Democracy: The Greatest Threat to Democracy?

Having written about the rhetorical and academic perils of assuming a direct relation between modern political concerns and those of people in past times, such as the Founding Fathers, it might be worth looking at some of the more practical dangers in this line of reasoning. To provide some grounding for my subject, “democracy,” consider the original extent of the electoral franchise in America: generally, only white male property owners could vote, and many positions for which citizens now elect candidates (Senators, the President) were appointed by representatives of the state governments. One could conclude that the Founders were a cabal of racist, sexist oligarchs, but this would be the same anachronistic error: it denounces historical persons for failure to live up to modern standards as if these standards were as relevant and influential then as they are today. The Founders were influenced by the prevailing ideals of their times, in which their “white supremacist patriarchal oligarchy” was one of the freest and most accountable forms of government on Earth.1 Hopefully, this is another area (like gun politics) where we connect with the spirit of the Founders’ ideals, rather than the implementation. When people talk about bringing the country back to the ideals the Founders wanted, surely they mean this in terms of general, abstract principles.

We could hope for that, but in vain. Recently, several public figures have expressed a desire to limit the franchise to property owners, or called into question the wisdom of allowing the poor to vote. Consider this statement by Tea Party Nation President Judson Phillips:

The Founding Fathers originally said, they put certain restrictions on who gets the right to vote. It wasn’t you were just a citizen and you got to vote. Some of the restrictions, you know, you obviously would not think about today. But one of those was you had to be a property owner. And that makes a lot of sense, because if you’re a property owner you actually have a vested stake in the community. If you’re not a property owner, you know, I’m sorry but property owners have a little bit more of a vested interest in the community than non-property owners.

Or from this essay by pundit Matthew Vadum:

…the poor can be counted on to vote themselves more benefits by electing redistributionist politicians. Welfare recipients are particularly open to demagoguery and bribery.

Registering them to vote is like handing out burglary tools to criminals.  It is profoundly antisocial and un-American to empower the nonproductive segments of the population to destroy the country — which is precisely why Barack Obama zealously supports registering welfare recipients to vote.

Encouraging those who burden society to participate in elections isn’t about helping the poor.  It’s about helping the poor to help themselves to others’ money.  It’s about raw so-called social justice.  It’s about moving America ever farther away from the small-government ideals of the Founding Fathers.

We should, of course, be disturbed by such sentiments, but what’s new here isn’t that people think like this, it’s that they’re being so open about it. The “competence question” is a common critique of democracy that argues that allowing everyone to vote is unwise since not all people are equally competent to make political decisions. It’s a neat trick that makes it easy to disenfranchise various groups so long as sufficiently few people understand that the purpose of democracy isn’t good government, but just government. It is unjust to subject people to laws unless they consent to the authority of the lawmakers. Democratic government is accountable government, and reducing the franchise is generally a way to make political decisions about people without their input. There are limits to this principle, of course: children are not allowed to vote on grounds of competency, but children are also not fully accountable to the law, and are not responsible for their own upkeep and legal participation, this being the obligation of parents or guardians. When people start wondering if some group is really competent to vote, or if there ought to be some special requirement, they should be asked if they are comfortable with grown adults being tried as juveniles and provided for as wards of the state.

This specific argument takes the question of competency and adds an explicit economic dimension. The poor are not competent to vote because they don’t have a “vested interest in the community.” While they presumably have a vested interest in the laws to which they are subject, this is itself a threat, since their interest is in voting themselves a share of others’ wealth. Poor voters thus cannot be trusted with the vote, since they will undermine the institution that is truly important to promoters of this opinion: property. The hidden, underlying assumption here is that property is more important than accountable government.

It’s important to note that concerns of “mob rule” by which a majority deprives a minority are sound: we would not accept a democracy in which it is possible to make some religions illegal, for example, simply because enough people of one faith vote to abolish their religious rivals. Prudent limits on democratic decision making exist to contain these possibilities. The Bill of Rights denies Congress the power to pass laws prohibiting freedom of religion, and property rights are implicitly protected by several provisions of the Constitution. In neither case should we accept that limiting the right to vote to some groups is an appropriate solution, when limiting the scope of the law is sufficient.

What concerns me especially about this line of thinking, then, is not so much that its proponents value property, but that they value it enough to maim the principle of accountable government. They have decided that welfare is an end-run around protections of property (with rationalizations of varying degrees of sophistication for why other forms of public spending for general security and wellbeing are not) and that the Founders’ concerns about suffrage and property have been borne out.

