Democracy and the Good Life: Part 1

Democracy and the Good Life

It’s hard to say much new or interesting about the rampant materialism in our society. It’s a problem. Most serious (and many non-serious) people recognize it as a problem. And most people who think it’s a problem and are remotely honest will admit that it’s a problem for them. Because unless your desires are deeply idiosyncratic, you likely find yourself continuously tempted by – and spending far too much time and effort to earn – the incredibly cool, tasty, attractive and useful things that markets provide.

But the temptation of stuff is not the only hard challenge of modern Western culture. The intellectual and political culture of our society reflects many of the same challenges as materialism: overabundance and temptation, aggressive niche filling, and strong forces taking advantage of our cognitive limitations and foundational desires. Democracy creates its own form of market with many of the same incentives to over-optimization that exist in markets for goods and services.

Unfortunately, most of the people who want to tame or eliminate the free-market’s ability to drive materialism rely on democratic government to do so. That’s a bit like jumping from a Calphalon non-stick frying pan into an X Dumpster Fire.

The Benefits of Democracy in Choosing a Life

If the problems created by unbridled markets are well-trodden ground, the same cannot be said for the dangers of the political marketplace. Free markets have fewer defenders than they probably deserve, but while political foes loathe one another, they agree on the overwhelming importance of politics.  This importance is evidenced in countless ways, from measures of partisanship to the amount of money donated to campaigns, to the emergence of vast media empires dedicated to supporting, encouraging or fostering political warfare. Our self-identity has never been so wrapped up with our political identity.  Not everybody thinks politics is important, but everybody is supposed to pretend they do. And for what is probably a decided majority of people, politics is the only set of ideas that matter. Yet when it comes to almost any aspect of crafting a good life, from building worthwhile life-projects to making transformative choices, politics is irrelevant or harmful.

Yet if politics and democracy are inextricable, it’s worth enumerating the benefits of democracy from precisely that standpoint of the individual attempting to create a good life. Especially since the last ten years have seen the emergence of quasi-realistic alternatives to democratic government and, especially in the United States, a significant decline in popular commitment to basic democratic norms and ideals.

One of the traditional criticisms of democratic government is that while it might work in small political units (like the city), it could not successfully manage the challenges of a larger, more complex, less homogenous culture. Many thoughtful people have doubted the ability of democratic government to function effectively in foreign policy and international relations. It seems impossible for a democratic government that must keep its population content and is constantly threatened with destabilizing elections to compete with a competitor run by a single, shrewd and ruthless leader. Political theorists since Plato have doubted the ability of a democratic government to control or withstand the wild swings of emotion to which the populace is vulnerable. Plato was certain that democratic government would descend into tyranny – and he had ample evidence during his life of the problem. Finally, the advent of large-scale government programs and redistributive politics have made modern conservative thinkers wonder if there is any plausible check on the willingness of people to vote themselves benefits from other people’s pockets.

Each of these criticisms has merit and democratic government has often proven to be vulnerable on all these fronts. Yet the history of the past 200 years is a stunning refutation of the necessity for ANY of these critiques to hold. Democratic governments founded on solid cultures successfully manage the largest and most complex societies in the history of humanity. Those same governments have overcome terrible internal challenges (the American Civil War), ferocious external challenges from formidable tyrants (Napoleon, Hitler), and decades of largely non-violent confrontation in a vast strategic struggle with a totalitarian enemy (The Cold War). What’s more, several great democracies have now existed for hundreds of years of continuous stability in the face of massive world change. They have managed not only to avoid tyranny but have provided continuous social stability and the foundations of a free and remarkably prosperous society.

Pointing out that democracy has blunted its worst criticisms echoes Churchill’s famous quote that “democracy is the worst form of Government except for all those other forms that have been tried…” and may, in fact, be too faint praise. In particular, it’s worth calling out the aspects of democratic government that make it peculiarly well suited to anyone concerned with building a valuable life and making transformative decisions – aspects that are not always well addressed by its defenders.


