Democracies, Jeffersonian and otherwise

Note: this was posted in 1997 to an early internet
experiment. For more of my posts, please see
The Hyperforum on Sustainability.

a sustainable, global world -- the Earth

I have found several of Bruce’s contributions moving in their somewhat elegiac but yet unwavering belief in democracy. Democracy is an important topic for us as we try to figure out what role governments play in sustainability. For example, Dale has recently stated a belief that the future of free markets “is inextricably linked to the development of more and more widespread democratic process.”

Bruce has mentioned “Jeffersonian Democracy.” I am no historian or political scientist, but I’d like to probe this notion a bit with the object, as in many of my notes, of provoking someone better informed to respond.

As I recall it, Jefferson’s notion of democracy was one suited to the plantation owners and yeoman farmers of Virginia in the late 1700s, and perhaps to us today as well. It certainly involved an absolute minimum of government. In part, for example, the idea was that any revenue spending by the government would inevitably be followed by revenue collection by the government and therefore by a need for the yeoman farmers to have cash money to pay the revenue collectors. The transition from barter and subsistence farming to a cash economy on any large scale would transform these people from the independence of their lives. Jefferson, and the later Madison, consistently opposed government projects of any kind.

The political picture then was so unlike ours now that reading about these people disrupts our ideas about “left” and “right.” Many of Jefferson’s positions, taken out of context, sound like the Republican freshmen of the last Congress. It was the “conservative” Hamilton who believed in government on a scale that prefigured the New Deal. It’s all enough to make one believe in the necessity of evaluating issues on their merits rather than simply following one’s party.

Democracy is subject to possible abuses. And commentators throughout history have argued that the mob would be better off under the tutelage of, variously, kings, aristocrats, priests, oligarchs, or populist demagogues. Jefferson et al are at their most moving when refuting and refusing these offers. But, that doesn’t mean that there is only one kind of democracy or that the people had not better give some thought to how to implement their wishes (or how to avoid the aforementioned abuses).

It has been noted that the Framers of the American Constitution, when placed in the position of giving this sort of thought, created a government with little efficiency and often only slowly responsive to the will of the people. In fact, commentators like James MacGregor Burns, surveying the elaborateness of the system of checks and balances, have felt that the only conclusion can be that the Framers intended this very inefficiency and unresponsiveness. So many provisions (such as the differences between the two houses of Congress in term length, election time and extent of electorate) have the effect of completely fragmenting the government in multiple dimensions.

In the history books we read that these provisions were placed there to prevent the “tyranny of the majority.” We generally understand such problems to arise only in certain large and exceptional issues: the conflict at that time between the large and the small states, or the conflict between the north and the south over slavery. However, with some imagination we can see that this concept is fundamental to the fabric of the nation: it applies to issues large and small. There is a form of democracy that ensures the success of the majority, but there are other forms. The Framers seem to have felt that it’s not nearly good enough for the majority to have their will: rather it is required that everyone have their will. Therefore they gave minorities the ability to obstruct action on many issues until the majority found a form of the solution that included everyone.

This kind of democracy requires some sophistication on the part of the citizenry. Indeed, Americans have many times failed miserably at making it work. (They’ve also had some good successes.) A convenient example would be the effort at health care reform at the beginning of Clinton’s first term. It would seem obvious that anyone who could think at all would have agreed in private that the present system of financing health care works poorly and is in some respects completely unacceptable. However, instead of setting out as a nation to engineer the kind of solution required, we polarized early along lines only partly relevant to the issue. For example, solutions were proposed in which small business owners would bear the brunt of the cost of providing insurance. Needless to say, these small businessmen resisted, and battle was joined over whether there should be health care reform with small business bearing the cost or should be no health care reform. We did this rather than working to find an equitable and practical method of bearing the cost, or even of finding out what the cost was. In this climate, intelligent debate became impossible, everybody dug in, and no solution was reached. Democracy failed.

My suggestion, based on these considerations is that two things are required for a political system that would include everyone:

  • a Constitution with an articulate structure of checks and balances, and
  • a citizenry willing at all times to fight paradoxically both for their side and for the integrity of the process as a whole.
Sat, 22 Feb 1997 04:20:54 GMT

For more, please see
The Hyperforum on Sustainability.

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