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What's the Argument for Democracy?


Unlike many concepts in political theory, such as liberty or justice, democracy is easy to define. It denotes government by the majority, whether directly or indirectly. In the present essay, I shall restrict the discussion to government in control of a reasonably large territory. This restriction leads to, but perhaps does not entail, a further limitation. The type of government I shall endeavor to discuss is a variety of indirect democracy, i.e., a representative democracy, as in the United States and Great Britain, where the national legislature is popularly elected. Representative democracy is not the only conceivable sort of indirect democracy: imagine, e.g., a system in which the people by plebiscite can veto laws but only a non-elected body can propose them. Nevertheless, it is the system of government most frequently commended to all and sundry.

Though it is easy to characterize democracy, recent political theory has been marked by a conspicuous omission. Virtually no argument is ever offered to support the desirability of representative democracy, and the little that is available seems distressingly weak. Why ought democracy to be either instituted or promoted, let alone exported, as a recent book by Joshua Muravchik (Exporting Democracy) advocates? One would think that as important a question as that of the best political system would have generated an enormous literature. In point of fact, most writing on the subject simply takes for granted the desirability of democracy and inquires how existing democracies may be improved. The issue of whether democracy is a"good thing" is not thought worth raising.

A notable example of the omission I contend exists is a recent volume, The Conquest of Politics, by Bernard Barber, a distinguished political theorist teaching at Rutgers University. Barber criticizes a number of philosophers who have written about politics, including John Rawls, Bruce Ackerman, and Robert Nozick, for presuming to arrive at agendas for a just political order in the absence of democratic discussion. The decision of the people, rather than the excogitations of philosophers "voyaging through strange seas of thought alone," should determine questions of distributive justice. To think otherwise is to be undemocratic.

Barber, whatever criticism one might make of him, at least has something to say. Concerning another group, the so-called Western Straussians headed by Harry Jaffa, it is difficult to give its members even this much credit. Is it an argument for democracy that Abraham Lincoln favored the system? The elaborate attempt of Jaffa, in Crisis of the House Divided, to argue that Lincoln correctly interpreted the Declaration of Independence to support a system of egalitarian democracy seems of purely historical interest. Why should Lincoln's position be of any present-day importance? It is no more an argument for democracy that Lincoln favored it than it is one against this system that King James I opposed it.

What of the claim that the Declaration of Independence either mandates democratic government or, less strongly, recommends it? At best, the point would be relevant to the United States, for which the Declaration counts as an important historical document, rather than as a universal argument for democracy, unless, of course, it is contended that the Declaration enshrines principles of universal validity. But what is the argument for this claim?

Even if one restricts the discussion to the United States, appeal to the Declaration does not by itself take one very far. It seems more than doubtful, to say the least, that the Declaration can be taken to require democracy. It does not, after all, list among its grievances against George III that the monarch was undemocratic: it is the specific complaints adduced, rather than the absence of democracy, that the Declaration instances as the reasons entitling the colonies to "dissolve the political bands" that connect them with Great Britain.

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