In honor of our nation’s birthday and the principles on which it is built I thought we might consider why democracy is so highly prized. It seems that there is no one reason. One pundit wrote:
“The core of democracy is choice, and not something chosen.” – Ernest Barker
In his famous 19th century work Democracy In America, Alexis de Tocqueville teases out some advantages of a democracy. He writes:
Democratic laws generally tend to promote the welfare of the greatest possible number; for they emanate from the majority of the citizens, who are subject to error, but who cannot have an interest opposed to their own advantage.
So it seems that de Tocqueville’s point was that human self-interest was, over time, the best insurance of good governance. Many voices have echoed this idea and there is clearly a wisdom in it. I do wonder about what the value of each generation’s collective wisdom is if it can be cast aside when the next generation’s desire arises. It seems that only the living get a vote. It may be that there are no universal truths that apply to all people at all times, but the tiresome repetition of war, cruelty, oppression and such that have been a consistent feature of human history suggest otherwise.
If the principle of democracy provides the advantages mentioned, why not extend it to the thoughts, opinions, and successes of all men in all periods of history. It was such an idea as this that our nation was founded upon. While trying to learn from past mistakes, the crafters of our political system took the things that had been shown to promote flourishing among people and forged them into a document called the constitution. This great work was a tour-de-force of philosophical thought and axiom. There was also, within its pages, the humility of admitting the need for amendment as conditions (not basic human nature) changed and the provision for doing so.
An ever increasing portion of our population has begun to chafe under a system that defines limits to the expression of individual desire. Dallas Willard has written “Modernity has come to stand for a rejection of the past as a guide to the present.” So it seems. The “dead hand” of the founders has its fingers in too many lives to suit many of our enlightened citizens.
We don’t like acknowledging a debt to those who can no longer vote in an election, contribute to a political campaign, or stand and deliver at a press conference. Maybe the point of our current democracy is not to pool our wisdom and come to better terms with truth, but for the living to negotiate with each other about what we’ll let each other get away with. Those that came before are an embarrassment and an unnecessary consideration. We are like the young child who was placed, by his father, out on the third base of a baseball field who then began to yell “I hit a triple!” Yeah, right.