Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

The Democratic Transformation of the State

In the introduction to the present study democracy was described as a particular form of political government and a method of protection against government abuse. We now propose to examine the efficacy of this method. Modern democracies were brought into existence through victorious opposition to systems reputedly characterized by misgovernment and overgovernment. The blame of tyranny thrown at the old regimes concerned both wrong direction of government activity and the quantity of it. Democratic rule was expected to demonstrate its worth by refraining from any of the costly encroachments which aroused the people's anger against the kings. At the bottom of this early democratic hope we find the plausible argument that, since excess of government is painfully felt by the people, rulers subjected to periodical election cannot help governing as little as possible. Actually, over a long period, government did not make itself very noticeable in the daily life of most citizens in democratic America. On the other hand, French democracy soon gave birth to what was often described as the first embodiment of modern totalitarianism, i.e., the Jacobin rule.

At this point the notion of overgovernment needs to be elaborated. Let us keep in mind that, according to the beliefs commonly received in the early phase of modern democracy, government is bad whenever it is not strictly needed for survival, and perhaps even when it is strictly needed. Aversion to overgovernment was associated in the early democratic conscience with the dogma that government is no more than a necessary evil or, at best, the remedy for a deficient state of affairs. It is of decisive importance to determine whether the invalidation of this dogma leaves any ground for such aversion. Granted that government is necessary and good, independently of all deficiency, by virtue of the very nature of society, is there any ground for the proposition that government activity should be at all times kept down to a minimum, no matter whether circumstances demand that this minimum be high or that it be low?

The meaning of this problem can easily be specified through a simple example. A group of pioneers has settled in a valley. One purpose of this new community is to develop the valley into rich farm land. In the selection of the means, either one of the following arrangements may obtain: (1) The valley is owned collectively, and work is managed in a unitary fashion. every decision of importance is made by the valley authority; the system admitted of a thoroughly consistent realization, functions, teams, and persons would be mere instruments operated by the power of the community. (2) The valley is owned collectively, and all important decisions are made at the top of the organization; but, within the supreme agency, the heads of each function enjoy a large amount of initiative. The over-all directing board considers only the issues which cannot conceivably be settled within the limits of a particular function. (3) The valley is divided into fields, and each field is intrusted to an individual family, which exercises sovereignty within it, so far as family life and farming are concerned. Public utilities may be directly managed by the valley authority, but the spirit which produced private ownership of the land is likely to promote also a large amount of self-rule in the organization of each administrative department. The question under examination is this: Assuming that the various methods of management yield the same amount of crops, is there any definite reason to prefer management by the larger unit to management by the smaller unit?

The answer was foreshadowed in our inquiry into the most essential function of authority. Again, the reason why the direction of society toward the common good is not sufficiently effected by the enlightened good will of perfect citizens is that the particularization of interests, of activities, and of capacities is itself an element of the common good. The common good itself demands that not all interests, activities, and capacities should be common but that diversity should be produced in the two orders symbolized by the function and the homestead. The metaphysical law which demands such diversity demands also that no task which can be satisfactorily fulfilled by the smaller unit should ever be assumed by the larger unit. The principle of autonomy is implicitly asserted in the argument designed to establish the principle of authority.{23} It is perfectly obvious that there is more life and, unqualifiedly, greater perfection in a community all parts of which are full of initiative than in a community whose parts act merely as instruments transmitting the initiative of the whole. Abundance of life in all parts of the community is such an important phase of the common good that direct management by the whole is preferable only when the difference with regard to fulfilment of a task is very great. If, for instance, the exploitation of the valley under collective management means sufficiency for all and private exploitation causes general destitution, let the principle of better fulfilment prevail and management be collective. If, on the other hand, production is but slightly greater under collective management, let management be private, for a slight increase in production does not balance the loss which is suffered when men, instead of having affairs of their own to manage, on which to think and to deliberate with hope, with responsibility, with the dignity of initiative and choice, and with a continual urge to be alive, have but to take orders and carry them out in the management of common affairs.

