Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Republics vs. Democracies

As the last post for 2009, I reprise a perennial aggravation.

Reading a volume of Albert J. Nock’s essays, The Disadvantages of Being Educated, I came upon a footnote in one article, “A Study in Manners” (1925), in which Nock echoed my own impatient frustration with the promiscuous -- indeed, slatternly -- usage of the term democracy.

I wish to complain against the common and culpable use of the term democracy as a synonym for republicanism. Time and again one hears persons who should know better, talk about democracy in this country, for example, as if something like it really existed here. They discuss “democracy on trial,” “democracy’s weakness,” and so on, when it is perfectly clear that they refer only to the political system known properly as republicanism. The fact is that republicanism, which is a system theoretically based on the right of individual self-expression in politics, has as yet done but little for democracy, and that democracy is less developed in some republican countries, as France and the United States, than in some others, like Denmark, whose political system is nominally non-republican.*

Later, in a 1926 essay, Nock makes the piquant observation:

Those who speak of the United States as a democracy…are misusing language most ludicrously, for it is no such thing, never was, and was never intended to be. The Fathers of the Republic were well aware of the difference between a republic and a democracy, and it is no credit to the intelligence of their descendents that the two are now almost invariably confused.**

In that same volume, Nock expanded on the fundamental differences between democracy and republicanism in “Life, Liberty, and…” (1935), and offered an explanation for why Thomas Jefferson purportedly omitted a key term, property, from the phrase “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” in the Declaration of Independence. It was, Nock avers, because Jefferson and the drafting committee assumed that “pursuit of happiness” included the omitted term:

“The pursuit of happiness” is of course an inclusive term. It covers property rights, because obviously if a person’s property is molested, his pursuit of happiness is interfered with. But there are many interferences which are not aimed at specific property rights; and in so wording the Declaration as to cover all these interferences, Mr. Jefferson immensely broadened the scope of political theory -- he broadened the idea of what government is for.***

Most of the Founders agreed on that point, that “pursuit of happiness” necessarily included the right to property. Such private property, Joseph Warren noted in 1775, is natural and necessary to an individual‘s freedom:

That personal freedom is the natural right of every man, and that property, or an exclusive right to dispose of what he has honestly acquired by his own labor, necessarily arises therefrom, are truths which common sense has placed beyond the reach of contradiction.

(Omission of the term property from the phrase, “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness” can be linked to the omission of an entire paragraph from Jefferson’s original draft, which castigates George III for condoning and encouraging the slave trade. The paragraph, and possibly even the term property from the phrase, were dropped from the final version to oblige the sensibilities of the southern delegates to the Continental Congress, many of whom were slave owners and who regarded slaves as real property. Northern delegates could not countenance the inclusion of slaves as property. Jefferson, though a slave owner, was an advocate of the abolition of slavery. But, this is entirely another issue.)

It is apparent that Jefferson’s phrasing is not broad enough for modern politicians and political commentators to admit. Or perhaps it is so broad it is beyond their cognitive abilities to grasp, just as the perception of a mountain is impossible to the epistemology of an ant. It is unfortunate that the term was omitted, because its retention might have saved the nation much grief, turmoil and bloodshed. The force and sanctity of its presence in the Declaration might have carried over into the Constitution itself, and served as a check on the ambitions and usurpations of several generations of elected altruists, humanitarians, and other property thieves.

But, recall all the cretinous explanations by Senators and Congressmen of the power of Congress to establish socialized medicine. I have often remarked in this column that a republic, as the Founders intended it, denotes a form of government created to defend, uphold and advance individual rights. It is a system of the rule of law, of law enacted to protect individual rights. It is what the Constitution, as originally written and sans its statist (or interfering) amendments, is all about.

But the term republic is as foreign to our representatives as the term wendigo. In fact, Congress can be said to be currently populated by wendigos, and the White House occupied by an exalted vampire. They all creep stealthily and carefully by night, garbed in the protective hood and cloak of democracy, intent on drawing blood and feasting on the substance of their victims. Should the light of reason catch them off guard, they have nothing to say that means anything or that is meant to mean anything.

Democracy, whether pure or directly participatory (as in ancient Greece or New England), or via national plebiscite, is simply mob rule. Politely defined: majority rule. We have what could be said to be a representative government, but what is the chief function of our representatives, as opposed to their perceived function? Their actual, intended function was to serve as guardians of individual rights. Their perceived function, at least for the last century or so, is to patronize the real or imagined wants of the majority and to deliver them through coercive and confiscatory legislation.

