Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
Display paragraphs in this book containing:
First Pub. Date
New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
Pub. Date
Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
83 of 1105



ARISTOCRATIC AND DEMOCRATIC IDEAS. The politics of democracy considers the equality of men the fundamental law of nature, the supreme law of the state. The politics of aristocracy, on the contrary, finds the basis of all political order in the natural differences between men. An equality of rights is, therefore, the fundamental principle of democracy; a preference for the nobler, that of aristocracy. Democracy hates this preference as a most damnable privilege, and aristocracy despises that equality as low vulgarity. The democrat says: "Equal rights to all citizens; to all citizens an equal share in the government; no privileges." The aristocrat says: "To the better citizen higher rights; not to the common crowd, but to the more select, belongs the preference in government."


—There is evidently a fraction of truth in both these views, but in neither the whole truth. They both fall into error, because they keep constantly striving in blind one-sidedness after their acknowledged half-truth, and do not see the other owing to their precipitateness. Equality of rights, of course, finds a very good foundation in the common nature of men. But if this alone is kept in view, and no regard paid to the equally evident differences between men, then the state is an impossibility, inasmuch as it is unthinkable without some visible distinction made between the rulers and the ruled. When no difference is admitted there can be no political order, for to order means first to discriminate or distinguish. The reproaches so often brought against democrats, that they drag what is noble down into the dust, and through their leveling processes finally place power in the hands of the lowest mob, are justified to a certain extent, because of this exaggeration of a principle correct in itself.


—Conversely, the aristocratic view can justly appeal to human history, since history emphasizes the differences between men. History, too, shows plainly the differences which move, separate, unite and distinguish them from one another. Logic can not raise any objection to the principle: the better deserve the preference in public life.


—But since aristocrats follow this fragment of truth blindly, they forget the universal, human principle which naturally binds the nobler to the common. They do not reflect that the state is, to begin with, the community of all, and not a society of the better. They thus disengage themselves from human, popular connection; and while they look down with contempt upon the low crowd which they alienate from themselves, they do not perceive that they are losing the ground from under their feet, and that their superiority, in consequence, becomes an empty privilege and fiction. Their vain and haughty overestimate of self leads to an ignominious fall, while the ridicule of the offended and despised multitude pursues them in that fall. Just as the error of both views lies in the one-sidedness with which each, clinging to its fragment of truth, severs it from the other indispensable fragment, so the whole truth lies in the union of both these fragments. We have to connect the natural equality with the historical inequality of rights, and while leaving to both ideas, as far as they are true, what belongs to them, we must avoid the errors and exaggerations into which narrow-minded democrats and aristocrats fall.


—II. Democracy says that the second law, a consequence of equality of rights, is this: "The will of the majority of citizens is the will of the people. The minority must submit to the majority." Aristocracy asserts in turn: "The better minority is not to be governed by the worse majority. Not numbers, but morality is decisive. In a well ordered state it is not a question of quantity, but of quality."


—Here again the danger lies in one-sidedness. The majority of the people is, under any circumstances, a power in the state worthy of careful consideration. The masses are the natural basis of the whole state; they constitute the greatest physical power and generally the greatest intellectual power in the state. He is no statesman who regards the masses as mere matter placed in his hands for him to play with at his pleasure. This error is dangerous, especially in our time, when even the lower masses have awakened to the consciousness that they are men, and that at least in this respect they are the equals of their rulers. But neither is he fit to rule who listens only to the wishes of the masses and serves the will of the majority, even when the majority desire for themselves what is bad and destructive, or when they, in slothful calm and heedlessness, oppose necessary reforms.


—Numbers, that is to say, the majority, are really decisive only on the supposition of equality. When the majority and minority are on an equal footing, and the latter possesses no evident superiority over the former, then only the visible superiority, that of the greater number on the side of the majority, is calculated to incline the scales in its favor. It is, therefore, a quite natural law, which, from time immemorial, has been acknowledged by all nations which have understood the meaning of law, that every assembly formed by several persons of the same position, such as a council, a chamber, a municipal body, a corporation, expresses, as a rule, its collective will through the will of the majority of its members present.


—But numbers, in other words this majority, are not decisive where a dissimilarity in the factors is presupposed. When a minority occupies a higher position in public life than the majority, then the former and not the latter should turn the balance. The different successive grades in public and judicial administration are an application of this rule. The higher courts are everywhere in a minority compared with the more numerous lower ones; and still the higher courts decide (of course by a majority within their own body, because the members stand all on the same level) and not the opinion of all the lower courts, even when unanimous.


—III. The contrast re-appears again in the valuation of the majority. The principle of a majority, as such, demands that that only be recognized as the majority, and consequently as the collective will, for which more than half the voting members have declared themselves. The absent can not by right come into consideration because they do not vote. This form of voting meets with an internal difficulty only when the number of votes is even and divides into two equal parts. The scales are therefore in equilibrium. If out of 100 votes there are 50 ayes and 50 nays, no party has the preponderance. Where this can not be remedied by the supposition that there being no majority, there is consequently no decision at all, then the president's vote is estimated at a higher value, so that the 50 votes with that of the president will weigh more than the other 50. The inconvenience of a tie is also avoided by granting the president no vote unless there is a tie, when he has the casting vote. In both cases the vote of the president is valued differently from that of a simple member; and the unequal value of a vote prevents the mathematical balance in voting. With the last method, however, it can happen that the vote of the president may be of less value than that of an ordinary member. In elections, the casting of lots is also resorted to in case of a tie, and the decision made by blind chance. Deciding by a relative majority is so opposed to principle that it may be used, at most, only in the case of indifferent questions, for the sake of expedition; for the relative majority is in reality often the minority, and there is no reason for giving among equal members the preference to a few over the majority. The same favoritism of the minority results from the admission of a larger than a simple majority, as for instance two-thirds, or three-fourths, because if seven out of twelve votes do not form a majority the five in opposition decide. This departure from the rule can be approved only when important interests of the minority give them increased weight, as for instance when their interest is such as to warrant their having a certain number of votes.


