The Reluctant Democrat

Whatever one may think of democracy—conservatives have many views on the subject—an honest appraisal neither conceals nor overstates its weaknesses. This seems to have been the view of C. S. Lewis. He was willing to accept the defects of such a system mainly because they outweighed the disadvantages of other regimes. Hence his endorsement was a cautious one:

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man. I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason.  A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true…. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.

In a series of cultural essays (collected in Present Concerns, 1986),  Lewis says that “Democratic education… ought to mean, not the education which democrats like, but the education which will preserve democracy.” Lewis opposed the lowering of standards in order to guarantee equal outcomes, especially when the level of equality obtained was a very low one. In his day it started with the elimination of advanced subjects like Latin. Today we see the abandonment of most standards that his generation would have taken for granted.

An education on those lines will be pleasing to democratic feelings. It will have repaired the inequalities of nature. But it is quite another question whether it will breed a democratic nation which can survive, or even one whose survival is desirable…. Obviously it can escape destruction only if its rivals and enemies are so obliging as to adopt the same system. A nation of dunces can be safe only in a world of dunces.

Lewis explains that a desire for equality stems from two very different sources: a sense of fair play and envy. The former is subordinated to justice. Resentment, on the other hand, with its “hatred of superiority,” is a socially corrosive and destructive force.

Political equality, Lewis believes, is like medicine. It is not something desirable in itself, but is rather a concession to our weakness. Hierarchy is in fact the more “natural” social structure and one that people adopt in everyday pursuits, such as business or athletics, whether they admit it or not. For that reason equality was traditionally limited to legal impartiality. It aimed at keeping the playing field open by eliminating special privileges. It did not mean eliminating the contest altogether. A fair game, after all, implies that not everyone will win the same prize. In the long run, it is this scope for dissimilar accomplishments and individual excellence which benefits everyone, whereas radical leveling tends to foster widespread mediocrity and injustice as much as any tyrrany.

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