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The Plebiscitary Regime

Friend and foil Roger wrote to encourage me to comment on the recent elections. I'll call to my assistance two trenchant thinkers to commemorate our acquisition of new Masters.

'As it is a feature of democracies that to all appearance the people does almost exactly what it wishes, men have supposed that democratic governments where the abiding-place of liberty: they confused the power of the people with the liberty of the people.'

- Montesquieu, Esprit des Lois, Book XI, chap ii.

'When, as happens in democracies, the representative assembly becomes the repository of Power, the appetite for command impels members to group themselves in permanent factions, thereby sacrificing something of their own personalities to the effective cohesion of the group in its quest for victory.

'The forthcoming elections are no longer regarded as held with the object of bringing to the assembly an accession of fresh talent but rather of strengthening or weakening the various groups to which all belong. Anxious to strengthen itself, the group makes its presence felt in the electoral body, from which it asks that it choose a man who stands in the name of the group in preference to a man with distinguished personal qualifications. "In voting for a man as such, you are abandoning your sovereignty to him," is the way in which it is put to the electors - and it is true. "Vote rather for an opinion; that is to say in practice for a man of whose merits, like himself, you are necessarily ignorant, but who is the standard bearer of an opinion. In this way you will be exercising your sovereignty, and will be impressing on the government the way in which it is to go."  Through the prestige of its leaders and the popularity of its principles the group brings victory to its candidates, whom it has chosen less for their personal worth than for their pledge of their obedience to itself; moreover, they will be the more faithful to their party from the inability to make their way without it.

'The first result of this is a degradation of the assembly, which no longer draws its recruits from the best men. A man must now be ready to rely on the support of the controller of his group's votes and to let his name be boosted for election by his whip. He must be ready to become a mere numerical, and not a qualitative, addition to the assembly.

'Another result is the debasement of the elector's position. He is now regarded only for the weight which he can throw into one or the other of the scales.  By hook or by crook the vote of which he disposes must be got from him. When the Reform Act of 1832 had widened the franchise, the chief preoccupation of the two English parties was to get put on the register the electors whose support each believed itself to have won, and to fetch them in carriages on polling day, for fear that otherwise they would omit to record their vote. The spectacle was not so much that of people proudly exercising their rights as citizens, as of two factions touting in every way open to them for the votes which could confer Power.'

De Jouvenel, On Power, XIV: Totalitarian Democracy

November 12, 2006 | Permalink


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Paul, if - by some chance - you have not read it, you should really read Henry Maine's small book (recommended by Russel Kirk his own self) Popular Government: four essays. Maine makes a number of excellent Tory points in the book worth pondering. One is that Democratic governments drive legislation as a pure activity - in Maine's view, legislation ante democracy was a slow process in which the creating of new law met real needs - whereas democratic legislatures are set up more on the law manufacturing basis, and when laws aren't needed do what companies do, and create the need. The other point is that it isn't true that politics is made 'impure' by its entertainment value - in fact, entertainment is one of the essential dimensions of government, and it is magnified by democratic government (not that Maine approves).

So here's a Maine quote:

The greatest, most permanent, and most fundamental of all the difficulties of Democracy, lies deep in the constitution of human nature. Democracy is a form of government, and in all governments acts of State are determined by an exertion of will. But in what sense can a multitude exercise volition? The student of politics can put to himself no more pertinent question than this. No doubt the vulgar opinion is, that the multitude makes up its mind as the individual makes up his mind; the Demos determines like the Monarch. A host of popular phrases testify to this belief. The “will of the People,” “public opinion," the" sovereign pleasure of the nation," “Vox Populi, Vox Dei," belong to this class, which indeed constitutes a great part of the common stock of the platform and the press. But what do such expressions mean? They must mean that a great number of people, on a great number of questions, can come to an identical conclusion, and found an identical determination upon it. But this is manifestly true only of the simplest questions. A very slight addition of difficulty at once sensibly diminishes the chance of agreement, and, if the difficulty be considerable, an identical opinion can only be reached by trained minds assisting themselves by demonstration more or less rigorous. On the complex questions of politics, which are calculated in themselves to task to the utmost all the powers of the strongest minds, but are in fact vaguely conceived, vaguely stated, dealt with for the most part in the most haphazard manner by the most experienced statesmen, the common determination of a multitude is a chimerical assumption; and indeed, if it were really possible to extract an opinion upon them from a great mass of men, and to shape the administrative and legislative acts of a State upon this opinion as a sovereign command, it is probable that the most ruinous blunders would be committed, and all social progress would be arrested. The truth is, that the modern enthusiasts for Democracy make one fundamental confusion. They mix up the theory, that the Demos is capable of volition, with the fact, that it is capable of adopting the opinions of one man or of a limited number of men, and of founding directions to its instruments upon them.

Of course, I am just the kind of liberal Maine disliked, but I give my devils their due.

Posted by: roger at Nov 13, 2006 6:21:30 AM


Brilliant! Interestingly, I'm carting Maine's "Ancient Law" around with me at the moment.

Regarding your synopsis 'Democratic governments drive legislation as a pure activity - in Maine's view, legislation ante democracy was a slow process in which the creating of new law met real needs - whereas democratic legislatures are set up more on the law manufacturing basis, and when laws aren't needed do what companies do, and create the need.' ... It took the French Revolution to deliver conscription and a massive increase of taxation. In my view, the more astute contemporaries were entirely correct to view this as "monarchy without the King," or "Royal Democracy." In a way, though, this insults the kings: The good 'ol "people" attained things which had always eluded the king, who had usually been constrained to parley with various social forces/makeweights.

Posted by: Paul Craddick at Nov 13, 2006 11:43:35 AM

Paul, I'm waiting for FP's RIP for Milton Friedman. Here's an irresistable quote, via Max Speaks, from the WSJ interview with Milton and Rose this summer:

"What's really killed the Republican Party isn't spending, it's Iraq. As it happens, I was opposed to going into Iraq from the beginning. I think it was a mistake, for the simple reason that I do not believe the United States of America ought to be involved in aggression." Mrs. Friedman--listening to her husband with an ear cocked--was now muttering darkly.

Milton: "Huh? What?" Rose: "This was not aggression!" Milton (exasperatedly): "It was aggression. Of course it was!"

Posted by: rogergathman at Nov 17, 2006 10:06:18 AM