Summer 2008

Philosophy and Ideas

Power to the People

Brian Orchard

Is more and better democracy the way of the future? Will the establishment of democratic forms of government end the strife in contentious regions such as the Middle East? Can the enforced implementation of democracy by the United Nations or the United States solve the world’s problems? 

The key to the democratic process is “the people.” To appreciate the future of democratization we need to understand some fundamental aspects of the human mind from which the will of the people originates. 

Peace is a basic desire of people everywhere. And if happiness and prosperity accompany it, then so much the better. 

We look to our governments to create the conditions required for peace. Is there any form of government that humanity has not tried across time in its quest for harmony? Yet peace, happiness and prosperity remain out of the grasp of most. In fact, no nation can claim it has achieved this enviable state for all its inhabitants. 

Some describe the time we live in as the democratic age. They point out that through the evolution of government and the rise of democratic principles in politics and institutions, the world stands at the brink of a positive era. Indeed, compared with the rule of feudal lords, tyrant kings and despotic dictators, who would argue that government based on the needs and desires of ordinary people isn’t a significant step forward? Will democracy therefore continue to spread through the world system, gradually subduing all other forms of government and bringing peace and well-being to all? 

Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide.”

John Adams, second president of the United States, in letter to John Taylor, 1814

Perhaps we should first ask whether the capacity to do so is even inherent in the democratic system. Whatever your view, one thing is certain: democracy has no set definition. It comes in many shapes, sizes and colors and means different things to different people. 

Democracy is generally recognized as originating with the Greeks, when revolts in Athens brought to an end a dynasty of tyrants in the fourth and fifth centuries B.C.E. The term demokratia comes from kratos, “rule,” and demos, “people.” Hence the definition, “the rule of the people.” Aristotle thought that the ideal number of men participating in each democratic system would be about five thousand. No doubt the breadth of contemporary applications would surprise him. Today, the ancient philosopher’s concept of the polis (city) as the basis for democracy has given rise to national and even global models. 

While there are many modern variations of democracy, all involve “the people” in processes that either express the will of the majority or act as checks and balances on a centralized authority. America’s founding fathers envisioned what Abraham Lincoln later termed “government of the people, by the people, for the people.” In many republics, “people power” means that the masses of ordinary citizens can exercise their power to remove an elected president from office. The Philippines is an example, having done just that in recent years. On the other hand, several African leaders see themselves as presiding over democracies in that they have been brought to power by the people, yet once in office they rule as dictators. Political analyst Fareed Zakaria differentiates between these various forms in terms of “liberal democracy” and “illiberal democracy.” 

For some, “the rule of the people” is the panacea for all problems relating to personal liberty, human rights and freedom in general. For others, it means globalization and its 24-7 partner, the Internet, which transcends political boundaries. In either case, views of democracy tend to be enhanced by the collapse of closed systems, under which the people’s desires have been subjugated by the will of the state. 

So while democracy can refer to a doctrine or principle of government, a set of institutional procedures, or a set of behaviors, the core idea is the downward distribution of power and the active participation of the people to influence direction and outcome. 

Original Sins

The Greeks may have laid the foundation for the system we know as democracy, but the rule of the people has its origins in a much earlier time. In fact, according to the book of Genesis, the seeds were sown just after the creation of humankind in the Garden of Eden, with Adam and Eve. Humans are described as created after the God kind, while animals were created after their own various kinds. Clearly we were meant to be different from other species. Man and woman were given a mind—a physical brain with an additional nonphysical component. 

This component is identified in scriptural language as the “spirit in man.” Genesis explains that Adam became a living being once God breathed into him the breath of life (Genesis 2:7). Breath, wind and spirit are related concepts in Hebrew. The ancient Hebrew book of Job teaches that “there is a spirit in man, and the breath of the Almighty gives him understanding” (Job 32:8). Animals do not have such a spirit, and although they have sophisticated brains and can be extremely intelligent, they do not have mental capacity equivalent to human understanding. 

Human beings are required to use their minds to process a complexity of information and make a constant stream of decisions of a higher order than is required of animals. Although created by God, we have free moral agency and the ability to use our intellects voluntarily in the decision-making process. This is demonstrated by the instruction given to Adam and Eve relative to two trees in the garden, identified as the tree of life and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. The fruit of both trees appeared to be good for food, yet God instructed that they eat of one and not of the other. That’s because the trees symbolized two ways of life. One way of life links the human mind to God via His Holy Spirit; the other (forbidden) way rejects God, as humans assume for themselves the right to determine what is right and what is wrong

Though they may not have realized the full implications, Adam and Eve chose the way of self-determination on behalf of mankind, shunning the direct influence of the Creator. This is the path that humanity has walked ever since, pictured by our first parents’ banishment from the Garden of Eden and the tree of life. Humanity was on its own, with complete freedom to make decisions apart from God. The rule of the people was born. 