Management by the smaller unit is often, but not always, the more efficient and the more orderly. Transfer of tasks from smaller to greater units is often indicated by the circumstances of modern economy. When such issues arise, it is of the utmost importance to remember that the values which concentration jeopardizes are among those which matter most for the fulness of rational life in persons and in the community. Any institution designed to centralize deliberation, decision, and command tends to bring subordinate persons down to the level of the slave, as described by Aristotle: he is an intelligent instrument, but his power of understanding hardly exceeds what is needed to grasp an order and to execute it.

Every power is exposed to the temptation of including in the domain that it directly rules things which might, without obvious disadvantage, be left out of it. In the government of a business enterprise and in any managerial office, those are declared excellent administrators who succeed in distributing functions to units and subunits in such a way as to retain only the over-all issues which do not admit of distribution. An organization enjoying such perfect order is really alive; waste is eliminated, and the highest authority has but to effect the direction of a life that is plentiful. One reason why good administrators are few is that the organization of autonomy demands the kind of effort that men fear most, i.e., the effort aimed at nondestructive simplicity. It is comparatively easy to struggle through long workdays with particular cases and minute details. It is also comparatively easy to simplify things by destroying a good part of their reality. But it is difficult to effect the kind of simplification which, under more rational, loftier forms, preserves everything and fosters a tendency toward plenitude; by virtue of such simplicity, authority is fully true to its essence and associates itself with autonomy in entirely normal fashion.{24}

The reluctance of men in power to foster or even to tolerate autonomy is known to be greatest when the power which they hold is that of the state. The history of all nations shows that states have a tendency to take over, whenever they can, functions that used to belong to smaller units of public administration, such as provinces or counties, or to private organizations, such as business enterprises, or to families, or to the church. Prior to the experience of modern democracy it could be considered with verisimilitude that state imperialism was a proper effect of monarchic or aristocratic government. Great hopes derived from the belief in the purification of the state by democratic control. Institutions calculated to hold in check the power of the state often are obstacles to efficiency and prove harmful in many respects; dispensing with them would be immeasurably beneficial if only the destructiveness of state imperialism was no longer to be feared. The argument used by Bossuet to vindicate the absolutism of the king got hold of the democratic conscience. The king, according to Bossuet, must be absolute, that is, free from bondage, because, if he is not, he cannot do the things that his function demands.{25} With regard to the possibility of abuse, Bossuet chooses the first of the conceivable solutions mentioned in the first lines of this chapter: "Misgovernment can either be forestalled by the enlightened wisdom of those who govern, or it can be held in check by the resistance of those who are governed." He trusts that the enlightened justice of the good kings will steadily outweigh the damage wrought by the bad ones. In the theory of the democratic transformation of the state, democracy is like the good king of Bossuet: enlightened and just, it can be trusted with means of action which could not be safely put in other hands.{26} But Jacobin rule soon demonstrated that there is such a thing as a democratic absolutism. In so far as the old regimes were political organizations (even the power of Louis XIV was limited in many respects), there were some guaranties that the state would remain confined within the field delivered to its activities; the aristocracy and various autonomous organizations were particular about these guaranties. In democratic revolutions the people storms the field of government, after which institutions designed to keep the government within its field are sometimes allowed to decay; they are reputed no longer to be indispensable, since power is in the hands of an agent who, by a privilege that the king of Bossuet never possessed, can do no wrong.

With regard to this all-important issue of the democratic transformation of the state, much can be learned from Proudhon's attitude of relentless opposition to democracy. This attitude contains a paradox which is not completely explained by the consideration that, as an anarchist, Proudhon opposes all governments. For one thing, he is not an unqualified anarchist; in the last phase of his career the doctrine of anarchy matures into a system of federal government. Further, it is not only because the democratic state is a state that Proudhon treats it, according to the circumstances, with diffidence or with aversion. In spite of all that he has in common with the democratic movement, Proudhon has a very precise reason for criticizing democracy more than any other polity: in his judgment the belief in the democratic transformation of the state gives absolutism a particularly redoubtable chance.

