Philosophy of Democratic Government / by Yves R. Simon

Natural Inequality and Structural Inequality

Let those inequalities be described as "natural" which originate in the physical constitution of men, in the use of their freedom, in the social environment. They concern perception, memory, intelligence, imagination, will power, fortitude, temperance, leadership, etc. By "structural" inequality, on the other hand, we understand the unique sort of inequality which results from relations of authority and autonomy.

Although the essence of authority is entirely realized in a community governed by majority vote, most communities use distinct governing personnel, and the constitution of authority, in most cases, places some men above other men. If, further, the principle of autonomy obtains, the larger unit runs only the affairs that cannot be run by any smaller unit, and society is organically divided into several communities characterized by decreasing amplitude of scope. As an effect of this distribution of power, social structure comprises a plurality of levels. In Rousseau's theory, structural inequality is simplified; citizens, under the sovereign, are unorganized and equal -- a state of affairs highly favorable to rationalistic experimentation on human substance. Contrary to a common opinion, hierarchical order is not a proper effect of authority; it is properly effected by the joint operation of the principles of authority and autonomy.

Where there is need for a distinct governing personnel, it is desirable that the best should be identified and placed in governing positions. But the difficulty of identifying the best is everlastingly tragic. This difficulty is a particular case of a problem familiar to logicians: the problem of recognition. There are fields of knowledge in which a definition can be completely satisfactory without supplying criteria for the recognition of the defined essence in the data of experience. We understand the definitions of the circle and the ellipse and still do not know how to distinguish a circle from an ellipse whose foci are at a short distance from each other. Instruments increase our ability to perceive the difference between a distance greater than zero (ellipse) and a distance equal to zero (circle), but the most powerful microscope does not render our power of discrimination infinite. Since, from the standpoint of theoretical science, a distance expressed in thousandths of a millimeter is just as significant as a distance expressed in miles, it should be said with no qualification that mathematical definitions do not guarantee the recognition of the defined entities in physical experience. Plainly, the problem of recognition is irrelevant in mathematics.{9} For widely different reasons it is also irrelevant in philosophic disciplines. The philosopher of nature, for instance, defines the plant and the animal as sharply distinguished by the indefinite qualitative distance separating the position of knowledge from its negation. But when the time comes to determine whether such and such a lower organism is a plant or an animal -- say, a protozoon or a protophyte -- the philosopher does not have much to say.

In other fields of knowledge a definition is worthless if it does not include criteria for the recognition of the defined. One of these fields is law. Among the factors which cause discrepancy between law and ethics, the most considerable may be this: an ethical definition is complete without criteria for recognition, but a legal definition would not work if it did not contain such criteria. Consequently, particulars of no ethical significance -- such as the crossing of a state border -- may enter into the legal definition of a crime. True, a tendency to reduce the discrepancy between the ethical and the legal is an important factor of legal progress; yet, be it only because of the need for obvious means of recognition in law, such a discrepancy often proves irreducible. The same need for clear recognition is felt in all techniques; the definition of a disease, for instance, does not satisfy the physician unless it includes rules of diagnosis. One of the general characteristics of positive science, as opposed to the philosopher's knowledge of nature, is a systematic endeavor to meet the requirements of recognition. The concept of time, for instance, does not mean anything to the physicist independently of rules for the measurement of time. Such epistemological systems as the positivism of the Vienna Circle or the operationalism of Bridgeman illustrate brilliantly the relation of the science of nature to the recognition of essences in any given empirical situation. Whether this feature of positive science results merely from an attraction exercised by technology or pertains to positive science as a distinct way of theoretical knowledge is a question of fascinating interest which obviously cannot be discussed here.

