Democracy, Policy Decisions, and Education

Thucydides makes for interesting reading. One of his speakers, Diodotus, sums up in a nutshell the major problem of democratic assemblies:
It has become the rule also to treat good advice honestly given as being no less under suspicion as bad, so that a man who has something rather good to say must tell lies in order to be believed, just as a man who gives terrible advice must win over the people by deception.
Leo Strauss, in his commentary, comes to a sobering conclusion:
From not entirely pure motives, democratic assemblies are more concerned with purity of a certain kind than with wisdom. Since they will not vote for a proposal unless they have trust in the proposer, and since they trust on grounds which are so little rational, not only bad men but good men as well are compelled to deceive the assembly and lie to it. Perhaps one cannot benefit any city without deceiving it, for no city is likely to consist chiefly of perfectly wise and virtuous people…
At issue is whether the largest part of the assembly is able to distinguish on its own between good advice and bad, rather than advice that is convincing or personally appealing. If it cannot tell good from bad, then all that is left is personal interest, or else the influence of skillful orators and sophists. In such a situation, the policies chosen by the city must inevitably be inferior, given that they are not chiefly motivated by concerns of right and virtue.

If it were possible to have a body of citizens able to know right and wrong on their own, and if they could not be corrupted or confused by rhetorical brilliance in the service of suspect policy, then there would be no need for lying in order to arrive at the best policy. Unfortunately for modern America, this presupposes that there are indeed such things as "right," "wrong," or a "best policy."

It used to be that we as a nation educated our children to believe in natural law and absolute good and evil. In the last sixty years or so, however, this has been supplanted in the public school system (and to a somewhat lesser degree elsewhere) by a belief in moral relativism: in short, that good and evil as such do not exist. There can be no objective standards for viewing behavior, since every culture, every community, and every individual does things differently. Therefore, the last several generaltions have been trained to be uncomfortable with the idea of right and wrong, as such. (They certainly believe that actions are proper or improper, but this is much harder to pin down; so much the better for some would-be social engineers.)

This being the case, how can the polity make decisions without reference to right and wrong? Out of naked self-interest, or else based on the rhetorical presentations that are presented to them.

Remember the bewilderment in many quarters over the large numbers of poor people who voted for President Bush in the last election. "How can they vote against their own self-interest?" was the anguished cry, on the assumption that Republicans are bad for the poor. This assumption comes from the media, of course, which has appointed itself the arbiter of all elections and the final judge between candidates (in its own mind). "Therefore," it reasons, "if we tell these poor people that Republicans will deny them services, then they should clearly vote against Republicans. Why shouldn't they?"

Why shouldn't they? Because they judged for themselves who is bad for the poor, or else because they made their decision based on other factors than self-interest; for example, the much-lamented "moral values."

Moral values, or moral absolutes, or knowledge of right and wrong, make things so much more complicated for those who seek power. It is much easier to work in a system of moral relativism. Simply offer all things to all people, and "shape the information environment" to your advantage. Victory goes to those with the slickest media machines, the most successful lies, and the most lavish bribes for the voting public, to be paid out of the public treasury. In other words, victory goes to those least concerned about the long-term health of the nation.

This may not be why moral relativism is taught to our children, but the practical result is the same. Democracy, if it is to endure, must base itself on firm principles of right and wrong, good and evil. Otherwise, we will simply flounder around in a swamp of vote-buying, mass deception, and moral ambiguity until we at last sink entirely in the mud.

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