Commentary Magazine

Democracy for All?

Today we wonder whether the whole world might become democratic. Acting on the belief that it can, our government has bent its energies toward encouraging the birth or growth of democracy in places around the globe from Haiti to Russia, from Kosovo to the People’s Republic of China. In doing so, it has enjoyed a kind of sanction from the century just past, which was indeed marked by the growth of regimes resting on popular consent and a commitment to human freedom.

That has hardly been the only salient characteristic of the age; the 20th century was also an era of mass murder, in which more than 170 million people were killed by their own governments. In some ways, in fact, it is easier to explain that phenomenon than to explain the increase in the number of democratic regimes. Living for most of their history in tiny villages, people have customarily viewed those in other villages as at best distant strangers and at worst mortal enemies. When agriculture and industry brought people together into large cities, the stage was set for dictatorial leaders, driven by power and ideology and aided by modern technology, to seize and maintain political control by destroying not only their personal rivals but entire populations who could be depicted as the enemies of the state. In the worst cases, this destruction has amounted to genocide.

But if hostility and mass murder can, alas, be easily explained, democracy is an oddity. How do people who evolved in small, homogeneous villages become tolerant of those whom they do not know and who may differ from them in habits and religion? How can village government, based on tradition and consensus, be transformed into national government based on votes cast by strangers?

Democratic government cannot rest simply on written constitutions. Many Latin American nations have had constitutions similar to that of the United States but have practiced not democracy but oligarchy. Religion may help foster tolerance, if people take the Golden Rule seriously. But we know that some religious people are fanatics and some agnostics tolerant. We also know that in some faiths, such as Islam, there is no separation between religious and secular law, and that the absence of this distinction tempts religious leaders to impose authoritarian rule on their followers. Voltaire once said that a nation with one church will have oppression; with two, civil war; with a hundred, freedom. Religious freedom strengthens political freedom, but religious freedom exists only after political freedom has been secured.

In what follows I do not intend to dwell on the ideas that have inspired, shaped, and informed democratic government. Rather, I want to suggest some conditions that to my mind have underlain the emergence and survival of our oldest democracies. They come under four headings.

The first is isolation. The freest nations have been protected from invasion by broad oceans or high mountains. England, Australia, New Zealand, and the United States enjoy ocean boundaries; Switzerland has a mountainous one. The significance of isolation is that it minimizes the need for a large standing army commanded by a single ruler, thus minimizing the need for high taxes to sustain the army and unfettered authority to empower the ruler. By contrast, in nations without secure boundaries—France, Austria, Hungary, Prussia—demands for popular rule and for a weak central government had to be subordinated to the need for a powerful army.

Imagine what life in the United States would have been like if Spain had remained in Florida and France had retained the Louisiana territory. To manage the inevitable skirmishes and wars, our national government would have grown more powerful more quickly and would have taxed and regulated more heavily.



The second condition is property. For many modern thinkers, private property is the enemy of human equality and therefore of democracy. Property is theft, wrote Proudhon. The Communist Manifesto promised the abolition of private property, and generations of social planners have sought to diminish its reach. But in fact private property is the friend of democracy. Aristotle understood that it stimulates work by providing rewards to the owner, reduces arguments by supplying a basis for allocating goods, and enhances pleasure by creating a physical object for human affection. In his Politics he first describes the private household and how it is managed before going on to argue that government exists to perfect the character of the householders.

But private property furthers democracy only if ownership is widespread. If one rich man has almost all the property and many poor men have none, a struggle will ensue between the landowner and the landless. A central question, therefore, is which historical forces produce the widespread ownership of property and which do not. To this question, Alan MacFarlane of Cambridge University has given powerful answers in The Origins of English Individualism (1978).

In much of medieval Europe outside England, land was owned by clans or extended families, which managed their land collectively. Farms produced goods chiefly for families rather than for markets, and, as children were required to run the farm, marriages were arranged at an early age for the convenience of the clan.

Since clan control of property meant that land rarely changed hands, hardly any law was created to govern such transactions. Since farm produce was seldom sold, little law was developed to govern exchanges. Since marriages were arranged, there was little law to govern conjugal matters. In short, little law was developed of the sort we now recognize. And, with little law, few courts were needed to interpret or apply it. Such tribunals as existed were not independent of other sources of authority; their rulings reflected the personal decision or will of the feudal prince.

In England and perhaps elsewhere in northwestern Europe, MacFarlane shows, matters were very different. From at least the 13th century on, individual ownership of land was common. Though parents exercised a great deal of authority over their households, and thus over their land, they did not do so as representatives of a clan that collectively controlled it. Land could be bought, sold, bequeathed, and inherited. Many people were poor, but most were not landless.

