Strengthening Constitutional Self-Government

No Left Turns

A note on democracy

Robert Conquest argues that "democracy" arrived only after a "law-and-liberty polity" (or "culture") had emerged. In explaining this he--in his sort of moderate Burkean way--asserts that "habits of mind" and following the "traditional rules of the political game" are the most important things
in political life, rather than institutions or a "mere word" or "abstract human rights definitions." These latter are utopian and lead to despotism (note what follows the French Revolution). What he calls "political civilization" is "thus not primarily a matter of the goodwill of leadership or of ideal constitutions. It is, above all, a matter of time in custom." All well and good, of course. Time in custom, especially for the Brits, is important. Yet, we cannot really keep what he calls the "high-midedness of the Continental Enlightenment" entirely at bay. Since he quotes a line from Federalist #1, I’ll just remind the reader of the first paragraph, wherein Publius tries to appeal to the people’s justice, on the grounds of equality, for the sake of liberty and self-government, and yet not in a utopian way:

AFTER an unequivocal experience of the inefficacy of the subsisting federal government, you are called upon to deliberate on a new Constitution for the United States of America. The subject speaks its own importance; comprehending in its consequences nothing less than the existence of the UNION, the safety and welfare of the parts of which it is composed, the fate of an empire in many respects the most interesting in the world. It has been frequently remarked that it seems to have been reserved to the people of this country, by their conduct and example, to decide the important question, whether societies of men are really capable or not of establishing good government from reflection and choice, or whether they are forever destined to depend for their political constitutions on accident and force. If there be any truth in the remark, the crisis at which we are arrived may with propriety be regarded as the era in which that decision is to be made; and a wrong election of the part we shall act may, in this view, deserve to be considered as the general misfortune of mankind.

I quite understand Conquest’s concern with moderation and habit (mind or heart) as well as the need for an evolution of important changes in the body-politic, and sometimes even in regimes. But there is the crux. There is not just evolution and custom and adhering to rules, and the creation of strong states by a civic order. Sometimes such accidents are painful, and they are almost always enforced. There is reflection and choice, and that is connected to natural rights. There really are regimes and such things--in reflecting the ever human qualities of their creators and participants--always determine which part of the "community" rules. It is not merely a set of rules that come about from custom. Here the people rule through the Constitution which they themselves established. And they rule for the sake of their freedom, and this becomes a way of life and we think it is the best way of life, and is connected more closely to happiness and freedom. And it is founded on natural rights. Now I do not think this all that abstract, although it is revolutionary, and it is so argued for by those who framed this regime and government. This doesn’t mean that Conquest’s attempt at measure is without value, yet it is incomplete. It might be too bad that we call this regime a democracy nowadays, but that’s just an example of how a "mere word" has life and brings forth its own children, through consent.

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