In his early works Proudhon predicted and recommended the complete supersession of the state by the rational organization of economic relations. But toward the end of his career he asserted that the state is indestructible, and his policies changed. A never ending struggle for the elimination of the state would be an absurd waste of energy. The real duty is to keep the state confined within the functions that belong to it irreducibly and to hold in check its always threatening tendency to trespass, to encroach, to invade, and to destroy. Although he no longer questions the everlasting necessity of the state, Proudhon continues to consider it with extreme diffidence. He is used to erecting human facts, when they prove strikingly permanent, into essential necessities; at least, he likes to speak the language of essential necessity whenever he deals with facts whose permanence is of great human significance. The state, accordingly, is described as possessed, on account of its very essence, with a tendency toward absolutism. What Proudhon means by this word resembles what we have come to know under the name of "totalitarianism," although he could not have had the slightest suspicion of the dimensions of crime in the totalitarian state. The tendency to monopolize, to effect direct management of an ever increasing multitude of functions, to assume continually increased powers, is not an accident connected with a particular form of government, such as hereditary monarchy; for every state, democratic or not, participates in the character of the prince and there is no withering-away of the state. The salvation of society depends on institutions provided with a power of resistance equal to the imperialism of the state. Among these institutions private property plays a distinguished part.{27}

A critical examination of this theory should comprise, in the first place, a vindication of everything that pertains to the essence of the state. This has been done in the preceding chapter. Let us merely recall, first, that the state is essentially defined not by coercion but by the completeness of the common good that it pursues, so far as the temporal order is concerned, and, second, that state coercion admits of being used in an entirely ethical manner. Once more, what is wrong is not coercion but the state of affairs which makes it necessary.

None of the necessary features of the state implies any imperialistic tendency. But we do not have to consider only the essence of the state and of its instruments, the psychology of the men in power ought to be considered also.{28} In this respect the least that can be said is that the men who run the state are constantly subjected to the temptation of developing imperialistic covetousness and lust for absolute power. When we speak of "good" statesmen, we generally have in mind the kind and degree of goodness that history shows to be achievable by statesmen in not exceedingly rare circumstances; then even good statesmen are by no means free from the temptations of absolutism. In so far as they are enlightened, they are likely to be aware of these temptations; and, in so far as they are men of good will, these temptations are likely to be resisted. But their enlightenment is not perfect, and their good will is sometimes weak. Now a huge amount of evil can be done by fairly enlightened men of rather good will through the operation of propensities of which they are not completely aware. In fact, the state will be, most of the time, in the hands of men whose lights are vague and whose virtue is, to say the least, uncertain. From all this it clearly results that the state ought to be treated as a kind of permanent aggressor that continually threatens the very substance of society. Whoever dares to say such things seems to attribute to the state some sort of evil essence. Perhaps Proudhon did not succeed in removing such a risk; or perhaps he did not care. Is it so difficult to understand that effects traced by some to the absurd fiction of an evil essence of the state can be fully accounted for by the psychological dispositions that power inevitably produces in the men who hold power?

In the contemporary struggle between democracy and the totalitarian state, not a few persons were rendered hesitant or were even perverted into unconscious betrayal of their principles by the consideration that a democracy, after all, can be a totalitarian state. Let us ponder over the meaning of this apprehension. To say that democracy cannot be totalitarian because a state which has become totalitarian is no longer democratic would probably be true, but it would be of little relevance. It would probably be true, for the features of the totalitarian state prove incompatible with the definition of democracy. Contemporary experience shows that no totalitarian state can stand the test of an election and that totalitarianism demands the one-party system. But the relevant question is whether democracy can give birth to a totalitarian state, albeit at the cost of its own destruction. The traditional propensities of Jacobin democracy command an answer in the affirmative.

