We Call This Democracy?
A talk given by Ivo Mosley at the Convention on Modern Liberty, held in London on 28 February 2009.
I have a question: How have governments in the West got away with calling themselves
‘democracies’ for so long?
The system of government we have adopted in the West has a simple and authentic name:
electoral representation. Before 1800, electoral representation was reckoned to be an
aristocratic, or oligarchic, form of government; in other words, it was thought to be
directly opposed to democracy. This was the accepted opinion from Plato and Aristotle
right through to Locke, Rousseau and Madison.
In other words, if you feel our system isn’t very democratic, you have two thousand years
of tradition on your side.
So: before 1800, what did the word ‘democracy’ mean? It meant that political assemblies
and political officials were chosen by lot from among the citizens, much as juries are
chosen today. Government in a democracy consisted of citizens, taken out of their
everyday lives for fixed periods to do their duty – just like jury service, except that they
decide on law and policy too.
The difference between democracy and electoral representation is significant. Electoral
representation brings with it professional politicians and political parties whose interests
and objectives are bound to be partial. Democracy, however, means that government is
conducted directly by the people in their common interests.
This raises a question: How did it happen that around 1800 people began to think that
electoral representation was a form of democracy, when for two thousand years everyone
had been thinking it was the opposite? Again, it’s a simple story, but so little-known that
it’s almost a secret history.
My story begins with the revolutionaries who liberated the United States from British
rule: Washington, Adams, Madison, Hamilton and Jefferson to name the most prominent.
Having won the war of independence, they designed a self-consciously elitist system of
government. This government, incidentally, effectively entrusted power to themselves;
four of those five names became president and the fifth was killed in a duel.
The Founding Fathers made no bones about it: they did not think ordinary people should
be given power. They were very rude about democracy – which, like everyone else, they
understood to mean assemblies chosen by lot.
Here are some sample sentences from their published writings:
Madison wrote (1787): ‘Democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and
contention… and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in
Hamilton wrote (1787): ‘The ancient democracies, in which the people themselves
deliberated, never possessed one feature of good government. Their very nature was
John Adams wrote (1814): ‘Democracy wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There was
never a democracy that did not commit suicide.’
Washington wrote (1798) (with a distinct lack of political correctness): ‘you could as
soon scrub a blackamoor white as change the principles of a profest democrat; and that he
will leave nothing unattempted to overturn the government of this country’.
Jefferson thought (1816) democracy was ‘impracticable beyond the limits of a town.’
Benjamin Franklin is credited – perhaps wrongly, though it’s not out of character – with
the sentence: ‘Democracy is two wolves and a sheep deciding what’s for dinner.’
The system the founding fathers wanted was republican. In Jefferson’s words, power
would be entrusted to a ‘natural aristocracy’ of the most talented and virtuous, replacing
the old ‘artificial aristocracy founded on wealth and birth’. Elections would give people
the right to choose who those ‘natural aristocrats’ should be. In Madison’s words, public
opinion would be ‘refined and enlarged’ by passing it ‘through the medium of a chosen
body of citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country.’
The constitution was accepted by a majority of voters in the United States as the best that
could be thought of at the time. To the disappointment of many, however, within ten
years of the constitution being ratified, politics was dominated not so much by superior
individuals as by strong political parties, representing not the shared interests of citizens
but powerful embedded interests. The fault lines were already apparent that would result
in the Civil War: one party represented the industrial North, the other represented the
agricultural and slave-owning South.
The significant crisis during which ‘democracy’ changed from being a dirty word to a
badge worn with pride came after the 1800 presidential election. The electoral college
was in deadlock over who would be the next president. Rival state militias (Virginia and
Pennsylvania vs Massachusetts) were ready to march on Washington to take control of
the government for the party they supported. Jefferson, the Republican candidate, had the
largest share of the popular vote (counting, ironically, slaves voted for by their masters at
three-fifths of a vote each). His supporters claimed that the will of the people should
prevail. Jefferson became president, and civil war was averted.