It should be noted that those of the Founders who supported a property requirement were much more thoughtful and nuanced in their reasoning than modern pundits. Enabling looting by the poor majority was not the extent of their concerns. The vague and unelaborated “stake in the community” Phillips invoked was a real argument. Its meaning was that those who owned property in a community were tied to it, while those without property were like unto foreigners and wanderers in their lack of roots. Other Founders (such as Jefferson) recognized a wider array of attachments to community than just property. In any case, this concern is less relevant today, when information and communication technology allows for transient citizens to more easily and legitimately change residency status. It’s also not clear that renters and employees have significantly more freedom to pick up stakes and leave than homeowners and entrepreneurs.2

Another concern would probably give many Tea Party luminaries pause: some Founders (such as Madison) argued that those without property, meaning essentially capital, were economically dependent on those who had property, and thus the independence of their vote could not be assured as they might feel the need to vote in their bosses’ interests, or be prone to their bosses’ coercion. The principle was that those who do not give their vote freely are not truly represented by those who get their vote, but rather it is those who dictate how others vote who are represented. While it might seem contradictory to limit the political power of the rich by barring the poor from voting, there is a method to this madness. Not all propertied men prosper equally, and the more lucrative one’s firm is, the more people it is likely to employ. In the worst case scenario that all a firm’s employees vote as the owner suggests or in his interests, political influence would scale with wealth. A property requirement would at least prevent “big business” from dominating “small business,” such as the independent, family-owned small farms and craft shops typical of the middle class at the time. With today’s concerns over crafting economic policy to placate “job creators” and the fact that there is now no limit to the amount of money one can spend promoting a political cause or candidate, this seems a more relevant manifestation of the Founders’ fears than welfare as legalized plunder.3

The idea of democracy as fundamentally flawed due to class conflict over property has become widespread, and history is sometimes employed to give it an air of legitimacy. This is not only an erroneous abuse of history, but a dangerous one. Consider the text of a tract passed by chain email:

In 1887 Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinborough, had this to say about the fall of the Athenian Republic some 2,000 years prior:

A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.

The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence:

From bondage to spiritual faith
From spiritual faith to great courage
From courage to liberty
From liberty to abundance
From abundance to complacency
From complacency to apathy
From apathy to dependence
From dependence back into bondage.

Following this is a breakdown of which parts of the country voted for McCain or Obama, with the conclusion that McCain carried the taxpaying landowner vote, and Obama the criminal welfare vote, with an assertion that the US is not a democracy, but a Constitutional Republic (ignoring the fact that when people say “democracy” today, they almost always mean “representative democracy”) tacked on at the end. This article gives us a better understanding of who “Alexander Tyler” is, while a Snopes article checks the electoral analysis (which, interestingly, was once provided for Gore and Bush, not Obama and McCain). Neither article, however, looks into the analysis of the fall of the “Athenian Republic,” an institution apparently invented to stay on message with the democracy/republic distinction, since in reality, Classical Athens was a direct democracy.

So let’s get a few things straight. The democracy of ancient Athens did not collapse into dictatorship because the citizens of Athens began voting for candidates that promised payouts from the treasury. Ancient Athenians did not elect candidates, as if for a representative lawmaking body or for bureaucratic posts, at all. Athens was a direct democracy, and all the citizens in assembly voted for laws. Positions in government were mostly chosen by lot: it was as if anyone in your neighborhood could be randomly appointed mayor for one year.4 Public funding was not simply a matter of taxation, which the poor could vote en masse to have born largely by the rich. There were taxes, but direct taxation of wealth was an emergency measure, and the most important taxes were indirect. The rich of Athens were not generally subject to ever-increasing progressive income tax. Instead, they undertook what were called “liturgies,” whereby they funded public works such as feasts, plays, religious rites, and the outfitting of warships or cavalry. They did this on a semi-voluntary basis and were motivated by shame on the one hand and desire for honor and glory on the other. Failure to undertake liturgies if you were able to was a sign of deficient civic virtue, but those wealthy citizens who gladly took up a liturgy were honored for their service, effectively channeling aristocratic glory-seeking into noblesse oblige. Additionally, this imparted political influence on the rich, since poorer citizens would be inclined to support the city’s benefactors. As Athenian trials were held before a jury of hundreds of citizens which could vote to convict or acquit for any reason whatsoever, this was a powerful advantage. The relationship between poor citizens, rich citizens, and the government was thus not a matter of the poor masses voting for politicians to plunder the rich, but of rich citizens undertaking expensive public works to display their civic virtue and win the political support of the poor. If any of the Founders’ concerns about property and voting held valid in ancient Athens, the susceptibility of the dependent poor to the influence of their rich patrons was more in evidence than the fear of legalized plunder. Even here, though, the Athenians had a check, for they could vote to banish any citizen from the city for ten years for any reason. This ostracism (the origin of the word) was often used to limit the influence of the rich and powerful by removing them.

There is an interesting example of Athenian democracy failing which reveals a lot about the true threat to democratic government from class conflict. After the Persian Wars, Athens formed an alliance called the Delian League to guard the Greek world from future incursions by Persia. Eventually, though, this alliance effectively became an empire, as funds for the military provision became tribute to Athens. The growth of the Athenian Empire’s power led to conflict with Sparta, and the Peloponnesian War. It was in the final years of this war, as Athens was losing, that the democracy faltered. Athens had become dependent on tribute for its treasury, and cut off from its vassals by the Spartan military, this source of funding was unavailable. The need for military liturgies thus became even greater, and at this point the rich of Athens started to grate against the expectation that they fund the state. Eventually, they overthrew the democracy and instituted an oligarchy of 400 rich citizens, hoping to get Persian support for their cause thereby. After Sparta defeated Athens, it installed a puppet oligarchy of 30 rulers, which limited the franchise to property owners.

