Books / Digital Text

1. The Foundations of Liberal Policy

8. Democracy

Liberalism is therefore far from disputing the necessity of a machinery of state, a system of law, and a government. It is a grave misunderstanding to associate it in any way with the idea of anarchism. For the liberal, the state is an absolute necessity, since the most important tasks are incumbent upon it: the protection not only of private property, but also of peace, for in the absence of the latter the full benefits of private property cannot be reaped.

These considerations alone suffice to determine the conditions that a state must fulfill in order to correspond to the liberal ideal. It must not only be able to protect private property; it must also be so constituted that the smooth and peaceful course of its development is never interrupted by civil wars, revolutions, or insurrections.

Many people are still haunted by the idea, which dates back to the preliberal era, that a certain nobility and dignity attaches to the exercise of governmental functions. Up to very recently public officials in Germany enjoyed, and indeed still enjoy even today, a prestige that has made the most highly respected career that of a civil servant. The social esteem in which a young "assessor" 1 or lieutenant is held far exceeds that of a businessman or an attorney grown old in honest labor. Writers, scholars, and artists whose fame and glory have spread far beyond Germany enjoy in their own homeland only the respect corresponding to the often rather modest rank they occupied in the bureaucratic hierarchy.

There is no rational basis for this overestimation of the activities carried on in the offices of the administrative authorities. It is a form of atavism, a vestige from the days when the burgher had to fear the prince and his knights because at any moment he might be spoliated by them. In itself it is no finer, nobler, or more honorable to spend one's days in a government office filling out documents than, for example, to work in the blueprint room of a machine factory. The tax collector has no more distinguished an occupation than those who are engaged in creating wealth directly, a part of which is skimmed off in the form of taxes to defray the expenses of the apparatus of government.

This notion of the special distinction and dignity attaching to the exercise of all the functions of government is what constitutes the basis of the pseudodemocratic theory of the state. According to this doctrine, it is shameful for anyone to allow himself to be ruled by others. Its ideal is a constitution in which the whole people rules and governs. This, of course, never has been, never can be, and never will be possible, not even under the conditions prevailing in a small state. It was once thought that this ideal had been realized in the Greek city-states of antiquity and in the small cantons of the Swiss mountains. This too was a mistake. In Greece only a part of the populace, the free citizens, had any share in the government; the metics and slaves had none. In the Swiss cantons only certain matters of a purely local character were and still are settled on the constitutional principle of direct democracy; all affairs transcending these narrow territorial bounds are managed by the Federation, whose government by no means corresponds to the ideal of direct democracy.

It is not at all shameful for a man to allow himself to be ruled by others. Government and administration, the enforcement of police regulations and similar ordinances, also require specialists: professional civil servants and professional politicians. The principle of the division of labor does not stop short even of the functions of government. One cannot be an engineer and a policeman at the same time. It in no way detracts from my dignity, my well-being, or my freedom that I am not myself a policeman. It is no more undemocratic for a few people to have the responsibility of providing protection for everyone else than it is for a few people to undertake to produce shoes for everyone else. There is not the slightest reason to object to professional politicians and professional civil servants if the institutions of the state are democratic. But democracy is something, entirely different from what the romantic visionaries who prattle about direct democracy imagine.

Government by a handful of people—and the rulers are always as much in the minority as against those ruled as the producers of shoes are as against the consumers of shoes—depends on the consent of the governed, i.e., on their acceptance of the existing administration. They may see it only as the lesser evil, or as an unavoidable evil, yet they must be of the opinion that a change in the existing, situation would have no purpose. But once the majority of the governed becomes convinced that it is necessary and possible to change the form of government and to replace the old regime and the old personnel with a new regime and new personnel, the days of the former are numbered. The majority will have the power to carry out its wishes by force even against the will of the old regime. In the long run no government can maintain itself in power if it does not have public opinion behind it, i.e., if those governed are not convinced that the government is good. The force to which the government resorts in order to make refractory spirits compliant can be successfully applied only as long as the majority does not stand solidly in opposition.

There is, therefore, in every form of polity a means for making the government at least ultimately dependent on the will of the governed, viz,, civil war, revolution, insurrection. But it is just this expedient that liberalism wants to avoid. There can be no lasting economic improvement if the peaceful course of affairs is continually interrupted by internal struggles. A political situation such as existed in England at the time of the Wars of the Roses would plunge modern England in a few years into the deepest and most dreadful misery. The present level of economic development would never have been attained if no solution had been found to the problem of preventing the continual outbreak of civil wars. A fratricidal struggle like the French Revolution of 1789 cost a heavy loss in life and property. Our present economy could no longer endure such convulsions. The population of a modern metropolis would have to suffer so frightfully from a revolutionary uprising that could bar the importation of food and coal and cut off the flow of electricity, gas, and water that even the fear that such disturbances might break out would paralyze the life of the city.

Here is where the social function performed by democracy finds its point of application. Democracy is that form of political constitution which makes possible the adaptation of the government to the wishes of the governed without violent struggles. If in a democratic state the government is no longer being conducted as the majority of the population would have it, no civil war is necessary to put into office those who are willing to work to suit the majority. By means of elections and parliamentary arrangements, the change of government is executed smoothly and without friction, violence, or bloodshed.

  • 1. [One who has passed his second state examination. EDITOR.]