Introduction - Democracy

Fear, Craft and Avarice

Cannot rear a State.


It is certain that democracy annoys one part of the community, and that aristocracy oppresses another part.

- De Toqueville, Democracy  in America.

There never was separate heart-beat in all the races of men.

- John Boyle O'Reilly

Wherever man oppresses man

Beneath Thy liberal sun,

O God ! be there Thine arm made bare,

Thy righteous will be done.

- John Hay

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The Ethics of Democracy

by Louis F. Post

Introduction - Democracy

"WHEN you are a-going to talk about democracy," said an observant Negro speaker in a political campaign in Texas, "you want to name the brand." It was a significant remark, and its importance is by no means limited to the exigencies of political campaigning in Texas. Democracy is everywhere a word of varied meaning. Some of its meanings, too, are as illegitimate as the Negro campaigner must have suspected. 

Its verbal parentage is legitimately traced, of course, to two Greek words which signify respectively "the people" and "government." In the strict etymological sense, therefore, democracy means government by all the people governed. It stands out, in that sense, with contradistinctive emphasis against monarchy, which is government by one ; against anarchy, which is government by none ; and against aristocracy, which is government by a privileged few. 

But the term has acquired numerous colloquial meanings, some of which retain hardly a family resemblance to its etymology. The particular concept, "government," often fades out of the word quite completely, while the broad general concept, "all the people," shrinks to a mere class significance. Democracy comes thus to be an allusion to the common life of the so-called "lower classes." 

Of this species there are many varieties, and all are accepted by the multifarious grades of society as genuine democracy, though with different connotations in different social grades. In some grades the word stimulates ; for there it is the shibboleth of the sturdy common people. Other classes are sickened by it; to them it connotes nauseous vulgarity. 

One of the varieties of this species of democracy is distinguished for its concern with personal manners. Men are frequently called democratic merely because their manners are boorish, without the slightest reference to their convictions regarding either government or the people. Confirmed aristocrats, for instance, are described as democratic, because they occasionally knock about in their shirt sleeves as "hail-fellow-well-met," with temporarily agreeable groups of their social "inferiors." So the men they knock about with are accounted democrats, though for no other reason than that they are poor or uncouth or both. In this derivative sense, democracy is an illegitimate word. 

No man is genuinely democratic merely because he associates upon terms of good fellowship with persons whom he regards as inferior - not even if he likes it. Neither are these associates of his democratic merely because they belong to an "inferior" social class. Furthermore, it is not genuine democracy to pattern after classes commonly accounted inferior, by imitating their modes of dress or other habits of life. Such affectations are in themselves no more democratic than is the life of those classes in itself. Democracy raises no question of class life, class habits, class manners, or class dress. Shirt sleeves do not make a democrat, nor does a dress suit make an aristocrat. 

But let no one infer that democracy has nothing to do with personal behavior. Genuine manners, the manners that come from good feeling rather than from mere training, those especially that spring from a living faith in the essential equality of men - such manners are democratic in the truest possible sense. 

In that sense of the word, all true gentlemen are democrats and all true democrats are gentlemen. The man of sterling democratic manners recoils from the patronizing spirit. Whatever he does for others is done simply as one of them - not as a benevolent boss but as a brother or neighbor; and whatever he receives from others he receives in the same respectful spirit of fraternal equality. He recoils, moreover, from trespassing upon the rights of any fellow man, as instinctively as he would resent a trespass upon his own rights.

His perception of rights may indeed be distorted. Familiar customs, class associations, misleading modes of thought, sham patriotism, may have produced in his mind fantastic effects. Inordinate cultivation of love for his own country, for instance, may have enveloped his thought in a provincialism that makes other countries seem more or less uncivilized. Or, he may have grown up in a slave community where he has learned to think of the rights of slaves as differing greatly from the rights of free men. He may, again, belong to a "superior" race group which inculcates the doctrine of inferior rights for men of "inferior" races. If a scion of aristocracy, he may have come to look upon the rights of the common people as subordinate to those of his own class. If a rich parvenu, he may differentiate between the rights of the rich and those of the poor. If a baffled poor man, he may invest the poor with rights that he would deny to the rich. There is nothing so subtly difficult as emancipating one's mind from the influence of one's habitual environment. 

But let his perception of rights be never so strangely distorted, the democratic gentleman respects in others of all classes, all the rights that he perceives them to possess. Nor is that the whole of it. In this fraternal disposition of his there lies the germ of that perfect democracy which is expressed by the Golden Rule. It gradually pierces the crust of such class prejudices as he may have, and in good time blossoms out into unreserved recognition of natural rights universally equal. Genuine democracy of this personal species flourishes in all countries, among all classes, with all races, and in every condition of life. 