The ability to perform the duties of government is an object whose definition needs to be supplemented with means of recognition. This is the tragedy: any definition calculated to procure unmistakable recognition of the best is likely to be at variance with the true nature of political excellence. Immensely important phases of political and social history can be described as the effects of a conflict between our need for a genuine notion of the best and our need for steady recognition of those held to be the best. Most societies save face and preserve some sort of peace by forcing upon people the belief that men selected according to their criteria are infallibly the most qualified for governing positions. When such a belief is shaken, revolution threatens.

Let us survey some of the characteristics actually used by societies in their definition of the best. The first place belongs to divine origin as certified by tradition or some other sort of common assent. If a few persons, as in traditional Japan, are universally believed to be raised above ordinary mortals by participation in divine privilege, there is no quarrel as to who should govern. If the people or the most active part of it, as in Napoleonic France, believe in the divine designation of a leader, there is hardly any controversy as to who should lead. Race may also be a very handy criterion. Sometimes it works just as clearly as the distinction between black and white. Under circumstances exclusive of such obvious distinction, the old aristocracies drew great help from the willingness to believe that excellence is transmitted biologically and that hereditary titles are but an expression of transmissible excellence. Elsewhere the criterion is the ownership of land. Elsewhere it is wealth, with no further specification. Elsewhere it is spiritual character: there are societies ruled by priestly castes. Elsewhere excellence is attributed to military men, so that competition for power concerns merely rival juntas and leaves the good people unconcerned. In our time government by experts is a rather popular program. In most fields the identification of experts is commonly effected with a very low percentage of error. Were we agreed that we should be governed by the best physicists, there would be little argument as to who should govern. Political designations would involve no political campaigns. There is also in our time a tendency to classify cultural refinement -- i.e., ability to talk about abstract painting and sophisticated literature -- among the criteria of political ability. (Besides the fact that the relevance of such talent is particularly dubious, this criterion is not the handiest, for cultural refinement is not a thing that can be recognized without a very high ratio of error.) Lastly, one criterion for political excellence is party membership. This criterion is ideally clear; all that is needed is to go over a list of names kept up to date by a conscientious secretary. All our worries are over. We are almost back to the pacifying system of the divine origin. The party is the bearer of the spirit of history -- an immanent god deemed entirely trustworthy by those who have been willing to listen for some time to the propaganda of the party. Of course, competition is not tolerated; the party which is supposed to embody the genius of the people, the meaning of evolution, etc., soon achieves monopolistic rule or disappears. The people vote, but, since they all vote for the same party, excitement is at an all-time low, and many remark that things have seriously improved over the time when they had to choose among some thirty-two party organizations, as under the Constitution of Weimar.

There is in Pascal a page marked by bitterness and melancholy about the utility of clearly recognizable signs of excellence: if it is firmly understood that the man with two lackeys has precedence over the man with but one lackey, trouble about precedence will never arise. One feature of Pascal's pessimism is the belief that human societies need such practices and that attempting to replace irrational conventions by rational rules would result in destruction and greatly increased suffering. Some irrationality is not too high a price to pay for peace. In our time many hold that the certainty and definiteness procured by one-party dictatorship outweigh the inconvenience of government by criminals. Such an attitude is plainly undemocratic. Pascal's resignation to the rule of the nonrational is undemocratic. Democracy has often been described as essentially rationalistic; in the present connection at least, its determination to follow the line of rationality is not questionable. Democratic equalitarianism is a philosophy which refuses to buy peace at the cost of irrationality in the relation between natural and structural inequality. But the views of Pascal are not without some foundation, and it must be granted that democracy, by refusing to indulge in the resignation recommended by Pascal, assumes a burden of uncertainty and exposes itself to a distinct danger of strife; when a people fails, over a long period, to meet this danger and to preserve concord, the conclusion to be drawn is that the sine qua non conditions of democracy are not all satisfied.

