Democratic Government

Democratic Government Defined :-Democratic or popular government has been variously defined as a form of government in which every one has a share, as one in which the majority rules, one in which the mass of the adult male population has a voice, one in which public Opinion controls, etc. Abraham Lincoln conceived democracy to be the government of the people, for the people and by the people.

In estimating the strength and weakness of this form of government we may disregard the shades of difference which capacity, remarked, But it is not absurd to expect that more than five hundred families, thrown into public life for the most part at a very early age, animated by all its traditions and ambitions, and placed under circumstances exceedingly favorable to the development of political talent, should produce a large amount of governing faculty .

The qualities required for successful political life are not, like poetry or the higher forms of philosophy, qualities that are of a very rare and exceptional order. They are for the most part qualities of judgment, industry, tact, knowledge of men and of affairs, which can be attained to a high degree of perfection by men of no very extraordinary intellectual powers. Few persons, I think, will dispute the high average capacity for government which the circumstances of the English aristocratic life tend to produce.

Of the value of such an aristocracy to the-state Leck‘y went on to say :

“It is of no small importance that a nation should possess a class of men who have a large stake in the prosperity of the country, who possess a great position independent of politics, who represent very evidently the traditions and the continuity of political life, and who, whatever may be their faults, can at least be trusted to administer affairs with a complete personal integrity and honor. In the fields of diplomacy and in those great administrative posts which are so numerous in an extended empire, high rank and the manners that commonly accompany it are especially valuable, and their weight is not the least powerfully felt in dealing with democracies.”

Principles of Selection :-

But when all is said that can be said in favor of birth as the principle of selection, the fact remains, as Seeley readily admitted in his defense of the system, that it works for the false aristocracy as well as the true, and that the worst traits are transmitted as well as the best.

The possession of property is an equally unsatisfactory test of political capacity, especially if it be inherited wealth. And so with all other tests which do not rest upon intrinsic merit. Yet the fact that no just or adequate tests can be found really proves nothing against aristocracy itself. The question of whether there ought to be a test by which, to determine the fitness of men to exercise a share in the government, as Seeley observed, is not answered by showing that wealth is not such a test and that birth is not such a test. The trouble is not so much with aristocracy as With the lack of a just and satisfactory selective test.

Rousseau and Jefferson, both champions of democracy in their respective countries, emphasized the distinction between what they called natural aristocracies and artificial or “sham” aristocracies. Rousseau considered elective aristocracies to be the only natural ones, and these he pronounced the “best of all governments,” since they insured probity, enlightenment, experience, and all the other guarantees that the government would be wisely administered.

In a word, he said, the best and most natural order is where the wisest govern the multitude, if there is any guarantee that the government will be conducted for the benefit of the people and not for themselves.  Jefferson agreed with Rousseau in declaring all aristocracies based on wealth or birth to be not only useless but also mischievous and dangerous, though he was a strong defender of those based on “virtue and talent. ”

Contrary to the popular belief, he was a believer in aristocratic government when the aristocracy was of the latter kind. There is, he said, a natural aristocracy founded on talent and virtue which seems destined to govern all societies and all political forms, and the best characterize the various conceptions and proceed on the general assumption that a democratic government is one which is constituted and administered on the principle that every adult citizen (the present-day conception would include women as well as men) who is not regarded as unfit by reason of his having been convicted of crime, or in some countries because of his illiteracy, should have a voice, at least in the choice of those who make the laws by which he is governed, and that his voice should be equal in weight to that of every other elector.

The governments of some states which are regarded as democratic do not come fully up to this standard some, on the other hand, go further and are organized on the principle that an illiterate citizen is qualified equally with a literate person to exercise a share in the government to which he is subject, and that this share cannot be justly limited to the choosing merely of legislative representatives.

In the states of the American Union, for example, voters have the right to nominate and choose many executive and administrative functionaries (in most of the states also the judges of the courts) and in this and other countries where the principle of the referendum has been introduced, the voters have in addition an extensive power of direct legislation and determination of public policies. But whatever the differences of practice, they are largely differences of degree.

In general, the democracies oft to day rest on the principle that every honest, self-supporting adult citizen is qualified to participate in the business of government, and that on the whole he is as well qualified as any other of his fellow citizens. They rest, said Jefferson, on confidence in the self-governing capacity of the great mass of the people, and in the ability of the average man, or of average men, to select rulers who will govern in the interest of society. But there always have been and are still many who deny the soundness of this assumption

Elements of Strength of Democratic Government :-

In evaluating the advantages of democracy as a form of government we may disregard the uncritical opinions of those whose faith in the perfection of democracy is an Obsession, almost a religion, who worship it blindly and deliberately close their eyes to the obvious defects which actual experience has shown it to possess.

