The Democracy Disease

“Bad is the dominion of the multitude”

Homer, Illiad 2.204.

Robert Bisset (1759-1805) was a Scottish writer who abhorred democracy and earned his conservative chops as the first biographer of Edmund Burke.  My epigraph appears on the title page of Bisset’s Sketch of Democracy (1794), and it very neatly epitomizes the substance of that dour and didactic book.  Bisset’s Sketch describes the disastrous career of democracy in the ancient world, and tends to the general conclusion that popular government is a cancer to great nations.  In the course of his discussion of the democratic cancer that destroyed the Roman republic, for instance, Bisset sets down this sobering line.

“Whoever with impartiality and common observation studies the history of the greatest nation which the world ever saw, will perceive that to aristocratic authority and exertions it owed its rise, to prepollent [supreme] democracy it owed its fall; will in the detail of democratic operations see disorder, convulsion, confiscation, rapine, massacres, and every species of injustice, oppression, and cruelty, and in the general result, will behold the consummation of human misery.”*

* * * * *

One of Bisset’s more interesting arguments is that “the trial of prosperity” causes the democratic cancer to metastasize and eventually kill its host.  Speaking again of Rome, he says,

“One of the strongest objections against democracy is, that it cannot stand the trial of prosperity.  That which all individuals, and all societies, desire . . . becomes in a democracy ruinous.”

Bisset makes this general remark in his discussion of the decay of the Roman republic after the defeat of Carthage, and by prosperity means both affluence and the absence of a serious external enemy.  Because a people is naturally unified by fear of an external enemy, it just as naturally falls to dissention and quarreling when that enemy is defeated and that fear is removed.  And so Bisset says of the ancient Republic,

“Had a Hannibal always continued to hover over the Romans, their democracy might have produced no dreadful convulsions.  But now no eminent leader remained to employ them abroad, and divert their attention from internal politics.”

Our democracy was for more than a century (with one exception) preserved from “dreadful convulsions” by the fear of European empires.  That ended with the Spanish War and was replaced with fear of successive enemies of “Freedom.”  Thus, although twentieth-century Americans no longer feared the European empires, they did not immediately fall to tearing one another apart because they had first, as Woodrow Wilson said in 1917, to “make the world safe for democracy.”  And so first the Kaiser, and then Hitler along with Tojo, and then Stalin and his successors, might be said to have “hovered” over Americans, and to have unified Americans, just as Bisset says Hannibal had hovered over and unified the Romans.

The rivalry between the U.S. and U.S.S.R. was indeed often likened to the rivalry between Rome and Carthage, but few seem to have pushed the analogy and asked what became of Rome after Carthage was destroyed and Rome was subjected to the “trial of prosperity.”  Had they pushed the analogy, they would have discovered that the world cannot be made “safe for democracy” because democracy without an external enemy becomes an enemy to itself.  When fear of an external enemy is removed, democracy shifts its attention to “internal politics,” and the “diverse” multitude divides into parties and factions that see one another as enemies.

One of these parties might even denounce the other as “domestic terrorists!”

After America’s “Carthage” was destroy in 1991, the specter of Radical Islam briefly served to retard the “trial of prosperity” for the United States.  The subsequent specters of Global Warming, the Covid Pandemic, Russian Aggression, and the CCP seem mostly to have accelerated it.

* * * * *

Affluence is another reason democracy destroys itself in the “trial of prosperity.”  In the case of Rome, the fatal affluence came with tribute that flowed into the imperial capital from subjugated provinces of the empire, and that poisoned Roman plebs with the deadly handouts of “bread and circuses.”  As Bisset explains,

“The people had, from the tribute of conquered countries, no taxes to pay.  Such quantities of corn were exacted from subdued nations, or sent by dependent allies, that gratuitous distributions were very frequent.  The lowest of the populace could subsist with little industry.”

The United States has for many decades extracted tribute and minimized taxes by running enormous budget deficits, printing fiat dollars, and exporting dollars as the global reserve currency.  It has at the same time made vast “investments” that have allowed many segments of its populace (and not only “the lowest”) to “subsist with little industry.”  The effect of these subsidies on American plebs has been similar to the effect that tax-free bread and circuses had on the plebs of Rome.  As Bisset explains,

“Exemption from the necessity of bodily labor, in minds either by power or by habits unfitted for intellectual exertions and rational enjoyments, never fails to produce vice and corruption.  Idleness in such, naturally causes debauchery.”

Advocates of democracy often maintain that long hours are the bane of the working class (long hours and low wages are effectively the same thing).  They assure us that when working men are given more leisure, working men will use that leisure to better themselves—to overcome their social degradation by elevating their aspirations and improving their minds.  While this certainly happens in some cases, it is manifest that leisure is for many workers mere idleness, that their idle hands very readily take up the devil’s work, and that idleness born of prosperity is therefore just as likely to deepen as repair working-class degradation.

It is, after all, prosperity and not poverty that causes Americans to nowadays shoot one another at block parties and kill themselves with overdoses of recreational drugs.  Impoverished people don’t have guns, or block parties, or drugs recreational or otherwise.  Prosperity allows many working-class Americans to “subsist with little industry,” in some cases with no industry whatsoever, and, as the minds of these idle Americans are often “unfitted for intellectual exertions and rational enjoyments,” this lumpen leisure class disports itself in asinine beefs, brutish amours, and pig-like inebriation.

