Democracy may be one of the most admired ideas ever concocted, but what if it’s also one of the most harebrained? After many years of writing about democracy for a living, David Harsanyi has concluded that it’s the most overrated, overused, and misunderstood idea in political life. The less we have of it the better.
“Democracy” is not synonymous with “freedom.” It is not the opposite of tyranny. In fact, the Founding Fathers knew that democracy can lead to tyranny. That’s why they built so many safeguards against it into the Constitution.
Democracy, Harsanyi argues, has made our government irrational, irresponsible, and invasive. It has left the American people with only two options—domination by the majority or a government that can’t possibly work. The modern age has imbued democracy with the mystique of infallibility. But Harsanyi reminds us that the vast majority of political philosophers, including the founders, have thought that responsible, limited government based on direct majority rule over a large, let alone continental scale was a practical impossibility.
In The People Have Spoken, you’ll learn:
- Why the Framers of our Constitution were intent on establishing a republic, not a “democracy”
- How democracy undermines self-government
- How shockingly out of touch with reality most voters really are
- Why democracy is an economic wrecking ball—and an invitation to a politics of envy and corruption
- How the great political philosophers from Plato and Aristotle to Burke and Tocqueville predicted with uncanny accuracy that democracy could lead to tyranny
Harsanyi warns that if we don’t recover the Founders’ republican vision, “democracy” might very well spell the end of American liberty and prosperity.
I hope Woody Allen reads this.
Though it’s unfair to start in the middle of Rev. Robert Barron‘s comments, this is a section that suggests the graceful exploration at work here. Note: Barron refers to Allen’s “recent ruminations on ultimate things”, but I’m not sure where Woody’s ruminations appear. Perhaps a recent interview? If a reader recognizes the reference, let us know. Though I’m tempted to include my own observations, I’ll refrain, to avoid diminishing Barron’s commentary.
“…If you consult the philosophers of antiquity and the Middle Ages, you will find a very frank acknowledgment that what Woody Allen observed about the physical world is largely true. Plato, Aristotle, and Thomas Aquinas all knew that material objects come and go, that human beings inevitably pass away, that all of our great works of art will eventually cease to exist. But those great thinkers wouldn’t have succumbed to Allen’s desperate nihilism. Why? Because they also believed that there were real links to a higher world available within ordinary experience, that certain clues within the world tip us off to the truth that there is more to reality than meets the eye.
One of these routes of access to the transcendent is beauty. In Plato’s Symposium, we can read an exquisite speech by a woman named Diotima. She describes the experience of seeing something truly beautiful — an object, a work of art, a lovely person, etc. — and she remarks that this experience carries with it a kind of aura, for it lifts the observer to a consideration of the Beautiful itself, the source of all particular beauty. If you want to see a more modern version of Diotima’s speech, take a look at the evocative section of James Joyce’s Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, wherein the narrator relates his encounter with a beautiful girl standing in the surf off the Dublin strand and concludes with the exclamation, “Oh heavenly God.” John Paul II was standing in this same tradition when, in his wonderful letter to artists, he spoke of the artist’s vocation as mediating God through beauty. To characterize artistic beauty as a mere distraction from the psychological oppression of nihilism is a tragic reductionism…(read more)
Paradox of the Book: The Chaos of the Internet Makes Reading Easier
Thomas L. Jeffers writes: Plato is smarter than you. That’s how an experienced teacher once began a series of lectures on the Greek philosopher. And a good beginning it was, for it put students on notice that, as they read, their first duty was to attend and learn. Plato didn’t have the final word—there would be Aristotle, Epicurus, and others—but no one could enter that ancient conversation without conning the books.
Same with us, only we have a problem: Compared even with people half-a-generation back, we lack the necessary time and patience. We read plenty, but it’s mostly skimming online news and compressed Twitter or Facebook messages. What’s needed, David Mikics argues, is a return to the close-reading practices inculcated by teachers whose influence might be said to have peaked in the 1950s and declined in the late ’60s, with the shift to a politicized pedagogy. That shift changed the game, and many English departments now prefer the label “cultural studies,” not least because it allows them to jettison traditional poems and stories for the sake of TV, hip-hop, fashion ads, graphic novels, and comic books—whatever facilitates (as in “makes facile”) sloganizing about gender, race, and class.