With an Augean assist from public education, modern politicians and their allies in academia and the press have, over the course of a few generations, put over the fallacy that the term republic is synonymous with democracy, and so republic, to the ignorant and the ignorance-mongers, means majority rule, too. However, they prefer to emphasize the term democracy, because the other term has too many unsettling connotations, and the last thing our night-stalkers wish to do is cause uneasiness and curiosity among the ruled and the beguiled.

As Congress has ably demonstrated over the last two months, it is not representative in the first sense. It is dedicated to delivering imagined wants or “needs” to an electorate it claims demands them but has, at the same time, ignored that electorate. Democracy, Congress has demonstrated, begets tyranny.

John Adams, as have many others, warned against the temptation of democracy:

[D]emocracy will soon degenerate into an anarchy; such an anarchy that every man will do what is right in his own eyes and no man's life or property or reputation or liberty will be secure, and every one of these will soon mould itself into a system of subordination of all the moral virtues and intellectual abilities, all the powers of wealth, beauty, wit, and science, to the wanton pleasures, the capricious will, and the execrable [abominable] cruelty of one or a very few.****

This is an apt description of the current state of affairs. Americans are beginning to wake up to the fact that they have been the object of the capricious will of a president and Congress, and are expected to pay without protest, as a matter of duty, for the cruelties, frauds, vanities, and wanton pleasures of a powerful few. Political anarchy has been inaugurated, with politicians and their beneficiaries, heedless of or indifferent to the rumblings among the electorate, are scrambling to loot or defraud Americans of the last of their rights and wealth. Numerous fine essays have been written by contemporaries such as Walter Williams on the differences between republicanism and democracy, and what those differences can mean to productive Americans.

Perhaps, in 2010, we shall see the concrete differences described by Williams, Adams, Jefferson and so many others. The Tea Parties of 2009, hopefully, were but a prelude to a determined campaign to recover the republic created by the Founders.

*Albert J. Nock, “A Study in Manners,” in The Disadvantages of Being Educated and Other Essays (Tampa: Hallberg Publishing Corp., 1996), p. 50.

**Ibid.,” Towards a New Quality-Product,” pp. 67-68.

***Ibid., “Life, Liberty, and…” p. 29

****John Adams, The Papers of John Adams, Robert J. Taylor, editor (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 1977), Vol. I, p. 83, from "An Essay on Man's Lust for Power, with the Author's Comment in 1807," written on August 29, 1763. First published by John Adams in 1807.


pomponazzi said...

Huzza Ed!!! What a way to begin a new year! You are a man of your word. Thank you for a very enlightening essay. I will drnk a toast to you today. Cheers!!

Anonymous said...

Pomponazzi: Thanks. I thought of adding a few remarks about how many governments play fast and loose with the term "republic," as well, such as the U.S.S.R., when they are no more "republican" than Harry Reid is an advocate of laissez-faire. But, I wanted to keep the commentary short.

Rob said...

Interesting observation: that Congress's take-over of health care despite the opposition of the American people proves that democracy is NOT representative.

Rob said...

Okay - I need to re-think my previous comment - and possibly re-read your post. Congress's autocratic behavior in pursuing the take-over of health care is certainly wrong, but not characteristic of democracy.

Joshua Lipana said...

Wonderful article.

Kevin said...

I've often wished the Constitution had been clearer on protecting private property as well. I imagine the founders saw this as a responsibility of the states and perhaps too obvious to state that the Federal Government shouldn't go about confiscating it on a whim.

I wish I could be more optimistic about the Tea Parties and the momentum they might have, but it's not encouraging to see idiots like Palin (as the supposed antidote to Obama) getting more attention in politics these days.

Ed said...

Kevin marked that "perhaps too obvious to state that the Federal Government shouldn't go about confiscating it on a whim." This is true. The Federalist Papers and Anti-Federalist Papers second that presumption of the Founders, that one's happiness was integral to the sanctity of one's property. Jack Frake in Book One of Sparrowhawk ruminates on the connection (pp. 74-75) after a naval press-gang raids the tavern he is working on in England.

hermitsdoor said...

I question whether most people own a dictionary (or even use the on-line versions) to comprehend what words mean. Moreover, without some basic knowledge of words and the distinction between related words, most people are left to the will of the propagandaists (i.e. news media, PAC's, political parties...) who either manipulate the ideas or strip them of any substance. Thank you for clarifying such a distinction between Republic and Democracy. Also, I have wondered about Jefferson's switch from Property (Locke, penned this?) to Persuit of Happiness. Your explanation illuminated a long-lingering ponderance.