Individual ownership was so important in England that a man had to own land before starting a family. Since it might take a long time for this to happen, marriages occurred later in life than was the case in Eastern Europe. In England, too, the prospective husband and wife usually had to agree to the union, including one arranged by their parents. Many married over parental objections.

Because land in England could change hands easily, a body of rulings grew up to manage such transactions. This collection of individual decisions, later accepted and codified by others, became the common law of England. It was produced by courts that to a large degree were independent of the king, and it contained judgments independent of his authority. The legal claims granted by this law constituted a set of rights—not broad rights aimed at political power but rights of ownership, sale, and title. Once the language of rights entered public consciousness, however, it was only a matter of time before these selfsame rights, interpreted and applied by the independent courts, became claims against the king.1

Just why England and a few other nations of northwestern Europe took this path of individual property rights and helped create a property-oriented legal system is not well understood. But having taken that path, they also laid the groundwork for democratic rule that was to come several centuries later—the same groundwork that was then exported to America, English Canada, Australia, and New Zealand.



The third condition is homogeneity. During the cold war we could be excused for thinking that the great drivers of human life were ideology and economics. In fact, however, as Daniel P. Moynihan has observed, the deepest and most pervasive source of human conflict is ethnic rivalry. Russia has broken apart on ethnic lines; much of Africa and the Middle East is split along ethnic lines; Yugoslavia has sundered on ethnic lines. World War I was a struggle over “national”—that is, ethnic—self-determination, and World War II, though it might have been waged by Hitler under any circumstances, was justified by him in the name of the alleged superiority of “Aryans” and their presumed right to be politically reunited with their fellow “Aryans” in other nations.

Several democratic nations are today ethnically diverse, but at the time democracy was being established, that diversity was so limited that it could be safely ignored. England was an Anglo-Saxon nation; America, during its founding period, was overwhelmingly English; so also, by and large, were Australia, Canada, and New Zealand.

Then there is Switzerland—ethnically quite a diverse society that nonetheless managed to create a democracy out of an alliance among French, German, and Italian speakers who were divided almost equally between Protestants and Catholics. The Swiss model—a democratic nation in which much authority, especially that of the courts, was left in the hands of the cantons and only modest powers were bequeathed to the national president—is a fascinating one, but so far it has hardly served as a guide to other nations.

I am not suggesting that ethnic homogeneity is a good thing or ought to be preserved at any cost; nor am I denying that democracies can become ethnically heterogeneous. Certainly one of the great glories of the United States is to have become both vigorously democratic and ethnically diverse. But it is a rare accomplishment. Historically, and with few exceptions, the growth of democracy and of respect for human rights was made easier—often much easier—to accomplish in nations that had a more or less common culture.

Indeed, in the formative years of a nation, ethnic diversity can be as great a problem as foreign enemies. The time, power, and money that must be devoted to maintaining one ethnic group in power is at least equivalent to the resources needed to protect against a foreign enemy. When one part of a people thinks another part is unworthy of rights, it is hard for a government to act in the name of the “rights of the people.” That is why democracy in England preceded democracy in the United Kingdom: because many parts of that kingdom—the Scots, the Irish—had very different views about who should rule them and how. They still do.



Finally, tradition. Democratic politics is rarely produced overnight. In 1914, Europe had only three democracies. By the end of World War I, that number had grown to thirteen; but by the time of the next war, the number had fallen again as Germany, Italy, and other nations became authoritarian. Between 1950 and 1990, there were roughly as many authoritarian regimes as democratic ones, and the rate at which democratic regimes changed into authoritarian ones was about the same as the rate at which authoritarian systems changed into democratic ones.

The oldest democracy, England, relied heavily on a tradition of human rights to move slowly toward modern democratic rule. Its problem—one that every nation must eventually face, and usually over a much briefer period—was how to get a government to respect the rights of people who did not necessarily support it. In this connection, the great event in English history was the signing of Magna Carta in 1215.

At the time, Magna Carta hardly resembled the American Bill of Rights. It was not a constitution or part of a constitution; much of it concerned taxes, debts, fines, licenses, and inheritances. Except for a few passages about not delaying or denying justice and not imprisoning people save by the judgment of their peers, it had little to do with human rights, let alone modern government.

But as the late Erwin Griswold of the Harvard Law School once put it, “Magna Carta is not primarily significant for what it was, but rather for what it came to be.” Five centuries after it was written, it had become the touchstone for English liberties.

