Democracy and Autocracy

Democracy and Autocracy

I will have a go at a question bequeathed to us by Plato—the question of whether democracy has a tendency to devolve into autocracy. In democracy people have an equal say in political decisions—each person’s voice must be heard. This means that each person’s wishes are given equal weight. But there are inevitably conflicts between people’s wishes: some people want what others don’t want. Conflicts of interest arise. It follows that some people are sacrificing their own interests to the interests of others. For example, suppose a family is deciding where to have lunch: some of them want to have Italian, others Japanese, others Greek. Either a single member stipulates a given choice, or the matter is decided democratically; in the latter case (also in the former) some members of the family don’t get what they want. But they have no choice—they must follow the democratic decision. They would prefer it if they could rule autocratically, thus following their own wishes. As it is, several members are not happy with the outcome, especially if it happens on a regular basis (never having Japanese, say). Democracy entails a sacrifice of personal sovereignty—personal freedom. You don’t always get what you want.

            But suppose an autocrat comes along who promises to respect your wishes to the detriment of others, and suppose he has to power to bring this about. Perhaps he is able to impose the new order by force. Then you will always get what you want, though others will not get what they want. You have a reason to support this autocrat. You make a prudential calculation and put your weight behind this character. Thus autocracy replaces democracy: you no longer have to sacrifice yourself for the general interest by respecting the wishes of others. Democracy is inevitably a system in which many people feel discontented because other people get to decide their fate; but autocracy allows many people, perhaps a majority, to get exactly what they wish. This is why autocracies are always supported by one section of the population (the beneficiaries) but not by other sections. To put it bluntly, democracy conflicts with human greed.

            Does this mean that autocracy is stable? No, and for the obvious reason: many people are getting the short end of the stick. So autocracies are always rife with democratic rumblings: the disadvantaged want their voice heard, their wishes respected. Civil war is a likely outcome. So autocracy has a tendency to devolve into democracy. The result is the perpetual oscillation model of political history: from autocracy to democracy, from democracy to autocracy. For a very long time autocracy held sway in human groups, eventually to be replaced by democracy (in some cases at least); but democracy might be in turn be replaced by a resurgent autocracy, only to give way again to democracy. Neither system is stable; both tend to give way to the other. The reason is the inevitability of conflicts of interest, especially as regards the distribution of resources. People’s self-interested wishes don’t harmonize. Both democracy and autocracy struggle to deal with this fact, but in the end it is an insoluble problem. Thus there will never be political peace.Co

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2 responses to “Democracy and Autocracy”

  1. Joseph K. says:

    But moral progress might make a belief in freedom and justice to be so general and profound that hardly anyone would be willing to help an autocrat come to power for the sake of selfish gain. Such a situation is psychologically possible, if nowhere near imminent. It is rational to prefer a free and just society after all.

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