The illusion of the democratic transformation of the state is completely dissipated when it is understood that, in order to save society from state absolutism, it is not enough to incorporate into the structure of the state a system of checks, balances, and constitutional guaranties. Not even the ultimate check constituted by the control of the people over the governing personnel suffices; this control may not be genuine and it may also become the accomplice of state absolutism, for the passions which make for absolutism may get hold of the people itself, even though to its disadvantage.{29} In democracy as well as in nondemocratic polities the absolutism of the state must be held in check by forces external to the state apparatus. This does not mean that the guaranties procured by democratic forms are held ineffective or unimportant; they are important but would soon disappear if they were not supplemented by external institutions.

First among these institutions comes the freedom of the church. Although the proper concern of the spiritual society is eternal life, its liberty is such an obstacle to encroachments by the state that every tyranny is eager to suppress it. According to circumstances and to the idiosyncrasies of the rulers, the campaign against the church as a stronghold of temporal liberties is conducted through bloody persecution, unbloody persecution, diplomacy, etc.

Next comes the freedom of the press. We saw that the process of persuasion which is of the essence of democracy requires open discussion of all matters submitted to the people's deliberation. Principles and ends are no matters of deliberation, but, as recalled, the border line is generally uncertain between what is principle and what is conclusion, what is end and what is means; let the benefit of the doubt be given to freedom. Now, over and above its particular relation to democracy, freedom of the press is largely vindicated by the part that it plays in the protection of society against government abuses.

It is hardly necessary to elaborate on the services rendered to public liberty by the private school, the independent labor union, the autonomous co-operative, and, finally, by private ownership and free enterprise. True, several of these institutions may become highly destructive if their powers of initiative and expansion go beyond the proper limits. The freedom of the press may easily produce public immorality, slander, hateful strife, skepticism, the dissolution of the community spirit. The independent action of labor unions may, under crucial circumstances, place a dictatorial power in the hands of a minority, suspend the operation of the responsible authorities, and endanger public health, national defense, etc. And more than a century of socialist criticism has sufficiently advertised the evils that can be worked by private ownership and free enterprise.

Whenever an institution is provided with antinomic powers and causes much evil as well as a great amount of indispensable good, the task of human wisdom is to find a principle capable of safeguarding the good and forestalling the evil.

This is a significant platitude. Let another one be uttered: if a principle is expected to work without a high ratio of failure, disappointment is bound to follow. There is no reason why we should not improve indefinitely our understanding of the principles concerning the relations between the state and the church, the state and labor organizations, etc. But, no matter how properly understood and felicitously formulated these principles may be, their application will always involve uncertainty and risk. At this point a significant division takes place between two sorts of minds, those who accept with determination the prospect of never ending uncertainties, never ending trials and errors, incomplete successes, and new failures and those who decide that institutions causing so much trouble, opposing such obstacles to the reign of reason in society, entertaining in human history darkly mysterious regions, must disappear, regardless of the cost. Here is a choice whose consequences must be well understood. To take only one example: so long as the labor unions are endowed with the right to strike, there will never be any perfect guaranty of smoothness in the relations between labor and the rest of society; in spite of all measures calculated to keep striking within the limits set by the public good, unwise labor leaders will occasionally take advantage of the loopholes of the law, put forward unreasonable demands, pervert labor action into oligarchic exploitation, threaten national economy through ill-timed campaigns, etc. Legislative wisdom and appropriate contracts can do much to curb such evils, but the only way to suppress them is to put an end to the liberties of labor organizations. If the rate of wages is decided by the agents of a state powerful enough to keep the situation well in hand, nothing happens. The average consumer does not have to worry about being short of coal in winter as a result of the independent action of a few private persons. There is a general impression of orderliness reminiscent of the pictures of infallible regularity that technological feats have imprinted on our minds. But liberty is gone and death is coming.