How so? Because it was constantly invoked whenever the king was at odds with his barons or his people. On at least 40 occasions over several centuries, the document was confirmed by the king, usually as a way of settling some current grievance; and every time the king restated his loyalty to it, Magna Carta gained authority. When the Puritan revolutionaries came to power, they did so in part in order to restore Magna Carta, a document most of them had probably never read.

As it passed into English folklore, so also was it exported to America. American colonists spoke of having “the rights of Englishmen,” by which they meant the rights specified in Magna Carta and the subsequent decisions allegedly justified by it. Andrew Hamilton defended Peter Zenger’s right to publish freely by reference to Magna Carta, even though the document says nothing about free speech. The constitutions of the United States and of several individual states put into writing the assumptions of Magna Carta: government has limited and defined powers, the judiciary should be independent, private property is important, and the “law of the land”—that is, British common law—should be the basis for settling disputes.

In America, the Declaration of Independence acquired a power similar to that of Magna Carta, but this time for reasons that could be more easily discerned in the text, with its “self-evident” truths that all men are entitled to life, liberty, and “the pursuit of happiness,” and that these entitlements can be abridged only by due process of law. The Declaration and the Bill of Rights have become icons of American politics, to which people instantly give loyalty even though they may in practice disagree with one or more of their provisions.

For an illustration, finally, of the crucial importance of democratic tradition, we need only look to Japan. It is geographically isolated, its people own property, and it is ethnically homogeneous. But until 1945 it lacked any strong tradition of personal liberty and democratic rule. And so democracy came late to Japan, and at the point of a bayonet.



Will, then, the whole world become democratic? Unless history offers no lessons at all, one must wonder. None of the conditions I have mentioned—isolation, private property, ethnic homogeneity, and deeply felt traditions of human rights—can be found in China or Russia or in much of Africa or the Middle East. Bits and pieces exist in parts of Latin America, more so lately than earlier, but that region’s welcome flirtation with democratic rule is still relatively short-lived.

There are two ways democracy can spread despite the absence of the historical forces that have produced it elsewhere. One is through military conquest. In the 19th century, English rule provided the basis for democracy in India, just as in the 20th century the victorious Allies provided it for Germany and, as I have noted, Japan. In all three cases, nations having little experience with democracy had its lessons forcibly imposed, and so successfully that it has survived and shows every sign of entrenchment. But since democracies rarely conquer other nations, this mechanism will seldom be available.

The other way is economic globalization. Not every nation with free markets is democratic, but every democratic nation has something akin to a free market. Free markets both foster and require an openness to new ideas and scientific inquiry, opportunity for innovation, and a prudent level of regulation—qualities hard to come by in undemocratic regimes. The arrival of globalization and the Internet are making it clear to everybody in every nation just where one can buy the best goods at the lowest prices. In the face of widespread knowledge about what efficiency can achieve, nondemocratic governments will have to scramble to maintain inefficiency.

Of course, scramble they will. Singapore believes that it can be both prosperous and undemocratic, and so far it has managed. China has bet that it can do the same. But will these successes endure? No one can be certain. An optimistic friend of mine has predicted that, because it wishes to be rich, China will become democratic by the year 2013. Perhaps. My question is whether it will still be democratic in the year 2033.

In the long run, democracy and human freedom are good for everyone even though they may create some mischief in the near term. But the good they bring can only be appreciated when people are calm and tolerance is accepted. The late Edward C. Banfield, perhaps the best student of American politics in modern times, said something about political systems in general that applies with particular force to democracies:

A political system is an accident. It is an accumulation of habits, customs, prejudices, and principles that have survived a long process of trial and error and of ceaseless response to changing circumstances. If the system works well on the whole, it is a lucky accident—the luckiest, indeed, that can befall a society, for all of the institutions of the society, and thus its entire character and that of the human types formed within it, depend ultimately on the government and the political order.

To this I would add that a workable democracy is the happiest accident of all. By nourishing ours, we may perhaps hope that others will acquire something equally worthy of nurturance.



1 There was, of course, a landowning English aristocracy, but an aristocrat’s status was not defined by any legal claim applying to him as an individual. According to the English rule of primogeniture, only the eldest son inherited the land and hence the title, while other sons had neither a claim on the land nor membership in the aristocracy. They might be wealthy because of gifts from their father, but they were not dukes because he was a duke. In France, by contrast, where there was no primogeniture, every son of a duke had a share in his father’s land and a claim on an aristocratic title. The kings of France thus had to devote a great deal of time to managing their large, unwieldy, and rivalrous aristocracy.


About the Author

James Q. Wilson, a veteran contributor to COMMENTARY, is the Ronald Reagan professor of public policy at Pepperdine University in California.