The Dangers of Egalitarianism in a Democracy
by Louis Markos
Most Americans take for granted that democracy is an absolute good. If it can be said of an idea or a program that it promotes equality, Americans, whatever their political affiliations, will be loath to speak ill of the idea or to protest the program. “Of course,” they will think to themselves, “anything that fosters fairness and equal treatment must be good for society. Should we not strive to treat everyone the same? Is that not what America is all about?”
Well, no; at least not exactly. America strives to be the land of opportunity, a country where citizens are afforded equal dignity and are granted a say in their government. But the people do not control their government directly. They elect—or elect people to appoint—leaders who will represent their needs, values, and interests. We do so, not just for practical procedural reasons, but because we understand that there are certain people in our community whose skills for governing surpass those of their fellow citizens. In the same way, there are individual musicians, artists, and physicians whose skills in their respective areas are superior to the skills of others who share their aspirations for music, art, or medicine.
Imagine someone whose ruling ethic was that of egalitarian sameness trying to form a ballet troupe, an academic faculty, or a football team. I can’t say that many of us would be willing to pay to see such a troupe, to enroll in such a university, or to place a bet on such a team. Although the popularity of “reality TV,” the persistence of quota-driven affirmative action initiatives, and the lowering and/or mainstreaming of educational standards suggest, alarmingly, that many in our country would like to see the elimination of any kind of ranking, distinction, or hierarchy, the common-sense pragmatism of our citizenry has thus far prevented us from falling into the black hole of egalitarian mediocrity. We all recognize, in our best, noblest, and least envious moments, that just as we excel our neighbors in certain areas, they excel us in others.
Which is not to say that Americans would prefer a kind of rigid aristocracy in which only a very small number of upper-crust folk could engage, say, in drama or higher education or athletics. One of the strengths of our country is its widespread promotion of amateur theaters, community colleges, and local sports teams that involve people who may not have the skill to be the absolute best in their field, but whose significant gifts and talents allow them to make strong and meaningful contributions to their communities. The fact that there is only one Pope and a relatively small number of Cardinals has not prevented countless priests across the world from serving and enriching their local parishes.
In our American democracy, rulers hold power on the basis of popular election rather than hereditary right, politicians and soldiers swear allegiance to a code of laws rather than to a monarch, and average citizens have the right to appeal to and be protected by those laws. None of these political mandates necessitates a rejection of all hierarchy, rank, and distinction, though they do allow for more fluid movement within and between various social, political, and cultural classes. Still, democracy’s empowerment of the people does set in motion the potential for a kind of mob rule in which the people—drunk with their own power and sense of entitlement—demand that their whims be catered to by politicians and other leaders, while unscrupulous and flamboyant demagogues—drunk with their own delusions of grandeur—pander to the crowd and make promises that can only be met by draining and destabilizing the state.
Such things can happen. They happened, in fact, to the world’s first democracy.
Democracy was born 2,500 years ago in the city-state (or polis) of Athens. And it was born in a surprisingly radical form. Whereas our country has a representational democracy by election, the ancient Athenians had a direct democracy by selection. The assembly of Athens was a rotational one, governed each month by a new roster of citizens who were not elected but chosen by lot (rather like the jury system in America). What that meant practically is that over the course of several years, all Athenian citizens would have the right—and obligation—to serve directly in the working of government and possibly to make decisions that would have a profound impact on the polis.
For several generations, Athens’ radical democracy worked well.
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