Alan Jacobs

Dialogue on Democracy, Part 5

Edmund Burke by James Northcote (Wikimedia Commons)

(Previous installments: One, Two, Three, and Four.)

A: Well … Loki’s quite right, you know — at least in terms of what he says, as opposed to what he means. He means that we want to be ruled by him, a claim that I would firmly though politely (his being a god and all) reject. But do we want to be ruled? Of course we do. That’s why human societies so strenuously avoid direct democracy. Rule is tedious; it’s boring — almost no one actually wants to do it — we have a thousand other things we’d rather pursue, including, as a high priority, announcing to everyone who’ll listen how much better off the world would be if we ran it. For every person who votes there are at least four who want to tell you how they have all our political questions sorted out. Of course we want to be ruled. The only questions are who will rule us and how they will do so. And I’m making a proposal concerning those questions.

B. You’re confusing delegation and abdication. Those of us who through electing representatives delegate certain civic responsibilities aren’t abandoning self-rule! Note that, for one thing, we reserve the power to recall our representatives if we think they are abusing the trust we have placed in them, at the next election or, in desperate circumstances, earlier.

A. “If we think they are abusing the trust,” indeed. In a democracy hoi polloi are notoriously incompetent at figuring out whether they are being abused, having a strong tendency to re-elect their abusers while rejecting with alacrity people who are telling them sober and necessary truths. Didn’t Burke tell us this long ago?

When the leaders choose to make themselves bidders at an auction of popularity, their talents, in the construction of the state, will be of no service. They will become flatterers instead of legislators… If any of them should happen to propose a scheme of liberty, soberly limited, and defined with proper qualifications, he will be immediately outbid by his competitors, who will produce something more splendidly popular. Suspicions will be raised of his fidelity to his cause. Moderation will be stigmatized as the virtue of cowards; and compromise as the prudence of traitors; until, in hopes of preserving the credit which may enable him to temper, and moderate, on some occasions, the popular leader is obliged to become active in propagating doctrines, and establishing powers, that will afterwards defeat any sober purpose at which he ultimately might have aimed.

The best description imaginable of President Trump. Again, I think the people have proven both their incapacity to rule themselves and their fundamental disinclination to do so.

B. You would win me over with this citation of Burke if I didn’t know that Burke would have been horrified by the proposal you’re making.

A. Would he have? Is Burke the enemy of aristocracy?

B. Of your kind of aristocracy, I believe he is. He wrote in his famous letter to the Duke of Richmond, speaking of the hereditary aristocracy, “You, if you are what you ought to be, are in my eye the great oaks that shade a country, and perpetuate your benefits from generation to generation. The immediate power of a Duke of Richmond, or a Marquis of Rockingham, is not so much of moment; but if their conduct and example hand down their principles to their successors, then their houses become the public repositories and offices of record for the constitution.” This kind of long-term care for the good of a dear local place, or even a fatherland, is unlikely to be in the minds of your New Meritocrats. Indeed, I suspect that you’ll want to have such sentimentality bred out of them.

A. The most interesting and important phrase in that quotation is “if you are what you ought to be” — he knew perfectly well that the British aristocracy rarely were what they ought to be, and on occasion let them know his opinion of them with considerable asperity. He preferred that aristocracy to the rule of the demos, and with good reason. But I think that if we could bring Burke back now, I would at least try to convince him that there is a better model of aristocracy than the one he knew.

B. Yeah, well, good luck with that. But let’s not waste time debating counterfactuals or imagining alternative histories. In your imagined world, the demos will have no voice. You say that’s fine, because they don’t want one. But of course some of us will want one. And — let me guess here — you’re not planning to give us one. You’re going to offer no voice, but the possibility of exit. Right?

A. You are correct, sir.

(To be continued…)