On the other hand, we need not consider seriously the equally uncritical and sweeping generalizations of men like Talleyrand, who defined democracy as an aristocracy of blackguards of Carlyle, who sneeringly referred to the people as a certain number of millions, mostly fools, of H. G. Wells, who asserts that there is no case for the elective democratic government of modern states that cannot be knocked to pieces in five minutes. Ludovici, who asserts that democracy leads to death and aristocracy to life etc.

Our judgment should be based on the results of actual experience and as evidence of this upon the studies of scholars Who have examined the history and workings of democracy and who have recorded the results of their investigation in scientific treatises.

The test of the strength or weakness of a particular type of government lies partly in its efficiency, that is, in the degree to which it accomplishes the primary ends for which governments are established and partly in the educational, social, and civic effect which it produces upon the body of citizens over whom its authority is exercised.

Judged on the basis of its character as a contrivance for doing the things for which governments are established, and doing them in a way which accords with the general will of the people, democratic government, it is claimed, is superior to all other types-in fact it is the only type under which those who exercise public authority can be subjected to the control of those in whose interest they are chosen to govern, and the only one in which their responsibility to the governed can be adequately enforced.

The theory is that, being freely chosen by their, fellow citizens, ordinarily for short terms, and accountable to them for the manner in which they exercise their trust, those who are called to govern will be the most representative, the most competent, and the most worthy of the public confidence, whereas in a monarchy or an aristocracy those who govern may be appointed on the bases of widely different considerations. In short, it is claimed that popular election popular control, and popular responsibility are more likely to insure a greater degree of efficiency than any other system of government.

By no one was the strength of democratic government in its representative form so ably set forth as by John Stuart Mill, who defined it as that form in which the whole people, or some numerous portion of them, exercise the governing power through deputies periodically elected by themselves. There is no difficulty in showing, he asserted, that the ideally best form of government is that in which the supreme controlling power in the last resort is vested in the entire aggregate of the community, every citizen not only having a voice in the exercise of that ultimate sovereignty, but being at least occasionally called on to take an actual part in the government, by the personal discharge of some public function, local Or general.

The only government, he continued, which can fully satisfy the exigencies of the social state is one in which the whole people participate, and the degree of participation should everywhere be as great as the general degree of  improvement of the community will allow, and ultimately all should be admitted to a share in the sovereign power of the state.

So far as the welfare of the community is concerned, the superiority of popular government, Mill went on to say, rests upon two principles of as universal truth and applicability as any general proposition which can be laid down respecting human affairs. The first is, that the rights and interests of the individual can be safeguarded only when he is able to stand up for them himself, the second is, that the general prosperity attains a higher degree and is more widely diffused in proportion to the amount and variety of the personal energies enlisted in promoting it.

But the greatest glory of democracy in the opinion of its votaries does not flow so much from its own inherent excellence as a form of government, as from its influence in elevating the masses of the people, developing their faculties stimulating interest among them in public affairs, and strengthening their patriotism by allowing them a share in its administration.

No man is free in the political acceptation of the word, said Laveleye,

“if he does not have some share in the government of his country, and he who is governed not by functionaries whom he has helped to choose, but by authorities constituted without his consent, is a subject, not a citizen.”

Lord Bryce pointed out that the manhood of the individual is dignified by his political enfranchisement and that he is usually raised to a higher level by the sense of duty which it throws upon him. Mill likewise very aptly remarked that a man who has no-vote in the government to which he is subject, and no prospect of obtaining one, either will be a malcontent or will feel as one whom the general affairs of society do not concern. For a government in which the masses have no share they do not feel the same readiness to make sacrifices.

Democracy strengthens the love of country because the citizens feel that the government is their own creation and that magistrates are their servants rather than their masters. The French people, to quote Laveleye again, never began to love France until after the Revolution, when they were admitted to share in its government, since which time they have adored it.

Popular governments, resting as they do on the consent of the governed and upon the principle of equality, are also likely to be more immune from revolutionary disturbances than those in which the people have no right of participation. Thus De Tocqueville remarked that almost all revolutions which have changed the face of the world have had for their purpose the destruction of inequality.

The same author, in his study of democracy in America, dwelt repeatedly upon the interest which the American people took in public affairs, their high state of intelligence in regard to political matters, and their natural patriotism. He pointed out that one of the great advantages of a democracy is that it serves as a sort of training school for citizenship. Mill likewise laid great stress upon the influence of democracy in elevating the character and political intelligence of the masses.