It had become apparent that there was a strong, potentially overwhelming demand among
Americans for ‘democracy’ not as a political system, but as a feeling – that ‘the people’
would be in charge of their own destiny. Only the most educated individuals were aware
that democracy had a tradition of its own in direct opposition to electoral representation.
The majority of people looked to elections to satisfy their need for democracy.
Jefferson referred to his victory as ‘the revolution of 1800’. In his words, ‘the nation
declared its will by dismissing functionaries of one principle and electing those of
another’. The new ‘democratic’ principle was recognised when Jefferson’s party changed
its name from ‘Republican’ to ‘Democratic-Republican’. And in 1809 Elias Smith
proclaimed, ‘My friends, let us never be ashamed of democracy!’
In this way, the re-invention of electoral representation as a form of democracy took place
not in theory, but in the sphere of practical politics. In the words of historian Joanne
Freeman, ‘The period’s cultural shift from deference to democracy’ occurred as
‘politicians adjusted their assumptions and expectations to the situation in hand,
struggling to accommodate their ideals and their actions.’ Or as Burckhardt put in in
1867: ‘The experience of revolution was that public opinion forms and transforms the
world. The traditional powers, too weak to prevent it, began making deals with individual
currents in the stream of public opinion.’
And that, as Rudyard Kipling might say, is how democracy came to mean its opposite: as
if by shaving a dog and feeding it oats, you could believe it was a horse.
This new and powerful reality has never been justfied in theory, for one simple reason: it
is impossible. To argue that rule by elected party officials is a form of democracy, when
there is a perfectly good democracy of participation at hand, is a non-starter. The political
historian Bernard Manin writes that the best anyone has done is to summon up the old
aristocratic theory of consent, and maintain that by voting elections every few years the
people signifies its consent to be so governed.
True democracy, of course, needs no such theory: citizens are rulers one day, and ruled
over by their fellow-citizens the next.
To all this, you might say – so what? – Today, when we say democracy we mean electoral
representation – the history is irrelevant. But I think it is important to recover the old way
of thinking, and to recognise that electoral representation is essentially non-democratic.
For two reasons:
Firstly, it helps us understand the world we live in today. It explains how power is
unaccountable. We can understand why Hamas may lob rockets into Israel in the name of
citizens who would never, if asked, give their consent. It explains why elected
governments in Africa and Europe institute programs of genocide. It explains why
western governments pursue policies that are destroying the planet. It explains unpopular
wars. It explains why governments destroy home industries and give bankers free rein to
bankrupt their nations. It explains why lawyers who want to get rich earn their money by
corrupting or circumventing the law; and how accountants earn most by cheating
taxpayers. It explains why governments promote degrading and degraded culture, and
why they have morphed education into ‘socialization’. It explains why ‘welfare’ is
deflected away from the truly needy towards those who might vote. In other words, it
explains how things get transformed into the opposite of what they should be.
But secondly, it gives us hope for the future. Democracy is an untried adventure. How
many people in Britain know that democracy worked in a variety of ways and at different
levels, often alongside electoral representation, in Athens, in Florence and in Venice? Or
that for four centuries, extraordinarily enough, it worked in our own Great Yarmouth?
For two hundred years, we have treated government as a problem to be solved by a single
formula: majority vote. All other creative possibilities have been discarded.
Many people among our elite today agree with the founding fathers that real democracy
would be a bad idea. In moments of honesty they say: ordinary people are stupid, illeducated and incompetent: to put them in government is the worst idea in the world.
I would argue against this, that ordinary people on balance are guided by morality, not by
ambition and power. Professional politicians, as Plato said and many have repeated, make
the worst rulers, because their ambition and lust for power lead us all into trouble. Our
oligarchies have led us to where the opportunities for global self-destruction are so
multifarious, it will be a miracle if we escape them all.
If we accept that we in the West live not in democracies but in oligarchies, the question
arises, ‘What is the nature of these oligarchies?’
An oligarchy is defined as ‘the few who have power over the many.’ So many people
have power over us now, this term seems rather stretched.
