Trials of Democracy

Some forty odd years ago I was learning about the British Constitution  in classes taught by  a teacher with the delightfully English name of Woodthorpe Harrison. Maybe because England does not actually have a written Constitution, or for some other reason (I have since heard that his Economics classes were similar) about ninety percent of the time during the lessons was taken up with Harrison’s thought’s and reminisces on this that and the other, and maybe 10% of the time on anything actually to do with the subject in hand.

Anyway one idea that I do remember hearing about, was the idea that societies might be run or not in a number of ways. One might have a monarchy or dictatorship in which one man essentially makes all the decisions . One might have an oligarchy in which a small group holds power. In a democracy power is widely shared, and in a state of anarchy there is no  stable power structure.  Furthermore human societies may tend to cycle between various states , democracy may lead to anarchy which may lead to dictatorship etc.

The idea that democracy may lead to anarchy and from there to dictatorship was a new one at the time and somewhat far of from the situation in the UK. The UK  has had, at least in the recent past, a fairly stable political system with change occurring by evolution rather than by revolution.

Living in the Middle East for the last thirty odd years has however caused me to consider the matter further. It is not that long ago (2005) that President Bush was pledging to spread democracy worldwide including the Middle East. While the sentiment was certainly noble, it is fair to say that democracy has not advanced in the intervening time.

It was in this light that I recently read quite an interesting book What’s Wrong with Democracy?: From Athenian Practice to American Worship  published in 2004 which tells the story of the original democracy in Athens specifically its successes and failures,  with comparisons to democracy as practiced in USA and the rest of the Western World.

From this book I found that the founders of the USA were as skeptical as to the stability of democracy as my old teacher Harrison was, and studiously avoided founding a democracy in the classical sense. Instead they founded a Republic.

The American Republic can be seen as a sort of hybrid system. One has the President who is plainly a sort of temporary Monarch or Dictator who  for the length of his term has  wide leeway to do has he pleases. One has the Judiciary specifically the Supreme Court who function as a sort of Oligarchy with wide powers in the Judicial sphere. There are also elections  which give some power to the people. Apart from that the system does give considerable weight to the preferences of the founders of the Republic, as changes to the basic outline are very difficult to implement later on.

The last elections to the USA Presidency, in which the winner   of the popular vote, Hilary Clinton,  lost the election also serve as another reminder that the Will of the People was not  the most important consideration for the founders of the American Republic.

For all of its faults the American Constitution has been quite successful in providing for stable government for most of its history and has also served as a sort of reference point for anyone considering constitutional matters.

I will get to my conclusion for now. The obvious difficulties  and shortcomings of many democratic and other forms of government in the present day and age should lead us to the conclusion that we have to rethink the best ways to distribute and balance power. We will have to do this  if we are to achieve stable systems of government on the global and local level and   enable maximum liberty and peace for humanity, and sustainability and enhancement of the global and local ecosystems.

Here I have shared some of my thoughts on constitution matters just as Woodthorpe Harrison  used to do …



External Links:

Bush pledges to spread democracy

Economist: What’s gone wrong with democracy