Barrow, Robin, Journal of Thought
The paradox of dictating democracy, of enforcing freedom, of extorting emancipation.
--Niall Ferguson, Colossus: The Price of America's Empire (2004)
I should confess at the outset that this is an unusual kind of paper in that it is not concerned to locate its argument in any particular intellectual tradition and takes certain fairly commonplace assumptions for granted. For instance, at the beginning of the first section I refer to four current political presumptions without providing chapter and verse to establish that they are current; in section four I refer to the fact that there are practical restraints on frank-speaking, but support the claim with only the barest of references; in section five I refer to the long history of interference in the government of others by the United States of America, citing some examples but without providing any detail, and, throughout, I rely on my own authority for what I have to say about Athenian democracy. The reasons for this are that, in my view, all these various claims are fairly uncontentious and that, more importantly, they serve here as premises (sometimes, indeed, mere background) to an argument, and my focus is on the argument set forth.
The crux of that argument is that the value of democracy does not lie in its institutions or its form so much as in other values that the institutions are supposed to serve, in particular equal representation of everybody's interests and freedom, which are themselves partly to be valued for the substantive good that they may contribute to. If this is broadly convincing, it follows that the mere creation of democratic structures is of no necessary importance. If this is broadly convincing, it also follows that education is important in at least two distinct respects: first, current understanding of the nature and value of democracy is confused and in part erroneous and we need to develop a better understanding of it in our schools; secondly, democracy is not likely to flourish in new soil, unless we also educate people in relation to the values that democracy subserves, and gradually initiate them into some experience of democratic ways (although, on this last point, I resist the conclusion that the argument commits us to an entirely democratically organized schooling).
Currently, political rhetoric and practice, throughout the western world, but particularly and most obviously in the United States, are based upon four seemingly unexceptionable propositions: (i) "democracy is an intrinsically good thing," (ii) "we (the speaker) have the truest democracy," (iii) "it is morally legitimate to impose democracy on others," and (iv) "we can effectively do so." What the connection between these various claims is supposed to be is not always entirely clear. Is the reasoning that since democracy is inherently good we are entitled to impose it on others, or is it perhaps that it is because we are the truest democracy that we have some right to dictate to others? Is it that we will succeed, because we are truly democratic, or that success is assured because of the intrinsic goodness in democracy? But in the end the questions of the precise nature and the coherence of the reasoning that links these propositions hardly matters, since each of the four claims is in itself extremely dubious.
Quite why the United States (or anywhere else) should assume that it represents the apotheosis of democracy is unclear. In order to establish any claim to be the quintessential X (e.g., democratic state), two conditions need to be met: there has to be a clear and unequivocal definition of X, and there has to be some evidence to support the contention that one meets the defining characteristics of X. In the case of the United States' claim to being the pre-eminent democracy there is an abundance of argument to suggest that it is not, at least in respect of the sort of criteria for democracy most commonly advanced. …