At the conclusion of an inquiry into democratic freedom it is fitting to ponder over the common opinion which sets in opposition authority and democracy and, more generally, authority and freedom. According to this opinion, which is so firmly established in many minds that the need to formulate it clearly is almost never felt, authority and liberty, though both necessary, oppose each other in such fashion that the growth of one of them implies the decline of the other. Since both are held necessary, they must be supplementary in some way, but they are more opposite than supplementary. Circumstances may demand the strengthening of authority; so much the better, then, if authority grows stronger, but let us know where we are going and realize that liberty is being curtailed; and, if the progress of society implies the growth of liberty, let it be understood that a progressive society is a society in which authority is declining. In the same commonly held assemblage of thoughts, democracy is a device for the elimination of authority. It is liberty itself embodied in institutions proper to its genius. These views are not understood to imply that a community can do without authority; but if authority is held indestructible, then, in the same measure, democracy is held not to be entirely realizable. It is worth noticing that such views prevail among conservatives as well as among supporters of democratic progress.

From the previous analysis of the functions of authority (chap. i) it results that there is opposition between authority and liberty when the function of authority is substitutional, not when the function of authority is essential. This basic proposition can be developed as follows:

1. The progress of society and of liberty makes for the decline of authority so far as the paternal function of authority is concerned. Thus, for a community subjected to colonial rule, freedom means such a state of affairs that the foreign rulers can disappear without damage to the community, and do disappear.

2. A community is capable of greater freedom if it is capable of unanimity whenever the means to the common good is uniquely determined; it is more primitive or decadent and less capable of liberty if, even when the means to the common good is uniquely determined, it fails to achieve unanimity and needs to achieve unity by way of authority.

3. The progress of society and of liberty requires that at every given moment in the evolution of a community the greatest possible number of tasks should be directly managed by individuals and smaller units, the smallest possible number by the greater units.

But, with regard to the essential functions of authority, there is no conflict whatsoever between authority and liberty. The more definitely a community is directed toward its common good and protected from disunity in its common action, the more perfect and the more free it is.

Between authority and liberty there is both opposition and supplementariness. Which one of the two aspects ultimately predominates? The answer is obvious, since opposition prevails in the substitutional domain of authority, supplementariness in its essential domain. Ultimately and absolutely, authority and liberty are more supplementary than opposite.

In order to interpret popular ideas concerning the conflict between democracy and authority, it is helpful to examine the various meanings of such expressions as "authoritarianism" and "authoritarian method," which are constantly used in opposition to "democracy and "democratic method." Notice that, even in circles where democracy is held suspicious, the connotations of "authoritarianism" and related expressions are not particularly good.

1. Of all perversions of political authority, the most obvious and the most detestable is the subservience of public power to the private interest of the men who hold power. In many contexts the word "authority" and related words are understood to refer to the dominion of servitude. Civil government is so plainly unrelated, by essence, to government for the private welfare of the persons in power that it is hard to understand how it ever was believed that the use of civil government for private purposes could be anything else than accident and abuse. The explanation apparently lies in pictures received from old societies where public power was commonly vested in men also enjoying the situation of mastery. When civil power over the people and mastery over many slaves are found in the same person, the peculiarities of the second relationship have a good chance of being transferred to the first. The suppression of aristocratic privilege has done a great deal for the purification of the notion of civil rule. In order for this notion to be fully recognized according to its nature, one more step in the direction of equal exchange is needed. So long as the upper class, which inevitably supplies a great part of the governing personnel, is commonly engaged in economic processes involving exploitation, there will be a temptation, for the public conscience, to misinterpret political rule as dominion of exploitation.

2. By the theory of paternal authority set forth in the first chapter of this book, we consider it entirely normal that authority should be treated as sheer abuse when there is reference to a paternal authority which outlives its necessity.

