Thursday, March 26, 2015

The Root of Democracy

As C. S. Lewis states, there are two, somewhat contradictory, reasons for believing in democracy. The one is to believe that all people are basically good and deserve a voice in government. The other is to believe that we are all seriously prone to evil, and it is dangerous to give anyone too much power. I would agree with Lewis in endorsing the second answer. But underlying both of these is the idea that on the level of basic moral principles, we are all on an equal footing and should be allowed to make our own decisions. This does not mean there is no place for bringing in an expert to deal with technical questions. But on the basic moral issues, since all of us are morally imperfect, there is safety in making this decision in numbers.

There is more than one source for the democratic mindset. Mine comes from Protestant Christianity. It holds that there are basic moral and theological principles that every person has the obligation to interpret for themselves. It also holds that we are all sinners and need to be held accountable to one another. But one can reach a democratic position from a more humanistic point of view. This will generally adopt the approach that we are basically good and all have a part to play in government. The views that tend to oppose democracy are those with a strong philosophical and moral elitism and contempt for the ordinary person. When we start to hold to the idea that a few people are the authorities on all moral matters, there is little room left for genuine democracy.

This is one of the reasons it can be difficult to export democracy. It involves a specific kind of mindset. It is something a nation needs to embrace voluntarily, and cannot be imposed by force. Therefore, while we should encourage democracy, we should be careful not to assume everyone will automatically adopt it. I also think we may be in danger here in the United States if certain philosophical ideas come to dominate. We cannot choose our basic philosophy based on a preference for a political system. But we do need to realize that ideas have practical consequences.

Now our relation to other nations is similar to that of our individual relationship with our neighbors. We can encourage and instruct them in the right direction. We can act to protect ourselves and others, if someone acts in an aggressive manner. But we have no authority to rule them or act as a policeman in the full sense in relation to their behavior. This is true even if we happen to have bigger weapons. Therefore, while we can promote democracy, we cannot force it on people.  

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