Three Arguments for Democracy

Thursday, January 9th, 2014

Noah Millman mulls three arguments for democracy — one of which he rejects:

The argument that I reject is the idea that democracy is the only form of government in which the “people’s will” rules – and, as such, is the only legitimate form of government. I don’t believe “the people” have a will (only individuals do), and I don’t think an authority’s legitimacy derives from some kind of fundamental theory. Rather, I take the Burkean view that an authority’s legitimacy is an observed reality and has more to do with longevity than with being derived from any particular principle. As such, a longstanding monarchy is perfectly capable of being a legitimate authority. So is the government of Communist China. So, in a much more tenuous and provisional sense, is the authority of a local Somali or Afghan warlord.

The two arguments for democracy that I strongly endorse come from opposite directions, but are complementary, in my view, not contradictory. The first is the notion that participating in the process of self-government is elevating in and of itself, and, as such, every people should aspire to republicanism. What I have in mind is something like Hannah Arendt’s view as articulated in On Revolution. There is a real question whether imperial-scale entities like the United States, or even entities as large as the traditional European nation-states, can achieve this particular republican good, or whether you max out at the scale of a large city-state.

The second argument is an information-theory argument, to whit, that democracy is less-likely than other forms of government to experience catastrophic failure because it is better-equipped with feedback mechanisms to correct mistakes. In this view, the purpose of elections is not to express the “will of the people” but to provide a check on the ambitions of politicians to do anything the people really hate. Federalist #10?s arguments for the stability of large republics partake of this stream of argument. The flip side of this positive trait of democracy is that the same feedback mechanisms make it hard for democracies to do anything particularly decisive or efficient, but that’s the price you pay. I think the historical record provides pretty robust support for this proposition, with the caveat that there’s not that much data and the most successful democracies have also been relatively wealthy countries, post-colonial India being the largest and most important exception.

He then goes on to attack monarchy and to equate reaction with Fascism. Commenter Jordan Bloom addresses this:

I think this is badly misunderstands what these guys are about and why they’ve arisen now; these people don’t spend much time justifying monarchy. After a while of reading these people, it seems to me that the talk about monarchy functions largely as a sort of Whig history in reverse. I don’t think any of them envision taking power in America. At most, maybe a chunk of it (though, admittedly, the ones that are closest, in the Flathead Valley, are the real-live fascists).

Look at these people. They aren’t stuffy traditionalists or jackbooted skinheads. They’re futurists, postmodernists, transhumanists, all kinds of modern preoccupations litter their thinking, and they tend to be programmer-types. That, or tradcon nationalists who have seen middle America degenerate since about 1950 and see neoreaction as the best way to restore something like that.

The important thing about their thinking is it’s about finding an escape route from democracy, which they acknowledge is hard, because democracy, as they define it, will stop at nothing to crush them, as it did the Vendee, the Confederacy, Austro-Hungary, the Czars, and so forth. When they acknowledge that violence might be necessary, it’s usually in this context, not as a means to eliminate one’s enemies. Seasteading, charter cities, the Benedict Option, secession, these are all moves in the reactionary playbook and none of them are necessarily monarchist or fascist.


  1. T. Greer says:

    As I said on twitter, Milman’s three thoughts on democracy are a very good summary of how I see democracy, with the caveat that both of his points are stronger the closer the government is to the governed. Republicanism does not scale.

    His critique of neoreaction is misguided. But that is to be expected, I suspect, until neoreaction becomes better known in mainstream circles.

  2. Lucklucky says:

    He mixes Democracy with Republic. Republic is a brake to Democratic power. Or if we are more precise the 4 years Democracy. Even less we should mix Democracy with Freedom, By definition, and now more than ever a Majority( or in fact a Major Minority) rule means tyranny of numbers, since current Democracy is increasingly moving to totalitarian power and reclaiming more and more power over people.

    It is perfectly possible to have Republic with Democracy restricted to Votable Constitution and local Government.

    But the the necessary rule is the Human Right of Conscience Objection to every law from the Majority. The power to say No is the power of Freedom. No is the Freedom word.

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