Sunday, September 30, 2012

The Democratic Prejudice

Consider the following passage:

"[Some] Virginians... had openly conveyed their eagerness to alter the federal Constitution by pushing through amendments... to make the republic more democratic... Reducing U.S. senators' terms from six to two years would go far toward eliminating aristocratic pretense in that body. Direct election of the president would be an obvious improvement on the Electoral College. No longer giving judges lifetime appointments seemed a sensible move." -- Madison and Jefferson, p. 432

What is striking for me is not so much that any of these proposals are obviously wrong, but how the democratic prejudice of our age leads the authors to see them as obviously right, despite the weighty arguments put forward against pure democracy by a host of political thinkers, including many of the American founders, the latter being the very people in whose thought the authors are experts. Even someone as astute and well-read in the classics as our friend P.S. Huff rails against power of lifelong, unelected judges, without asking, if that were to be eliminated, what aristocratic element would be left in our constitution?

And this prejudice is all the more distressing once one realizes that the goal of democratic reformers is illusory: if there are no constitutional aristocratic elements in the government, there will simply be unconstitutional ones instead: think of the Soviet apparatchiks. All societies have elites; the trick is to balance the elite and democratic elements. Pretending the former does not exist is unlikely to do the trick!


  1. I think that changing the election process of senators to that of popular vote was definitely a big move toward more democracy, it essentially eliminated the more aristocratic purpose of the senate. Senators were originally meant to be somewhat like the privy councils of the past, but instead of being the kings council, they were each state's version.

    Also, a few years back I went through the signers of the Constitution looking for quotes about democracy. Almost all of them had negative feelings about democracy. They understood clearly that the more pure a democracy, the more likely the government would be used for theft and squander by the masses. The aristocratic element of republics is meant to put a check on that tendency which is inherent to democratic governments.

  2. I support life tenure, and oppose the election of judges. It's judicial review I want to consign to oblivion.

    Politically-connected lawyers have no comparative advantage in policy-making. Judicial review is just a method of partisan entrenchment, by which the dominant element of a temporary democratic coalition lays the groundwork for controversial policy revolutions without having to pay a price for them. To see the judges as an enlightened aristocracy is extremely naive.

  3. There are aristocratic elements and then there are aristocratic elements: there's a school of thought, including Douglass Adair and Willmoore Kendall (and maybe John Adams), that would deny there are aristocratic elements in the U.S. Constitution, for good or ill. There's no hereditary principle anywhere in the system, after all, which is what's involved in a traditional aristocracy. To say that a system whose only ultimate base is popular election is "aristocratic" is to redefine aristocracy in democratic terms -- an aristocracy of merit, for example. That may be fair enough, but the difference between that and traditional aristocracy should be kept in mind.

    Our system of government was truly innovative in not predicating any formal measure of political power on birth or religious authority. This makes our system more thoroughly democratic (or popular, if democratic is too polarizing a term) and less mixed than even many modern European regimes, including that of Great Britain, which truly is a mixture of hereditary, spiritual, and democratic principles. If the mixed regime is the best regime, then ours may arguably not be mixed enough.

    Of course, the Adair-Kendall school of thought also argues that Madison in particular devised a kind of popular rule that effectively substitutes for non-popular controls on the people a system so carefully folded and tiered (somewhat after the model of Hume's Perfect Commonwealth) that it can supply what's lacking in the absence of hereditary or ecclesiastical principles. By this line of reasoning, the problem isn't just that we're getting too democratic thanks to, say, direct election of senators, but that we're getting the wrong kind of democracy -- the plebiscitary kind -- and the solution is not to argue for aristocracy or anti-democracy but to remind people that democracy can be tiered and deliberative rather than winner-take-all and direct.