Democracy or Republic

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by David A. Woodbury
The Constitution, Article IV, Section 4, declares “The United States shall guarantee to every State in this Union a Republican Form of Government.”  Nothing in the Constitution suggests that this country was ever intended to be a democracy.  The critical difference is in the matter of rights.

John Adams captured the essence of the difference when he wrote, “You have rights antecedent to all earthly governments; rights that cannot be repealed or restrained by human laws; rights derived from the Great Legislator of the Universe.”  An individual has a right to his life, a right to defend himself against an aggressor, a right to protect his family, a right to use and to dispose of the fruits of his labor as he sees fit, a right to speak, a right to associate and assemble with others of his choosing, a right to turn his back and walk away, a right to manifest faith in a God, and a right to attempt to persuade — but not to coerce — others.

A republic is the one form of government that is designed to protect the rights of an individual against the whims, fashions, emotions, fervor, and ignorance of the many.  A democracy confers on the majority the temptation to interfere with these rights, to introduce new, arbitrary privileges, and to do either according to popular zeal.  A monarch or dictator may also presume to interfere with the fundamental rights that John Adams described.  Even under a dictatorship, those fundamental rights exist; it’s just a question whether an individual or group of individuals will assert them.

The United States is confused, nowadays, about its form of government.  It is not a democracy, although the original republican form of government has been corrupted into a semblance of democracy.  And the people are deluded into thinking that a republic and a democracy are one and the same, even that a democracy is somehow superior to the antiquated and presumably unworkable concept that we are a republic.

In a democracy, you see, the majority rules (supposedly, and that is debatable, because those hungry for power, whom the majority has elected, effectively rule), while in a republic, the individual is protected from the majority.  In a democracy, the people’s representatives identify groups, often called “communities,” who need special privileges in order to remain more loyal as voters, and the people’s representatives create new “rights” to soothe those groups.  Generally these are “rights” to be free from discomfort and almost by definition infringe on the real rights of every individual.

With this distinction clear, consider now a passage from Nock’s The Theory of Education in the U.S.:

So the popular idea of democracy postulates that there shall be nothing worth enjoying for anybody to enjoy that everybody may not enjoy; and a contrary view is at once exposed to all the evils of a dogged, unintelligent, invincibly suspicious resentment.

The whole institutional life organised under the popular idea of democracy, then, must reflect this resentment.  It must aim at no ideals above those of the average man; that is to say, it must regulate itself by the lowest common denominator of intelligence, taste, and character in the society which it represents.

In a republic, where all the population are free to create, invest, and exercise patience or engage in self-indulgence, an individual may prosper and enjoy comfort that many others do not.  This prosperity may have come his way by birth and inheritance, by effort and good judgment, by sheer luck, or by a convergence of these advantages.  In a republic, a person who enjoys some prosperity may share his good fortune with others, or may choose not to do so.  In a republic, an individual chooses how to dispose of his income and assets, and takes responsibility for the consequences of his actions.  In a democracy, where all the population are free to create, invest, and exercise patience or engage in self-indulgence, an individual may prosper and enjoy comfort that others do not only until those others, many of whom do not want to take responsibility for their own choices, are goaded by people who ache on their behalf and are whipped into mass action that denies a moderate person the fruit of his labor.

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The Individual Who Can Think and Create

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In the words of AJN: Our society has made no place for the individual who is able to think, who is, in the strict sense of the word, intelligent; it merely tosses him into the rubbish heap… Intelligence is the power and willingness always and disinterestedly to see things as they are, an easy accessibility to ideas, and a free play of consciousness upon them, quite regardless of the conclusions to which this play may lead.

Now, the experienced mind is aware that all the progress in actual civilisation that society has ever made has been brought about, not by machinery, not by political programmes, platforms, parties, not even by revolutions, but by right thinking.

[M]ankind’s five fundamental social instincts — the instinct of workmanship, of intellect and knowledge, of religion and morals, of beauty and poetry, of social life and manners. A civilized society is one which organizes a full collective expression of all these instincts, and which so regulates this expression as to permit no predominance of one or more of them at the expense of the rest; in short, one which keeps this expression on continual harmony and balance.


…organizes it by social assent, not by edict or influence of the State. -DAW


I should say, too, that there would be relatively little difficulty in finding subsidies to almost any extent for promising individuals, although it is true, I think, that our rich men do not as yet go in as much for this form of patronage, which is the oldest, and still seems to get the best results, as they do for the institutional form. For my part, I wish they would do more for it. I know that if I were a rich man I would do precious little endowing institutions, and content myself with nosing out individuals of the right sort, and endowing them.


These four short passages are lifted from Cogitations, which was compiled by Robert M. Thornton in 1970 for the Nockian Society. They are taken from three separate works of Nock. As for the last paragraph, it occurs to me that a rich man does not patronize an individual because he is more interested in the tax write-off for his charity and therefore contributes to State-approved institutions (those which are eligible for IRS 501(c)(3) status). Were the wealthy to patronize individuals of talent, we might find another Tchaikovsky or Dickens in our midst who, for lack of discovery and patronage, is punching the clock at the back of a Ford dealership instead. -DAW

Demagogue and Demaslave

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Henry Louis Mencken was a contemporary and acquaintance of Albert Jay Nock.  In The Superfluous Men, a volume of comparative essays compiled by Robert M. Crunden (ISI Books, 1999), Mencken is described as “an enormously prolific writer and editor of newspapers and magazines” who “had great impact on college students and the educated young adults of the first three decade of the twentieth century.”  For H. L. Mencken, “American life was a comedy of conformity, envy, and plutocracy.”  This passage is from Mencken’s Notes on Democracy (Knopf, 1926).


The winds of the world are bitter to Homo vulgaris.  He likes the warmth and safety of the herd, and he likes a bell-wether with a clarion bell.

The art of politics, under democracy, is simply the art of ringing it.  Two branches reveal themselves.  There is the art of the demagogue, and there is the art of what may be called, by a shot-gun marriage of Latin and Greek, the demaslave.  They are complementary, and both of them are degrading to their practitioners.  The demagogue is one who preaches doctrines he knows to be untrue to men he knows to be idiots.  The demaslave is one who listens to what these idiots have to say and then pretends that he believes it himself.  Every man who seeks elective office under democracy has to be either the one thing or the other, and most men have to be both.  The whole process is one of false pretences and ignoble concealments.  No educated man, stating plain the elementary notions that every educated man holds about the matters that principally concern government, could be elected to office in a democratic state, save perhaps by a miracle…

The typical American law-maker… knows the taste of boot-polish…  His public life is an endless series of evasions and false pretences.  He is willing to embrace any idea, however idiotic, that will get him votes, and he is willing to sacrifice any principle, however sound, that will lose them for him.  I do not describe the democratic politician at his inordinate worst; I describe him as he is encountered in the full sunshine of normalcy.


H. L. Mencken seemed to enjoy the exposure and notice afforded him by the privilege of writing editorials, (which is not to understate the effect of his articles and books).  Albert J. Nock, also an editor and author, seemed content, on the other hand, merely to lay his thoughts on paper and take no heed whether he had made an impression or a difference.  But both men were sharp observers of the behavior of people under the influence of demagogues, and both came to approximately the same dismal prognosis for democracy in America.  -David A. Woodbury-