Adler On


The word "democracy" is misused both in academic and popular speech to name any form of government in which the many rather than the few have a voice in government. As thus used it is distinguished from oligarchy, and it is possible to say that democracy began in ancient Athens under the regime of Pericles. Philosophically speaking, the word "democracy" applies to a form of government that first appeared in the twentieth century.

In the United States, that appearance is as late as 1964, when the Twenty-fourth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted, abolishing the poll tax and creating truly universal suffrage. But still belonging to the future, is the economic basis of democracy that other face of a truly democratic society which secures the right to a decent livelihood to which all citizens are entitled. This is the proper meaning of socialism.

Only when all mature and normal citizens are economic haves as well as political haves, with some haves having more and some having less according to their contribution to the economy, will we have a working approximation to the ideal of a socialist democracy.

This news will shock the many who think that the democratic ideal first made its appearance in ancient Greece. In his funeral oration, Pericles praises Athens for instituting democracy at a time when, in an Athenian population of 120,000, only 30,000 were citizens and the rest were disfranchised women, artisans, and slaves.

In our twentieth-century understanding of political democracy, Athens was a constitutional oligarchy, not a democracy. Individuals make the same mistake when they think that in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, the Constitution of the United States was democratic rather than oligarchic.

Lincoln insisted that a new nation "conceived in liberty and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal" came in to existence in 1776 with the Declaration of Independence, not with the Constitution of 1789, which allowed slavery. But he recognized that the Declaration expressed a hope for a future that in fact began to be fulfilled only in the twentieth century. (See Constitution.)

There are four main forms of government, tyrannical despotism, benevolent despotism, constitutional oligarchy, and constitutional democracy. According to the principles of justice, it can be argued that only the last of these is the best form of government, because only it embodies all the principles of political justice.

Tyrannical despotism is totally unjust, because the de facto rulers govern with no one's consent, with no one's participation, and for their own good rather than for the good of the governed.

Benevolent despotism acknowledges that the good of the governed should prevail. The welfare and well-being of those subjected to benevolent despots is the end that government should serve. Nevertheless, that benevolence is curtailed by a despotism that denies the right of human beings to be governed with their consent, with a voice in their own government, and with all their natural rights secured.

Constitutional oligarchies, varying from place to place and from time to time in the numbers of persons who are enfranchised as citizens, are more just than any despotism, tyrannical or benevolent, because at least some human beings have political liberty and the equality of citizenship. Such governments remain unjust to the extent that the rest of the population are governed as subjects or as slaves.

When finally in the twentieth century truly universal suffrage was established, we saw at last a form of government that is demonstrably democratic and completely just. If any injustice remains for the future to abolish, it is the economic justice of the socialist ideal.

The Injustices to Which Government is Prone
The Common Sense of Politics (1971,1996), Chapter 9.
The Maximization, Through Justice, of Liberty and Equality for All
The Common Sense of Politics (1971,1996), Chapter 10.
Political Liberty and Equality: the Answer to Oligarchs, Conservatives, and Reluctant Democrats
The Common Sense of Politics (1971,1996), Chapter 11.
Economic Equality and Welfare: Democracy and Socialism
The Common Sense of Politics (1971,1996), Chapter 12.
The Classless Establishment and the World Community
The Common Sense of Politics (1971,1996), Chapter 13.
Recommended Readings on Politics: Man and the State

Adapted from
Adler's Philosophical Dictionary (1995)
Great Ideas from the Great Books (1963)
by Mortimer J. Adler

Revised 15 December 2000