* * * * *

Democracy destroys itself in the trial of prosperity because it is naturally fractious (i.e. “diverse”), and therefore tends to civil war when fear of an external enemy is removed.  Democracy also spreads the fruits of prosperity to the working class, and by so doing destroys the capacity of that class for work, while at the same time imparting a capacity for self-destruction.  In addition to these natural maladies, a prosperous democracy cannot admit that all men are not equally prudent, or equally just, or equally independent, or equally wise, and that a government that treats all men as political equals is therefore mad and doomed to fail.

Here is how Bisset describes extension of the franchise in Rome.

“The frequent accessions to the number of votes, from the emancipation of slaves debased the commons as a body, and rendered them, as extension of suffrage to men of no rank or property must always do, more easily influenced by factious and designing men.”

Advocates of democracy often say that the multitude is too numerous to be bribed, failing to see (or perhaps to confess) that the means of bribery are enlarged when a democracy enters the “trial of prosperity.”  Advocates of democracy also fail to see (or again, perhaps, to confess) that small or worthless bribes suffice to secure the votes of “men of no rank or property.”

The enfranchisement of what Bisset calls “a low worthless description of voters” also has the more disastrous effect of degrading democratic politics into a wrangle between clowns, louts and mountebanks, and of thereby disgusting more worthy citizens.  Political discourse is degraded when fatuous appeals are made to ignorant voters, and “politics” becomes dirty when it becomes necessary to employ underhanded means to harvest or annul their ignorant votes.

As Bisset puts it:

“A low worthless description of voters, must not only be bad as far as their own numbers extend, but must naturally infect other before of a higher description . . . . Extension of suffrage to the lowest orders, every real patriot then must reprobate as the source of political corruption and moral depravity.”


*) Robert Bisset, Sketch of Democracy (London: J. Matthews, 1796), p. 340.

**) Bisset, Sketch, pp. 212-215.

21 thoughts on “The Democracy Disease

    • You and I may dislike many things the government does, and the inefficiency with which it does them, but the American people do not pay for all of the things its various factions ask the government to do. Democracies always pass the bill to their children. The tribute comes of making the world use our fiat currency.

  1. So, how has Iceland managed to have continuous democracy for over a millennia, despite having *no* external threats for centuries at a time?
    The problem is age. The younger the voting age, the easier it is to bribe or mislead the electorate. The most stable democracies didn’t give men the vote until they turned 60.

    • The people of Iceland are not diverse, so there are fewer internal divisions to break open. A harsh environment can also act as an external enemy. Your last point is good. Enfranchisement of youth makes political discourse stupider.

  2. Christendom turned on itself during the Reformation. At the time the Ottoman Muslims were very much an external threat and there was no democracy of the sort you speak of in your OP.

    • I said democracy is naturally prone to division and so requires an external threat, real or imaginary, to hold the divisions together. Non-democratic societies can obviously suffer divisions and face external threats, but these divisions and threats are not essential to their nature.

      • Division is essential to democracy because it places everyone in competition with everyone else for power. In a democratic struggle for power, individuals must organize themselves into parties, factions, blocs, divisions. In a monarchy there is no competition for power (except, perhaps, at a succession); in an oligarchy the competition is limited to a small political class. Democracy universalizes this competition into a political war of all against all. An external enemy forces these divisions into some degree of bi-partisan cooperation. When that external enemy is removed, they try to destroy each other.

      • I have classical political theory, summarized by the author quoted here, and the example of the post-cold-war United States.

      • surely a dictatorship is *more* dependent on division to suppress people than a democracy is?

      • I didn’t say that democracy depends on division. It creates division because it universalizes the struggle for power. You and I are not competing for power under a dictator/monarch, since he has all the power. We may be divided over other things, but we will not be divided into political factions.

      • That cannot be limited to democracies, or these factions wouldn’t instantly reveal themselves when dictators fall.

      • The fall of a dictator unleashes the struggle for power. Anarchy is effectively democratic because it universalizes competition for power. When power is “up for grabs,” factions form to grab that power.

    • The ‘wars of religion’ were a squabble by the nobility to control religious positions, with Christians of all stripes trying to defend each other (the Protestant Dutch were led by a devout Catholic, when the Lutheran armies marched in Catholic Bavaria the local Catholics through flowers before them).
      They are a classic example of aristocracy squabbling.

  3. Division and power grabs exist in all government systems and societies. Government types are a means of navigating these energies. Some government types work better than others depending on many factors including the historical and geographic setting.

    • Obviously. But it would seem to make sense for us to understand to the nature of our own government system, stripped of all the stars-and-stripes hype. Democracy adds political antagonism to all of the other antagonisms that make people hate each other. There is a reason holiday dinners and old friendships are ruined by “politics.”

      • That’s just a function of the time period we live in. George Friedman in his book “The Storm Before the Calm” talks about the cyclical nature of US history. I’m paraphrasing so I might not get this exactly right, but every 50 years or so we go through a political reshuffling. According to him, we are at the crest of the current reshuffling and it will resolve itself over the next 1-2 presidential elections.

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