All Commentary
Friday, February 1, 1963

Confusion about Democracy

Harry L. Smith is a businessman in Argen­tina. This article is from a series on “The Ar­gentine Crisis” which appeared in the Buenos Aires Herald in early September 1962.

There is considerable confusion today as between democratic in­stitutions and democratic ideals. Democratic institutions such as the judicial, legislative, and ad­ministrative branches of the gov­ernment, the constitution, parlia­mentary procedures, and the vot­ing system are devices to guaran­tee individual liberty. They are a modus operandi and their only justification is their performance in defending freedom.

Today, however, these institu­tions are becoming more sacro­sanct than the ideals they were supposed to defend. The Western world seems to prefer a constitu­tional government to other forms, even though it destroys demo­cratic ideals. Consequently, dicta­tors who have usurped power by devious means try desperately to have themselves “elected,” and often maintain a captive congress or distort a constitution to suit their ends.

According to the basic demo­cratic ideal, individuals should be free to determine their own des­tiny. This concept presumes that all men are basically human and with few exceptions can be trusted to live harmoniously and take care of their own needs.

The original democratic phi­losophers recognized that two small groups could not be so trusted:

(1) After many centuries of experience it had been shown that men could not be trusted to handle vast political power. Therefore, checks and balances were devised to effect limited government. Democratic institutions were to be highly decentralized through state, county, and township au­thority, and thus political power could be spread thinly throughout the land.

(2) The other group comprised the few who proved themselves in­capable of assuming the responsi­bilities of life and could not take care of themselves because of mental or physical deficiencies. Such cases would be restrained or helped through family responsi­bility or by the community.

But it was presumed that the vast majority of families were composed of responsible, self-reliant individuals capable of orig­inating and controlling their be­havior and of providing for their own wants in sickness and in health.

The democratic experiment proved eminently successful. Free­dom developed dignified, self-suffi­cient, hard-working individuals.

This was especially true in the New World where constant expan­sion into new territory made com­munities fend for themselves and kept centralized authority at a distance. The experiment brought the must peaceful century the world could recall, and material wealth evolved as never before.

Human behavior apparently had some natural checks and balances of its own, as predicted by the philosophers. Trust engendered trust, and wealth developed wealth. The enjoyment and bene­fits of freedom rang throughout the world.

Opposed to the democratic ideal have been various political con­cepts devised throughout the ages. Monarchs and emperors presumed that only the few at the top should be trusted, and that their subjects were basically inhuman and bellig­erent, incapable of taking care of themselves, fit only to be di­rected and ruled.

To avoid chaos, the tyrants severely disciplined their subjects while the more benevolent mon­archs tried to help them, but neither trusted the individual to lead his own life. This lack of faith in human nature has evolved into modern communism, which also assumes that order can be maintained only by rigid central­ized control.

Less Faith in Individual, More Reliance on the State

The trend of the twentieth cen­tury depicts a waning faith in the individual, who in turn responds with less faith in himself. Im­morality is on the rise, family re­sponsibility is declining, and state security is becoming the goal of ruler and subject. Compulsory so­cial security schemes are being imposed on entire nations and on people in all walks of life. Men are no longer trusted to take care of medical bills or retirement prob­lems. Other necessities, such as food, clothing, and housing, are often provided.

Formerly, the law established general rules to be followed in various activities, and the few who broke these laws were prose­cuted. Today the majority are so mistrusted that mushrooming fed­eral agencies arbitrate day-to-day decisions in communications, travel, trade, labor, investment, and industry. Complex economic theories are constantly being de­vised to justify the procedure. Gone is the ideal of decentralized authority and self-responsibility. Greater political power is now con­centrated in the capitals of the great democracies than was ever dreamed of by Charlemagne or Napoleon.

The threat of communism is being met halfway. Nationalism, the sentiment which makes men hate all countries but their own, is on the rise. Governments, im­potent to create wealth of their own, depend on the few most gifted individuals to finance their burgeoning schemes and bureauc­racies. When the few prove incap­able of providing all the services required, the general populace finds itself taxed to provide its own “benefits.” The creation of wealth is thus seriously hindered. Democratic institutions are prov­ing defective under the lure of political power and regulated se­curity. Foolproof protections for democratic ideals have not yet been devised.

The Prod of Insecurity

Like it or not, life has been de­signed to foster personal striving. Had nature planned otherwise, we would all be provided with thick hides to obviate the necessity for clothing and shelter, and with stomachs which could digest plen­tiful grass.

But man is destined for greater things than a cow-like character, and the prod of insecurity is re­quired to make him face up to life. Life is also stratified for a purpose. No two individuals are born exactly alike, and each has his capacity for living, learning, and loving. All but the pitiful few have a capacity for self-improve­ment and can aspire to a higher stratum. Without this ladder, there would be no rewards in life. From man’s worm’s-eye-view, the ladder appears to have too many steps and the penalties at the bot­tom seem too severe.

In his frantic effort to avoid the prod of insecurity man has con­sented to slavery, feudalism, fas­cism, and communism. Yet these systems have only spread the rungs farther apart.

The insidious horror of central­ized authority is that the more men depend on government, the less they become men. Natural maturing processes are arrested—the result of pity and paternalism misapplied. This is not an unusual condition in history, but a sharp reversal from the ideals developed during the past two centuries.

There is a great conflict of ideologies between the free and communist worlds. In Western civilization it is believed that men are composed of mind, body, and spirit.

Communist atheists believe in only mind and body. If in truth the spirit does not exist, then it makes little difference under what form of government we exist.

If we are nothing but intelli­gent ants, then communism may very well be an excellent way of maintaining law and order. But if the spirit exists, we must live by its rules and have faith in its powers. Those who do not believe in the spirit cynically look on life as a vale of tears to be lived craftily and warily.

Those who believe in the spirit seek to satisfy the hungers of the heart with rich rewards in this life and the next. Such people try to face life squarely, and thereby learn to love it. Authorities who interfere with this process are tinkering with delicate mechan­isms of the universe.

The greatness of a nation is not determined by the size of the pop­ulation, by its wealth, or by its military might. It can be as small as Switzerland or as large as the United States.

A great nation is one composed of free, dignified, self-reliant in­dividuals having faith in God and themselves. Such men can only be created in an environment of free­dom. Men must be inspired to seek this ideal. If this is accomplished, material benefits will come by themselves.