Churchill said that “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those others.”i
Growing up in Canada, in the wakeii of the Alliediii victory in Europe, this was the mantra. We were taught to recognize that democracy was imperfect while conveniently closing the door to discussing the merits of other forms of governance. Working within the system was presented as the only feasible option. Given the public nature of my grade school education, this should surprise exactly no one. Not that private education would’ve been that different; Canada is too new of a country and has too much of a pioneering mentality to dig much deeper into world history. It’s easier to pretend that one can ignore the past and “start fresh” with a “clean slate.”
Thankfully, I’m about as Canadianiv as the other Citizens of Bitcoin, so let’s hop in the WABAC Machinev to 1835 and crack the dusty pages of Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. AdT makes a strong argument that democracy is far from the only solution, and in fact pales in comparison to aristocracy in several key ways. Let’s see if he has a point:
We have gotten a democracy, but without the conditions which lessen its vices and render its natural advantages more prominent; and although we already perceive the evils it brings, we are ignorant of the benefits it may confer.
This exactly right. We have a democracy and we frankly don’t know what to do with it. So we do the only thing we can: feign importance and hope no one notices that we’re functionally illiterate.vi
While the power of the Crown, supported by the aristocracy, peaceably governed the nations of Europe, society possessed, in the midst of its wretchedness, several different advantages which can now scarcely be appreciated or conceived.
If the advantages of aristocracy could scarcely be appreciated or conceived less than 50 years after la révolution dégoûtant, what fucking chance do we have more two centuries on in a land that never knew proper aristocracy in the first place? This is a shame, because the benefits to aristocracy are several.
The power of a part of his subjects was an insurmountable barrier to the tyranny of the prince; and the monarch, who felt the almost divine character which he enjoyed in the eyes of the multitude, derived a motive for the just use of his power from the respect which he inspired. High as they were placed above the people, the nobles could not but take that calm and benevolent interest in its fate which the shepherd feels towards his flock; and without acknowledging the poor as their equals, they watched over the destiny of those whose welfare Providence had entrusted to their care.
This sheep-shephard relationship seems far more civilized, and sustainable, than the detached individualism of democracy. No doubt that such a relationship would reduce the social tension caused by inequality in democracies, where each strata of society begrudges the other – the upper crust for having to support the “leeches,” the lower tiers for their not being given even more than they “deserve.”
The people never having conceived the idea of a social condition different from its own, and entertaining no expectation of ever ranking with its chiefs, received benefits from them without discussing their rights. It grew attached to them when they were clement and just, and it submitted without resistance or servility to their exactions, as to the inevitable visitations of the arm of God.
Oh, to live in a world that doesn’t discuss “rights!” What a glorious, transcendent, and fantastical place that must be! No men’s rights activists, no digital rights activists, no one telling you that they have a right to not be offended!
As the noble never suspected that anyone would attempt to deprive him of the privileges which he believed to be legitimate, and as the serf looked upon his own inferiority as a consequence of the immutable order of nature, it is easy to imagine that a mutual exchange of good-will took place between two classes so differently gifted by fate. Inequality and wretchedness were then to be found in society; but the souls of neither rank of men were degraded.
The fear of degradation is a powerful motivator, giving a single man the strength of ten. This fear motivates those in a democracy to fight inequality. But they need not fear it. Inequality, heretical though it may sound to democratic ears, works splendidly as long as no one has expectations otherwise.
Men are not corrupted by the exercise of power or debased by the habit of obedience, but by the exercise of a power which they believe to be illegal and by obedience to a rule which they consider to be usurped and oppressive.
In a democracy, people are necessarily disdainful of laws. I mean, WTF is “jaywalking?” An aristocracy is nowhere near as pedantic.
On one side was wealth, strength, and leisure, accompanied by the refinements of luxury, the elegance of taste, the pleasures of wit, and the religion of art. On the other was labor and a rude ignorance; but in the midst of this coarse and ignorant multitude it was not uncommon to meet with energetic passions, generous sentiments, profound religious convictions, and independent virtues.
Doesn’t this description of an aristocratic society sound like a pleasant place to live, with each working to his strengths to improve the world in their own way? To my mind, this aristocratic approach is greatly preferable to giving the coarse and ignorant multitude too much money,vii as favoured by the democratic approach.
