Democracy and its Discontents

“Although in our time democracy is taken for granted, it is in fact one of the rarest, most delicate and fragile flowers in the jungle of human experience.”—Donald Kagan, Pericles of Athens

A few years ago I read Kagan’s study of Pericles and the origins of self-government. More recently I came across a discussion in The Wall Street Journal of his Yale farewell lecture at age 80. While I don’t agree with all of Kagan’s views, I appreciate his candor.

Critics often say that we have too much democracy. Yet in some ways we actually have too little. Kagan explains why in his interesting picture of the ancient city state at work. Athens appointed many officials by lottery (rather by vote) and for strictly limited terms. The Athenians had a reputation for litigiousness, yet there were no lawyers. The laws were simple enough for every citizen to understand, and if someone brought a suit and failed he would be fined in turn. It was an early example of “tort reform.”

Kagan addresses the nuances of democracy. It depends not so much on the right to vote as upon “citizens who are free, autonomous, and self-reliant.” In politics nothing is simple, because human nature is not simple. To ignore complexities is to foster dishonesty.

If you are to have a democracy, then how do you deal with unelected decision-makers? The media is disproportionately biased to one side of the political spectrum and has a huge influence on how people understand the issues. Modern democracy, after all, is built on the premise of the “informed voter.” Then there are judges, appointed officials and bureaucrats, none of whom can be touched directly by a citizens’ right to vote. Ironically these institutions have proliferated most under left-liberal “democratic” regimes.

Related posts: Ideology and American Democracy and Minogue on Democracy

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