Human intelligence, with its nonphysical component, is a formidable force, as the accomplishments of human endeavor attest. Yet in crucial areas, such as cooperation and peace in human relationships, the power of the people has not yet netted the desired results. The citizens of the greatest democracy on earth (perhaps the greatest democracy ever) are divided down the middle politically. Anger toward their leaders, who were elected by a system based on the power of the people, boils just beneath the surface. And in Iraq, the Western attempt to replace a tyrant dictator with a democratic system has proved very difficult to say the least. Perhaps one reason is that many potential beneficiaries of such a system are at cross purposes. 

Why is it that human intelligence applied to technology can be so successful, yet when it is applied to a system of government, it seems incapable of producing a lasting environment of peace and safety? 

The answer lies partly in the fact that not all knowledge is physical. By refusing to comply with God’s instructions regarding the two trees, the human mind was deprived of access to godly knowledge and confined to the pursuit of physical knowledge. To build and launch space probes, to dam mighty rivers, or to transmit data in nanoseconds requires knowledge of physical laws, and the human mind is very good at accumulating and applying this kind of knowledge. But government, which involves social interaction between people, requires the application of spiritual principles to be truly successful. Success comes through the expression of genuine outgoing concern by those governing toward those being governed, and vice versa. 

Law and Democracy

Law plays an important part in democracy. The modern democratic state creates laws to protect the individual liberties of its citizens, as well as to protect citizens from injustices or abuses at the hand of those they elect. Since man took to himself the authority to decide right from wrong, the laws developed within the democratic state are made by man, based on what he decides is right or wrong. And we all know that there are many divergent views regarding moral and ethical values. The best the state can do is to create laws that are agreed upon by a majority of the people. This may be effected by direct referendum of the masses, by representatives that the masses elect, or by judges that the elected representatives appoint. 

Without a firm moral and ethical basis for the formulation of these laws, they will rest on the vagaries of the human mind deciding for itself the basis for law. Witness the evolution of laws addressing marriage and family relationships within some democratic societies today. Lawmakers struggle even to define marriage, thus compromising their efforts to formulate laws to protect those who participate in the marriage relationship. Who decides what is right and wrong regarding this most important institution? The rule of the people is always going to tend toward a lessening of restraint and thus mediocrity. 

Democracy may be better than autocratic or dictatorial forms of government, but it is sadly hollow at the core. As Winston Churchill famously noted, “Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of Government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.” No government is stronger than its moral and ethical foundations. Unfortunately, at the heart of democracy, the people’s determination of what is right is based only on what seems right or what feels right. 

The very idea of freedom presupposes some objective moral law which overarches rulers and ruled alike. Subjectivism about values is eternally incompatible with democracy.” 

C.S. Lewis, Christian Reflections, 1943

Another Source

What many don’t realize is that another democratic experiment—in the sense of a person taking to himself the right to decide how to live—was undertaken some three thousand years ago and the results documented. King Solomon allowed himself the luxury of trying anything he wanted, without the restrictions of right and wrong. In the first two chapters of the book of Ecclesiastes, he documents the experimentation by which he indulged himself in whatever appealed to him. He says: “I set my heart to seek and search out by wisdom concerning all that is done under      heaven.  . . . I set my heart to know wisdom and to know madness and folly” (Ecclesiastes 1:13, 17). This accumulated wisdom led him to declare of the human mind, “All the ways of a man are pure in his own eyes. . . . There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death. . . . Every way of a man is right in his own eyes” (Proverbs 16:2, 25; 21:2, emphasis added throughout). The prophet Jeremiah, who came from the same Hebrew tradition, was a little more direct when he declared, “I know the way of man is not in himself; it is not in man who walks to direct his own steps” (Jeremiah 10:23). This understanding of the mind of “the people” makes it clear that government based on the will of the people simply will not work. 

Perhaps we would all do well to open our minds and ask some of the questions posed by political analyst Zakaria in The Future of Freedom. He asks, “What if liberty comes not from chaos but from some measure of order as well . . . ? What if, as in much of life, we need guides and constraints? And what if liberty is truly secure only when these guardrails are strong?” 

The law of God was designed to provide just such guardrails for human conduct. If we stay within them, our conduct will lead to the objectives sought by democracy. According to Moses, speaking to ancient Israel about that law, “the Lord commanded us to observe all these statutes, to fear the Lord our God, for our good always, that He might preserve us alive, as it is this day” (Deuteronomy 6:24). This is the law that provides moral and ethical content as a basis for daily living and protects human rights in the process. Instead of deciding for ourselves what is right or wrong, we need to seek a common basis for law from the One who created us in the first place. Then the individual liberty of the citizen would be protected and rulers would be required to put the good of the people above their own interests. The will of the people would be in harmony with the will of those entrusted to lead, each placing the needs and desires of others before his or her own. Peace and happiness would become a reality. 

In biblical terms this system is known as the government of God. God’s benevolent government, based on His law, is the only kind that will successfully address the problems we see surrounding us today. Yes, this may be the democratic age, but it is not going to be the era when humanity solves its problems by its own systems of government, democratic or otherwise. King Solomon tried it all, and his summation, found in Ecclesiastes 12:13 (King James Version) is powerful: “Let us hear the conclusion of the whole matter: Fear God, and keep his commandments: for this is the whole duty of man.”