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“Where Do We Go From Here?”
Democracy was meant to be government by the rule of the people. Athens is most famous for being the ancient city-state to represent democratic government and in a way the city-state was best situated for democracy: the people were educated and keen on performing their civic duty—at least for a generation or two. By the time the playwright Aristophanes came along, some Athenians were shirking their civic duty to the extent that the satirist penned his most attack on Athenian complacency. The point is that democracy is only as effective as the people within the community are at performing their civic duty. When the very concept of civic-mindedness is lost or when the community becomes so large that it is impossible for people to govern directly, the concept of democracy can become a screen hiding a much more nefarious system of power like what is seen today, where various organs of the state operate unseen and through unelected (i.e., appointed) officials who control the strings of government and have their pockets padded by insiders and lobbyists of various big businesses. Democracy is the buzzword of many an authoritarian government the world over today, yet democracy is hardly seen in reality. Both Mansbridge and Dahl talk about a free market system—and Friedman essentially advocates for this because it is a system in which capital best thrives—but the reality of the world today is that the markets are not free, interventionism has run amok, and the world is now living under a global command economy whose terms are dictated by a triumvirate of central banks, government leaders and big business owners. Everyone else is simply told what to do and expected to like, and one should need no more example of this fact than that latest bailout of corporations and hedge funds across the board this April, with the pretense for this corporate bailout being COVID 19. The challenge facing democracy in the world today is the threat of authoritarianism that looms over government via the integration of central banking, organs of the state and big business circumventing the will of power and the democratic means of control.
Authoritarianism was always a problem for democracy, even in Athenian society, because democracy ultimately is an idealistic form of government that tends toward entropy rather than towards stability or control. There are always going to be and there have always been individuals and organizations seeking to exploit imbalances within systems, and democracy as a form of government is not without its limitations. In America, the conflict between democracy as a form of government (best exercised at the local level—i.e., at the state level) and authoritarianism or centralized power emerged at the beginning days of the nation. The debate was between the Federalists (who called for central power in the form of a federal government) and the Anti-Federalists (who called for autonomous governments among each and every state). The Federalists won the day and the centralized government, which started off small, grew over the decades and centuries into a behemoth of a machine with multiple organs now influencing various sectors unseen by most people. The Civil War occurred before a century of this system had even concluded, and the cause was the same—tension between state (local, democratic government) and federal (centralized government). Again, the federal power won out.
There are some examples of states still exercising independent systems of government at the local level—for instance, in terms of legalizing cannabis in numerous states even though it is still considered a schedule one narcotic by the federal government, or in terms of states like California designating sanctuary cities to the chagrin of the federal administration in power—but these instances are small in the much larger scheme of things. Today’s world is governed by central banks, organs of state that persist from one administration to the next, and big business. Any hope for democracy essentially died in the 19th century—but really it was dead from the get-go and Jefferson knew as he was the one who predicted a tyranny of the Judiciary should the Federalists get their way in shaping the constitution of the nation.
In fact, the limitations of democracy should be all too apparent at this point to anyone who has purportedly lived in one. As David Runciman notes, “The history of…
…own R&D and product development, leading to the crashing of two of its 737-Max planes and the killing of hundreds. The way today’s centralized planners react to loss of life, one would think they would have immediately grounded all planes everywhere in the world until they figured out exactly why those planes crashed—but they did not. They only halt the economy to a standstill when it benefits the principals and their agents—companies like Boeing and Blackrock.
After all, those are the nations of the world today. There is no America. There is only Boeing, Exxon, Amazon, Facebook, Google, Netflix, Apple and a handful of others. They are the nations of the world today. On the 4th of July, everyone should do his civic duty and purchase shares in Apple or Alphabet. Milton Friedman said it best though he understated it to an order of magnitude: “Economic arrangements play a dual role in the promotion of a free society” (8). These arrangements are not determined by the average yokel who votes maybe once every six or seven years. These arrangements are made by the principals and agents of business. “Free society” is essentially something of a canard as well, but all things relative one could argue that Americans are freer than, say, Chinese. But in short order, one will find it hard to distinguish between the two societies, especially if people like Bill Gates get their way and digi-tracking of all people becomes the new means of monitoring one’s “social credit” score.
In conclusion, democracy in America was dead on arrival. Tocqueville saw a world that was significantly different from the world today—but even he noticed that America was a strange hybrid of forces and ideals that defied imagination and that would undoubtedly change and lead to a number of problematic outcomes in the near future. There are those who believe in democracy—in the ideal—and they are enthused and inspired by the steps the Founding Fathers took to create this nation. However, there are also those who take a skeptical stance and see the Founding Fathers as barons of industry, couching their land and power grabs in terms that speak to equity and fairness…
Dahl, Robert. On Democracy.
Ferejohn, John. Is Inequality a Threat to Democracy?
Friedman, Milton. Capitalism and Freedom. University of Chicago Press.
Mansbridge, Jane. On the Importance of Getting Things Done. PS, 2012.
Runciman, David. The Confidence Trap. Princeton University Press.
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