Thank God ! At last a Reich Chancellor who is interested in art! – Richard Strauss, January 1933

A politician is an acrobat: he keeps his balance by saying the opposite of what he does. – Maurice Barrés

Politics: a strife of interests masquerading as a contest of principles. – Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

…before you can begin to think about politics at all you have to abandon the notion that there is a war between good men and bad men. That is one of the great American superstitions. More than any other fetish it has ruined our sense of political values by glorifying the pharisee with his vain cruelty to individuals and his unfounded approval of himself. – W Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, ch.1, 1913

Every decent man is ashamed of the government he lives under. – Mencken

It is easier to fight for one’s principles than to live up to them. – Alfred Adler

The first requirement of a statesman is that he be dull. This is not always easy to achieve. – Dean Acheson

To think only of oneself and of the present is a source of error in politics. – La Bruyere, Characters, Of Opinions, 87

RADICALISM, n. The conservatism of to-morrow injected into the affairs of to-day. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

The liberals can understand everything but people who don’t understand them. – Lenny Bruce

When a man speaks of the need for realism one may be sure that this is always the prelude to some bloody deed. – Isaiah Berlin

Usually, terrible things that are done with the excuse that progress requires them are really not progress at all, but just terrible things. – Russell Baker

All our political disasters grow as logically out of our attempts in the past to do without justice, as the sinking of some part of your house comes of defect in the foundation. – Emerson, Perpetual Forces

The mercenary sacrifice of the public good to a private interest is the eternal stamp of vice. – Vauvenargues

What is called politics is comparatively something so superficial and inhuman, that, practically, I have never fairly recognized that it concerns me at all. The newspapers, I perceive, devote some of their columns specially to politics or government without charge; and this, one would say, is all that saves it; but, as I love literature, and, to some extent, the truth also, I never read those columns at any rate. I do not wish to blunt my sense of right so much. – Thoreau, Life Without Principle

Those things which now most engage the attention of men, as politics and the daily routine, are, it is true, vital functions of human society, but should be unconsciously performed, like the corresponding functions of the physical body. They are infra-human, a kind of vegetation. I sometimes awake to a half-consciousness of them going on about me, as a man may become conscious of some of the processes of digestion in a morbid state, and so have the dyspepsia, as it is called. It is as if a thinker submitted himself to be rasped by the great gizzard of creation. Politics is, as it were, the gizzard of society, full of grit and gravel, and the two political parties are its two opposite halves, – sometimes split into quarters, it may be, which grind on each other. Not only individuals, but states, have thus a confirmed dyspepsia, which expresses itself, you can imagine by what sort of eloquence. – Thoreau, Life Without Principle

When everybody is swept away unthinkingly by what everybody else does and believes in, those who think are drawn out of hiding because their refusal to join in is conspicuous and thereby becomes a kind of action. In such emergencies, it turns out that the purging component of thinking (Socrates’ midwifery, which brings out the implications of unexamined opinions and thereby destroys them – values, doctrines, theories and even convictions) is political by implication. For this destruction has a liberating effect on another faculty, the faculty of judgement, which one may call with some reason the most political of man’s mental abilities. – Hannah Arendt, The Life of the Mind, p192

…as Holderlin so sweetly put it, what a sin it is “to make the state a school of morals. The state has always been made a hell by man’s wanting to make it his heaven.” – Gore Vidal, Paranoid Politics

Politicians are to politics what holes are to cheese. More cheese means more holes. But more holes means less cheese. – Coluche (French comedian)

…to introduce geometrical method into practical life is ‘like trying to go mad with the rules of reason,’ attempting to proceed by a straight line among the tortuosities of life, as though human affairs were not ruled by capriciousness, temerity, opportunity, and chance. Similarly, to arrange a political speech according to the precepts of geometrical method is equivalent to stripping it of any acute remarks and to uttering nothing but pedestrian lines of argument. – Vico, De Italorum Sapientia

I rate higher than a great statesman only the man who disdains to become one, and who is increasingly convinced that the world is not worth troubling oneself about. – La Bruyere, Characters, Of Opinions, 75

“For your own good” is a persuasive argument that will eventually make a man agree to his own destruction. – Janet Frame, Faces in the Water

The danger is not that a particular class is unfit to govern. Every class is unfit to govern. – Lord Acton

Justice is the sanction of established injustice. – Anatole France

In all ages hypocrites, called priests, have put crowns on the heads of thieves, called kings. – Robert Ingersoll, 1884

The incompetence of the masses is almost universal throughout the domains of political life, and this constitutes the most solid foundation of the power of the leaders. The incompetence furnishes the leaders with a practical and to some extent with a moral justification. – Michels, Political Parties, 1915, p86

To obtain empire is common; to govern it well has been rare indeed. – Burke, Warren Hastings, speech on 4th day.