“One cannot truly understand a legal argument on behalf of one client or side without thoroughly understanding and addressing competing arguments and objections,” said Harvard Law School Dean Martha Minow at a recent Federalist Society conference on intellectual diversity in law schools. Unfortunately, this foundational tenet of legal education is not realized in the nation’s leading law schools, including Ms. Minow’s, where students learn a narrowly progressive view of the law from a predominantly leftist faculty. Our nation’s top law schools are failing their students, and in a country whose future will be shaped by those students, it is an urgent problem that we should demand law schools address.
It is beyond dispute that the nation’s top law schools are bastions of liberalism. A 2005 study by professor John O. McGinnis and lawyers Matthew Schwartz and Benjamin Tisdell found that 94 percent of Stanford Law faculty who made political contributions gave exclusively or predominantly to Democratic candidates, and although partisan affiliation is hardly the best proxy for jurisprudential and political views, the degree of the disparity is staggering. Professor Nicholas Rosenkranz of Georgetown reported at an intellectual-diversity conference that the ratio of liberal to conservative faculty at his institution is 116 to 3.
My own experience as a student at Harvard Law School is that liberal premises are assumed in most classroom discussions. Sometimes the ostracizing is explicit, as when a professor calmly explained to my class that conservative views are the result of irrational biases in favor of the status quo. Other times, it is more subtle, employing terms like “marriage equality” or “reproductive justice.” The message is the same: Conservative beliefs need not be taken seriously. This marginalization of students who dissent from campus orthodoxy on vital questions of law and policy is shameful.
But the intellectual homogeneity of the legal academy poses a deeper problem than the marginalization of conservative students. It is the predominantly liberal student body at elite law schools that is most harmed by the dearth of conservative voices. Many of these students graduate from law school without having encountered a cogent articulation of conservative views in the classroom, without having had their own ideas subjected to rigorous examination and debate.
As a result, these liberal students do not truly know why they hold the beliefs that they do, and they have little understanding of what a great proportion of their fellow citizens believe. For a group of students aspiring to be our nation’s leaders, that is serious indeed, and for a country likely to be led by such students, it presents an important problem. It is tempting to think that the ideological insularity of the legal academy need not concern those outside the Ivory Tower, but an out-of-touch academy produces out-of-touch graduates who go on to serve as judges, senators and, perhaps, presidents. The liberal academic monolith not only harms the intellectual development of students; it does grave damage to the nation’s capacity for future leadership.
Of course, there are many liberal professors who value intellectual diversity and confront their students with contrary arguments. But as John Stuart Mill once argued, a student interested in testing ideas “must be able to hear them from persons who actually believe them.” No scholar, no matter how learned, can represent an opponent’s arguments as well as the opponent. A professor of mine once attempted, sincerely, to articulate the argument in favor of traditional marriage. What the class heard instead was a caricature that no rational person would find persuasive.
If our elite law schools are to serve their students and the country well, they must actively seek out the best minds representing all points of view. That does not imply giving conservative candidates preferential treatment when making hiring decisions; all candidates must be held to the same academic standards. It does mean, though, that law schools should be eager to hire scholars who represent perspectives that are absent from their faculties. Law school campuses would have a richer and more vibrant intellectual life as a result, and the country would be the primary beneficiary.
In “Gorgias,” Socrates condemns the rhetoricians who care only to persuade and calls us to engage in a serious, self-critical pursuit of truth. As Plato’s dialogues demonstrate, however, the pursuit of truth requires interlocutors who challenge and test our beliefs. The legal academy aims to produce students of truth. It risks producing mere rhetoricians. The time has come for the legal academy to rediscover its mission. Our nation’s future depends on it.
Joel Alicea, 25, is a student at Harvard Law School, president emeritus of the Harvard Federalist Society, and the organizer of the Federalist Society’s conference on intellectual diversity.
via Washington Times