Until about thirty years ago, our oligarchy conisted of competing factions; there were old
landed and agricultural interests, industrial interests, and the power-base of organised
socialism: even the church and the professions held a certain sway. When several powers
compete with each other, each acts to restrain the power of the others; furthermore, each
power has to behave with a modicum of good behaviour in order to retain public
approval. But when one power comes out on top, that is the death knoll for freedom.
What makes the power of our oligarchy so alarming today is that most of these competing
interests have dropped out. We are left with globalised corporate capitalism and with
government acting as its poodle, co-conspirator and apologist. As we witnessed recently
on television, these people are not devils; rather, they inhabit a strange culture of selfdelusion. Like a pre-historic tribe who believes that the sun only rises every day because
they ask it to, these oligarchs believe that without them the rest of us would flounder.
Membership of the new oligarchy is tenuous: you must conform and play by the rules, or
you are out. And this is true both of the corporate world and of politics.
The power of corporations and governments has immense and varied implications for our
freedom. Daily encroachments of our freedoms are a major theme of this conference. For
instance, embedded in a largely benign bill called the ‘Coroners’ Bill’ there is a clause
designed to ensure that if the government kills someone it will be able to conduct its own
inquest in secret: a clause so odious to democracy, freedom, and all other civilized virtues
it is hard to contemplate.
But there is another, less noticed freedom, that I want to stress, which has been the
lifeblood of the human species, and that is moral freedom: the freedom, in Acton’s words,
to act according to the dictates of conscience, against the influence of authority and
majorities, custom and opinion.
The most valuable freedom to those who called themselves ‘democrats’ for two thousand
years was the freedom to be a politically involved citizen and exercise free moral agency
in that capacity. They had a single word for that – ‘politikos’. We don’t have a word for it
because it is unfamiliar to us. Citizens exercising free moral agency inside politics are a
rarity. If you go into politics, you join a party. No point complaining that politicians are
duplicitious and obfuscatory; to stay in politics you must trim your conscience to the
demands of the party.
Moral freedom is rather unglamorous to citizens conditioned as we are today, so I’ll quote
an authority who is usually dug up and dusted off in the cause of selfishness: Charles
Darwin. According to Darwin, the moral sense – which he also calls conscience or duty –
is the most important quality in the survival and evolution of the human species. When
Darwin came to consider human beings in relation to Natural Selection, he wrote that ‘of
all the differences between man and the lower animals, the moral sense or conscience is
by far the most important.’
Moral freedom is the ability to choose for ourselves what we believe is right. To what
extent have corporations and governments limited this freedom?
Corporations are legally bound by their obligation to make as much money as possible for
the shareholders. In other words, they are obliged to ignore morality. In reality they go
further, avoiding legal obligations too by such practices such as ‘creative accountancy’.
They also seek to have laws made in their favour – in other words, to corrupt law itself by
making it an interested party to their ambitions. In this way, moral agency has retreated in
the great public endeavour of the workplace. It was frequently said in Victorian times,
while the corporation was bit-by-bit achieving its legal entity, ‘a corporation has neither
body to imprison nor soul to damn.’
As for governments, they undertake to transform our lives for the better, and to this end
they adopt more power. The corollary of power is always degradation: power, as
Burckhardt observed, is insatiable. Governments now control areas that were previously a
matter for society. There are still many who believe the state can make a heaven-on-earth
– in spite of its achievments in the opposite direction.
Government is imposed upon us willy-nilly and lives off us, and in that sense it is
parasitical. But by taking over health, education, welfare, responsibility for business, and
a host of other functions that used to be a matter for society, government has become
something different and worse. It has invaded the organs of society, swelling them into
huge state apparatuses and making it harder and harder for professionals to carry out their
duties. Guidelines, constant supervision, form-filling, quota- and target-meeting etcetera
etcetera, mean that administrators, consultants and state employees make good livings
while people’s needs are not met. In this way, government has become not a parasite but a
cancer. It might be said we live in an oncocracy, if that were not such an unlikely word.
We citizens of this oncocracy have lived for many years on the drip feed of industrial
mass-production and on exploitation of poorer countries. It seems now that perhaps the
chickens are coming home to roost.