—IV. It is further a democratic idea that "public offices and dignities should be open to all." The aristocratic idea, on the contrary, is: "The rude and ignorant man is to be kept far from office, and access to the same is to be given only to distinguished men." The utmost consequences of the first one-sided principle are visible in the ancient democracy of Athens, where most offices were given by lot, which, although a blind method. presupposed an equal ability in all citizens, and discriminating election was rejected on principle as an aristocratic institution. The extreme application of the second method tends to the exclusion of all the lower classes of the people from office, and makes office a privilege limited to the noble classes as the only ones capable of governing. Hereditary offices are the aristocratic counterpart to the offices by lot of the democracy. Modern law endeavors by uniting these opposite principles to deprive them of their one-sidedness, and has adopted the fruitful truth: "The road to office is open to all, but only the man who distinguishes himself above others reaches the goal." Equality is the basis, distinction is the development.


—V. Frequent change of persons intrusted with public power is a democratic, permanence in place and office an aristocratic principle. Change favors the equal participation of all in public affairs, and hinders the creation of an authority placed above the people. On the other hand, permanence in office strengthens the authority of those in power and secures a hierarchy in the official aristocracy. For this reason we find short terms of office and frequent elections in all democratic states. It is clear that the exaggeration of this tendency weakens official authority which is essential in every state, and afflicts the people with a periodical election fever. But where aristocracy has a thorough, although one-sided training, all change ceases, and offices are conferred for long periods or for life, as in many aristocratic states of the middle ages, or even according to hereditary principles, on certain aristocratic families, as in the German empire. The modern states, especially monarchies, seek to unite impartially the advantages of the two opposing principles, and to avoid their defects. Where it is a question of the representation of popular interests and opinions, as in the constitution of the legislative body, the system of election at certain intervals is followed. But where it becomes a matter of filling positions of power, measures are taken to insure the firm authority of these, and also to secure the position of the official against changing opinions, without, however, having recourse to the extreme of hereditary office.


—VI. Respect for evident authority is peculiarly natural to the aristocratic mind. Long established authority is all the less doubted and all the more willingly obeyed, when people are accustomed to it from youth. On this account the aristocracy pays special respect to tradition, and seeks to preserve it from generation to generation. It has a preference for noble races and inherited distinction, clings to the right of inheritance whenever practicable. It is right in all this and perverts the right only through exaggeration, by opposing with stubborn enmity newly budding life, and claiming for the vanquished and dead, rights which belong only to the living. In contrast with this, democrats lay especial emphasis on popular liberty, and demand free movement for the masses. Not tradition but the national will of the time is the lauded fountain of right at which they drink. They do not deny the power of tradition, but they will not be hindered by it in their path toward the desired end. Wherever tradition stands as a barrier in their way, they break through it without hesitation. Democratic opinion is easily deceived by taking the reasonable will of the people and the capricious or passionate whim of the crowd as the same thing, and to judge as right what is pleasing to the latter without considering that before all, right is, exists, and has not to be made; that it must be recognized and respected, not established at will. It also confounds freedom of the people with the domination of the people, and thinks the first is secured and realized most easily by adopting and exercising the latter. But in a healthy civil and political organism, authority and freedom, repose and movement, right of inheritance and progress, tradition and law, exist not isolated from, but connected with, each other.


—VII. The splendor of authority and the dignity of its formal appearance are also characteristic traits of aristocracy; democratic opinion sets little value on this, and even almost fears that the equality of citizens will be put in jeopardy by the choice robes of their dignitaries; and universal freedom endangered by the solemn pomp of public authority. Used in moderation (and the immoderate ceases to be beautiful) a noble form of outward appearance serves to show forth the dignity of the state and increase respect for it. The difference in the two theories is well illustrated in public buildings. The public utility of such buildings which is the thing first, and sometimes exclusively considered by the democracy, is of course not to be lightly thought of, and is in every case, practically, the chief consideration. But beauty and ornament, which are generally the work of an aristocracy—as artistic gifts and distinction are by nature aristocratic—lend public buildings also an ideal value and have an elevating and ennobling influence on the minds of the people generally. In this respect the Athenians, in other regards extravagantly democratic, were highly aristocratic. As aristocratic natures have a fine understanding for dignity of form in general, so also they have a lively sense of personal honor. The rising of aristocrats from the masses has always been accompanied by an increase in their feeling of honor. A nobility can better afford to surrender power than honor. When this feeling of honor, however, degenerates into an insolent overestimate of self and a contempt of the lower classes, it goes beyond its bounds; but in a healthy state the feeling of honor is a great moral power. The democratic mind places all value in the general human and national honor, and disregards or even hates any higher degree of honor. This general feeling of honor is indeed the most important, and a people in whom the feeling of human dignity is active, has reached, indeed, a high degree of civilization. It is also the natural foundation of all higher honor which springs forth like a blossom from the stem. The democratic envy which strives to pull down everything which struggles upward deserves to be punished with contempt. But the democratic desire for a recognition of the honor of man, is well founded in the divine order of things. If man is created in the image of God, then man as such has a just claim to the recognition and protection of his honor. Here, too, the popular democratic doctrine of honor appears as the foundation; but the special growth of higher honor, as an aristocratic development.


83 of 1105

Return to top