As a sort of counterpart to the arbitrariness of most oligarchic solutions, democracy is often tempted to reject the whole problem by postulating the equal ability of all, so far as political affairs are concerned. It seems that in some ancient societies the postulate of equal ability was held essential to the democratic polity.{10} When problems of government are simple, this postulate may not necessarily entail disastrous consequences, and its disadvantages may be balanced or outweighed by felicitous effects connected with the distribution of authority. The case is somewhat similar to that of hereditary monarchy. That a man designated by birth should be intrusted with great power is intelligible if the functions of his power are so simple as to be within the range of average intelligence. One reason why hereditary monarchs, in modern societies, have to be contented with very little power is that the hazards of birth cannot be expected to bestow upon a man the gifts needed for the operation of such a complex thing as a modern state. The factor which forbids hereditary monarchs to wield much power also rules out the rotation of authority. The only case in which the postulate of equal ability and the principle of rotating leadership can still conceivably operate is that of a small rural community with a well-settled population. Community of traditions and of habits causes homogeneity; the job that can be done satisfactorily by one man of a certain age and experience is likely to be done satisfactorily by another man belonging to the same age group, and the rotation of authority has plain advantages; through it, all are given to understand that there is nothing personal about government, that government is, in all respects, a function of the community. The obnoxious illusion that power belongs to some persons after the fashion of a private advantage is destroyed by rotating leadership. A society in which all are supposed to be equally apt to hold governing positions and in which power actually passes from hand to hand may embody with exceptional purity the ideal type of the civil and political organization.

With the exception of the rare circumstances which permit rotating authority, the postulate of equal ability is so paradoxical that it is almost never spoken of. It haunts the democratic conscience without revealing its identity; over long periods it remains inactive, or its operation remains unnoticeable; it has outbursts of activity, during which it changes the face of the world, for better and for worse; it expresses a complex of thoughts and tendencies the components of which we propose to survey, beginning with the most primitive and ending with the loftiest.

1. Excellence customarily arouses envy; democratic equalitarianism may encourage this acutely antisocial feeling. Opposition to excellence and a systematic support of mediocrity are among the risks of democracy. These risks are well known and do not call for any elaboration.

2. Here is a true story: A physicist of genius was making a political speech at a public meeting. A workman was so impressed by the genius as to find the speech impressive. A man who disliked the speech said to the workman: "He knows more physics than you do, but in politics you are his equal." In fact, the physicist was not a particularly wise citizen; whether the workman was, as a citizen, equally unwise, still more unwise, or wiser we shall never know. The postulate of equal ability, as asserted here, was not really intended to mean that physicist and workman were equal in political wisdom or lack of it. It meant that the science of physics is in no way a cause or a guaranty of political ability; the craft of the mechanic does not, either, signify that its bearer is a man of sound judgment in political affairs. All other things being equal, the political judgment of the mechanic is just as good as that of the physicist. But it is not denied that other things may be unequal. The postulate of equal ability signifies here that political wisdom is not a specialty, not an expertness, not an art or a craft; that it entertains no definite connection with any particular way of life or social position: it is a human quality on account of which intellect and will are righteously disposed with regard to the goods of man, not with regard to the good condition of a thing, as in art. The postulate of equal ability recalls this all-important truth, but in a very clumsy way. For one thing, it suggests that political ability is a common possession; in fact, the small amount of it needed for a man to be a good citizen is too rare, and the virtue needed for a citizen to be a good statesman is among the most sparsely distributed gifts; genius for physical science is far more common. Moreover, the postulate of equal ability disregards the instrumental role played by several arts, skills, and techniques in the operation of political virtue. Sound judgment in politics is never elicited by historical erudition, but it often happens that judgment about a political affair cannot be sound without the knowledge of history. There is no such thing as a political art, for nothing in politics can procure the specification and unity of a single art; but political wisdom, which is virtue and prudence and not art, normally uses arts as its proper instruments. The skill of the stylist is certainly distinct from the wisdom of the statesman; yet, when Mr. Churchill, after the great battles of Egypt, said to the world: "It is not the end, it is not the beginning of the end, but it may be the end of the beginning," he accomplished through this clarification, helpful to millions, a victory which supplemented nicely that of his armies. "Instrumental" does not mean "unimportant." A man having the ethical dispositions necessary for political leadership may still fall short of qualification if he lacks the skills that are the necessary instruments of political judgment and action.