The masses experience a profound need to prostrate themselves, not simply before great ideals, but also before the individuals who in their eyes incorporate such ideals. Their adoration for these temporal divinities is the more blind in proportion as their lives are rude. There is considerable truth in the paradoxical phrase of Bernard Shaw, who defines democracy as a collection of idolators, in contradistinction to aristocracy, which is a collection of idols. This need to pay adoring worship is often the sole permanent element which survives all the changes in the ideas of the masses. …Amid the ruins of the old moral world of the masses, there remains intact the triumphal column of religious need. They often behave towards their leaders after the manner of the sculptor of ancient Greece who, having modelled a Jupiter Tonans, prostrated himself in adoration before the work of his own hands.
+++++In the object of such adoration, megalomania is apt to ensue. The immeasurable presumption, which is not without its comic side, sometimes found in modem popular leaders, is not dependent solely on their being self-made men, but also upon the atmosphere of adulation, in which they live and breathe. This overweening self-esteem on the part of the leaders diffuses a powerful suggestive influence, whereby the masses are confirmed in their admiration for their leaders, and it thus proves a source of enhanced power. – Michels, Political Parties, 1915, p67-8

From his manner of reasoning, he seemed not to have believed that the truth of his statements depended on the reality of the facts, but that the things depended on the order in which he arranged them in words : you would not suppose him to be agitating a serious question which had real grounds to go upon, but to be declaiming upon an imaginary thesis, proposed as an exercise in the schools. He never set himself to examine the force of the objections that were brought against his measures, or attempted to establish these upon clear, solid grounds of his own; but constantly contented himself with first gravely stating the logical form, or dilemma, to which the question reduced itself, and then, after having declared his opinion, proceeded to amuse his hearers by a series of rhetorical commonplaces, connected together in grave, sonorous, and elaborately constructed periods, without ever showing their real application to the subject in dispute. Thus, if any member of the Opposition disapproved of any measure, and enforced his objections by pointing out the many evils with which it was fraught, or the difficulties attending its execution, his only answer was, “That it was true there might be inconveniences attending the measure proposed, but we were to remember, that every expedient that could be devised might be said to be nothing more than a choice of difficulties, and that all that human prudence could do was to consider on which side the advantages lay; that for his part, he conceived that the present measure was attended with more advantages and fewer disadvantages than any other that could be adopted; that if we were diverted from our object by every appearance of difficulty, the wheels of government would be clogged by endless delays and imaginary grievances; that most of the objections made to the measure appeared to him to be trivial, others of them unfounded and improbable; or that if a scheme free from all these objections could be proposed, it might after all prove inefficient; while, in the meantime, a material object remained unprovided for, or the opportunity of action was lost.” This mode of reasoning is admirably described by Hobbes, in speaking of the writings of some of the Schoolmen, of whom he says, that “They had learned the trick of imposing what they list upon their readers, and declining the force of true reason by verbal forks : that is, distinctions which signify nothing, but serve only to astonish the multitude of ignorant men.” That what I have here stated comprehends the whole force of his mind, which consisted solely in this evasive dexterity and perplexing formality, assisted by a copiousness of words and commonplace topics, will, I think, be evident in any one who carefully looks over his speeches, undazzled by the reputation or personal influence of the speaker. – Hazlitt, On the Character of Mr. Pitt

It seems that when it comes to politics, divine contributions tend to be negative. – JR Saul, The Collapse of Globalisation, p257


Force and right are the governors of this world; force till right is ready. – Joubert

Is it not strange that the rulers of the human race should be so much superior in rank to its teachers? In this we see what a slavish animal man is. – Lichtenberg

All cities that ever at any time have been ruled by an absolute prince, by aristocrats or by the people, have had for their protection force combined with prudence, because the latter is not enough alone, and the first either does not produce things, or when they are produced, does not maintain them. Force and prudence, then, are the might of all the governments that ever have been or will be in the world. – Machiavelli

…it may be noted that both in “Puss in Boots” and “Jack and the Beanstalk,” if I remember aright, the ogre was not only an ogre but also a magician. And it will generally be found that in all such popular narratives, the king, if he is a wicked king, is generally also a wizard. Now there is a very vital human truth enshrined in this. Bad government, like good government, is a spiritual thing. Even the tyrant never rules by force alone; but mostly by fairy tales. And so it is with the modern tyrant, the great employer. The sight of a millionaire is seldom, in the ordinary sense, an enchanting sight: nevertheless he is in his way an enchanter. As they say in the gushing articles about him in the magazines, he is a fascinating personality. So is a snake. At least he is fascinating to rabbits; and so is the millionaire to the rabbit-witted sort of people that ladies and gentlemen have allowed themselves to become. He does, in a manner, cast a spell, such as that which imprisoned princes and princesses under the shapes of falcons or stags. He has truly turned men into sheep, as Circe turned them into swine. – Chesterton, A Utopia of Usurers, p18-9

…the moment the girl or the workers can see beyond the limits of reality laid down by the King or the boss, then the very fact that the father has had control of the gates of reality comes to the forefront of consciousness. – Sennett, Authority, p68

