Many forms of government have been tried, and will be tried in this world of sin and woe. No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time. Churchill

We all know what “democracy” is, more or less, since it’s been around since the days of ancient Athens, some twenty-five centuries ago. It means that citizens either make their own laws directly or make them through representatives they have elected. No kings, no autocrats, no dictators, no Communist or Fascist bosses. The people govern themselves.

Athens was a direct democracy – all eligible citizens (i.e., non-slave males) assembled on the Pnyx hill, which could accommodate about 6,000 people, several times a month. They spoke out and voted by raising their hands.

A few sensitive issues were decided by secret ballot – citizens wrote their names on pieces of broken pottery to vote. That may sound weird, but it avoided hanging chads and Iowan apps.

The Athenians had public officials, of course, but those people were chosen by lot and served for one year.

Several Swiss cantons have used direct democracy for 700 years. Citizens assemble (this is called a Landsgemeinde) in the town square and vote by a show of hands. Direct democracy was historically practiced in eight cantons, but for practical reasons it is now down to two.

Also for practical reasons, most of the world’s democracies today are representative democracies, in which citizens mainly elect representatives to act for them. However, ballot initiatives and recall elections remain as forms of direct democracy.

Okay, so we know what “democracy” is. But what in the world is liberal democracy? It is, in effect, democracy that is surrounded by and, most of us believe, enhanced by, special protections and rights. Without those protections democracy can degenerate into a tyranny of the majority, chaos, or simply authoritarian governance, albeit democratic.

Examples (in fact, the best examples) of the special protections democracy needs to be surrounded with are set forth in the US Bill of Rights (the first ten amendments to the Constitution) and the other 27 amendments that have been added to the Constitution since 1789 (counting one amendment, #21, that repealed another amendment, #18, thank goodness).

In brief, most of us don’t believe that democracy would work very well, or last very long, without a whole series of institutions such as the rule of law, separation of powers, freedom of speech, sanctity of contracts, due process, and so on. It is also these protections that make free market economies possible, as China is about to learn.

Those characteristics of liberal democracy have allowed the American government to survive, evolving slowly, for more than 200 years, far longer than any other government in the world.

But nothing good lasts forever. All over the world, including in the US, citizens are questioning whether liberal democracy is up to the task of governing fairly and effectively in the modern world.

China, of course, offers a completely different and – so far, the model is only three decades old – successful model that is not a democracy, much less a liberal democracy. In places like Turkey, Eastern Europe, and Mexico, formerly promising liberal societies are morphing into more authoritarian forms of democracy.

Elsewhere – India, the UK, the US, Switzerland and so on – populist leaders have been elected. At least two of the Democratic candidates for President wanted to chuck out free markets and impose socialism, or a form of it. In the entire world there are only 30 liberal democracies, many of them quite small, and the possibility that that number will grow is highly uncertain.

Why is it that so many people are seriously questioning the value of a model that has served us so well for so long? And are these folks right? Is liberal democracy past its expiration date?

One way to try to get at this issue is to go back to first principles. After all, liberal democracy didn’t arise out of nowhere. Instead, the collection of ideas that make up what we call liberal democracy was the fruit of a remarkable intellectual flowering known as the Age of Enlightenment, a period in which human reason began to dominate religion and superstition.

The Age of Enlightenment can be said to have begun with Descartes’ “I think, therefore I am” (“Cogito, ergo sum”) in 1637, and to have ended in flames with the bloody French Revolution in 1789.

Prior to the Age of Enlightenment human beings were viewed as inherently violent and anti-social (proceeding, I take it, from Original Sin). Only powerful, authoritarian sovereigns could possibly hope to keep order and to restrain people from the exercise of their worst impulses. The “divine right of kings” was, as the phrase implies, believed to be ordained by God. God had blessed these governments and that was the end of the matter.

This tidy but unfortunate world was blown to pieces by a series of thinkers who challenged everything about it. They argued, among other things, that people were inherently rational and sociable, that all people were created equal, and that societies could safely be managed by the people themselves, without autocratic leaders.

So far as we know, the Age of Enlightenment marked the first time in human history that philosophers had tried to think through all these issues:  the relationship between human nature and governments; why governments existed; what forms of government were legitimate; and when it was morally acceptable (or even morally obligatory) to revolt against an existing government.

These were profound questions from a theoretical point of view, but they were even more profound in terms of the practical effect they had on human societies. It is impossible to understand the American Revolution or the Anglo-Saxon forms of government without recourse to the thinking that occurred during the Age of Enlightenment, just as it is impossible to understand the French Revolution or the Continental forms of government.

We’ll take a closer look at some of those ideas, and at the extraordinary effects they have had, next week.

Next up: Is Liberal Democracy Past Its Expiration Date? (Part 2)

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