As that species of democracy spreads and strengthens, it develops the governmental type, with which the present volume is most directly concerned. The word preserves in the latter use the full etymological sense of government by all the people governed, this type of democracy being the democracy of the American Declaration of Independence, which inculcates as a self-evident truth the principle that governments derive their just powers from the consent of the governed. But here also the word has connotations that break the confines of its etymology. It involves not only the idea of government by all the people governed, which implies an equal voice in the common counsels, but likewise the idea of government in recognition of and harmony with the principle of equal natural rights in all other respects. Even government by all is not democratic, when it makes discriminations as to persons or classes with reference to natural rights. On this point, too, the meaning of democracy is illumined by the Declaration of Independence. Not merely does government derive its just powers from the consent of the governed, as that American magna charta asserts; but, as it also asserts, government can derive no powers that are unjust, even from the governed themselves. For governments, says this venerated document, are instituted for the sole purpose of securing natural rights. The same idea was expressed by Madison when advocating, in conjunction with Hamilton and Jay, the adoption of the Federal Constitution. In the 51st number of the Federalist, Madison wrote: "Justice is the end of government. It is the end of civil society. It ever has been, and ever will be pursued, until it be obtained, or until liberty be lost in the pursuit." 

Sometimes those sentiments are ascribed, with an air of their being thus finally disposed of, to an "obsolete political philosophy of the eighteenth century." With materialistic scholars and cunning "grafters" this offhand disposal of the subject has become, indeed, quite the fashion. But a moral law does not lose its virtues because the philosophy that emphasizes it is pronounced obsolete ; and the moral law of equal human rights cannot be so easily set aside. 

As was written a score of years ago, by the teacher* to whom these essays are dedicated: "There are those who, when it suits their purpose, say that there are no natural rights, but that all rights spring from the grant of the sovereign political power. It were waste of time to argue with such persons. There are some facts so obvious as to be beyond the necessity of argument. And one of these facts, attested by universal consciousness, is that there are rights as between man and man which existed before the formation of government, and which continue to exist in spite of the abuse of government; that there is a higher law than any human law - to wit, the law of the Creator, impressed upon and revealed through nature, which is before and above human laws, and upon conformity to which all human laws must depend for their validity." 

He who denies that conclusion may be an aristocrat or a monarchist, a socialist or an anarchist, an "annointed of the Lord" or a hooligan in the street, but, whether rich or poor, whether high born or low born, whether wise or simple, pious or profane, whatever his religious, economic or political professions or labels, such a man is not a democrat. The democratic idea as applied to government demands that equality of fundamental rights be recognized as a natural endowment to be protected as a public duty. 

Such is the spirit of this volume. Its democracy is generic, not partisan. If at times it leans towards the Democratic party of American politics, that is only as the Democratic party is democratic. In so far as the Republican party is democratic, its sympathies are with that party also. The fact must not be forgotten that there is a strain of democracy in the history of both parties. Both sprang into being from a democratic impulse. Each has represented historic democratic movements. Even the democratic name would have been appropriated by the younger party but for its pre-appropriation by the older. That these two parties are branches of the same democratic trunk their history fully attests. 

Half a century before the present Republican party was organized, Jefferson and his followers had called their party Republican. They were democrats, but "democrat" was as objectionable then as "anarchist" is now. For that reason the word served excellently as one of those verbal bludgeons which respectable mobs like to hurl at those who do not agree with them. Such bludgeons bruise worse than brickbats, curiously enough, and it is safer to throw them. It is much easier, moreover, than argument, and far more effective with the mob - both the upper mob and the lower. So the Federalists sneered at the original Republicans as "democrats," and the offensive epithet stuck. As usual with offensive epithets that stick to good movements, it came later on to be adopted with honor as a substitute for the official name. Consequently, when the slave power had wrung most of the democracy out of the Democratic party, and a new democracy arose in the middle of the century, this new democracy could not appropriate the democratic name. It was already the cherished political trade-mark of what had degenerated into an amazingly undemocratic Democratic party. As the new democracy was thus prevented from adopting its most appropriate name, it did the next best thing. Having revived Jefferson's principles, it resurrected his party name and called itself Republican. 

This democratic party of Lincoln, with the resurrected name of the old democratic party of Jefferson, made an enviable democratic record, somewhat mottled to be sure, and there are still within it sterling democratic elements. But, as with its predecessor of the anti-slavery period, its democratic elements have long been without influence in the leadership. Very much as the power of wealth rooted in a slavery system once absorbed the Democratic party and silenced the democracy within it, so has the power of even greater and more arrogant wealth, rooted in a complex system of special privilege and fostered by an industrial era of high tension, absorbed its Republican successor and silenced the democracy within that. With this silencing of the democracy of the Republican party, however, the democracy of the Democratic party has slowly revived. The democrats of the American electorate are consequently separated by party lines. In the Republican party are the democratic Republicans whose democracy has been silenced by party authority; in the Democratic party are the democratic Democrats who struggle hopefully against a greedy and cunning bi-partisan plutocracy for party control. 