Politics is a deleterious profession, like some poisonous handicrafts. Men in power have no opinions, but may be had cheap for any opinion, for any purpose. – Emerson, The Conduct of Life, Power

All power…proceeds in a natural cycle: issuing from the people, it ends by raising itself above the people. – Michels, Political Parties, p38

…the essential characteristic of democracy is found in the readiness with which it succumbs to the magic of words, written as well as spoken. …In states under democratic rule it is a general belief that oratorical power is the only thing which renders a man competent for the direction of public affairs. – Michels, Political Parties, 1915, p69


It is easy to be lawful, difficult to be just. – Simon May, The Pocket Philosopher

People say law, but they mean wealth. – Emerson, journals, VI 86

IMPUNITY, n. Wealth. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

LAWYER, n. One skilled in circumvention of the law. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

OATH, n. In law, a solemn appeal to the Deity, made binding upon the conscience by a penalty for perjury. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

In modern days, in civilised days, men’s choice determines nearly all they do. But in early times that choice determined scarcely anything. The guiding rule was the law of status. Everybody was born to a place in the community: in that place he had to stay: in that place he found certain duties which he had to fulfil, and which were all he needed to think of. The net of custom caught men in distinct spots, and kept each where he stood.
+++++What are called in European politics the principles of 1789, are therefore inconsistent with the early world; they are fitted only to the new world in which society has gone through its early task; when the inherited organisation is already confirmed and fixed; when the soft minds and strong passions of youthful nations are fixed and guided by hard transmitted instincts. Till then not equality before the law is necessary but inequality, for what is most wanted is an elevated élite who know the law: not a good Government seeking the happiness of its subjects, but a dignified and overawing Government getting its subjects to obey: not a good law, but a comprehensive law binding all life to one routine. Later are the ages of freedom; first are the ages of servitude. In 1789, when the great men of the Constituent Assembly looked on the long past, they hardly saw anything in it which could be praised, or admired, or imitated: all seemed a blunder – a complex error to be got rid of as soon as might be. But that error had made themselves. On their very physical organisation the hereditary mark of old times was fixed; their brains were hardened and their nerves were steadied by the transmitted results of tedious usages. The ages of monotony had their use, for they trained men for ages when they need not be monotonous. – Bagehot, Physics and Politics, 1872

…the countries which have done most to spread legal generalisations and judicial decisions are those most filled with political fury and potential rebeIlion – Rome, for instance, and France. Rome planted in every tribe and village the root of the Roman law at the very time when her own town was torn with faction and bloody with partisan butcheries. France forced intellectually on nearly all Europe an excellent code of law, and she did it when her own streets were hardly cleared of corpses, when she was in a panting pause between two pulverising civil wars. And, on the other hand, you may remark that the countries where there is no revolution are the countries where there is no law; where mental chaos has clouded every intelIigible legal principle – such countries as Morocco and modern England. – Chesterton, William Blake, p111-12


You ask which form of government is the best? Whichever teaches us to govern ourselves. – Goethe, Art and Antiquity, V, 3

He who bids the law rule, may be deemed to bid God and Reason alone rule, but he who bids man rule adds an element of the beast. – Aristotle

The most dangerous man, to any government, is the man who is able to think things out for himself, without regard to the prevailing superstitions and taboos. Almost inevitably he comes to the conclusion that the government he lives under is dishonest, insane and intolerable, and so, if he is romantic, he tries to change it. – Mencken, Observations on Government

CONSERVATIVE, n. A statesman who is enamored of existing evils, as distinguished from the Liberal, who wishes to replace them with others. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

REBEL, n. A proponent of a new misrule who has failed to establish it. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

REVOLUTION, n. In politics, an abrupt change in the form of misgovernment. Specifically, in American history, the substitution of the rule of an Administration for that of a Ministry, whereby the welfare and happiness of the people were advanced a full half-inch. Revolutions are usually accompanied by a considerable effusion of blood, but are accounted worth it – this appraisement being made by beneficiaries whose blood had not the mischance to be shed. The French revolution is of incalculable value to the Socialist of to-day; when he pulls the string actuating its bones its gestures are inexpressibly terrifying to gory tyrants suspected of fomenting law and order. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