It is possible to rule people by force. Faced with sufficient power, people must do what they are told. Yet maintaining this state of forceful domination is necessarily exhausting. It’s hard enough to manage one life – let alone constantly order so much of everyone else’s. Nor would we be inclined to call such rule government. Government requires, at least to some extent, the consent of the governed. This need not be the sort of rich consent that we are used to thinking of in democratic terms. Bernard Williams described this basic level of assent as a demand for legitimacy. The members of a society must believe that the government is legitimate – that it has a basis for rule. Most governments in most times have met this basic demand. Medieval monarchs, tribal chiefs, Roman Emperors, Italian princes, and feudal lords all enjoyed some form of rule that people accepted. Legitimacy is not a blanket endorsement of right nor does it excuse slavery, savagery or evil. A legitimate government can be awful, and it can also be viewed as such by nearly all the members of the society and still be legitimate. Few Romans admired Caligula or Commodus, but few doubted that they ruled legitimately. Yet not every society or rulership meets this basic legitimacy demand. Modern nation states that comprise ad hoc regions or tribal affiliations that are actively hostile will often be dominated by one group or the other. Such societies often fail the basic legitimacy demand when it comes to the dominated group who are ruled by simple force. Nearly all slave societies are this way too, though it is possible to have a slave society that meets the basic legitimacy demand.[1]

A society that lacks legitimacy in any significant population segment may have rule, but it does not have a government. Legitimacy is important. Important from a social perspective and from an individual decision-maker’s perspective. It is much harder to explore a life in a society that lacks legitimate government. There is little promise of stability and even less of control. A ruling power that lacks legitimacy also lacks any boundaries or restraints – and the history of rule in the absence of restraint suggests that people are right to have little confidence in such situations.

What’s important and interesting about democratic government is that it ensures legitimacy. Writing in the late 20th century, Williams believed that the only form of government that could deliver legitimacy at that moment in time was democracy. That was debatable then and is almost certainly not true now. Oligarchies in China and Russia no longer seem compelled to wear a mask of democracy to sustain legitimacy – and it seems clear that at least under some circumstances (growth, nationalist upwellings), a modern oligarchy can achieve and perhaps maintain legitimacy.

That legitimacy is not likely to be sustainable in economically advancing countries or possible in a fully developed nation. Will well-educated middle class and wealthy Chinese citizens be content to be ruled by a small clique of perennially aged oligarchs? As long as things go well, perhaps. But is such government sustainable when things go wrong? It is only on the idea of efficiency that such an oligarchy can be sustained, and a myth of efficiency is hard to sustain in the absence of any actual reason for merit. The Chinese oligarchs have not invented a clever new system for making their ruling clique better than any past cabal of parasitical old men. They are just free-riders on a culture naturally adapted to wealth-generation and following the well-trodden path of rapid industrialization.

The nationalist underpinnings of Putin’s Russian oligarchy seem even less compelling. Russia’s unique arc of global superpower to dismembered purgatory combined with its ancient history of corruption and misrule make it peculiarly fertile ground for an oligarchy based on a return to national power. That should deeply concern those neighboring states un-anxious to return to the glories of Union, but it says little about the future of legitimate government.

The fact that democracy provides natural and seamless legitimation in a world where few other ideas achieve any sort of consensus is a huge advantage. Living in a society with a legitimate government is just better. It takes a substantial element of personal uncertainty off the table and makes it possible to think usefully about building and exploring a life.

Creation of a political community

Philosophers have gone back and forth on the virtues and dangers of involvement in a political community. Some have been deeply skeptical of the potentially corrupting effects of political community. Others, notably Aristotle, believed that the best kind of life needed involvement in a political community. Since Aristotle is probably the shrewdest observer of human nature in the entire philosophical tradition, it’s worth taking that view seriously. If a life is lived in conversation with culture, there is a separate and different conversation between a culture and its politics. Being part of that conversation is a high and uniquely human art.

Just as the importance of science in the Western tradition is also a story about community and a profound way of life, the importance of democracy is more than good governance and an effective check on tyranny. Democracy opens up a life within a political community to far more people than any other form of government.[2] Tocqueville called out the level of political participation in nineteenth century America as distinct, unparalleled and vitally important to the functioning of democratic government. Participation in local political roles dramatically improves the political understanding and sophistication of those who do it. It builds local community and creates bonds of understanding and empathy while building a natural transition path for those successful in a first career to move into a public role in the next part of their life.

Those of us who grow up in a stable, free culture should be aware how lucky we are. Even for those not so fortunate, a place must be very bad for a person not to be attached by sentiment to their homeland. Culture and place run deep in who we are. Every life choice we have ever made is framed by the place, people, and culture around us. Every lesson we have learned. Every experience we’ve enjoyed. They all are born from and exist in the place and people of our home. Bonds of gratitude and attachment are hardly to be avoided and like most bonds of gratitude and attachment they should be valued not scorned. Socrates, condemned by his fellow citizens to death, refused to flee the city he had lived in and fought for. A man who spent his entire life encouraging others to think more, to question what they know, and to forgo the distractions of wealth and power, was deeply and profoundly attached to the city he lived in. It is no exaggeration to suggest that for Socrates, being an Athenian was a deep and fundamental part of who he was.