3. The postulate of equal ability often expresses, though not in appropriate fashion, the demand that the people be led by men in communion with it. The problem of the communion to be established between the governing personnel and the people, with particular regard to the largest and least wealthy part of the people, commands the understanding of democratic progress in our time. It is the most central of all the problems concerning the democracy of the common man. Its importance and its obscurity suggest a guarded approach.

First, let us realize, in Socratic fashion, our ignorance concerning the common man. In spite of recent efforts, the study of history has remained principally and almost exclusively that of very small minorities and persons of high distinction -- kings and queens, ambassadors and generals, captains of industry, savants, leaders of opinion, literary gentlemen and other artists, etc. Consequently, in our considerations on good and bad government we have in view, principally if not exclusively, the way in which these distinguished minorities were affected.

Contrary to the opinion held by skeptics and cynics, government has not always been in the hands of men with no regard for ethical rules. History records a number of cases of government by persons of deep virtue and a few cases of government by saints. If the man in power is genuinely virtuous, he holds it axiomatic that the common good for which he is supposed to strive cannot be restricted to any portion of society. Genuine virtue includes exacting justice and produces special interest in the welfare of those who are most likely to be treated unjustly, i.e., the common men. Unqualified virtue is animated by charity and intensely concerned with the poor, who are known to enjoy special dignity among Christians. In fact, some statesmen were steadily motivated by the determination to see justice done to the exploited and decent means placed within the range of the poor. Referring to those whom we know best, i.e., those who belong to our time and to our societies, it is hardly possible not to be under the impression that, in spite of their justice and charity, in spite of their determination to serve the poor and the exploited, they remained in most cases and to a large extent the men of a small group, the men of a selected few, the men of that portion of society distinguished by such features as good manners, education, and property. These good men were unaware of what was going on in the lower strata of society. But what accounted for such unawareness? Did they not inquire? They did, and they had some notions about rural masses being barred from ownership of land by the imperialism of aristocratic landlords or of capitalistic companies. They did promote credit institutions which made it possible, at least when circumstances were particularly favorable, for farmers to buy land. They knew appalling figures concerning unsanitary housing in big cities; they did much to encourage the construction of decent homes at reasonable prices. The proletarian revolutions of our time revealed the grotesque insufficiency of such measures. The revolt of the masses led by chiefs of their own, plebeians-in-chief -- sometimes outright criminals -- revealed to the world that modern democracy had remained, to an unsuspected degree, the concern of the happy few. Facts came as a surprise which should not have surprised anybody, for they were recorded and available. True, they were known, but their significance was not realized. The familiar difference between "to know" and "to realize" ought to be kept in mind here. A statesman of high moral character cannot be ignorant of the dire needs and vital aspirations of the common man, but he may know and fail to realize.

Deep in the history of conservatism we find the belief that the best that can be done for the great number of men is to have them ruled by an elite of responsible leaders carefully prepared by specialists in education and character training. This view is not obviously absurd; it may hold in a number of cases; it deserves respectful consideration; it admits of perversions -- especially by way of optimistic fantasies concerning the reliability of the distinguished few -- but it is not essentially perverse. It is not essentially aristocratic, for the principle of government by the best is capable of a democratic form: it has the meaning of a democratic principle when the best are designated by the people and subjected to its control. But it is essentially conservative, and it is objectionable in so far as conservatism is objectionable. If society is ruled by an upper class -- by an elite socially recognized, socially organized, having its own schools, its own books, its own leaders, its own manners -- inevitably and in spite of all the wisdom used in the training of such an elite, rulers will not realize, except occasionally and in short-lived flashes, the suffering and aspirations of the common man. This elite will think merely of slow and inadequate reforms; its policy will be conservative. So far as the common man is concerned, government by this elite is government by outsiders.

