The Price of Democracy

There is a manifest contradiction between the ideals of a democratic society and the ideals of Christian mysticism. The former exalts the free exchange of ideas and especially opinion. By contrast, the latter abhors it. Freedom of expression exposes the untrained majority to error and uncertainty; it distracts them from the things necessary for salvation; and it encourages pride, deadly pride, in one’s own point of view.

Whereas in the age of faith men were obliged to submit to the judgment of their lawful superiors, in the age of democracy everyone is his own judge. Of course, the verdict is always “not guilty.” While the courts of law would not stand for such a mockery of justice, the court of conscience in the soul of democracy insists that this is what each and every one of us is owed.

Opinions are not just as numerous as people in a democracy. They are more numerous. The moral license presupposed by a democratic form of government rewards deception. It is advantageous to live with a split personality, to live a great lie, perhaps many great lies. Why do so many people cheat on their spouses? Why do they defraud their employers? Why do so many celebrities make a point of holding themselves up as role models and lecturing the world on how to live, only to be exposed later for unspeakable depravity? Why do politicians lie almost pathologically? Is any of this normal?

Let us forget deception and hypocrisy for a moment. Even if all men in a democracy were honest, it would still be very unlikely if any of them arrived at the truth. Let us even grant, what is actually absurd, that the majority clearly understand the difference between opinion and fact. There is a further difference that they cannot grasp. That is the difference between accepting a fact on the authority of its discoverer on the one hand, and on the other, discovering a fact for oneself. Most people will go their entire lives without independently verifying even one of the many facts of broad importance that they hold to be true. This is very simply because it is not their business to do so. In any given polity, there is only a tiny elite with the interest, ability, and opportunity to conduct such investigations. The individuals who comprise this small community are not selected for their moral purity. Even if they were, it would be easy for them to make a big mistake without anyone noticing. No one else would understand what they did, what they were supposed to do, or (in concrete terms) what were the consequences of their failure.

One might object that the scientific method will catch errors of this kind, but that is not the case. In principle, the scientific method is only as good as the quality of the inferences of scientists. An observation that falsifies a theory will only undermine that theory, if the scientific community as a whole correctly concludes about the nature of the observation. If only a minority of scientists make the right judgment, then obviously, that means that the right judgment will be rejected by the majority. But the quality of scientific inferences almost never receives scrutiny, because among the various aspects of nature the study of which a democracy finds valuable, one will not find the nature of inference as such. Logic has always been a liberal art, meaning that it is of no use to workers. Consequently we find that democratic societies fail to foster a class of scientists of science competent to judge the inferences of other scientists. Truth, therefore, can only be misunderstood, even by the scientific elite, as a matter of practicality.

In fact, the commitment to freedom of inquiry and discussion shared by the great mass and the scientific elite in every democracy requires everyone to treat facts and opinions roughly alike. This is because all the people are asked to form judgments about affairs of state. But it is impossible for them to come to any kind of consensus, let alone a consensus that is also true. It is quite possible that some members of a democracy who engage in its great conversation may do so from a position of real knowledge. In that case, it would be illegal for others to publically recognize this privileged position for what it is. For that would accord them an unequal standing in the public sphere. With the exception of these knowledgeable individuals, everyone else would form their judgments on an uncertain basis. In other words, their public actions would be based on opinion.

For all these reasons, democracy naturally leads its members into error about everything they consider.

Even worse than the foregoing is that enfranchisement in a democracy is predicated upon the assertion of one’s judgments, which we have just shown are probably false. A citizen of a democracy who does not make his views known either in the public square or in the voting booth might as well be stateless. One has to be attached to one’s favorite errors. It is more than just an incentive. Failing to form such an attachment guarantees that one won’t be protected by the law. Therefore it is a strict obligation of democracy upon its citizens to be outspoken; in practice, outspoken and wrong.

One error that all the citizens of the democracy must share is that in a democracy, the people rule. A mass of individuals who know nothing and waste all their time shouting at each other rules nothing. They are proud, stupid hypocrites who deserve to be enslaved by the worst among them. And that is exactly what happens. For as I have already said, it is an advantage to live a lie. It follows that the greater advantage goes to him who lies most and most boldly. And the greatest power – sovereignty, that is – is naturally possessed by one who (perhaps uniquely) pretends to have power over nothing at all. Who remains out of public life, a complete unknown. Who wields absolute dictatorial authority without imprisoning himself in a palace surrounded by armed guards.

Who is this mysterious emperor? The unwashed masses don’t deserve to know. The proof of this is that they reject as a fairy-tale the tidings of his reign over them. To not even want to know the truth certainly makes one unworthy of it.

No matter the form of government, knowledge has to be earned. You have to live a hidden life if you want to possess the truth. The average man is helped to this end if he lives under a strict hierarchy where he considers just his role and the things pertaining to it. But that won’t stop him from trading it in for the illusion of power someday. Only a sincere love of truth can do that; but the truth is God.