If that so – and for a great many Americans it certainly is – then it would seem churlish and ungrateful not to devote at least some part of your life to the political process. Sadly, the participatory aspect of local democratic politics has been shrinking throughout the entire arc of American history and that trend shows no sign of reversing. Democracy has been professionalized, the participatory roles have been reduced, and people’s attention is increasingly focused on winning elections not managing local affairs. That’s doubly unfortunate. Yet despite this ongoing shrinkage in active and useful participation in the job of governing, democracy greatly outshines any oligarchic system in both the openness of the political life to its members and the availability of participatory roles.

Limiting a Culture of Corruption

A culture can be rigid or very fluid. Conservative or very experimental. Materialistic or mystical. It can value family, honor, art, or fame. And while there is no doubt that some cultures suit some people better (and some cultures may allow many more people to thrive than others), living a good life is possible in almost any culture. But if there is one aspect of culture that is both common and universally damaging, it is to have a culture of corruption. When things get done in a society only by breaking the rules, everything suffers. Rule-abiders, presumably critical to any culture, are penalized. Rule-breakers are rewarded. Worse, when violating rules is constantly necessary, enforcement of rules becomes a haphazard game of chance where those in authority wield their power capriciously. This all makes transformative choice and decision-making much harder. How do you build a good life in a world of capricious rules and corrupt enforcement? People are not made better by constant exercises in dishonesty, and the lessons in successful corruption will inevitably trickle over into every phase of life.

A culture of corruption is natural to oligarchy but antithetical to democracy. Where corruption flourishes in a democracy, it will quickly descend into some form of tyranny or oligarchy. Modern history suggests that economic freedom without political say can still yield the material and scientific benefits so important to modern society. Democracy is not necessary to material well-being, but it may well be crucial to preventing the emergence or dominance of a culture of corruption.

Culture of Variety

In The Republic, Plato draws a direct (probably too direct) line between the type of political arrangement in a polity and the type of people who populate it. His description of democratic man is priceless and can hardly be equaled:

“…he lives from day to day indulging the appetite of the hour; and sometimes he is lapped in drink and strains of the flute; then he becomes a water-drinker, and tries to get thin; then he takes a turn at gymnastics; sometimes idling and neglecting everything, then once more living the life of a philosopher; often he-is busy with politics, and starts to his feet and says and does whatever comes into his head; and, if he is emulous of any one who is a warrior, off he is in that direction, or of men of business, once more in that. His life has neither law nor order; and this distracted existence he terms joy and bliss and freedom; and so he goes on.”

This description evokes some of the problems of choice created by free markets. We are visibly crippled in our ability to understand what a good life is or remain focused on its fundamentals. And it’s arguable how much of these problems are a result of our political arrangements or our economic ones. But if democratic culture encourages lives that are distractable and un-purposeful, the kaleidoscopic variety of lives and interests driven by democratic cultural provides unparalleled opportunities to find a life path that works for you. It also creates an unending panoply of interesting lives to learn from. It’s hard to overstate how much richer modern democratic societies are in terms of learning opportunities than their non-democratic counterparts.

There’s Always a But…

Stability, community, legitimacy, integrity, honesty, and variety make a compelling case for the virtues of democratic government for those of us concerned with creating and living a good life.  But just as untethered free markets have transformed some of the positives of capitalism into challenges, recent and longer-term trends in the workings of the democratic system have had similar and possibly even more deleterious impact on people’s ability to usefully explore a life.

In the economic sphere, the rapid growth of digital has created vast new and almost frictionless enterprises constantly competing for attention and monetizing shrewd attempts to harvest AND create preferences. The massive rewards available to those who exploit failures in rationality, preference or desire have incentivized the gradual demolition of community norms in favor of optimizing market niches. Those same forces are at work in democracy with almost identical results. If free markets have created a hyper-competitive materialistic life trap, democracy seems to have created a hyper-competitive ideological life trap that is even less rewarding.  The democratic landscape has been transformed by the emergence of Consumer-Packaged Ideology into a marketplace uniquely suited to it – a phenomenon as deleterious to the democratic state as it is to the people infected by its ideas.

I’ll explain that shift and what it means in Part 2.

[1] Why don’t all slave societies fail this demand? In some societies where slaves are taken in wars, the slaves themselves acknowledge the legitimacy of their position just as they would have enslaved their masters had they been victorious in war.

[2] At least any form of government with which we have practical experience. The workings of a libertarian or anarchist society are too uncertain to be discussed.

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