The body of a State thus organized might boast of its stability, its power, and, above all, of its glory.
Only, of course, in an aristocracy. Glory and power are not features of a democracy. They can’t be.
But the scene is now changed, and gradually the two ranks mingle; the divisions which once severed mankind are lowered, property is divided, power is held in common, the light of intelligence spreads, and the capacities of all classes are equally cultivated; the State becomes democratic, and the empire of democracy is slowly and peaceably introduced into the institutions and the manners of the nation.
As de Tocqueville notes, we don’t have an aristocracy anymore. We have a democracy. For now, at least. This forces some less than desirable trade-offs:
I admit that, in a democratic State thus constituted, society will not be stationary; but the impulses of the social body may be regulated and directed forwards; if there be less splendor than in the halls of an aristocracy, the contrast of misery will be less frequent also; the pleasures of enjoyment may be less excessive, but those of comfort will be more general; the sciences may be less perfectly cultivated, but ignorance will be less common; the impetuosity of the feelings will be repressed, and the habits of the nation softened; there will be more vices and fewer crimes.
Democratic society is certainly more “fair” in the sense that more people have the opportunity to enjoy material comforts, but this pursuit, once achieved, melts our drive and dulls our edge. We all want to be comfortable, God knows our grandparents would’ve wanted as much for us, but we need that edge. It’s non-negotiable.
In the absence of enthusiasm and of an ardent faith, great sacrifices may be obtained from the members of a commonwealth by an appeal to their understandings and their experience; each individual will feel the same necessity for uniting with his fellow-citizens to protect his own weakness; and as he knows that if they are to assist he must co-operate, he will readily perceive that his personal interest is identified with the interest of the community.
This willingness to cooperate, even to die for one’s country, is essential for a functioning democracy. But even when that’s the case, the society is less intellectual and more materially focused. This is the most significant trade-off between democracy and aristocracy. And it’s one that I refuse to accept.
The nation, taken as a whole, will be less brilliant, less glorious, and perhaps less strong; but the majority of the citizens will enjoy a greater degree of prosperity, and the people will remain quiet, not because it despairs of amelioration, but because it is conscious of the advantages of its condition.
“We’ve never had it better” and “we live better than ancient kings,” I often hear. de Tocqueville foresaw this dutiful acquiescence coming a mile away. We certainly enjoy material comfort in a democracy, but without intellectual rigour, it’s a hollow existence. Thankfully, for my sanity at least, Canada is a nation of immigrants and there are always Croatians, Romanians, Poles and even Colombians with whom to carry a conversation.
But here it may be asked what we have adopted in the place of those institutions, those ideas, and those customs of our forefathers which we have abandoned. The spell of royalty is broken, but it has not been succeeded by the majesty of the laws; the people has learned to despise all authority, but fear now extorts a larger tribute of obedience than that which was formerly paid by reverence and by love.
The costs of the creature comforts afforded by democracy are exacted in the form of mental imprisonment. The nation of laws, rather than of men, is opaque and unknowable. Rather than having, as in an aristocracy, a few written social conventions to guide the behaviour of peoples, with the rest being unwritten and based on respect and reputation, a democracy relies on an infinity of legal constructs that ultimately form a Byzantine rat maze. After a few generations in a democacy, the restrictions on physical and mental lebensraum become so normalized that the world outside the prison walls becomes unimaginable. And certainly far too “dangerous.” As such, no one can take charge of the situation, no matter how corrupt it clearly is.
I perceive that we have destroyed those independent beings which were able to cope with tyranny single-handed; but it is the Government that has inherited the privileges of which families, corporations, and individuals have been deprived; the weakness of the whole community has therefore succeeded that influence of a small body of citizens, which, if it was sometimes oppressive, was often conservative.
Where are the world’s independent beings? At least a few of them are in #bitcoin-assets. It’s a fun little space. If you haven’t already, you should drop by.
The division of property has lessened the distance which separated the rich from the poor; but it would seem that the nearer they draw to each other, the greater is their mutual hatred, and the more vehement the envy and the dread with which they resist each other’s claims to power; the notion of Right is alike insensible to both classes, and Force affords to both the only argument for the present, and the only guarantee for the future.
