Page images



THE Declaration of Independence declared that governments "derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” Lincoln defined Democracy as "government of the people, by the people, for the people"; and defended it by the assertion, already quoted, that “no man is good enough to govern an. other man without that other's consent."

More concretely, Democracy implies the choosing of legislators and executives by the people. In an autocracy the rulers are not chosen by the people; or even if, on rare occasion, they are so chosen, they are not responsible to the people when once in office. Democracy does away with the doctrine of the divine right of monarchs to do as they please; it makes the voice of the people the ultimate authority. Practically, that means the voice of the majority of the people; for if action is to go forward, there can be no waiting for unanimous agreement. But no indi

. vidual or class in a democracy has a privileged position. Every adult counts for one; and the preponderance of opinion or desire determines policy.

Not only do all the people, in a democracy, have a share in the election of officials to govern, but every individual has the right to seek and hold office. There is no hereditary ruling class; anyone can attain the highest political position who can persuade his fellowcountrymen of his fitness therefor. In this way, too, Democracy dares to trust the common man.

American Democracy did not spring into being fullgrown. On the contrary, it has been in process of realization from the days of the early settlers, and is still but partially achieved. Maryland was the first State to proclam universal manhood suffrage. The Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution, ratified in 1920, finally included womanhood suffrage in the national policy. But so long as Privilege sits in high places, so long as "the Interests” have an undue control of legislation, so long as masses of people remain politically uneducated, the prey of clever bosses, demagogues, and a propagandist press, so long as millions of workers have no say whatever as to the conditions of their workaday life, democracy is still but partially achieved.

Still, America has already achieved a large measure of its democratic ideal. And most of us will agree with Ambassador Choate's dictum that “the cardinal principle upon which American institutions rest, the absolute political equality of all citizens with universal suffrage, is the secret of American success." It is important, then, to ask, What is the advantage of Democracy? Why should we be so eager to maintain and extend this ideal?

The apologists for autocracy can make out a persuasive case for that system. Democracy, they say, is hopelessly inefficient; it "lowers the aims of the best to the standard of the masses, while aristocracy must push the masses with their lower interests into a striving toward higher ends."

We must admit that genuine aristocracy—that is, a government by the best people

would push the masses toward higher ends. But actually, an autoc

[ocr errors]

racy is seldom an aristocracy. The chances are almost overwhelming that hereditary and irresponsible rulers will be self-seeking, oblivious to the real needs of the people, blinded by class-prejudice, and very likely by imperialistic dreams. Even with respect to efficiency, apart from ideals, autocracies have seldom achieved striking success. Neither have democracies. But it is an open question whether there is not, on the whole, more likelihood of efficiency, in the long run, in a democracy than in an autocracy.

The one undoubted advantage of an autocracy is that it permits of quicker decisions and quicker action. There is no need to wait for deliberation by popular assemblies or a popular vote. The few who control the national destinies can act instantly in any crisis. This is of particular value in declaring war, and carrying out a truculent foreign policy in general. But this alleged advantage is, after all, a dangerous and undesirable one. Autocracies lead their subjects into wars and embroilments. The slower processes of democracy make for a wiser caution in action and a greater friendliness in international relations.

The rule of kings and a Junker-class has been endured so long in the world's history largely because they offered vigilant protection against foreign invasion. With the evolution of an international mechanism to prevent invasions and imperialisms, democracy can develop unafraid. And our own country, because of its great size and strength, and the protection of the oceans, has no need to subject itself to a military caste for protection.

Democracy makes war less likely, because it demands publicity. As Wilson has said, "Wars are not made because of the passions of the many, but because

of the intrigues of the few; and those intrigues are possible because they are pursued in the dark." Imperialism is not likely to go far when diplomatic methods are open and aboveboard. Democracies sometimes approve of wars, sometimes even of unrighteous wars; but history shows clearly that they tend to be more pacific than autocracies.

It is not true that autocracy implies a greater centralization of power or a greater subordination of the individual to the State. Democracy can have these things precisely in the degree that it desires. It may put experts in office if it wishes, and give them as much authority as it deems wise. An autocracy can never develop so long as these officials hold office for but a limited period, or are subject to recall if they do not satisfy the electorate. Our democracy is the result of a revolt against autocratic and irresponsible power. Hence we are still afraid of the centralization of authority, and distrustful of professional statesmen. But there is nothing to prevent us from training a body of men in the art of government and utilizing their services for the attainment of the collective will. Democracy can, and must, learn that efficiency need not mean tyranny.

Even with our as yet clumsy mechanism of democracy we have been able in most matters to make wiser decisions than are likely in an autocracy. It is a mistake to assume that ruling classes will have a better judgment, or higher ideals, than common people. Lord Bryce, in his great book, The American Commonwealth, asserted that “where the humbler classes have differed in opinion from the higher, they have often been proved by the event to have been right and their so-called betters wrong." A distinguished American, himself a highly cultured gentleman, has

« PreviousContinue »