The Problem With Democracy

Nicholas Kristoff has an op-ed out today in which he jokingly argues that America needs a monarch:

If we can just get over George III, our new constitutional monarchs could serve as National Hand-Holders, Morale-Boosters-in-Chief and Founts of American Indignation.

Our king and queen could spend days traipsing along tar-ball-infested beaches, while bathing oil-soaked pelicans and thrusting strong chins defiantly at BP rigs.

All that would give President Obama time to devise actual clean-up policies. He might then also be able to concentrate on eliminating absurd government policies that make these disasters more likely (such as the $75 million cap on economic damages when an oil rig is responsible for a spill). . .

. . . As Stephen Colbert observed about the oil spill: “We know if this was Reagan, he would have stripped to his skivvies, put a knife in his teeth, gone down there and punched that oil well shut!”

But let’s be realistic. Most presidents just won’t look that good in their skivvies. And some may accidentally swallow the knives. Thus, the need for a handsome king and queen to lead photo-ops.

But perhaps the need for a monarch is not so much due to America’s love for drama, or Obama’s love of the spotlight, or the the general tendency to think of the head of state as a Hollywood star. Rather, the problems Kristoff sees in our current democracy (the inability to deal with the oil spill, for example) might be rooted in a problem with democracy itself.

When Aristotle was writing his political treatise, he said that the function of a government was to help its members life a good life. He saw three main ways a government could be constructed: rule by one, rule by a few, and rule by many. All three forms of government have good manifestations and bad ones. A good rule by one is a monarchy; a bad rule by one is a tyranny. In like manner, a good rule a few is an aristocracy; a bad one is an oligarchy. The difference between good forms of governments and bad ones is that in the latter, the end (telos) of government is to help the citizens live a good life, whereas in a bad form of government, the telos is to help its governors live a good life.

Unlike Plato, Aristotle knows that any ideal form of government (like the idealist society delineated by Plato in the Republic in which all property is common and happiness results from common simple pursuits) was bound to fail since such an ideal was contrary to human nature. He also knows that every form of government has a tendency to become corrupt because people naturally want to assume more power for themselves at the expense of others. As such, Aristotle tends towards supporting democracy (what he calls a polity) as the best form of government since, by dividing up power to rule, it makes it difficult for any one group or individual to assume exclusive power and direct the activities of state away from the common good and towards their own individual good.

Democracy too has good and bad forms. Its good form is what Aristotle calls a polity whereby citizens take turns ruling and different activities are allocated to different rulers. Ideally, both the rich and the poor should be involved in ruling a state with a proper balance of powers so that one individual or group does not become too powerful (what Aristotle refers to as uniting the freedom of the poor with the wealth of the rich). Its bad form is when the masses act out of their own self-interest, the government stagnates, and nothing gets done. This is why Aristotle prefers democracy—its bad form is simply stagnation.

But Aristotle does not do a great job defending his democracy against the critique of Plato. Plato argued that the act of governing required certain expertise, and in democracy, only those who are experts at appealing to the sentiments of the masses and winning elections will be selected by the people to rule. As a result, the people that are elected to rule will only be able to affect change by using mass appeal and manipulation, not practical wisdom.

Aristotle thinks that a division of labor will solve this. That is, the people best suited to certain tasks will be selected to oversee those tasks. But if such people are democratically selected, in other words, if they are selected by the people, we must assume that the majority of people know what type of person would be best suited for what task. However, most people (which Aristotle recognizes) do not have such knowledge. Hence, democracy turns into a game of rhetoric in which the most appealing, not the most competent individual is selected to rule.

The problem will not be solved, as Kristoff seems to think, by allotting a figurehead to play the role of looking pretty and providing entertainment for the American people while the real leader does all the work. As long as the people are selecting the “real leader,” he or she will always be a figurehead, and in the meantime, the masses will be acting out their own self-interest and nothing will get done.

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