Greater equality breeds the desire for even greater equality still. Since this is fundamentally impossible, peoples varying greatly one to the next, resentment and even hatred are far greater in a democracy than in an aristocracy.
The poor man retains the prejudices of his forefathers without their faith, and their ignorance without their virtues; he has adopted the doctrine of self-interest as the rule of his actions, without understanding the science which controls it, and his egotism is no less blind than his devotedness was formerly.
Democracies give dangerous senses of self-worth to people who don’t have the intellectual capacity to use their power for good. The average man in a democracy can only use his power for purchasing, to the detriment of all. The average man in an aristocracy is less self-aggrandizing, and more virtuous for it.
If society is tranquil, it is not because it relies upon its strength and its well-being, but because it knows its weakness and its infirmities; a single effort may cost it its life; everybody feels the evil, but no one has courage or energy enough to seek the cure; the desires, the regret, the sorrows, and the joys of the time produce nothing that is visible or permanent, like the passions of old men which terminate in impotence.
Modern democratic societies, rather than islands of tranquility, have yielded the bloodiest wars in the history of humanity. Much of what has been promised has been empty. Our freedom is restricted by laws instead of men, our discourse is restricted by ignorance rather than wisdom, and our human nature is restricted by rationalism rather than propriety.
But now a new day is dawning!
We have the internet, the personal computer, encrypted e-mail, and, of course, Bitcoin. The pendulum is swinging back. The aristocracy will rise again.
And we have front-row seats to the fight.
___ ___ ___
- Curiously, Churchill is also attributed with “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” A verity far more readily observable. [↩]
- Though two generations separated from the last World War, Canada doesn’t shy away from its military accomplishments in the 20th century. Remembrance Day, celebrated on the 11th hour of the 11th day of the 11th month each year, focuses on WWI and WWII victories. In the week or so beforehand, everyone, and I do mean most everyone, wears red plastic poppies on their lapels to symbolically commemorate the battles of Ypres and Passchendaele in Flanders Field in Belgium. Then, at the designated time on November 11, the words of Canadian physician, soldier, and poet Lieutenant Colonel John McCrae are recited to strengthen the connection:
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below. We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields. Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch, be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields
Reading it now, it’s reminiscent of that old “Jesus died for your sins” thing, neh? [↩]
- The Allies of WWII included Canada, U.S., Britain, France, USSR, Australia, Belgium, Brazil, China, Denmark, Greece, Netherlands, New Zealand, Norway, Poland, South Africa, Yugoslavia, while the “opposing” Axis included Germany, Italy, Japan, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria. I put “opposing” in quotation marks because it was ultimately socialism vs. socialism. And boy did socialism ever kick ass! [↩]
- A typical Canadian is someone who religiously watches hockey and/or Big Brother, has a mortgage on a cookie-cutter shitbox, buys everything they “need” at Costco, and works 50+ hours per week to pay for it all. Though, given that I don’t associate myself with anyone who fits this description, whether that’s by luck or by intention, this description is sorta a stab in the dark. [↩]
- This is the time-travelling device used in the cartoon series Peabody’s Improbable History from the Rocky & Bullwinkle series I enjoyed as a child. Mr. Peabody, a hyperintelligent dog, took his best friend Sherman, a boy of maybe 10, to important events in history so that they could watch them unfold firsthand. An animated film featuring the intrepid duo recently arrived on the big screen in the rather enjoyable Mr. Peabody and Sherman (2014). I’d recommend it for a light-hearted evening. As it so happens, in the film, the two time travellers went back to The Reign of Terror, where they encountered Robespierre (1758-1794), who, you guessed it, persecuted de Tocqueville’s noble family. [↩]
- That is, the webgen that prefers to have Shakespeare explained in a 3-panel comic than to see it performed, much less read the original text. “Why would I need to read Shakespeare?” they ask. Derp. [↩]
- If you don’t have experience with money and your parents didn’t have experience with money, you’re likely to spend it on really dumb shit. Likely, this shit will have been advertised to you in the on some cable TV show. While you may be able to purchase some comforts, it’s natural that this slips seamlessly into excess. Then all you can do is wait for the end. [↩]