IN THE END, the question boils down to this: can human beings be trusted to do the right thing? If you think they can, then you’ll be a democrat and probably a socialist. If people can be trusted, what reason could you have not to trust them? All. All the time. With all.
The problem of trusting everyone, all the time: that is, democratic socialism; is that most of us don’t trust them. Not everybody. Not all the time. Most of us assume that there are people we can’t, we shouldn’t trust.
Some people are just too stupid to be trusted. Others are too venal – too greedy. Even more are dishonest and manipulative. And, finally, a certain die-hard percentage of a given population is just too evil to be trusted – with anything.
But, once you admit that only certain people can or should be trusted, then your journey away from democracy and socialism has already begun. When our common humanity ceases to be a sufficient reason to determine the course of society, then it becomes necessary to establish another criterion for participation in the decision-making process.
Immediately, this presents us with a new problem. Who decides the criteria for participation? Should he be the wisest? The richest? The Strongest? The most cunning? It’s a question that has perplexed thinkers of all time, from Plato to Peter Thiel.
History’s answer is unequivocal: Decision-making in virtually every society there has ever been ultimately rests on the shoulders of the wealthiest and strongest. (Although the more cunning ones usually manage to have a say in running things too!)
What about ancient Athens? The world’s first democracy? Well, for starters, ancient Athens was a far cry from a system of government that trusted everyone, all the time. If you were a woman or a slave, your participation in decision-making was expressly prohibited. The same goes for “foreigners”, regardless of the length of their stay in the city. Only free Athenian men could vote or hold office.
Moreover, Athenian democracy was primarily a reaction to bad government, not an experiment in good government. Freemen in the army and navy who preserved the independence of the city-state, reacting against the mismanagement of tyrants (strong men) and oligarchs (rich men) had the last idea to confide the city government. .
What the freemen of Athens never got over, however, were the political effects of the unequal distribution of talent and cunning. Some men were good talkers. Others were superb schemers. Democracies throughout history have proven extremely vulnerable to these individuals.
The other great paradox of democracy is that it tends to be undermined by its own success. Athens became extremely wealthy and could not resist the temptation to use its wealth to dominate its weaker and poorer neighbors.
Unfortunately, the building of empires weakens democracy more and more. Those who have been enriched by imperialism – still a minority – far too often use their ill-gotten wealth to corrupt the democratic process. The resulting progression to oligarchy and plutocracy can then only be halted by the intervention of a demagogue who, if successful, soon assumes the role of tyrant.
Rich men or strong men. It’s not an attractive choice.
But, surely, these ancient precedents do not apply to us? In the 21st century, virtually all member states of the United Nations enjoy universal suffrage. Democracy, in a way, has become the norm. All persons: regardless of race, color, sex or creed; get to decide. Maybe not all the time, but definitely every few years – at the polls. So aren’t we all Democrats now?
Democrats, maybe. But certainly not socialists. The most important thing to note about the governmental arrangements of the past 200 years is the way in which political power has been separated from economic power. In a nutshell, more and more people have had a say in less and less.
The truth of this observation becomes evident the moment the ordinary citizen thinks for a moment about the power he can wield every day in the place where he spends most of his waking hours – the workplace. Contemporary capitalist enterprise (think Amazon) is not democratic at all. Subtract the hours spent traveling to and from the workplace, and the hours spent sleeping, and most lives of most human beings are lived in a world where tyranny is the norm.
Nothing is more fiercely opposed in the capitalist enterprise than the workers who attempt to democratize the employment relationship. (Again, think Amazon.) The greatest political struggles of the past 200 years have been sparked by workers’ attempts to wrest some measure of control over their economic situation from the capitalists whose corporations have come to dominate more and more. of their life.
Social democracy cannot be endorsed by capitalism precisely because it seeks to merge politics and economics into a single argument and a single movement. In order to fight effectively against social democracy, capitalist intellectuals have come to the surprising conclusion that no human being can already trust to do the right thing. That people are, indeed, too stupid, too venal, too greedy, too dishonest, too manipulative, and, ultimately, too cursed, to be entrusted with decision-making power over anything.
The truly innovative aspect of this radically anti-democratic and anti-socialist doctrine is that the capitalists have included themselves among the human beings who cannot be trusted. They do this because they are convinced that there is a mechanism that can be relied on to produce optimal results in every conceivable circumstance.
Fueled into this mechanism are the billions of choices made by human beings every day in all aspects of their lives. From the cut and style of a suit, to the smoothness of ice cream, to the speed and efficiency of a motor vehicle: the market mechanism is wiser than any individual, more effective as any government and confers on each participant in its trade the freedom that comes from relinquishing all responsibility for the lives of others. According to this doctrine, dollar bills spent by ordinary citizens are a more effective determinant of the public good than any number of triennial ballots.
The only politics that these radical capitalists (some call neoliberals) are willing to tolerate is the politics of protecting and extending the market mechanism. Their policy is devoted to identifying the designs of the social democrats and devising the most effective means of defeating them. It is a policy dedicated to instilling in the ordinary person a level of faith in the mechanism of the market that is practically religious. A policy that describes every attempt to force the market to generate specified outcomes as the work of totalitarian socialists. Arrogant politicians and bureaucrats, whose necessarily limited information can produce nothing but economic catastrophe and the extinction of individual liberty.
So far, their winning bet has been that those who refuse to trust their fellow human beings to do the right thing will, very quickly, stop trusting themselves.