Democracy makes us Dumb
by Ilana Mercer
From the riffs of outrage coming from the Democrats and their demos over “our democracy” betrayed, infiltrated even destroyed—you’d never know that a rich vein of thinking in opposition to democracy runs through Western intellectual thought, and that those familiar with it would be tempted to say “good riddance.”
But voicing opposition to democracy is just not done in politically polite circles, conservative and liberal alike. For this reason, the Mises Institute’s Circle in Seattle, an annual gathering, represented a break from the pack. The Mises Institute is a think tank working to advance free-market economics from the perspective of the Austrian School of Economics. It is devoted to peace, prosperity, and private property, implicit in which is the demotion of raw democracy, the state, and its welfare-warfare machine.
This year, amid presentations that explained “Why American Democracy Fails,” it fell to me to speak to “How Democracy Made Us Dumb.” (Oh yes! Reality on the ground was not candy-coated.)
Some of the wide-ranging observations I made about the dumbing down inherent in democracy were drawn from the Founding Fathers and the ancients. A tenet of the American democracy is to deify youth and diminish adults. To counter that, let’s start with the ancients. The Athenian philosophers disdained democracy. Deeply so. They held that democracy “distrusts ability and has a reverence for numbers over knowledge.” (Will Durant, The Story of Philosophy, New York, 1961, p.10.)
Certainly, among the ancients who mattered, there was a keen contempt for “a mob-led, passion-ridden democracy.” The complaint among Athenians who occupied themselves with thinking and debating was that “there would be chaos where there is no thought,” and that “it was a base superstition that numbers give wisdom. On the contrary, it is universally seen that men in crowds are more foolish, violent and cruel than men separate and alone.” (p.11)
Underground already then, because so subversive—anti-democratic thinking was the aristocratic gospel in Athens. Socrates (born in 470 B.C.) was the intellectual leader against democracy and for the even-then hated aristocratic philosophy. Socrates’ acolytes, young and brilliant, questioned the “specious replacement of the old virtues by unsocial intelligence.”
The proof of the foolish, violent and cruel nature of the crowds is that the crowds, not the judges, insisted on making Socrates the first martyr of philosophy. He drank the poison at the behest of the people. No wonder that Plato, Socrates’ most gifted student, harbored such scorn for democracy and hatred for the mob—so extreme that it led this controversial genius to resolve that democracy must be destroyed, to be replaced by his planned society; “the rule of the wisest and the best, who would have to be discovered and enabled.”
Plato’s Republic, says the Economist, “is haunted by the fear that democracies eventually degenerate into tyrannies” (June 22, 2019). To libertarians, Plato of the planned society was wrong. However, the fear reverberating throughout his Republic is righteous. A democratic utopia of freedom cannot come about because of the nature of man, thought Plato. Men “soon tire of what they have, pine for what they have not, and seldom desire anything unless it belongs to others. The result is the encroachment of one group upon the territory of another.” (The Story of Philosophy, p.19.)
Plato conceded that “the diversity of democracy’s characters … make it look very attractive.” However, “these citizens are so consumed by pleasure-seeking that they beggar the economy”; so hostile to authority that they ignore the advice of sages, and so solipsistic and libertine that they lose any common purpose.
Most agreeable to libertarian thinking was Aristotle, who ventured that democracy is based on a false assumption of equality. It arises out of the notion that “those who are equal in one respect (under the law) are equal in all respects. Because men are equally free, they claim to be absolutely equal.” (p. 70)
Alexis de Tocqueville, too, was not sold on the new American democracy. He conducted “his extensive investigation into American life, and was prepared to pronounce with authority [about what he termed the new democracy].” (Russell Kirk, The Conservative Mind, Washington D.C., 1985, 205-224). The American elite, Tocqueville observed, does not form an aristocracy that cherishes individuality, but a bureaucratic elite which exacts rigid conformity, a monotonous equality, shared by the managers of society.” (p.218) Remarking on “the standardization of character in America,” Tocqueville described it as “a sort of family likeness” that makes for monotony. (p.210)
What menaces democratic society … [is] a tyranny of mediocrity, a standardization of mind and spirit and condition … The mass of people will not rest until the state is reorganized to furnish them with material gratification.” “Pure democracy makes libertarian democracy impossible,” posited Tocqueville. (p. 213) “In America, the majority raises formidable barriers around the liberty of opinion; within certain barriers, an author may write what he pleases, but woe to him if he goes beyond them … his political career is then over, since he has offended the only authority able to defend it. … Before making public his opinions, he thought he had sympathizers, now it seems to him he has none any more, since he revealed himself to everyone; then those who blame him criticize loudly, and those who think as he does keep quiet and move away without courage. He yields at length, overcome by the daily effort, which he has to make, and subsides into silence, as if he felt remorse for having spoken the truth.” (p.218) Consider that de Tocqueville was writing at a time so much smarter than our own. Alexis de Tocqueville in the 19th century, and Solzhenitsyn in the 20th, noted that conformity of thought is prevalent among Americans.
This column, now in its 20th year, can attest that writing in the Age of the Idiot is about striking the right balance between banality and mediocrity, both in style and thought, which invariably entails echoing one of two party lines and positions, poorly.
And let us not forget Friedrich Nietzsche, so admired by H. L. Mencken, whose genius would have remained unrecognized had he been plying his craft in 2019. Nietzsche saw nothing good in democracy. “It means the worship of mediocrity, and the hatred of excellence. … What is hated by the people, as a wolf by the dogs, is the free spirit, the enemy of all fetters, the not-adorer, the man who is not a regular party-member. … How can a nation become great when its greatest men lie unused, discouraged, perhaps unknown … Such a society loses character; imitation is horizontal instead of vertical—not the superior man but the majority man becomes the ideal and the model; everybody comes to resemble everybody else; even the sexes approximate—the men become women and the women become men.” (The Story of Philosophy, p.324.)
For their part, America’s founders attempted to forestall raw democracy by devising a republic. In his magisterial “Introduction to the Constitutional Principles of American Government,” constitutional scholar James McClellan noted that universal suffrage and mass democracy were alien to the Founders: “They believed that a democracy would tend toward mediocrity and tyranny of the majority.” Writing about the first state constitutions (penned between 1776-1783), McClellan attests that, “A complete democracy on a wide scale was widely regarded throughout the colonies as a threat to law and order.”
Why, Pennsylvania became the laughingstock in the colonies when it “abolished all property qualifications for voting and holding office. This confirmed the suspicions of many colonial leaders that an unrestrained democracy could drive good men out of public office and turn the affairs of state over to pettifoggers, bunglers, and demagogues,” a conga-line of those you witnessed at the recent CNN/New York Times Democratic debate. “The Founders wanted representation of brains, not bodies,” observed McClellan, noting that, at least “for a number of years, the best minds in the country dominated American politics.” No more.
Editorial note; Thomas Carlyle was another trenchant critic of democracy. See, for example, his essay ‘Shooting Niagara: and After?’