The common man is not unwilling to acknowledge excellence. He is by no means reluctant to give recognition to merit in such domains as science and art; he is not always the enemy of the rich; in most cases he is strongly inclined to reverence moral superiority. But as soon as he becomes aware that he and his brethren can take care of themselves, he resents intensely the leadership of outsiders. Outsiders are understood to comprise not only men distinguished by such a doubtful mark of excellence as wealth and those distinguished by marks of excellence irrelevant in politics (like science) but also those whose mark of excellence is a reverenced ethical perfection. To account for this resentment by envy alone would be shallow psychology. Anxiety takes hold of any man who knows that his destiny rests in foreign hands. The outsiders who rule may be benevolent; but it is feared that they will prove obnoxious in proportion to their benevolence. A frank display of hostility would be preferable; then the common man would know that he must rely upon himself alone, that his leaders are his enemies, that his destiny, in this strife, is in his own hands. But an attitude of systematic hostility toward well-meaning leaders is impossible; because they are well meaning and not always wrong, it is not possible to resist them always. Often, or most of the time, they have to be treated as leaders, i.e., followed and obeyed. Such a situation is bound to arouse anxiety: here is a man who entertains toward his leader feelings of reverence, esteem, even thankfulness, who respects the legal relation that subjects him to his leader, but feels that disaster will come as a result of blindness. A leader from outside is considered a blind leader. Only a leader in communion with us can realize what we are, what we need, what we are able to accomplish. But, in order to be in communion with us, ought he not to be one of us? Here we can easily slip into this dedication to mediocrity for which democracy is blamed. In order to be sure that he is one of us, do not make him too literate, for most of us are poorly educated; do not make him wealthy, for most of us have no property; and do not make him too virtuous, for most of us are weak. If he is too much of a hero, he will expect too much of us, who are no heroes.

Blind leadership is the worst, no matter how well intentioned the blind leader may be. What, then, is the proper method of removing the sort of blindness that is supposed to affect leaders from outside? Referring to the theory of affective knowledge outlined in the first part of this book, let it be recalled that, besides judgment by way of cognition, there is such a thing as judgment by way of inclination. In the former case certainty is provided either by self-evidence or by reduction to self-evident principles; in the latter case, by steady agreement between the requirements of the object and the movements of the desire. (Such agreement means that the desire reacts by a positive tendency to an objective situation demanding affirmative judgment, by a negative tendency -- aversion -- to an objective situation demanding negative judgment.) Without such steady agreement, judgment by way of inclination is merely wishful thinking. The heart is not, for the intellect, a reliable teacher unless there is between the heart and the intelligible object accord, harmony, sympathy, resemblance of nature -- in a word, connaturality. If the object to be known is, for instance, the rule of justice in this particular transaction, my liking and my aversion are means of knowledge if, and only if, my will is entirely just. The just will experiences attraction and repulsion according as justice demands, because the just will, in so far as it is actually just, is of one nature with justice. Consequently, whenever the proper way to know an object is affective, the sine qua non of genuine knowledge is the establishment of connaturality between the heart and the object.

Now, as shown in chapter i, rules of action in concrete, contingent, unique, unrenewable circumstances cannot be assured by any science. Science falls short of the contingent situation with regard to which judgment by inclination alone can attain certainty. Beyond the domain of principles, the political leader has to exercise judgment by way of inclination; he has, accordingly, to be connaturalized to the goods of the community that he leads. But these goods are determined only in part (they are determined only with regard to their more formal part) by the universal nature of man and of the political community. In respects of decisive significance they are determined by the factual reality of this particular people considered in all its concreteness; with all the peculiarities resulting from its unique history; with the unusual energies that it possesses by virtue of some prodigious achievement in the past; with all its weaknesses, deficiencies, oddities, abnormalities, and paradoxical features. Clearly, it is not only to the good of the political virtue that the statesman ought to be connaturalized but also to the good of this particular community, a creation of history that is unique and without any precedent.

