The word “democracy” has been tossed around quite a bit these days, in that the US is attempting to install one in Iraq and Afghanistan, as well as other assorted fun holiday spots around the world.
But is that a laudable goal? Is democracy even a desirable form of government? Is it not, in fact, hypocritical, considering that the US is not itself a democracy, but a federal republic?
I ran across this interesting (and anonymous) article, which I include in its entirety.
Disclaimer: to paraphrase George Patton, “I didn’t write that. I didn’t write anything like that… but I wish I had!”
Res Publica v. Democracy
It has been argued that the United States houses a democratic government. However, the word democracy is a slippery word that must be examined a bit closer. The word democracy is Greek for “government by the people”. This is contrast in the works of Plato and Aristotle with aristocracy (government by the virtuous), timocracy (government by the honorable), oligarchy (government by the wealthy) and tyranny. The most famous democracy existed in Athens. While there was a deliberative body (each male citizen was required to serve in at least once in his life), all elections that concerned the people were held among the people. Contrasted at this time would have been Sparta, which was a representative democracy where there was a king. This representative democracy would become the most used form of democracy (among other places that formed their polis in this fashion at the time were Carthage and Crete).
When speaking of Sparta, Carthage or Crete we don’t call them democracies, but republics. Why is this? Sparta, like Athens, had a deliberative body that was chosen by the people and yet it is not properly called a democracy. The Spartan regime did not require the people to vote on matters concerning them. The Spartan constitution placed that responsibility in the hands of the deliberative body that was chosen from among the people. The Romans would latter refer to this as “res publica”, or “representation of the public.” The Romans even adopted this form of government, not the Athenian democracy, as their own.
In Athens, all males were required to vote who were citizens of Athens. In Rome, only land owning free males could vote. In Rome you could very well be denied suffrages even though you are a citizen of the republic. Within the scheme of democracy there exist two styles: direct and representative. Representative democracy is not republican form of government. It can very well be argued that the Athenians had both direct and representative democracy in their history of being a democracy. Under Pericles the Athenians were a direct democracy.
With that out of the way, and I do hope that the distinction between the two forms of democracy and republic are clear, let us move on to the United States. The Constitution of 1787 ought to point us to what form of government our nation has. Constitution after all means, form of government. Looking through the Constitution of 1787 I find nowhere that it says “democracy”, but it does say, “The United States shall guarantee to every state in this union a republican form of government” (Article IV section 4). Within many of the states after the American Revolution there was representative democracy. Under this form of government the will of the majority trumped the rights of the minority. It was because of this that the Founders did not desire a democracy, but instead wished for a republic.
Democracy in any form was viewed as chaos, eventually a democracy (or so it was believed) would lead us to the tyrannies that were committed by King George III. Republic, however, was viewed as order. Many aspects of our republic have been stripped away: property requirements to vote, state selection of the US Senate and the like. These ideas were inherently undemocratic; they were entirely and wholly republican. If you want to view America as a democracy you must go back to the time before the Constitution of 1787. America, properly speaking, is a Federal Republic (Federal because it is made up of sovereign states). The CIA fact book website even says, “Constitution-based federal republic; strong democratic tradition”. You never hear in the international stage the United States called, “the democracy of the United States of America”. When the President goes to speak before the U.N. they introduce him as, “President of the Republic of the United States of America.”
Democracy is government of people, republic government of law. When the people become more important than the law you have a democracy. In the pre-Constitution era of America we had a democracy, because the law meant nothing compared to the people. Our government is a republic, not a democracy either representative or direct. We have slowly been trying to move toward a representative democracy since the progressives came to power. Democracy is centered on equality of the people, whereas a republic is centered on the liberty of the people. If the people possess liberty, there is no need for equality. If the people are equal, they will have no liberty. Before anyone goes off on me saying that the Founders intended us to be “equal” let me quickly educate. John Locke stated that all men are equal insofar as there is no difference great enough to make on man a natural ruler and another a natural slave. Aristotle said that political rule is the rule among equals, where everyone can rule and can be ruled. These were the understandings of equality taken on by the Founders, not that the government should make it so everyone is the exact same in every aspect.
If you would like here are quotes from the Founding generation on republic and democracy:
“We are now forming a republican form of government. Real liberty is not found in the extremes of democracy . . . . If we incline too much to democracy, we shall soon shoot into a monarchy, or some other form of dictatorship.”- Alexander Hamilton
“…democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths.”- James Madison
“Between a balanced republic and a democracy, the difference is like that between order and chaos.”-John Marshall
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until a majority of voters discover that they can vote themselves largess out of the public treasury.”- Alexander Tytler
“If we advert to the nature of republican government, we shall find that the censorial power is in the people over the government, and not in the government over the people.”- James Madison
“Democracy is two wolves and a lamb voting on what to have for lunch. Liberty is a well-armed lamb contesting the vote!” - Benjamin Franklin
“No good government but what is republican… the very definition of a republic is ‘an empire of laws, and not of men.’”- John Adams
“If Aristotle, Livy, and Harrington knew what a republic was, the British constitution is much more like a republic than an empire. They define a republic to be a government of laws, and not of men. If this definition is just, the British constitution is nothing more or less than a republic, in which the king is first magistrate. This office being hereditary, and being possessed of such ample and splendid prerogatives, is no objection to the government’s being a republic, as long as it is bound by fixed laws, which the people have a voice in making, and a right to defend.”-John Adams
Here are quotes from others, not of the Founding on democracy:
“In a democracy the majority of citizens is capable of exercising the most cruel oppression upon the minority… and that oppression of the majority will extend to far great number, and will be carried on with much greater fury, than can almost ever be apprehended from the dominion of a single sceptre. Under a cruel prince they have the plaudits of the people to animate their generous constancy under their sufferings; but those who are subjected to wrong under multitudes are deprived of all external consolation: they seem deserted by mankind, overpowered by a conspiracy of their whole species.”- Edmund Burke
“These, then, will be some of the features of democracy… it will be, in all likelihood, an agreeable, lawless, parti-colored commonwealth, dealing with all alike on a footing of equality, whether they be really equal or not.” - Plato
“Democracy is a charming form of government, full of variety and disorder, and dispensing a sort of equality to equals and unequal alike.” - Plato