It is to these democratic Democrats and democratic Republicans that the following reflections upon democratic ethics are addressed. One of the chapters appeared originally in the "Arena," of Boston and New York ; another in "What's the Use," of East Aurora, N. Y. ; a third in a Labor Day paper of Canada, and a fourth in the "Mirror," of St. Louis. To those publications cordial acknowledgments for permission to revise and republish are hereby made. The other chapters were published originally as editorials in "The Public," of Chicago. They comprise the permanent parts of nearly all the principal editorials in elucidation of this general subject which the writer, as editor of "The Public," contributed to that periodical during the first five years of its publication. Arranged now in logical sequence and partly rewritten, the collection as a whole offers an optimistic presentation of the democratic theory of human society. 

There are places in which these essays will doubtless seem to be dogmatic. If they are so, it is only in form of expression and not in spirit. But even in the form of expression there is really no dogmatism, although the contrary inference may very well be drawn from their positive style. This positiveness, indeed, is intentional, and there is a reason for it. He who has something affirmative to say, or thinks he has, ought to say it positively if he says it at all. Fumbling is inexcusable - in printer's ink; while positiveness has at least the one recommendation of implying that the author has given his own best thought to his work and believes in what he writes. 

But readers need not believe because the author does. The function of positive writing is not to coerce readers ; it is to arouse their interest, stimulate their thought, and encourage them to develop their intelligence. The indolent reader may fall into the temptation of raising the easy objection to positive styles of writing that they are dogmatic ; but let him be assured that it will benefit him more to try to find out for himself why the "dogmatism" isn't true. It is equally desirable, of course, if he inclines to assent too readily, to find out for himself why it is true. 

A more important objection to the essays than that they are dogmatic, may float to the top in indolent and thoughtless minds, or be thrown upon the surface of such minds by trusted leaders who love darkness rather than light, - the objection, namely, that they are "pessimistic." 

To that objection the essays themselves furnish a full answer. The sum and substance of their "pessimism" is simply this, that they condemn what is evil. They apply to human society the principle of the Jewish prophet, that great principle of moral order which determines the invariable sequence of human progress - the law that men must cease to do evil before they can learn to do well. If this be pessimism, let the most be made of it. But it is not pessimism. On the contrary, it is the fundamental law of all sane optimism. 

One more possible criticism may properly be anticipated. The essays are open to the objection of being "academic," because they deal so much with familiar facts and elementary principles and so little with obscure details. A book on ethics should need no apology for that. But quite apart from this reply, it may be urged that there is peculiar necessity, in these days of which Mr. Gradgrind must have had encouraging dreams, for repeatedly harking back to what is elementary and ought to be familiar. 

It is illustrated by the old lawyers' story of a young practitioner who was arguing elementary principles of law very elaborately before an appellate court. "You may assume," interrupted one of the judges, with a shade of dignified impatience, "that the Court knows a little law." Quite good naturedly the lawyer retorted: "I made that assumption in the court below, your Honor, and that is the reason I have had to appeal." 

Nothing is so badly needed in our day, for the solution of social, industrial and political problems, as academic discussion. There has been altogether too much unquestioned devotion of late years to inductive nebulosity. Undigested and indigestible statistics, miscellaneous facts without unifying theories, "scientific" fancies without logical substance, have been allowed too much liberty in crowding out deductive processes. So customary has it become to ignore general principles and distort logical analysis, that ability to reason with precision about abstract subjects of common interest and facts of common knowledge, is an unusual accomplishment. The syllogistic method, which demands exactness of thought, has been largely displaced by loose analogical habits and speculative inferences from "facts and figures." 

Nor is that intellectual degeneracy confined to the "vulgar herd." Even sociological specialists are in the habit, which Emerson condemned, of classifying things by their accidental appearances instead of by their relations of cause and effect. These experts have abandoned themselves so completely to the minute study of multitudes of minor and segregated facts relating to social life, that they lose sight altogether of the few great facts and their natural relations, and superciliously ignore the dominating principles that fairly thrust themselves into the mind when these relations are considered. Through overtraining in particularization they seem to have lost the power of generalization, thereby confirming the theory that Macaulay advanced when, in his essay on History, he wrote: "The talent of deciding on the circumstances of a particular case is often possessed in the highest perfection by persons destitute of the power of generalization.... Indeed, the species of discipline by which this dexterity is acquired tends to contract the mind and to render it incapable of abstract reasoning." What the older lawyers alluded to when they used to speak contemptuously of "case lawyers" is what many modern students of social philosophy have come to be. The "case lawyer" ignored general principles and flourished upon heterogeneous precedents; the modern social student, also ignoring general principles, thrives upon heterogeneous instances. There is necessity, therefore, for emphasizing the elementary natural principles of social life, those laws of human intercourse that need only to be understood to be accepted; and that is what in this volume is attempted. 