3. A similar view holds in the case of an authority which indulges in the tendency to extend beyond the narrowest possible measure the domain of the things to be managed directly by itself. Any infraction against the principle of autonomy can be described as authoritarian conduct and ought to convey unfavorable judgment, since it signifies that authority is operating beyond the right.

4. In the preceding three cases the contrast is not so much between authority and democracy as between authority and justice. When the meaning of the adjective "authoritarian" is set in special contrast to the kind of freedom that is the proper effect of democracy, the connotation of abuse has less propriety; for rejecting the democratic method is not always abusive; it may be the greater good under the circumstances. Democratic freedom essentially consists in the control of the people over the governing personnel through the procedure of periodical election; accordingly, any method which subtracts the governing personnel from the control of the people can be termed "authoritarian." Yet power not subjected to democratic control is not necessarily iniquitous.

5. We propose to describe, in the next chapter, a certain perversion of democratic thought and emotion which endeavors to eliminate the substance of authority and blames as authoritarian every procedure in which authority asserts its genuine nature. The history of political ideas in modern times reveals the operation of a theory which destroys authority without burdening itself with the common paradoxes of anarchy. We shall coin a name for this theory. So far, for lack of a proper name, it has often been called the "theory of democracy."

{23} Leo XIII, Rerum novarum. "Let the State watch over these societies of citizens united together in the exercise of their right; but let it not thrust itself into their peculiar concerns and their organization, for things move and live by the soul within them, and they may he killed by the grasp of a hand from without."

{24} Thomas Aquinas Sum. theol. i. 103. 6, trans. A. C. Pegis (title of the article: Whether all things are immediately Governed by God?): ". . . since things which are governed should be brought to perfection by government, this government will be so much the better in the degree that the things governed are brought to perfection. Now it is a greater perfection for a thing to be good in itself and also the cause of goodness in others, than only to be good in itself. Therefore God so governs things that He makes some of them to be causes of others in government; as in the case of a teacher, who not only imparts knowledge to his pupils, but also makes some of them to be the teachers of others."

{25} Bossuet, Politique tirée des propres paroles de l'Écriture Sainte, Book IV, a. 1 (OEuvres complètes [Paris: Lefèvre & Didor, 1836], X, 347): "Without this absolute authority, he [the prince] can neither do the good, nor curb the evil: his power must be such that nobody may hope to escape it: and the only safeguard of particular persons, against public power, must be their innocence."

{26} Élie Halévy, Histoire du socialisme Européen (Paris: Gallimard, 1948), p. 30 (the writer refers to the English radicals of the 1830's): "The old diffidence of the Whigs toward the state was due to its aristocratic and oligarchic constitution; as soon as universal suffrage took it away from the hands of a caste, the radicals assumed that it could procure the interest of the greatest number."

{27} P.-J. Proudhon, Théorie de la propriété (a posthumous book) (Paris: Lacroix. Verboeckhoven et Cie, 1866), p. 137.

{28} On the psychology of the men in power see Bertrand Russell, Proposed Roads to Freedom (New York: Henry Holt & Co., 1919), pp. 128-29.

{29} Jefferson never lost sight of the danger of absolutism in the democratically controlled state (Notes on Virginia [Memorial ed.; Washington, 1903], II, 162-63). The writer is surveying what he terms the "capital defects of the constitution": "All the powers of government, legislative, executive, and judiciary, result to the legislative body. The concentrating these in the same hands is precisely the definition of despotic government. It will be no alleviation that these powers will be exercised by a plurality of hands, and not by a single one. One hundred and seventy-three despots would surely be as oppressive as one. Let those who doubt it turn their eyes on the republic of Venice. As little will it avail us that they are chosen by ourselves. An elective despotism was not the government we fought for, but one which should not only be founded on free principles, but in which the powers of government should be so divided and balanced among several bodies of magistracy, as that no one could transcend their legal limits, without being effectually checked and restrained by the others."

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