Amid all the grandiose generalization and passionate willfulness of political debate, it is perilous to lose the humility which is the guardian of our sanity. The eye must recapture its innocence if it is to see things as they are: to see not the New Deal in terms of its aspirations, but the New Dealers in their actual careers; not fascism or communism as ideas, but fascists and communists as they govern great nations; to remember that while ideals are illimitable, men are only men. And when these men, breathing the incense burned before their altars, are tempted to regard themselves as the directors of the human destiny, they need to be reminded of the poet who, after a night in town, wandered into the zoo thinking rather well of himself as the last product of evolution until he became sober enough to remember that he was, after all, “a little man in trousers, slightly jagged.”
+++++Governments are composed of persons who meet occasionally in a hall to make speeches and to write resolutions; of men studying papers at desks, receiving and answering letters and memoranda, listening to advice and giving it, hearing complaints and claims and replying to them; of clerks manipulating more papers; of inspectors, tax collectors, policemen, and soldiers. These officials have to be fed, and often they overeat. They would often rather go fishing, or make love, or do anything, than shuffle their papers. They have to sleep. They suffer from indigestion and asthma, bile and palpitation, become bored, tired, careless, arid have nervous headaches. They know what they have happened to learn, they are aware of what they happen to observe, they can imagine what they happen to be interested in, they can accomplish only what they can command or persuade an unseen multitude to do.
+++++In the prevailing view they are the agents of destiny. It is they, or others panting to take their places, who are to contrive the shape of things to come. They are to breed a better race of men. They are to arrange abundance for all. They are to abolish classes. They are to take charge of the present. They are to conceive the future. They are to plan the activities of mankind. They are to manage its labors. They are to formulate its culture. They are to establish its convictions. They are to understand, to forecast, and to administer human purposes and to provide a design of living for the unborn. Surely, greater love could no man have for the wisdom of his rulers than this, that he should put his life entirely in their hands.
+++++In order to magnify the purposes of the state it is obviously necessary to forget the limitations of men. But in reality the limitations prevail… – W Lippmann, The Good Society, p25-6, 1933

Of the irrationality and wastefulness of the whole natural process it is hardly necessary to speak. Nothing made by man resembles it here, save only government. It is hence no wonder that the overwhelming majority of men, at all times and everywhere, have inclined toward the belief that government is of divine origin. – Mencken

The only state to which I owe allegiance is the state in which I discover moral adequacy…Our first duty is to be true to our conscience. – Harold Laski, A Grammar of Politics, p249-89, 1925

It is a function of government to invent philosophies to explain the demands of its own convenience. – Murray Kempton

Planners, or course, proceed on the assumption that the future is not ‘already here’, that they are not dealing with a predetermined – and therefore predictable – system, that they can determine things by their own free will, and that their plans will make the future different from what it would have been had there been no plan. And yet it is the planners, more than perhaps anyone else, who would like nothing better than to have a machine to foretell the future. Do they ever wonder whether the machine might incidentally also foretell their own plans before they have been conceived? – EF Schumacher, small is beautiful, p188

How often…are forecasts presented as if they were plans – and vice versa! The British “National Plan” of 1965 provides an outstanding example and, not surprisingly, came to nothing. – EF Schumacher, small is beautiful, p190


Freedom is a new religion, the religion of our age – Heine (d.1856)

Liberty to be left alone, not interfered with and not helped, is not English liberty. It is the primeval desire of every wild animal or barbarous tribe or jealous city or religion, claiming to live and to tramp through the world in its own sweet way. These combative organisms, however, have only such strength as the opposite principle of cooperation lends them inwardly; and the more liberty they assume in foreign affairs the less liberty their members can enjoy at home. At home they must then have organisation at all costs, like ancient Sparta and modern Germany; and even if the restraints so imposed are not irksome and there is spontaneous unison and enthusiasm in the people, the basis of such a local harmony will soon prove too narrow. Nations and religions will run up against one another, against change, against science, against all the realities they had never reckoned with; and more or less painfully they will dissolve. And it will not be a normal and fruitful dissolution, like that of a man who leaves children and heirs. It will be the end of that evolution, the choking of that ideal in the sand.
+++++This collapse of fierce liberty is no ordinary mutation, such as time brings sooner or later to everything that exists, when the circumstances that sustained it in being no longer prevail. It is a deep tragedy, because the narrower passions and swifter harmonies are more beautiful and perfect than the chaos or the dull broad equilibrium that may take their place. Co-operative life is reasonable and long-winded; but it always remains imperfect itself, while it somewhat smothers the impulses that enter into it. Absolute liberty created these elements; inspiration, free intelligence, uncompromising conviction, a particular home and breeding-ground, were requisite to give them birth. Nothing good could arise for co-operation to diffuse or to qualify unless first there had been complete liberty for the artist and an uncontaminated perfection in his work. Reason and the principle of English liberty have no creative afflatus; they presuppose spontaneity and yet they half stifle it; and they can rest in no form of perfection, because they must remain plastic and continually invite amendments, in order to continue broadly adjusted to an infinite moving world. Their work is accordingly like those cathedrals at which many successive ages have laboured, each in its own style. We may regret, sometimes, that some one design could not have been carried out in its purity, and yet all these secular accretions have a wonderful eloquence; a common piety and love of beauty have inspired them; age has fused them and softened their incongruities; and an inexpressible magic seems to hang about the composite pile, as if God and man breathed deeply within it. It is a harmony woven out of accidents, like every work of time and nature, and all the more profound and fertile because no mind could ever have designed it. Some such natural structure, formed and reformed by circumstances, is the requisite matrix and home for every moral being. Accordingly there seems to have been sober sense and even severe thought behind the rant of Webster when he cried, “Liberty and Union, now and for ever, one and inseparable!” because if for the sake of Liberty you abandon union and resist a mutual adaptation of purposes which might cripple each of them, your liberty loses its massiveness, its plasticity, its power to survive change; it ceases to be tentative and human in order to become animal and absolute. Nature must always produce little irresponsible passions that will try to rule her, but she can never crown any one of them with more than a theatrical success; the wrecks of absolute empires, communisms, and religions are there to prove it. But English liberty, because it is co-operative, because it calls only for a partial and shifting unanimity among living men, may last indefinitely, and can enlist every reasonable man and nation in its service. This is the best heritage of America, richer than its virgin continents, which it draws from the temperate and manly spirit of England. Certainly absolute freedom would be more beautiful if we were birds or poets; but co-operation and a loving sacrifice of a part of ourselves – or even of the whole, save the love in us – are beautiful too, if we are men living together. Absolute liberty and English liberty are incompatible, and mankind must make a painful and a brave choice between them. The necessity of rejecting and destroying some things that are beautiful is the deepest curse of existence. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US (end)

