracy itself can be come tyrannical, the tyranny of the majority, “…democracy could be come a tyranny of hoi polloi, literally, of the many.” In Athens this became to mean the poor who banded together, acting as tyrants, supporting the interests of the poor over the rich. This led to a two party system, as the rich banded together to form the party of the few (hoi oligoi), the oligarchs. “If the people’s party went too far towards tyranny, then the oligarchs plotted civil war. If the oligarchs succeeded in gaining power, then, the people’s party would withdraw to plot their own violent return.” The Athenians recognized this oscillation and came to agreements to limit the rise of tyranny.
Harmony: “Without harmony there is no democracy.” Woodson comments. “What would government FOR the people mean if the people are so badly divided that there is nothing they want together? Without harmony the government rules in the interests of one group at the expense of another. If harmony fails, many people have no reason to take part in government; others conclude that they must achieve their goals outside of democratic politics altogether; or, violence, or even the threat of terror.”
The Rule of Law (Nomos): “When law is the ruler, no one is above the law. This seems like an idea that everyone would welcome, but in truth if has had many enemies, and still does. Individuals are always looking for ways to put themselves or their government above the law. Big business seeks endless protections against the law, world leaders scoff at international law, and ordinary citizens see nothing wrong with obstructing justice.”
Natural Equality: “James Madison did not believe in the equality of the rich and poor, and so he and other founders of the United States Constitution made sure that the rich would have greater power than the poor. Voters would have to show that they enjoyed a certain level of wealth. Not so in democratic Athens. Penniless citizens – and there were many of these – insisted that they should be free to take part in their government. They went to battle for this. And they won.”
Citizen Wisdom: “In First Democracy, ordinary people were asked to use their wisdom to pass judgment on their leaders.” Woodruff concludes, “…the heart of democracy is the idea that ordinary people have the wisdom to govern themselves.”
Reasoning Without Knowledge: “Reasoning without knowledge is essential in government,” he writes. “Doing it well requires open debate. Doing it poorly is the fault of leaders who silence opposition, conceal the basis of their reasoning, or pretend to an authority that does not belong to them.”
Education (Paideia): “Paideia is the lifeblood of democracy,” he writes. “…paideia should give a citizen the wisdom to judge what he is told by people who do claim to be experts. So we should call it super-expert-education.”

Woodruff concludes the book with an afterword entitled Are Americans Ready for Domocracy? wherein he takes each of the principles and asks questions about the present state of democracy in America. He ends the book with, “Are we ready to shake off the idea that we are already a perfect exemplar of democracy? Are we ready to put the goals of democracy foremost in our political minds, as many Athenians did? Are we ready to admit our mistakes and learn from them, as they did? Most important, are we ready to keep the great dream alive, the dream of a government of the people, by the people and for the people?”

First Democracy: the Challenge of an Ancient Idea, Paul Woodruff, Oxford University Press, 2005