An incident in American history begs for comparison: the Business Plot of 1934, in which American businessmen tried to organize a fascist coup in order to stop Roosevelt’s apparent slide towards communist or socialist policy. Fascism in general was hostile to communism, and often had the support of business interests seeking security from threats to capitalism. The historical fascist governments in Italy and Germany grew out of liberal democracies, and there is no indication that Mussolini and Hitler rode a wave of poor voters seeking state handouts to power. Rather, appeals to nationalism, scapegoat bigotry for economic problems, and anti-communism were their major selling points. Mussolini’s blackshirts were strike-breakers and his “corporatist” third way economics, while designed to unify the interests of capital and labor, tended to subjugate unions to the benefit of businessmen. Hitler derived much of his support from small businessmen and professionals who feared communism and some of his most appealing rhetoric blamed German economic problems on both Jews and Bolsheviks. With this in mind, the growing popularity of the idea of wealth redistribution as democracy’s fatal flaw is especially disturbing.

Many Americans seem convinced that we are living in an era of socialization, in which capitalism is under attack. There seems to be little real basis for this, but perception is often enough to create its own reality. When market conservatives say that only property owners have enough of a stake in their communities to be trusted with the vote, or that the poor should not be encouraged to vote lest they plunder the property of the rich, what they mean is: we value maintaining our wealth above maintaining a government accountable to its citizens. This type of rhetoric, then, is deeply ironic in that it provides a justification for the overthrow of democracy by bemoaning the unfortunate but inevitable death of democracy, a sort of manufactured self-fulfilling prophesy. Perhaps, then, the real threat to democracy isn’t the possibility of the poor voting themselves a greater and greater share of the treasury, but the rich deciding that they need their money more than we all need a vote. A close look at the times when democracies have faltered bears this conclusion out.

1. For the preceding three sentences, note that I am committing the sin of collective amalgamation here: the Founders were not a unanimous collective, and had varying opinions on the property requirement, among others. This is reflected in the varying nature of the franchise, as determining eligibility to vote was left to the states. Property requirements varied greatly, as did even gender or racial requirements. When referring to the early United States as having a very limited franchise on racial, gender, and socioeconomic class lines, this is a sort of “summary” which does not reflect the actual variety. In any case, sentiment against the property requirement was strong enough that it was the first limitation to be removed.
2. In fairness, I do not have Phillip’s statement in context, so I cannot say for sure that his idea of a “vested stake” was not about property owners having stronger ties to their community of residence. Still, without elaboration, it seems likely that this is some kind of socioeconomic “dog whistle,” and that his audience possibly interpreted property as “stake” in the community in terms of the community’s economic health should the poor vote themselves more and more welfare from the responsible taxpayers. He doesn’t actually define what he means by a community, in any case, so it’s unclear what the scope of his thinking is. Can we assume that he only meant the right to vote in state or local elections, or does this include national elections, where presumably everyone living in America has a stake in the entire nation’s laws? The original concern about having a stake in one’s community makes much more sense in the context of a federation where the constituent states are expected to be more important and powerful than the central government. The political situation of 18th and early 19th century America is closer to this model than 21st century America.
3. I draw most of this information from Vindicating the Founders by Thomas G. West. While the tone of his work is polemic, there’s no doubting the utility of the primary sources he uses to explain the beliefs of the Founders. His explanation of the varied opinions on franchise requirements has expanded my understanding of the Founders’ ideas from being simply influenced by the somewhat elitist Enlightenment ideals which valorized republics such as Rome or Sparta, to having an intellectually sound basis in their own right, even if some of their reasoning is unacceptable today. One interesting note concerns Madison’s evolving opinion on the property requirement, and deserves to be mentioned as an aside. He eventually came to support the idea of a bicameral legislature in which the upper house was elected by men of property, and the lower house without regard to property. This would balance class interests by giving those with and without property a say in policy. “Give all power to property and the indigent will be oppressed. Give it to [those without property] and the effect may be transposed. Give a defensive share to each and each will be secure.” Given that Madison once feared that voting by those without property would lead either to the destruction of property rights or to the dependent poor being used as political thralls for the rich, this reminds us that the opinions of the Founders not only differed between themselves, but changed over time as well.
4. One note of interest is that they did elect military leaders. Additionally, while all citizens in assembly voted to pass or reject laws, literal law-making was the responsibility of a randomly-appointed body of 500 persons call the Boule.


14 thoughts on “Democracy: The Greatest Threat to Democracy?

  1. Jordan Helin: “The poor are not competent to vote because they don’t have a “vested interest in the community.” While they presumably have a vested interest in the laws to which they are subject, this is itself a threat, since their interest is in voting themselves a share of others’ wealth. Poor voters thus cannot be trusted with the vote, since they will undermine the institution that is truly important to promoters of this opinion: property.”


  2. Pingback: On Agency in History « A Register of Follies

  3. Pingback: The Mask of Liberty « A Register of Follies

  4. Pingback: Quick Note: On Republics « A Register of Follies

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