Saturday, August 21, 2010

Democracy and republic

I've heard it in various forms for many years: "The United States isn't a democracy, it's a republic." I've always thought this was a bullshit right-wing quibble until Aaron Sorkin, or one of the other writers on the solidly liberal show The West Wing put the line in President Jed Bartlett's (Martin Sheen) mouth, with the explanation, "The people don't rule the country, they choose their rulers."

There are some serious theoretical and pragmatic problems with this position. In one sense it might seem analogous to the position that people don't treat themselves medically, they choose their physicians. But there's a crucial difference that undermines the analogy: people do not (or have no need to) cede any moral authority whatsoever to their physicians. A patient does not in any way ask her physician what she wants: she knows what she wants. She asks her physician how to achieve what she wants. Most of the time, everyone completely understands and sympathizes with what any patient wants, but we can see this crucial difference in some unusual edge cases.

Gender reassignment is a fairly well-settled example. There was a lot of resistance at first, because it's difficult for most people to sympathize* with the desire to change one's apparent gender, but once we convinced ourselves that the desire to change gender wasn't pathologically self-destructive (and, more importantly, got over some of our bullshit hangups) it became a clear instance of physicians implementing the patient's own desires and will, without moral judgment. (Well, not too much; physicians do try to influence the patient's will: when the patient has conflicting desires, for example, a good physician will advocate for the desires that promote good health. But when push comes to shove, the physician must give way to the patient's choices.)

*I mean sympathy in the literal sense of sharing the same actual feelings. I cannot even indirectly share the feelings of a person who wishes to change gender. All I can do is understand that my lack of sympathy in this regard is completely irrelevant, and since changing gender definitely does not harm anyone else, sympathize more abstractly with transgender people's desire to be happy, whatever that takes, and provide the assistance and support they ask for.

But it's definitely counter-intuitive to say that someone we call a leader actually subordinates his* will to anyone else's. And, of course, our leaders just don't act in anything like the same way that physicians act. They act much more like I acted when I was a manager and executive: the people who worked for me were there to implement my will. They could of course ask to change my mind, but when push came to shove it was my desires that won out.

The vast majority of political leaders are, of course, men, showing that women are weak and unfit to lead. </sarcasm>

It really is a giant contradiction for anyone to choose to whom I submit their will. Will is the exercise of choice: if it's me that's making a choice, in what sense am I submitting my will? I cannot say that I am choosing to submit my will, for example, to someone who wants to help the poor as opposed to someone who wants to treat the poor indifferently, and then say I'm helping the poor only because my leader demands it.

The only way this choice isn't a giant contradiction is if I really am more or less indifferent to the details of the will of those to whom I'm submitting, if I'm making my choice on considerations other than what the person to whom I'm submitting actually wants. A physician doesn't treat people based on whether she thinks they ought to live; a defense lawyer does not (to any large extent) represent only those defendants he thinks ought to go free. Indeed any good physician who wants everyone to live must still respect the wishes of the patient who refuses treatment; no good defense lawyer who wants everyone to go free can prevent a defendant from confessing and pleading guilty.

And indeed in republican government we see all sorts of features that are designed to insulate political leaders from the will (such as it is) of the people. I can easily fire my physician or lawyer at any time if I do not believe she is competently representing my own interests. The people, however united, cannot easily fire their republican leaders. My physician or lawyer cannot keep secrets from me; secrecy in republican government is so routine as to pass almost unnoticed.

Republican government is not all bad; it's definitely an enormous improvement over feudal monarchism. In a republican government, the people act as a selection force in a dialectical relationship with the ruling class, affording some opportunity for evolution over time. But I don't think republican government is anywhere near the best we can do.

In a democratic society, the official government acts as a true "expert" class, more or less indifferent to the details of the will of the people, concentrating on the details of implementation, which are usually matters of objective truth. Going back to the Paris Commune*, we can identify four components necessary to a democratic government, a government that serves as experts, not leaders:
  1. Individuals must personally know their representatives
  2. Individuals must have the effective power to arbitrarily replace their representatives at any time
  3. Representatives cannot keep relevant information secret from those they represent
  4. Representatives cannot explicitly or implicitly obtain moral privilege over those they represent
The observant reader will note that all of these components apply in our relations with those who are uncontroversially acting as experts (e.g. physicians), and none of them operate in our relations that are uncontroversially hierarchical (e.g. business executives or military officers). And of course none of them operate in republican government.

*The high regard for the Paris Commune among all the founders of communism, especially Marx, Engels, Lenin, and Mao, decisively refutes the notion that "party rule" is an explicit component of communist theory. Although I myself would argue for the negative, whether party rule necessarily or generally emerges from other perhaps more fundamental components of communist theory is a legitimate matter for debate.

I honestly do not believe we can have a communist society that is not truly democratic right from the start. I'm no historian, but I suspect that the emergence of non-democratic party rule resulted from massive pressures of immediate life-or-death expediency faced by Revolutionary Russia and China. Lenin and Stalin in Russia had to face the Russian Civil War followed on its heels by the existential threat posed by a massively industrialized Nazi Germany. China had to face the awesomely daunting prospect of feeding seven hundred million who had been living for centuries on the edge of starvation, with millions periodically falling off that edge. (The Good Earth is a notable work of historical fiction illustrating this issue.) And if there is any legitimate criticism of the Paris Commune, it is that they did not act decisively enough to consolidate, defend and expand their own revolution.

Furthermore, there is a certain extent to which capitalist republican government and its precursors does develop social institutions and habits of thought among the people that make true democracy easier; both Russia and China lacked any of these precursors. One cannot exactly approve of someone who behaves badly under overwhelming pressure, but one can more easily ascribe the fault to a failure of nerve rather than actual malice.

1 comment:

  1. So the US is a Republic then? A criterion for a democratic government is that the representatives are unable to furtively hide knowledge and retain secrets from those they represent, but in the US government the contrary occurs on a regular basis. Learnt all that off this blog.


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