There are, so far as I can discover, no absolutists of liberty; I can recall no doctrine of liberty, which, under the acid test, does not become contingent upon some other ideal. The goal is never liberty, but liberty for something or other. For liberty is a condition under which activity takes place, and men’s interests attach themselves primarily to their activities and what is necessary to fulfill them, not to the abstract requirements of any activity that might be conceived.
+++++And yet controversialists rarely take this into account. The battle is fought with banners on which are inscribed absolute and universal ideals. They are not absolute and universal in fact. No man has ever thought out an absolute or a universal ideal in politics, for the simple reason that nobody knows enough, or can know enough, to do it. But we all use absolutes, because an ideal which seems to exist apart from time, space, and circumstance has a prestige that no candid avowal of special purpose can ever have. Looked at from one point of view universals are part of the fighting apparatus in men. What they desire enormously they easily come to call God’s will, or their nation’s purpose. Looked at genetically, these idealizations are probably born in that spiritual reverie where all men live most of the time. In reverie there is neither time, space, nor particular reference, and hope is omnipotent. This omnipotence, which is denied to them in action, nevertheless illuminates activity with a sense of utter and irresistible value.
+++++The classic doctrine of liberty consists of absolutes. It consists of them except at the critical points where the author has come into contact with objective difficulties. Then he introduces into the argument, somewhat furtively, a reservation which liquidates its universal meaning and reduces the exalted plea for liberty in general to a special argument for the success of a special purpose. …The word liberty is a weapon and an advertisement, but certainly not an ideal which transcends all special aims. – W Lippmann, Liberty and the News, p21-4, 1920

Liberty does not consist in doing what one pleases…liberty can only consist in being able to do what one ought to do. – Montesquieu

Possessing my liberty, I am determined to keep it, at the risk of uselessness (which God can very well abide). – Emerson

…both too much work and too much wealth kill liberty in the individual. They involve subjection to things; and this is contrary to what the ancients, who had the pride of noble animals, called freedom. Prosperity, both for individuals and for states, means possessions; and possessions mean burdens and harness and slavery; and slavery for the mind, too, because it is not only the rich man’s time that is pre-empted, but his affections, his judgement, and the range of his thoughts.
+++++I often wonder, looking at my rich friends, how far their possessions are facilities and how far they are impediments. The telephone, for instance, is a facility if you wish to be in many places at once and to attend to anything that may turn up; it is an impediment if you are happy where you are and in what you are doing. Public motor-vehicles, public libraries, and public attendants (such as waiters in hotels, when they wait) are a convenience, which even the impecunious may enjoy; but private automobiles, private collections of books or pictures, and private servants are, to my thinking, an encumbrance : but then I am an old fogy and almost an ancient philosopher, and I don t count. I prize civilization, being bred in towns and liking to hear and to see what new things people are up to. I like to walk about amidst the beautiful things that adorn the world; but private wealth I should decline, or any sort of personal possessions, because they would take away my liberty. – Santayana, The Irony of Liberalism, Soliloquies in England, p178-9

Poor and rich are equally forbidden to spend the night under the bridges. – Anatole France

I flatter myself that I love a manly, moral, regulated liberty as well as any gentleman of [French] society… But I cannot stand forward, and give praise or blame to any thing which related to human actions, and human concerns, on a simple view of the object as it stands stripped of every relation, in all the nakedness and solitude of metaphysical abstraction. Circumstances (which with some gentlemen pass for nothing) give in reality to every political principle its distinguishing colour, and discriminating effect. The circumstances are what render every civil and political scheme beneficial or noxious to mankind. Abstractedly speaking, government, as well as liberty, is good, yet… – Burke, Reflections on the Revolution in France, p93-8

In some people I see great liberty indeed; in many, if not in the most, an oppressive, degrading servitude. But what is liberty without wisdom, and without virtue? It is the greatest of all possible evils; for it is folly, vice, and madness, without tuition or restraint. Those who know what virtuous liberty is, cannot bear to see it disgraced by incapable heads, on account of their having high-sounding words in their mouths. – Burke, RRF, IV. 7

