The Virtue of Democracy
Over time, many forms of government have been tried and tested, ranging from monarchy to fascism. Throughout history, most forms of government have been autocratic. Regardless, the sheer variety and diversity of forms of government present a question, are some forms of government better than others? Is democracy a better way to answer the question that political philosopher Alan Ryan said is the entire point of political philosophy, how can men best govern themselves? Unfortunately, some people in the United States now believe that democracy has failed or is no better than other forms of government. That’s short-sighted and incorrect. What the Founders called “ordered liberty,” liberal republican democracy, is a more virtuous and moral form of government than any other system.
To answer whether some forms of government are better than others, it is first necessary to see what is the purpose of government. As established by thinkers as ancient as Aristotle, man is a political and social animal that naturally requires living in the community. The Catechism of the Catholic Church elaborates more on this view. As the Catechism explains, society is composed of persons, and society begins with families. Moreover, man’s social nature and dignity require that forms of government respect the dignity of the human person for them to be legitimate forms of government. In other words, a system of government must serve the common good, which is best defined as “the sum total of social conditions which allow people, either as groups or as individuals, to reach their fulfillment more fully and more easily.”
Now then, this is the basis for good government. It recognizes the individual person as having “inalienable rights” and allows the person to achieve their full potential. The Roman Catholic Church further establishes three characteristics three characteristics of a just society that permits the common good. The requirements are: respect for the person, which allows the individual to fulfill his vocation; the capacity for society to develop its well-being; and, lastly, peace, stability, and security. Suppose we accept the dignity of human life and the need for human rights. In that case, we cannot be indifferent to forms of government or believe that they are all morally neutral. Soviet Communism, for example, was inherently against the human person and the common good. As was Nazism and many other tyrannical governments throughout history.
When we examine the nature of the American Republic and its constitutional regime, we see that the Declaration of Independence stated the moral basis of our Republic long ago by saying that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.” This moral claim, the first principle of America, crouched in natural law, has allowed people worldwide and Americans across generations to always seek to improve our nation by criticizing its injustices when they occur.
On this basis, the Constitution—the climax of the English tradition of liberty—formed a regime based on the rule of the people and protecting the individual rights of the human person. What was revolutionary and a miracle was that, for the first time in human history, a government had been born based on this fundamental moral principle and put in writing. As such, this precept found in our declaration is the culmination in political thought of the Christian idea that all people are made in the image of God and endowed with dignity and rights. As Robert Reilly and George Weigel explained, the American Revolution was the culmination of natural law theorists and Christian philosophy applied to the state. Our Constitution and the precepts of democracy that every person is to be respected and loved are the application of that revolutionary idea into politics. This is why no further progress can be made in political systems beyond the belief of a limited, consensual government based on the sovereignty of the people and their inalienable rights. As President Calvin Coolidge explained,
If all men are created equal, that is final. If they are endowed with inalienable rights, that is final. If governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed, that is final. No advance, no progress can be made beyond these propositions. If anyone wishes to deny their truth or their soundness, the only direction in which he can proceed historically is not forward, but backward.
These principles are either based on truth or not. Therefore, they must either be accepted or rejected. Moreover, as Daniel Hannan discusses, there was no guarantee that this view would survive in a fallen world when it was attacked by everything from absolute monarchs to communists and terrorists. It is why the American Revolution, especially the Constitution, can be rightfully called “the Miracle at Philadelphia.”
Some people criticize that democracy, with its view of equality before the law, destroys the diversity and capacity of people to excel in different ways and the respect and obedience due to legitimate authority. Admittedly this can be a negative side effect of the democratic spirit. Yet, democracies have produced extraordinary men and women such as Theodore Roosevelt, Harry Truman, and Margaret Thatcher.
In other words, democracy can create social mobility allowing extraordinary people to excel in different ways, from business to politics or sports. This is in accordance with the principle that the common good allows people to fulfill their vocation. A healthy democracy does not seek to eliminate excellence but to celebrate and cultivate it. It is the socialistic view of no differences and absolute equality of results that ruin the democratic capacity to produce extraordinary people.
It is not to say that democratic government is free of error or sin. On the contrary, human creations are susceptible to many problems. Pure democracy, for example, will produce the tyranny of the majority. Therefore, our founders knew democracies require, paradoxically, antidemocratic elements to work. It is why there needs to be a separation of powers, checks, and balances, and a rule of law in which no one, especially the ruler, is above the law. That history of barbarism and misuse of power makes democracy necessary. Men are not angels; as such, no one can be trusted with too much power. As C.S. Lewis said, “Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows.”
The test of a functioning system of government is if it can fix its errors and problems through its institutions. If a system cannot deal with injustices within its instruments, it will eventually collapse. This is perhaps what the Dutch philosopher Baruch Spinoza meant when he said that the virtuous government is not one which is always run by honorable men, but that one which is being run by evil men remains virtuous. How does it stay so? By not descending into anarchy, tyranny, and violating human rights.
This is the strength of democracy. Its corrective mechanisms and basis based on the dignity of the human person, while at the same time having a healthy distrust of our fallen nature, is why republican democracy is a more virtuous form of government than others.
Since the American Republic has successfully been able to reform itself to get rid of many of its failings, from slavery to ending segregation, we can safely say that the American Republic can remedy its injustices and improve as a society within the framework of its institutions. Accordingly, we can conclude that, as such, America is a virtuous nation. In short, America’s constitutional order is moral, and our tradition is worth preserving as the climax of ancient traditions of English liberty that were inherited and must be kept alive.