What should we do? John Locke, that quintessentially respectable philosopher, wrote the
Great mistakes in the ruling part, many wrong and inconvenient laws, and all the
slips of human frailty, will be born by the people without mutiny or murmur. But
if a long train of abuses, prevarications and artifices, all tending the same way,
make the design visible to the people, and they cannot but feel what they lie
under, and see whither they are going; it is not to be wondered, that they should
then rouze themselves, and endeavour to put the rule into such hands which may
secure to them the ends for which government was at first erected; and without
which, ancient names, and specious forms, are so far from being better, that they
are much worse, than the state of nature, or pure anarchy; the inconveniencies
being all as great and as near, but the remedy farther off and more difficult.
Democracy and freedom are candles in our political darkness. If we recover the true
meanings of these words, we can begin to recover their practice. How we might do this is
the subject of a surprising amount of literature. Three people here today have written
books on the subject: Anthony Barnett, one of the organisers; Keith Sutherland; and
Oliver Dowlen sitting beside me. They provide, along with Aristotle, Macchiavelli, and
Bernard Manin’s book on The Principles of Representative Government, good starting
points for anyone wishing to consider how we could adopt an element of democracy in
our politics without sacrificing what is good. I personally think it is high time we did just
that. Democracy is the only force, or power, that is conceivably capable of restraining the
self-ubiquitising cancer of economic imperialism that goes by the name of ‘globalization’.
APPENDIX IN THE PUBLISHED VERSION: SOME TEXTS.
The rule of the people (democracy) has the fairest name of all, equality (isonomia), and
does none of the things that a monarch does. The lot determines offices, power is held
accountable, and deliberation is conducted in public.
– from The Histories, 3.80.6
And democracy comes into power when the poor are the victors, killing some and exiling
some, and giving equal shares in the government to all the rest.’
– from Republic, book VIII.
(on the formation of an ideal assembly, using both lot and election):
The council shall consist of 360, who may be conveniently divided into four sections,
making ninety councillors of each class. In the first place, all the citizens shall select
candidates from the first class; and they shall be compelled to vote under pain of a fine.
This shall be the business of the first day. On the second day a similar selection shall be
made from the second class under the same conditions. On the third day, candidates shall
be selected from the third class; but the compulsion to vote shall only extend to the voters
of the first three classes. On the fourth day, members of the council shall be selected from
the fourth class; they shall be selected by all, but the compulsion to vote shall only extend
to the second class, who, if they do not vote, shall pay a fine of triple the amount which
was exacted at first, and to the first class, who shall pay a quadruple fine. On the fifth day,
the names shall be exhibited, and out of them shall be chosen by all the citizens 180 of
each class: these are severally to be reduced by lot to ninety, and 90 x 4 will form the
council for the year. The mode of election which has been described is a mean between
monarchy and democracy, and such a mean should ever be observed in the state.’
– from Laws, Book VIII.
“It is thought democratic if the offices are assigned by lot; for them to be elected is
– from Politics IV,1294a.
Lorsque, dans la république, le peuple en corps a la souveraine puissance, c’est une
démocratie. Lorsque la souveraine puissance est entre les mains d’une partie du peuple,
cela s’appelle une aristocratie. (When, in a Republic, the people have the sovereign power,
it is a democracy. When the sovereign power is in the hands of a part of the people, it is
called an aristocracy.)…
Comme la division de ceux qui ont droit de suffrage est, dans la république, une loi
fondamentale, la manière de le donner est une autre loi fondamentale. Le suffrage par le
sort est de la nature de la démocratie; le suffrage par choix est de celle de l’aristocratie.
Le sort est une façon d’élire qui n’afflige personne, il laisse à chaque citoyen une
espérance raisonnable. (Just as the definition of those who are entitled to select is a
fundamental law in republics, so the manner of selection is another fundamental law.
Selection by lot is natural to democracy; selction by choice is natural to aristocracy.
Selection by lot is a method that offends no one and gives each citizen a reason to hope.)
– from De l’Esprit des Lois, Bk II Ch. 2.