The opening chapters deal with the ethics of democracy in their bearing upon expectations of human progress. The difference is here considered between spurious and genuine optimism - between that vulgar optimism which is after all nothing but reckless indifference to social wrong-doing or wicked love for it, and the wholesome and effective kind of optimism which abhors and condemns what is wrong and inculcates what is right. With this difference distinguished, the way is clear for an exposure of some of the pitfalls that yawn for young men as they step over the threshold of youth and advance along the pathway of serious social life. These are not the pitfalls of personal immorality of which young men are properly but abundantly warned by other writers. They are pitfalls regarding which it is held in high places to be pessimistic to give warning. As a rule, such pitfalls are scrupulously and often artistically hidden from the sight of young men by the affectionate folly of their experienced elders. It is regarded as only a fraud of the pious order to assure them that there are no dangers of that kind. So young men fall into these hidden and decorated pitfalls, in shoals - fall into them helplessly without knowing that they exist. They are even pushed in, to make a causeway over which a few of their privileged fellows may pass on to ignoble success. Democratic ethics demand that this pious fraud be exposed, to the end that young men may appreciate the dangers that characterize our undemocratic social life, and may strive for a realization of the democratic principles under which no man's failure is necessary for any man's success. 

Out of this application of democratic ethics to individual life there naturally develops a consideration of democracy in business life. That in turn brings forward for examination a variety of economic tendencies and their governing politico-economic principles, through which the democratic ideal lights the way. With the economics of social life grasped, the problems of democratic government are easier to solve; and out of their solution there rises a conception of patriotism the thrill of which no man can know until he understands that the world is his country and all its inhabitants are his fellow citizens. 

The concluding chapter expresses what the preceding ones suggest, the truth that in the moral as in the material universe there is a great order, a great harmony, conformity to which leads mankind upward and onward. 

Out of that harmony the ethics of democracy are evolved. Along with its development the victories of democracy are won. And what nobly practical ethics! What soul-stirring victories ! 

Consider the ethical touchstone of democracy - the principle of the brotherhood of man. As true to absolute morals as the needle to the pole, its use with intelligent sincerity precludes all ethical error. There is no social problem so intricate, no labyrinth of political affairs so confusing, that its ethical difficulties cannot be overcome by submission in good faith to that great moral principle. "Foremost and grandest amid the teachings of Christ," said Mazzini, "were these two inseparable truths - 'There is but one God ; all men are the sons of God.'" That is no pious platitude. It is a recognition of the fundamental law of social life. And Lowell explained its application when he wrote: "He's true to God who's true to man." 

Behold, too, democracy's splendid victories! What is the history of social progress but a story of successive struggles in which larger and larger opportunities for all have been wrested from more and more subtle modes of privilege for the few? What is it but a story of successive achievements for freedom over tyranny, on higher and higher planes? What is it but a story of successive triumphs for the rights of men over the might of masters? 

Nor has that, story ended. The struggle is still on. "Freedom is re-created year by year, in hearts wide open on the Godward side." Now as ever it is as easy to be democratic heroes -

.... as to sit the idle slaves,

Of a legendary virtue carved upon our fathers' graves."

Even here and now "Ormuzd still fights with Ahriman - the Prince of Light with the Powers of Darkness"; and "he who will hear, to him the clarions of the battle call." The warfare of democracy against privilege in the most subtle forms it has yet disclosed, has but just begun. Yet we may confidently believe, with the optimism of the true democrat, that this modern battle for the ethics of democracy will end, as all those that have preceded it in the history of the race have ended, in a victory for rights over privileges. 

Imperial power and economic monopoly may prosper for a time, but only democracy is strong to the end. For democracy is an expression of righteousness, and righteousness alone can ultimately prevail. When righteousness does prevail, then will there be universal peace ; not the ghastly peace of the tomb, but the loving peace of brotherly justice. And with that peace will come prosperity ; not the prosperity of a Dives with its crumbs for a Lazarus, but abundant prosperity for Lazarus and Dives both - on the just condition that the one quit begging and the other plundering, and that both go to work. This is the era of natural law and social order which it is the function of democracy to usher in. This is what the social life will be when righteousness and peace shall have kissed, and the ethics of democracy are the acknowledged ethics of the race. 

Social Problems by Henry George, Ch. X.

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