There is a mystical conviction, expressed in Anglo-Saxon life and philosophy, that our labours, even when they end in failure, contribute to some ulterior achievement in which it is well they should be submerged. This Anglo-Saxon piety, in the form of trust and adaptability, reaches somewhat the same insight that more speculative religions have reached through asceticism, the insight that we must renounce our wills and deny ourselves. But to have a will remains essential to animals, and having a will we must kick against the pricks, even if philosophy thinks it foolish of us. The spirit in which parties and nations beyond the pale of English liberty confront one another is not motherly nor brotherly nor Christian. Their valorousness and morality consist in their indomitable egotism. The liberty they want is absolute liberty, a desire which is quite primitive. It may be identified with the love of life which animates all creation, or with the pursuit of happiness which all men would be engaged in if they were rational. Indeed, it might even be identified with the first law of motion, that all bodies, if left free, persevere in that state of rest, or of motion in a straight line, in which they happen to find themselves. The enemies of this primitive freedom are all such external forces as make it deviate from the course it is in the habit of taking or is inclined to take; and when people begin to reflect upon their condition, they protest against this alien tyranny, and contrast in fancy what they would do if they were free with what under duress they are actually doing. All human struggles are inspired by what, in this sense, is the love of freedom. Even craving for power and possessions may be regarded as the love of a free life on a larger scale, for which more instruments and resources are needed. The apologists of absolute will are not slow, for instance, to tell us that Germany in her laborious ambitions has been pursuing the highest form of freedom, which can be attained only by organising all the resources of the world, and the souls of all subsidiary nations, around one luminous centre of direction and self-consciousness, such as the Prussian government was eminently fitted to furnish. Freedom to exercise absolute will methodically seems to them much better than English liberty, because it knows what it wants, pursues it intelligently, and does not rely for success on some measure of goodness in mankind at large. English liberty is so trustful! It moves by a series of checks, mutual concessions, and limited satisfactions; it counts on chivalry, sportsmanship, brotherly love, and on that rarest and least lucrative of virtues, fair-mindedness : it is a broad-based, stupid, blind adventure, groping towards an unknown goal. Who but an Englishman would think of such a thing! A fanatic, a poet, a doctrinaire, a dilettante – any one who has a fixed aim and clear passions – will not relish English liberty. It will seem bitter irony to him to give the name of liberty to something so muffled, exacting, and oppressive. In fact English liberty is a positive infringement and surrender of the freedom most fought for and most praised in the past. It makes impossible the sort of liberty for which the Spartans died at Thermopylae, or the Christian martyrs in the arena, or the Protestant reformers at the stake; for these people all died because they would not co-operate, because they were not plastic and would never consent to lead the life dear or at least customary to other men. They insisted on being utterly different and independent and inflexible in their chosen systems, and aspired either to destroy the society round them or at least to insulate themselves in the midst of it, and live a jealous, private, unstained life of their own within their city walls or mystical conclaves. Any one who passionately loves his particular country or passionately believes in his particular religion cannot be content with less liberty or more democracy than that; he must be free to live absolutely according to his ideal, and no hostile votes, no alien interests, must call on him to deviate from it by one iota. Such was the claim to religious liberty which has played so large a part in the revolutions and divisions of the western world. Every new heresy professed to be orthodoxy itself, purified and restored; and woe to all backsliders from the reformed faith! Even the popes, without thinking to be ironical, have often raised a wail for liberty. Such too was the aspiration of those mediaeval cities and barons who fought for their liberties and rights. Such was the aspiration even of the American declaration of independence and the American constitution : cast-iron documents, if only the spirit of co-operative English liberty had not been there to expand, embosom, soften, or transform them. So the French revolution and the Russian one of to-day have aimed at establishing society once for all on some eternally just principle, and at abolishing all traditions, interests, faiths, and even words that did not belong to their system. Liberty, for all these pensive or rabid apostles of liberty, meant liberty for themselves to be just so, and to remain just so for ever, together with the most vehement defiance of anybody who might ask them, for the sake of harmony, to be a little different. They summoned every man to become free in exactly their own fashion, or have his head cut off.
+++++Of course, to many an individual, life even in any such free city or free church, fiercely jealous of its political independence and moral purity, would prove to be a grievous servitude; and there has always been a sprinkling of rebels and martyrs and scornful philosophers protesting and fuming against their ultra-independent and nothing-if-not-protesting sects. To co-operate with anybody seems to these esprits forts contamination, so sensitive are they to any deviation from the true north which their compass might suffer through the neighbourhood of any human magnet. If it is a weakness to be subject to influence, it is an imprudence to expose oneself to it; and to be subject to influence seems ignominious to any one whose inward monitor is perfectly articulate and determined. A certain vagueness of soul, together with a great gregariousness and tendency to be moulded by example and by prevalent opinion, is requisite for feeling free under English liberty. You must find the majority right enough to live with; you must give up lost causes; you must be willing to put your favourite notions to sleep in the family cradle of convention. Enthusiasts for democracy, peace, and a league of nations should not deceive themselves; they are not everybody’s friends; they are the enemies of what is deepest and most primitive in everybody. They inspire undying hatred in every untamable people and every absolute soul. – Santayana, Character and Opinion in the US