The Kinds of Soveraigntie be, as I have now shewn, but three; that is to say, Monarchie,
where one Man has it; or Democracie, where the generall Assembly of Subjects hath it; or
Aristocracie, where it is in an Assembly of certain persons nominated, or otherwise
distinguished from the rest.
– from Leviathan.
…it may be concluded that a pure democracy, by which I mean a society consisting of a
small number of citizens, who assemble and administer the government in person, can
admit of no cure for the mischiefs of faction… democracies have ever been spectacles of
turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or
the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been
violent in their deaths. Theoretic politicians, who have patronized this species of
government, have erroneously supposed that by reducing mankind to a perfect equality in
their political rights, they would, at the same time, be perfectly equalized and assimilated
in their possessions, their opinions, and their passions….
The two great points of difference between a democracy and a republic are: first, the
delegation of the government, in the latter, to a small number of citizens elected by the
rest; secondly, the greater number of citizens, and greater sphere of country, over which
the latter may be extended. The effect of the first difference is, on the one hand, to refine
and enlarge the public views, by passing them through the medium of a chosen body of
citizens, whose wisdom may best discern the true interest of their country, and whose
patriotism and love of justice will be least likely to sacrifice it to temporary or partial
considerations. On the other hand, the effect may be inverted. Men of factious tempers, of
local prejudices, or of sinister designs, may, by intrigue, by corruption, or by other means,
first obtain the suffrages, and then betray the interests, of the people.
– from The Federalist, 10.
Thomas Jefferson on ‘Natural Aristocracy’:
For I agree with you that there is a natural aristocracy among men. The grounds of this are
virtue and talents. Formerly bodily powers gave place among the aristoi. But since the
invention of gunpowder has armed the weak as well as the strong with missile death,
bodily strength, like beauty, good humor, politeness and other accomplishments, has
become but an auxiliary ground of distinction. There is also an artificial aristocracy
founded on wealth and birth, without either virtue or talents; for with these it would
belong to the first class. The natural aristocracy I consider as the most precious gift of
nature for the instruction, the trusts, and government of society. And indeed it would have
been inconsistent in creation to have formed man for the social state, and not to have
provided virtue and wisdom enough to manage the concerns of the society. May we not
even say that that form of government is the best which provides the most effectually for
a pure selection of these natural aristoi into the offices of government? The artificial
aristocracy is a mischievous ingredient in government, and provision should be made to
prevent it’s ascendancy.
– from a Letter to John Adams.
Adam Smith on the prospect of an oligarchy of merchants:
The violence and injustice of the rulers of mankind is an ancient evil, for which, I am
afraid, the nature of human affairs can scarce admit of a remedy. But the mean rapacity,
the monopolizing spirit of merchants and manufacturers, who neither are, nor ought to be,
the rulers of mankind, though it cannot perhaps be corrected may very easily be prevented
from disturbing the tranquillity of anybody but themselves.
– from The Wealth of Nations.
Acton on Liberty:
‘By liberty I mean the assurance that every man shall be protected in doing what he
believes is his duty, against the influence of authority and majorities, custom and
– from The History of Freedom in Antiquity (1877).
It is not because a part of the government is elective that makes it less a despotism, if the
persons so elected possess afterwards, as a parliament, unlimited powers. Election, in this
case, becomes separated from representation, and the candidates are candidates for
– from The Rights of Man.
‘Und nun ist die Macht an sich bose, gleichviel wer sie ausube. Sie ist kein Beharren,
sondern eine Gier und eo ipso unerfullbar, daher in sich unglucklich und muß also andere
unglucklich machen.’ (Now power is in itself evil, no matter who wields it. It is not
constant or dependable, it is a lust and therefore insatiable: it is unhappy in itself and is
bound to make others unhappy too.)
– from Weltgeschichtliche Betrachtungen.
(on the emergence of the Greek city-state): ‘It is as though, at this one time in history,
there emerged, fully developed in strength and single-mindedness, a will which had been
waiting impatiently for its day on earth.’
– from History of Greek Culture.