Jonathan Sumption

Majority rules OK?

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Setting the People Free: The Story of Democracy

John Dunn

Atlantic Books, pp. 246, £

It was the second world war Allies, according to John Dunn, who converted ‘democracy’ into a slogan. Their object was innocent enough. They wanted to identify themselves by a word which signified everything that the Axis powers were not. Yet a word that could embrace both Stalin’s Russia and Roosevelt’s United States must have seemed rather elastic even at the time. Honest thinkers have had more difficulty in deciding what it means. At one extreme, it has its literal meaning: a system of government by the people. At the other, it has no meaning at all: just a hurrah word for whatever political arrangements the speaker admires, as in the expression ‘Democratic and Popular Republic of North Korea’.

The starting point of Dunn’s remarkable book is that in its proper sense only the Athenians have ever really tried democracy. They put the power to make laws and conduct public affairs in the hands of a general assembly of all citizens, and allowed large citizen juries, which were in effect mini-assemblies, to pronounce on innocence and guilt in criminal cases. Athens was a unique political laboratory, a society supported by a large population of slaves, foreigners and voteless women, in which only about 30,000 adult males, perhaps a tenth of the population, had full political rights. The model is probably impractical in any larger or more inclusive community, although the advent of modern electronic communications may change that.

What is striking, however, is that the Athenian design has usually been rejected not just on practical grounds but on principle. The list of its critics begins with Plato, who argued for government based on virtue, not interest, and excoriated the Athenian democrats who judicially murdered his teacher Socrates for no better reason than that they didn’t like the cut of his jib. More than two millennia afterwards, James Madison, the main author of the United States Constitution, refused to use the word ‘democracy’. He regarded it as a term of abuse, an invitation to religious bigotry, inflation, the abolition of debts, the equal division of property, ‘and other improper or wicked projects’.

The great historian Sir Lewis Namier famously said of 18th-century England that it was an ‘aristocracy tempered by riots’. By the same token, modern democracies might be described as oligarchies tempered by elections. All durable systems of government require some source of legitimacy in the eyes of the governed. Popular election is the only available source of legitimacy in a secular world of fragmented political sentiment in which virtue is as debatable a concept as it ever was. The unspoken object of all modern democratic constitutions, written or unwritten, is to treat the people as a source of legitimacy, while preventing them from using their power to forward ‘improper or wicked projects’.

Two barriers have commonly been interposed between the people and the levers of power. The first is law, with its formidable bias in favour of private rights and traditional social expectations, and a corps of professional judges to administer it who are not accountable to the electorate for their decisions. The second is the concept of representation, which filters out popular prejudice by vesting the power of decision in an elected political class united by a body of shared values often at odds with popular sentiment. Modern representative democracy provides career politicians with an incentive not to frustrate the popular will too often or too grossly. But it confers no rights on the electorate apart from the right to dismiss the oligarchy of the moment every few years, and replace it by another, generally of much the same kind.

The great object is to prevent democracy from destroying liberty. In particular, it is to prevent it from destroying economic liberty, a necessary condition of prosperity but one which leads to a large measure of inequality, envy and division. It must be doubtful whether any notion of economic liberty would survive a prolonged dose of Athenian-style democracy. But two centuries of experience suggests that it can thrive under the more limited, representative version. The egalitarian instinct makes a powerful emotional appeal. But electors have proved willing to contain it in their broader economic interest. That may not be very virtuous of them, but it is pragmatically convenient and responds well to the natural and fertile covetousness of human nature.

Dunn identifies the Babouviste conspiracy in France in 1796 as the moment when the authoritarian Left perceived, or at least articulated, the truth that Madison had recognised in America a decade earlier. The Babouvistes wanted to overthrow the relatively liberal bourgeois regime that had taken power after the death of Robespierre, and replace it with what they called ‘democracy’. But what they meant by this was not a system of government. It was a programme of enforced equality, to be achieved by excluding their opponents from the new and carefully vetted National Assembly that would follow their revolution. Their target was the regrettable self-interest of the people whom they purported to serve, or (in the phrase of their most articulate theorist) ‘the English doctrine of the economists’. Their attitudes looked back to the authoritarian virtue of Plato, and forward to the political techniques of Lenin. They were the first modern enemies of the open society.

The framework of Setting the People Free is historical. But John Dunn’s book is much more than a history of democratic ideas. What he has done is to use historical examples as pegs on which to hang a discussion of some of the fundamental dilemmas of all democratic societies, and an opening to his own thoughts about them. The result is among the most original and thought-provoking books on politics to have been published in England for many years, written in a spare, incisive English style which at its best is worthy of Hobbes. To the sage of Malmesbury’s many admirers, there is no higher praise than that.