Do we call this the land of the free? What is it to be free from King George and continue the slaves of King Prejudice? What is it to be born free and not to live free? What is the value of any political freedom, but as a means to moral freedom? Is it a freedom to be slaves, or a freedom to be free, of which we boast? We are a nation of politicians, concerned about the outmost defences only of freedom. It is our children’s children who may perchance be really free. We tax ourselves unjustly. There is a part of us which is not represented. It is taxation without representation. We quarter troops, we quarter fools and cattle of all sorts upon ourselves. We quarter our gross bodies on our poor souls, till the former eat up all the latter’s substance. – Thoreau, Life Without Principle

Despotism sits nowhere so secure as under the effigy and ensigns of Freedom. – W. S. Landor

If society fits you comfortably enough, you call it freedom. – Robert Frost, in Esquire, 1965

Among the English classics none are more representative than Milton’s Areopagitica and the essay On Liberty by John Stuart Mill. Of living men Mr. Bertrand Russell is perhaps the most outstanding advocate of liberty. The three together are a formidable set of witnesses. Yet nothing is easier than to draw texts from each which can be cited either as an argument for absolute liberty or as an excuse for as much repression as seems desirable at the moment.
Says Milton:
+++++Yet if all cannot be of one mind, as who looks they should be? this doubtles is more wholsome, more prudent, and more Christian that many be tolerated, rather than all compell’ d.
+++++So much for the generalization. Now for the qualification which follows immediately upon it.
+++++I mean not tolerated Popery, and open superstition, which as it extirpats all religions and civill supremacies, so itself should be extirpat, provided first that all charitable and compassionat means be used to win and regain the weak and misled: that also which is impious or evil absolutely either against faith or maners no law can possibly permit, that intends not to unlaw it self: but those neighboring differences, or rather indifferences, are what I speak of, whether in some point of doctrine or of discipline, which though they may be many, yet need not interrupt the unity of spirit, if we could but find among us the bond of peace.
+++++With this as a text one could set up an inquisition. Yet it occurs in the noblest plea for liberty that exists in the English language. The critical point in Milton’s thought is revealed by the word “indifferences.” The area of opinion which he wished to free comprised the “neighboring differences” of certain Protestant sects, and only these where they were truly ineffective in manners and morals. Milton, in short, had come to the conclusion that certain conflicts of doctrine were sufficiently insignificant to be tolerated. The conclusion depended far less upon his notion of the value of liberty than upon his conception of God and human nature and the England of his time. He urged indifference to things that were becoming indifferent.
+++++If we substitute the word indifference for the word liberty, we shall come much closer to the real intention that lies behind the classic argument. Liberty is to be permitted where differences are of no great moment. It is this definition which has generally guided practice. In times when men feel themselves secure, heresy is cultivated as the spice of life. During a war liberty disappears as the community feels itself menaced. When revolution seems to be contagious, heresy-hunting is a respectable occupation. In other words, when men are not afraid, they are not afraid of ideas; when they are much afraid, they are afraid of anything that seems, or can even be made to appear, seditious. That is why nine-tenths of the effort to live and let live consists in proving that the thing we wish to have tolerated is really a matter of indifference.
+++++In Mill this truth reveals itself still more clearly. Though his argument is surer and completer than Milton’s, the qualification is also surer and completer.
+++++Such being the reasons which make it imperative that human beings should be free to form opinions, and to express their opinions without reserve; and such the baneful consequences to the intellectual and through that to the moral nature of man, unless this liberty is either conceded or asserted in spite of prohibition, let us next examine whether the same reasons do not require that men should be free to act upon their opinions, to carry these out in their lives, without hindrance, either moral or physical, from their fellow men, so long as it is at their own risk and peril. This last proviso is of course indispensable. No one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions. On the contrary, even opinions lose their immunity when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievous act.
+++++“At their own risk and peril.” In other words, at the risk of eternal damnation. The premise from which Mill argued was that many opinions then under the ban of society were of no interest to society, and ought therefore not to be interfered with. The orthodoxy with which he was at war was chiefly theocratic. It assumed that a man’s opinions on cosmic affairs might endanger his personal salvation and make him a dangerous member of society. Mill did not believe in the theological view, did not fear damnation, and was convinced that morality did not depend upon the religious sanction. In fact, he was convinced that a more reasoned morality could be formed by laying aside theological assumptions. “But no one pretends that actions should be as free as opinions.” The plain truth is that Mill did not believe that much action would result from the toleration of those opinions in which he was most interested.
+++++Political heresy occupied the fringe of his attention, and he uttered only the most casual comments. So incidental are they, so little do they impinge on his mind, that the arguments of this staunch apostle of liberty can be used honestly, and in fact are used, to justify the bulk of the suppressions which have recently occurred. “Even opinions lose their immunity, when the circumstances in which they are expressed are such as to constitute their expression a positive instigation to some mischievious act.” Clearly there is no escape here for Debs or Haywood or obstructors of Liberty Loans. The argument used is exactly the one employed in sustaining the conviction of Debs.
+++++In corroboration Mill’s single concrete instance may be cited: “An opinion that corn dealers are starvers of the poor, or that private property is robbery, ought to be unmolested when simply circulated through the press, but may justly incur punishment when delivered orally to an excited mob assembled before the house of a corn dealer, or when handed about among the same mob in the form of a placard.”
+++++Clearly Mill’s theory of liberty wore a different complexion when he considered opinions which might directly affect social order. Where the stimulus of opinion upon action was effective he could say with entire complacency, “The liberty of the individual must be thus far limited; he must not make himself a nuisance to other people.” Because Mill believed this, it is entirely just to infer that the distinction drawn between a speech or placard and publication in the press would soon have broken down for Mill had he lived at a time when the press really circulated and the art of type-display had made a newspaper strangely like a placard.
+++++On first acquaintance no man would seem to go further than Mr. Bertrand Russell in loyalty to what he calls “the unfettered development of all the instincts that build up life and fill it with mental delights.” He calls these instincts “creative”; and against them he sets off the “possessive impulses.” These, he says, should be restricted by “a public authority, a repository of practically irresistible force whose function should be primarily to repress the private use of force.” Where Milton said no “tolerated Popery,” Mr. Russell says, no tolerated “possessive impulses.” Surely he is open to the criticism that, like every authoritarian who has preceded him, he is interested in the unfettered development of only that which seems good to him. Those who think that “enlightened selfishness” produces social harmony will tolerate more of the possessive impulses, and will be inclined to put certain of Mr. Russell’s creative impulses under lock and key.
+++++The moral is, not that Milton, Mill, and Bertrand Russell are inconsistent, or that liberty is to be obtained by arguing for it without qualifications. The impulse to what we call liberty is as strong in these three men as it is ever likely to be in our society. The moral is of another kind. It is that the traditional core of liberty, namely, the notion of indifference, is too feeble and unreal a doctrine to protect the purpose of liberty, which is the furnishing of a healthy environment in which human judgment and inquiry can most successfully organize human life. Too feeble, because in time of stress nothing is easier than to insist, and by insistence to convince, that tolerated indifference is no longer tolerable because it has ceased to be indifferent.
+++++It is clear that in a society where public opinion has become decisive, nothing that counts in the formation of it can really be a matter of indifference. – W Lippmann, Liberty and the News, p26-36, 1920

