Yesterday’s pros and today’s cons

There are many ways of judging a political system, but surely the most immediate one is assessing the kind of people it elevates to government.

By that criterion, every one of today’s Western governments fails miserably. Every one of them is dominated by today’s foremost sociocultural type: important nonentities.

Using this fact as a starting point, we can then activate a process of Aristotelian induction to try to understand why this lamentable state of affairs has arisen. But first a little comparative illustration.

In 1815, just before the Hundred Days, statesmen from leading European powers met in Vienna to decide the future of a post-Napoleonic Europe. Without passing judgement on their goals and success in achieving them, let’s just get personal. What kind of people were they?

Austria was represented by Prince Metternich; Britain, first by Viscount Castlereagh, then by the Duke of Wellington; Russia, by Count Nesselrode (with Alexander I in close attendance); Prussia, by Prince Hardenberg and the great scholar Humboldt; France, by Talleyrand. These were men of different moral fibre, but no one would ever describe any of them as a nonentity.

Without being too unkind, let’s just observe that the future of today’s Europe (or the West in general) is decided by rather less accomplished personages. Let’s also notice that all the aforementioned gentlemen were aristocrats, most of old lineage.

Is there a causal relationship there? I’m convinced there is.

The prevalent political system before the nineteenth century was hereditary monarchy, whose power was limited to varying extents by parliaments or other legislative and consultative bodies.

The ruling class was almost exclusively drawn from the ranks of aristocracy or at least gentry. Destined to rule by birth, they were systematically prepared for that role from birth by thorough education, and not only of the academic variety.

Their sense of entitlement was married to responsibility, and what was true of the aristocrats was 100 times true of the princes. From the moment they could understand human speech, they were trained for government by the best minds of the time: philosophers, economists, politicians, theologians, generals. In due course, when princes became kings, that group provided their ministers and advisors.

Alas, in this world we aren’t blessed with perfect political systems. These are manned by people, and people are fallible and sinful. Hence not every traditional Western government was an exemplar of sagacity and probity. Some were ineffectual, some corrupt, some downright evil.

The system was designed to produce good government, yet it didn’t always succeed. But as often as not it did. Can we honestly say the same for today’s answers to Metternich and Talleyrand?

By now it should be reasonably clear that, if our unchecked democracy ever elevates to government those fit to govern, this only happens by accident – and even then one doesn’t see many Metternichs or Talleyrands among such overachievers. Unchecked democracy of one man, one vote is designed to spawn mediocrities and, when they do take over, it’s no accident.

Insurance agents, plumbers, electricians, physios, estate agents, social workers can’t ply their trade without a licence, without establishing their professional qualifications. Without wishing to denigrate those occupations in any way, none of them even approaches the devilish complexity of governing a nation.

Yet no licence is required to be a modern president or prime minister. As Donald Trump shows, even political experience is superfluous. The only sine qua non professional qualification required is an uncanny ability to manipulate votes.

Yet by atomising the vote into millions of particles, democracy renders each individual vote meaningless. What has any weight at all is an aggregate of votes, a faceless, impersonal bloc. Consequently, political success in today’s democracies depends exclusively on the ability to put such blocs together.

This has little to do with statesmanship. Coming to the fore instead are such qualities as disloyalty, a knack for demagoguery, photogenic appearance, absence of constraining principles, ability to tell lies with convincing ease, cold disregard for bono publico, selfishness and an unquenchable quest for power at any cost. This list manifestly doesn’t include integrity, intellect, strong character or the charitable desire to serve others.

The upshot of it is that, when a traditional government didn’t attract the right people, it signified the system’s failure. Conversely, attracting mostly nonentities spells a modern government’s success, defined as achieving the desired result.

If traditional governments were run by pros, today’s ones are run by cons. This unfortunate state of affairs has come about gradually, getting steadily worse as modernity moved farther and farther away from Christendom.

These days it’s impossible to suggest that relying exclusively on the ability of the Average Man to elect his leaders is counterintuitive at best – even a smallish company run on this principle would quickly go bankrupt.

Yet people have been brainwashed to ignore the demonstrable incompetence of all our governments. If they notice it at all, they ascribe it to bad luck, rather than the catastrophic failure of the very principle on which modern governments are based.

Arguments in favour of democracy run riot are always lazy, often relying on Churchill’s 1947 quip that, “Democracy is the worst form of government, except for all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

This one-liner from the master of the genre is widely quoted not so much for its wit as for its intrinsic truth. Alas, wit can often obscure truth.

Churchill’s idea of democracy was formed at a time when our political tradition hadn’t yet disappeared in the rear-view mirror. Both a staunch monarchist and a committed parliamentarian, Churchill clearly didn’t believe he was living a double life.

To him there was no contradiction in a strong monarchy being balanced by an elected lower house, with the hereditary upper chamber making sure the balance didn’t tip too much to either end. That was the essence of England’s ancient constitution, which pervaded Churchill’s every pore.

It’s not only lazy but also dishonest to evoke his aphorism in the modern context, circumscribed as it is by an impotent monarchy, debauched House of Lords and dictatorial Commons. I’d guess Churchill would be appalled at today’s lot.

If we must quote Churchill, I’d suggest another adage: “The best argument against democracy is a five-minute conversation with the average voter.” And, may I add, just about any politician.

1 thought on “Yesterday’s pros and today’s cons”

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