"Guest" Post: Will And Ariel Durant On Democracy
As a form of government, the advantage democracy saliently presents over others is the facility to possibly promote those most able, regardless of caste, to positions of leadership by common approbation, achievement, and consent. If any system can figure out how to promote its most capable minds, its advantage will be potent.
In contrast to dictatorship or aristocracy, arrangements which guarantee the systemic promotion of hermetic stupidity, timidity, corruption, and neglect, democracy at least holds out a chance for meritocracy. It assumes fundamentally that intelligence and ability are not the provinces of class or heredity, but intangible, competitive qualities which are vastly improved by an equal access to knowledge. Dummies may live and struggle in democratic squalor, but their children, if they make their way smartly through the system, could be elected President or Prime Minister. As was Bill Clinton on his merits in the former United States, and John Major on his in the United Kingdom. Clinton was the illegitimate son of a cleaning woman and a traveling salesman, born and raised in a state best known for its obscurity. John Major dropped out of school at sixteen and was the son of a former vaudeville musician.
We live in a special time, in that more information flows to our fingertips more freely than ever before, just after the tireless cheerleaders of dictatorship seized upon electronic megaphones to lead the crowd in chants. But how does democracy, on the whole, compare to the Platonically cycling formulae of aristocracy and dictatorship?
All deductions having been made, democracy has done less harm, and more good, than any other form of government. It gave to human existence a zest and camaraderie that outweighed its pitfalls and defects. It gave to thought and science and enterprise the freedom essential to their operation and growth. It broke down the walls of privilege and class, and in each generation it raised up ability from every rank and place. Under its stimulus Athens and Rome became the most creative cities in history, and America in two centuries has provided abundance for an unprecedentedly large proportion of its population.The Lessons of History, pp. 78-79
Democracy has now dedicated itself resolutely to the maintenance of public health. If equality of education can be established, democracy will be real and justified. For this is the vital truth behind its catchwords: that though men cannot be equal, their access to education and opportunity can be made more nearly equal. The rights of man are not rights to office and power, but the rights of entry into every avenue that may nourish and test a man's fitness for office and power. A right is not a gift of God or nature but a privilege which it is good for the group that the individual should have.
Recent posts regarding democracy's drawbacks set me to searching for what some better thinkers on civilizations had to say. To a person who studies the classics at the expense of noticing modern surroundings, the word "democracy" will have a very different meaning to them than it does to the average person. To the Greeks and Romans, for example, democracy was an unfortunate aberration, a time between aristocracy and monarchy, and the word automatically calls up scenes of dreadful disorder and bloody vengeance. To us today, it is a representative-driven device for balancing and managing power, diluting, re-distilling, and applying it as carefully debated circumstances require.
The Durants note, along with their fellow traveler Arnold Toynbee, the main weakness of democracy as a system: its easy susceptibility to bribery. If they were alive, and had the chance to sit on my couch for some tea, I suspect they would quickly notice that there is a new kind of nation, ones which have surpassed borders. One example they might train their capable minds on would be Walmart, which currently comprises the fourth-largest economy in the world. I wonder what they would call it, and how they would describe its effects on the old systems of aristocracy, democracy, and dictatorship.