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Catholic Culture Overview
Catholic Culture Overview

Democracies: What They Don’t Do Well

By Dr. Jeff Mirus ( bio - articles - email ) | Apr 30, 2012

In recent years, many interpreters of Catholic social teaching have argued that democratic forms of government are most in keeping with the dignity of the human person. The assumption is that democracies enable people to play a greater role in managing their political, social and economic affairs, as it is appropriate that they should. If this assumption is typically true, it provides a powerful argument. But your mileage will vary with place and time.

There are, after all, many ways to be actively engaged in the social order besides voting, and it is not clear that the right to vote always fosters either intelligent participation or personal influence. In modern states, the atomized individual voter often stands alone against the incredible power of contemporary government. Having no direct involvement with governing, millions of individual voters know nothing about polity in general or their own government in particular. Too often, whoever can manipulate an essentially ignorant public opinion can gain power. Between elections, the watchword may simply be “business as usual”. And not infrequently, ruling elites are exchanged every few years in a never-ending cycle of hope and disappointment, so that very little is ever accomplished.

Picking the best form of government is very difficult. Clearly it depends on cultural experience and attitudes, the distribution of virtue, and the needs of the day. Aristotle, who provided a basic foundation for Western political thought, recognized that each type of government can operate well or badly, depending on the quality of the rulers and the circumstances in which they rule. Monarchy can become tyranny; aristocracy can become oligarchy; and polity can become—you guessed it—democracy. Essentially, Aristotle argued that government was handled properly when the governing party, whoever it was, looked out for the interests of the community as a whole, rather than for its own interests.

In countries, constitutions and political systems with many rulers—termed “polity”—Aristotle recognized political power to be exercised for the common good by a moderately wealthy group of citizens, a large group between the very rich and the very poor. But just as the monarch who pursues his own interests becomes a tyrant, and just as aristocrats (the “best” men) who pursue their own interests become oligarchs, so too do lesser citizens who pursue their own interests become, well, democrats. Democracy, for Aristotle, is rule by “the needy”, with all the problems that entails. Fear of this result was enough for earlier Americans to make voting rights depend on the possession of property.

The first principle of Catholic social teaching concerning government is that those who govern must govern for the common good. Political forms are secondary. In the Christian era, before the rise of democratic forms of government, Catholic social theorists often argued that the best form of government was monarchy, because it most mirrored the Divine governance of the universe. There can, obviously, be all kinds of reasons for preferring one constitutional type over another. For example, when monarchy and aristocracy work well, it is partly because kings and nobles are raised with a deep sense of public responsibility and extensive training in governance. When this formation succeeds (which requires virtue in the kings and nobles), it can work very well; unfortunately, when responsibility is abandoned and training ignored, a small group of people can do tremendous damage very quickly.

But in exactly the same way, polity carries within it the seeds of its own destruction. We generally do not use these constitutional terms as Aristotle did. We seldom mean by “democracy” the perversion of “polity”. But we can still see what Aristotle meant when he taught that if large numbers of people rule (or in our case, vote) based on their own “neediness” (or self-interest), then polity breaks down. We might call the result mob rule through voting. No matter what the governmental form, strong virtue is essential in those who govern. And whatever else this tells us, it tells us very clearly that democracies are ill-suited to deal with problems which require material sacrifice.

In the news this past week, we learned of the collapse of the Dutch government owing to discontent with the austerity measures which Germany has been urging throughout the European Union. (Germany has the strongest EU economy largely because it voluntarily undertook a slimming down (austerity) process some years ago, and Germany does not want to foot the bill for the failure of other countries to get their own houses in order.) At the same time, we learned that President Nicolas Sarkozy of France is in deep political trouble—perhaps about to lose his position—for essentially the same reason, a weak economy which begs for an austerity which Sarkozy is attempting to implement but for which the French have little stomach.

The same reality is faced by nearly every Western nation. As economies falter, government cannot afford to keep spending at the same rate, yet citizens in these countries have become accustomed to the government taking care of them through everything from laws governing vacation time and maximum hours (as in France), to minimum income programs, to long-term support of people who may not be working at all, to innumerable social programs for various special purposes, and also including subsidies for a wide variety of interest groups (such as extensive farm subsidies in the United States).

Meanwhile, government itself has mushroomed exponentially over the past few generations as a felt need to protect people from themselves has led to ever-increasing regulation in most areas of life, giving rise to extensive bureaucracies. The percentage of people working for some level of government in the West—provided for by taxes and government spending—is staggering. All of them can vote on whether government should be down-sized. This is not the fault of government employees. But it is the situation in which we find ourselves today.

Every political leader knows that something has to be done to get what is essentially a runaway train under control. Failing that, every country will end up like Greece. But every politician also knows that applying the brakes—pushing through any form of austerity—is a perfect recipe for political suicide. Most likely this can be accomplished only by politicians who are willing to serve a single term and then get out of office. These are few and far between and, in any case, principled candidates who preach austerity may not be electable in the first place.

Democracies, in Aristotle’s use of the term, are characterized by many people governing with their own self-interest principally in mind. Especially as habits of virtue and self-control decline in a culture, these tendencies may afflict both the upper class and the modestly propertied middle class as well as the poor, who may never have developed even basic habits of industriousness, frugality and savings in the first place. But however we describe the problem, I think we can see what Aristotle meant. And we can see even more easily that democracies simply cannot do some things well.

A few leaders, in the right constitutional framework, can impose austerity on the vast majority. But democracy is not built for this. It is not something that most people will impose on themselves. Unfortunately, there is no obvious solution in sight.


Jeffrey Mirus holds a Ph.D. in intellectual history from Princeton University. A co-founder of Christendom College, he also pioneered Catholic Internet services. He is the founder of Trinity Communications and See full bio.

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Show 2 Comments? (Hidden)Hide Comments
  • Posted by: - May. 01, 2012 11:00 AM ET USA

    Great article. That is all.

  • Posted by: John J Plick - May. 01, 2012 10:03 AM ET USA

    Democracies were never useful for determining morality. They never were and never were intended to be. The Founding Fathers would be aghast if they were alive in our world today and could see how their "democracy" is being "used" to undermine the Judeo-Christian ethic.