Judgment by way of affective connaturality about persons and societies is a subject insufficiently studied by philosophers. But challenging remarks on this subject are found in moralists and authors; for them, affective connaturality is a familiar instrument of observation. An example is this celebrated page of Balzac: "Only one passion could drive me away from my habits of study; but was it not also study? I used to observe the mores of the suburb, its inhabitants and their personalities. . . . In me, observation had already become intuitive, it penetrated the soul without ignoring the body; more exactly, it grasped external particulars so adequately as to go immediately beyond them; it gave me the power of living the life of the individual on which it was exercised, and enabled me to substitute myself for him, just as the dervish of the Arabian Nights assumed the body and the soul of the persons over whom he said certain words. . . . While listening to these people, I was able to take over their life, I felt their rags on my back, I walked with my feet in their tattered shoes; their desires, their needs, everything passed into my soul, or my soul passed into theirs. It was the dream of a waking man. I became inflamed with them against the workshop bosses who tyrannized them, or against the bad customers who had them come again several times without paying them. To put aside one's own habits, to assume another self through the inebriation of moral powers, and to play that game at will, such was my recreation."{11}

The common man dislikes to be ruled by outsiders because he is afraid of a ruler who would not feel his (the common man's) rags on his back, whose feet would not be hurt by his worn-out shoes, and whose anger would not be aroused by the injustices that he undergoes in labor and business relations. Argument against government by distinguished personalities boils down to this: these people -- "our betters," as the English put it -- by the very fact that they do not belong to our community, are incapable of achieving the intuitive knowledge without which leadership is blind. The "best" are not trustworthy as men of government because they are supposed not to be capable of the intuitions the proper condition of which is communion with the common man. Thus no more is needed than a reconsidered definition of the "best."

In order, for instance, to be an adequate leader for a community of small farmers, most of whom are tenants, it is not strictly necessary that a man should be a tenant farmer, just as it is not strictly necessary to be clothed in rags and shod with tattered shoes to feel on one's back the garment of the poor and on one's feet his shoes. An outsider can be inflamed with tenant farmers against the exploiters of the farmer. But then is he still an outsider? Through the power of affective connaturality he has actually come to exist, to live, to suffer, and to think inside the community of the tenant farmers. The thing which matters is not so much sociological belonging to a group as intentional communion with it. A local aristocrat may happen to be in deeply intelligent communion with tenant farmers; there is no objection to his being their representative in parliament; but aristocrats do not happen often to be in communion with laboring masses, so that a nation in which the countryside is overwhelmingly represented by country aristocrats is hardly a democracy.

To conclude: rule by men from distinguished groups is unobjectionable so long as these men are able to achieve communion with all parts of the community. But communion with the common man in spite of group origin is a thing comparatively difficult and rare; accordingly, it is desirable, most of the time, that the leaders of a democracy should be members of the larger class. Increased ratio of common men among leaders seems to be the democratic way of providing leadership with one of the most anciently known and valued forms of political excellence. Old-time stories tell of cherished leaders, often of royal blood, whom the people considered as men of their own in the struggle against exploitation. Government by men foreign to the common man -- one of the major causes of civil indiscipline in modern times -- may have been but a symptom of a long crisis centered about the relation between wealth and political power. Beyond this crisis lies the democracy of the common man.

{9} To remove a threat of non-sense, let it be emphasized that we are speaking of recognition in sense experience.

{10} Aristotle even seems to consider that it pertains to the foundations of political government (Pol. 1. 12. 1259b5, trans. Jowett): "But in most constitutional states the citizens rule and are ruled by turns, for the idea of a constitutional state implies that the natures of the citizens are equal, and do not differ at all."

{11} Honoré de Balzac, Facino Cane (1836) (OEuvres complètes [Paris: Houssiaux; Hébert et Cie successeurs, 1877], X, 61).

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