The most important point of excellence, he said, which any form of government can possess is to promote the virtue and intelligence of the people themselves, and the first consideration in judging of the merits of a particular form of government is how far they tend to foster intellectual and moral qualities in the Citizens. The government which does this best, he Continued, is likely to be the best in all other respects. Democratic government, more than any other, he thought, produced this result.

Weaknesses of Democracy :-

Democratic government has always had its critics and even to-day when it has become very nearly universal, they are by no means lacking. In ancient and medieval times its very name connoted the idea of government by the irresponsible multitude. Aristotle classified it as a degenerative or perverted form of constitutional government. Treitschke mentions that in the Rathaus of Augsburg there are three allegorical paintings, one of which represents aristocracy in the guise of a solemn senate, another monarchy as a brooding despot receiving the humble homage of a gorgeous train of followers, and the third democracy, as a drunken Cleon surrounded by a yelling mob.

The last-mentioned picture represented, at the time it was made, the current conception of the character of democracy. Critics no longer regard it as so debased, but they attack its foundations on other grounds. In the first place, they assert that it attaches undue importance to quantity rather than quality. It makes the decision of the majority of the mass, even if a very small majority, the law, when the opinion of the minority, by reason of its superior intellectual, moral, and economic capacity, may be the wiser.

It rests upon what IS declared to be a false principle, namely that every man, whatever his real Worth, is the equal of every other man so far as his capacity to participate in government is  concerned, and consequently that no man’s vote should count for more than that of another man, in the choice of public officials and the determination of public policies.

It either underestimates the value of special training and expert knowledge in the business of government, qualities Which are considered essential in the held of private business, or makes it difficult to get experts into the public service. Yet, as the late Mr. Justice James Fitzjames Stephen once remarked, the work of governing a great nation, if really done well, requires an unusual amount of special knowledge and the Steady restrained and calm exertion of a great variety of the highest talents which are to be found. Democracy, it is contended, means government, in large measure, by the ignorant, the untrained, and the unfit. It distrusts specialists and is inclined to regard government by them as inconsistent with true democracy.

Mr. A. G. Sidgwick in a critical study of the weakness of American democracy, entitled “The Democratic Mistake” (1912), points out, as other writers have done, that one of its chief defects lies in the lack of adequate means for securing an enforceable responsibility that the prevailing belief that responsibility can be obtained by an attempt to make public officials responsible to the community through popular election, short tenures, and rotation in office, has not been justified by the facts that, on the contrary, the only elective method of securing real responsibility lies in security of tenure as is the practice in private business. The failure to provide this method, according to him, constitutes the great democratic mistake.

But democracies look with disfavor upon infrequent elections and long tenures because they are popularly believed to be undemocratic. Democracies are further criticized because they distrust natural leaders and are a prolific breeding ground for agitators, flatterers, bosses, and demagogues. Again they are said to be wasteful and extravagant they tend to level society down rather than up and they are indifferent to, if not actually hostile to, the advancement of education, science, literature, and art.

Maine’s Estimate of Democracy :-

One of the most vigorous if not well-founded criticisms of democracy made in the nineteenth century was that of the English jurist, Sir Henry Maine, in his “Popular Government” published in 1886., Maine, after a review of the history of popular government, concluded that it affords , little support for the assumption that it has an indefinitely long future before it.

Experience, he asserted, rather tends to show that it is a form of government characterized by “great fragility,” and that since its appearance in the world all forms of government have become more insecure than they were before. Popular governments, he declared, have been repeatedly overturned by mobs and armies in combination of all governments they seem least likely to cope successfully with the greatest of all irreconcilable, the nationalists, they imply a breaking up of political power into morsels and the giving to each person an infinitesimally small portion, they rest upon universal suffrage, which is the natural basis of tyranny, they are unfavorable to intellectual.

progress and the advance of scientific truth they lack stability and they are governments by ignorant and unintelligent. Of all the forms of government, democracy, he declared, is by far the most difficult. It is this difficulty that mainly accounts for its ephemeral duration.

The inherent difficulties of democratic government, he went on to say, are so great and manifold that in large complex modern societies it could neither last nor work if it were not aided by certain forces which are not exclusively associated with it, but of which it greatly stimulates the energy. The prejudices of the people are far stronger than those of the privileged classes they are far more vulgar and they are far more dangerous because their opinions are apt to run counter to scientific conclusions.

Maine denied that there is any real connection between democracy and liberty, and asserted that in case there is and the choice has to be made between them, it is even better to remain a nation capable of displaying the virtues of a nation than to be free. By a wise constitution, said Maine, democracy may be made as.

