The Democratic Premise

Support for democracy can roughly be defined as a belief that experts are unnecessary in government.  Many people are not experts in anything, and we find those people who have acquired expertise of some sort in many different fields.  Even among the experts in the "correct" fields for government, the studies of law, politics, and the like, we find disagreements, to say nothing of character and personalities differences or problems.  This is to say, even if the people of a democracy were to listen to the scholars of government, which course they might choose to follow as the one handed down from the wise men is less than clear on most issues.  Further, by the very nature of the thing any argument for a pure democracy puts government among the things that most people know how to do, at least more or less: which is to say, among a list of things like raising children, helping the needy, finding work, settling arguments, and so forth.

By a corollary of sorts – the strict logical connection is difficult to draw, but the analogy is not hard to see – a democratic government will by nature be a fairly limited one in its functions.  After all, if most people know how to do the things government does, most people will already be doing them for themselves.  On the other hand, the extent of the government is by definition as great as possible.  The result would seem to be that in a democratic government – if any such beast were ever found – the line between the public and the private would be blurred.  By way of example, I might suggest the New England colonies, at least up to the mid-1800's.  I was deeply intrigued, reading the first part of de Tocqueville's Democracy in America earlier this year, by his observation that the majority of governmental functions, especially in New England, were carried out by each town separately: his account gives almost the impression that most of the citizens of any given town carried some governmental function, even apart from their votes.

Further, it is clear that any governmental action which begins to prefer some people's judgment to others – not in the natural way of listening in fact to the scholar for an opinion on the law, but by the artificial method of elevating some class into a special legal station – has abandoned the heart of democracy, which is equal voice in and treatment by the government.

Defining democracy is different from determining whether it is in fact a workable system of government.  The expert opinion, if I can still use the phrase without irony at the end of this piece, has tended to be that it in fact is not so possible, whether you look at Plato's philosopher-guardians or the American Founders' careful checks and limits and balances.  If I were to draw any immediate application – and this piece is meant as a definition and therefore a starting place, not an argument by itself – it would simply be this: given the meaning of the word it is strange that the modern states which claim to be "democracies" are characterized by huge governmental structures of regulations, and quite often preferential legalisms (whether we're talking earmarks or loopholes).

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