Democracy Is More Than Free Elections As America's Founders recognized, self-government is premised on sensible, educated citizens pursuing the common good on the basis of realistic ideas

By Paolo von Schirach

February 15, 2014

WASHINGTON – In America many, including well-educated people, believe that “democracy” is really about having a constitution that guarantees individual rights and free elections through which “the people” can freely express their preferences without fear of persecution. Nothing wrong with this list. The problem is that these are minimal, necessary preconditions. Fulfilling them does not guarantee a well-functioning democracy.

Rational debates

Real democracy is a lot more complicated. Democracy is about the proven ability to engage in fact-based, rational debates on what is necessary for the common good. Yes, “fact-based” and “rational” discourse. Sounds obvious and self-evident. But it is not. The fact is that an inordinate number of citizens are prone to “believe” in stuff that has no or little connection with reality. The list is long: “socialism”, “the welfare state”, “religion as the foundation of political values”, “nationalism”, and so on.

Idealists” are not superior

And indeed, the dominant culture encourages this disconnect. We call these mildly deranged  or totally deranged individuals “idealists”, this way creating the completely distorted notion that being prisoners of fantasies and therefore disconnected from reality is not a shortcoming. It is actually an attribute that confers superior morality.

Informed citizens

The Founding Fathers of America, in various ways understood and acknowledged that self-government was premised on a society made up of reasonably well-informed people who would tend to act rationally when dealing with matters pertaining to the common good. They acknowledged “passions” and the dangers of “factions”. But, even though they recognized that a form of government whose survival was founded on the intelligence and realism of the people was not at all a sure thing, overall they optimistically believed that realism, aided and fostered by the spreading of new knowledge through education, could and would prevail.

Ideologies are the enemies

Well, fast forward to our times and the issues are exactly the same. The success of modern democracies is still premised on the existence of pragmatic realism. Without this key ingredient there is the dominance of ideologies, fantasies, and dreams. (Those who are not prisoners of ideologies often opt for cynical manipulation that inevitably leads to corruption). Sadly, elected officials who act to fulfil any of these dreams end up wasting enormous resources, meanwhile inflicting great pain without accomplishing much. Just look at what has been done in the name of “socialism”, in the Soviet Union, China or Cuba. And, at a different but equally pernicious level, look at the ruinous impact on human creativity of social democratic, egalitarian ideals in Western Europe.

Focusing on “what works”

In the final analysis, democracy –that is effective, successful self-government– is premised on an educated, indeed fairly sophisticated populace that will choose capable and ethical pragmatists as elected leaders. These leaders will engage in debates; but not in stupid ideological confrontations. In the end these leaders will opt for evidence-based solutions. They will enact what “works”, keeping in mind the desire to maximize the common good.

Sadly, if we look at the world around us, from the ruins of the Arab Spring, to rebellions in the Ukraine and Venezuela or populism in Thailand, we see that these societies are very far from achieving the fundamental preconditions for successful self-government.

Old democracies

And even if we look at mature democracies, like Europe and America, there is cause for major worries. Prisoners of their self-defeating egalitarian ideologies that discourage innovation and enterprise, the Europeans societies are in decline, slowly committing suicide. On the other side of the Atlantic, American politics are now dominated by rather stupid ideological battles, characterized by the almost comical demonization of one’s political opponents.

Education will lead to virtue

Thomas Jefferson and Benjamin Franklin were self-made intellectuals who believed that education would lead people to acquire greater knowledge. It was assumed at the time (that was the “Century of Light”) that a better understanding of the world and of nature would lead most men to become more virtuous, and therefore better citizens.

And so, it is not totally accidental that both Jefferson and Franklin sponsored the creation of universities. Whereas, today’s politicians inspire the creation of Super PACs aimed at fomenting hatred against their adversaries.

I prefer the good old days of universities aimed at discovering and teaching the new knowledge that will make us more virtuous. Without education and virtue democracies will not survive, let alone prosper.



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