Treitschke’s Indictment :-

One of the most Violent assaults made upon democracy as a form of government during the nineteenth century was that of the German historian Heinrich Treitschke, who was an almost blind worshiper of monarchy, especially the Prussian type, which he pronounced to be an enlightened despotism. His prejudice against American democracy in particular was intense.

From the technical standpoint the aristocracy of southern slaveholders prior to the Civil War was, he said, infinitely superior to the democracy of the North, which he regarded as corrupt dollar worshiping plutocracy, or oligarchy of the rich. In fact, he prophesied, the constitution of the ,United States Was already on a downward path.

His estimate of the English, French, and Swiss democracies was hardly less severe. France was in fact a complete plutocracy, an oligarchy of a few banking houses who avail themselves silently of democratic forms in order to exploit them for their own ends. As to Switzerland, it was undeniable that Swiss liberty is positively less than in Prussia.

The whole conception of democracy, resting as it does upon the principle of equality and the rule of the majority, is false, he said it tends to exploit the rich for the benefit of the poor, it is fickle incompetent, discourages brilliancy in intellect, fertilizes the soil for demagogues, and does little for the promotion of culture and the higher spiritual things of life.

In view of Treitschke’s violent prejudices and his amazing ignorance of the history and experience of the democracies which he Criticized, his Opinions are entitled to little weight.

Other Recent Critics :-

Among the more recent and more modes rate critics of democracy may be mentioned the English scholar W. H. Mallock, who in his “The Limits of Pure Democracy” (3d ed., 1918) made a searching examination of the premises upon which modern democracy rests, and pointed out that in so far as it assumes equality of influence among all men, democracy does not and never has existed, Professor Ernest Barker, who asserts that the cost of democratic government in loss of efficiency is enormous, and when all is said and done, it means the rule of the few manipulators who can collect suffrage in their own favor with the greatest success .

The French writer Lebon, who maintains that popular government is too much swayed by emotionalism and tends to become government by crowds :85 Walter E.Weyl, who apparently considers the American democracy to be a corrupt plutocracy and Professor Giddings, who sees two dangers in democracy first, an “unbridled emotionalism” which finds its graver manifestations in the violence of mobs and revolutions, which upholds the “absolutism of the multitude and tramples on all rights of minorities” and second, the decay of national character. Some writers who are attached to the democratic ideal advocate various changes in the system as it actually exists.

Whatever the merits of these criticisms, another should be now added, one which applies with peculiar force to American democracy, namely the evil effects of the lavish expenditure of money in elections. As is well known, the sums which are expended directly and indirectly during every presidential campaign to promote the nomination and election of particular candidates amount to many millions of dollars, and the investigation by a committee of Senate in 1926 of expenditures by or on behalf of certain candidates for the upper house of Congress revealed the calm as the water in a great artificial reservoir, but if there is a weak point anywhere in its structure, the mighty force which it controls will burst through it and spread destruction far and near.

Lecky’s Criticism :-

Another critic of democracy was the English historian Lecky, who in two volumes entitled “Democracy and Liberty” dwelt upon the dangers of government by the poorest, the most ignorant, the most incapable, who are necessarily the most numerous. The idea of government by such a class reverses, he declared, all the past experience of mankind.

In every held of human enterprise, in all the computations of life, by the inexorable law of nature, superiority lies with the few and not with the many, and success can be obtained by placing the guiding and controlling power mainly in their hands.

Democracy insures neither better government nor greater liberty indeed, some of the strongest democratic tendencies are adverse to liberty. On the contrary, strong arguments may be adduced both from history and from the nature of things to show that democracy may often prove the direct opposite of liberty.

To place the chief power in the most ignorant classes is to place it in the hands of those who naturally care least for political liberty and who are most likely to follow with an absolute devotion some strong leader. The upper and middle classes have shown the great devotion to liberty and have been its most ardent defenders, while democracy has often enough sought to dethrone it.

Speaking of the United States, he declared, as De Tocqueville had done before him, that in hardly any other country does the best life and energy of the nation How so habitually apart from politics, and is the best talent so rarely chosen to the public service.

Likewise he adopted the view of De Tocqueville, Laveleye, Bluntschli, Maine, and Treitschke that democracy is unfavorable to the development of the higher forms of intellectual life, such as literature, art, and science in short, that democracy levels down quite as much as up.

Speaking of the alleged equality upon which the American democracy rests, Maine declared that there has hardly ever been a community in which the weak have been pushed so piteously to the wall in which those who have succeeded have so uniformly, been the strong, and in which,in so short a time, there has arisen so great an inequality of private fortune and domestic luxury.

Laveleye, in his work entitled “Le Government dans la democratie,” likewise argued that democracy does not necessarily produce equality any more than it produces liberty, and that it is, besides, the enemy of both wealth and culture. Inequality of conditions and the struggle of classes, he declared, were responsible for the fall of the ancient democracies.

If the people are ignorant and incapable, democracy must inevitably degenerate into anarchy and despotism, and both equality and liberty will be lost. These criticisms, especially those of Lecky, however, have been answered by various writers who have pointed out that some at least of the defects which they attributed to democracy are not caused by it but rather accompany it, and that democracy is not necessarily government by the ignorant and unfit.

Fact that in some cases the amount expended by or for a single candidate in order to obtain a nomination approximated a half million dollars. Even assuming that all such expenditures are entirely honest and legitimate, such a practice is incompatible with the spirit of true democracy, one of whose tenets is that the Public offices should be open equally to all who possess the qualifier cations required by law.

Surely a democracy in which money plays so great a role, where ambitious candidates with large fortunes  have an enormous advantage over their less favored but perhaps more deserving and better qualified competitors, is unlike what the founders believed they were establishing, and in conflict with the better ideals of those to day whose faith in its future still abides. It is probably true-and it has often been a matter of reproach-e that it costs more in time and money to give effect to the processes of democracy in the United States than in any other country of the world.

Lord Bryce’s Estimate :-

The latest, and by far the most Come prehensive and valuable study of the actual workings of democracy, is the recent work of the late Lord Bryce in two volumes, entitled “Modern Democracies,” published in 1921. Based both on wide reading and on personal observation, and being the work of an illustrious scholar whose sympathies were, on the whole, on the side of democracy, his conclusions are entitled to great weight.

He examined in turn the elements of strength and weakness of democracy in general and of the more important existing democratic states in particular. His study is characterized by keen insight, profound analysis, and a sympathetic point of view. In all the literature of democracy there is no analysis and evaluation which is fairer or freer of manifest prejudice or preconceived opinions. In a general review of American democracy he enumerated the defects which have revealed themselves in the workings of popular government in the United States.

Among the more important of these are the decline of popular confidence in the state legislatures and to a less degree in the national Congress the inferiority of the judiciary in the large majority of the states, the slow, uncertain, and often ineffective administration of criminal justice, the imperfect enforcement of the laws the incompetent, wasteful, and corrupt government of the cities, the increasing tendency of party organizations, controlled as they are by professional politicians, to become selfish and oligarchic, the formidable influence of wealth, and especially of corporate wealth, upon the legislatures and even upon the courts and the increasing failure of the public service to attract men of brilliant gifts, this too in a country where talent abounds.

He pointed out, however, that certain of these defects are due to causes that are not political or which are not inherent in democracy as such, and which may exist and have existed in governments which are not democratic. Summing up the chief faults observed in all the six democracies with which his study deals, he says they may be described as :

  • The influence of money by preventing legislation and administration.
  • The tendency to make politics a trade or profession.
  • Extravagance in administration.
  • The distortion of the doctrine of equality and the failure to appreciate the value of administrative skill.
  • The undue power of party organizations and
  • The tendency of legislators and public officials to bargain for votes in the passing of laws and in tolerating breaches of order.

But of these faults, the first three, as he pointed out, are found in all governments, whether democracies or otherwise and while the last three are most often found in democracies they are not an inseparable feature of democracy. He admitted that democracy has Opened some new channels in which the familiar propensities to evil can flow,-but it has stopped some of the old channels, and has not increased the Volume of the stream.

Two dangers, he thought, threaten all democracies. One lies in the self-interest of those who get control of the machinery of government and turn it to ignoble ends the other is the irresponsible power wielded by those who supply the people with the materials they need for judging men and measures-the dissemination by demagogues, through the press, of untruths, fallacies, and incentives to violence.

The argument that democracy tends to repress individuality and originality, and to level society down to the average, and that it is unfavorable to the development of science, education, art, literature, and culture generally, Bryce thought, was based not upon facts but upon conjectures as to what might happen under certain political conditions which, were assumed for the purposes of the argument to be the only conditions worth regarding. There is nothing to show, he said, that democracy has either fostered intellectual progress as the early liberals contended that it would, or that it has, on the other hand, discouraged or retarded it.

The truth is, letters, arts, and science have flourished under all forms of government, monarchies, aristocracies, and democracies alike. The movements of intellectual and moral forces are so subtle and intricate that any explanation drawn from a few external facts is sure to be defective and likely to be misleading.

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