Freedom = deciding where you will be limited. – Dr Irene Kassorla, Putting It All Together

…most people, most of the time, make no use of their freedom and act purely mechanically. – EF Schumacher, small is beautiful, p192

…a plan is the result of an exercise in the freedom of choice; the choice has been made; all alternatives have been eliminated. …they have chosen to surrender their freedom to act otherwise than prescribed in the plan. – EF Schumacher, small is beautiful, p192

Strange to say, under the influence of laboratory science many people today seem to use their freedom only for the purpose of denying its existence… A great shout of triumph goes up whenever anybody has found some further evidence – in physiology or psychology or sociology or economics or politics – of unfreedom, some further indication that people cannot help being what they are and doing what they are doing, no matter how inhuman their actions might be. The denial of freedom, of course, is a denial of responsibility: there are no acts, but only events; everything simply happens; no-one is responsible. – EF Schumacher, small is beautiful, p191

[The] constant yelping about a free press means, with a few honourable exceptions, freedom to peddle scandal, crime, sex, sensationalism, hate, innuendo and the political financial uses of propaganda. A newspaper is a business out to make money through advertising revenue. That is predicated on its circulation and you know what circulation depends on. – Raymond Chandler, The Long Good-bye

The Will to Peace
Whenever the liberties of Homo vulgaris are invaded and made a mock of in a gross and contemptuous manner, …there are always observers who marvel that he bears the outrage with so little murmuring. Such observers only display their unfamiliarity with the elements of democratic science. The truth is that the common man’s love of liberty, like his love of sense, justice and truth, is almost wholly imaginary. As I have argued, he is not actually happy when free; he is uncomfortable, a bit alarmed, and intolerably lonely. He longs for the warm, reassuring smell of the herd, and is willing to take the herdsman with it. Liberty is not a thing for such as he. He cannot enjoy it rationally himself, and he can think of it in others only as something to be taken away from them. It is, when it becomes a reality, the exclusive possession of a small and disreputable minority of men, like knowledge, courage and honour. A special sort of man is needed to understand it, nay, to stand it – and he is inevitably an outlaw in democratic societies. The average man doesn’t want to be free. He simply wants to be safe.
+++++…What the common man longs for in this world, before and above all his other longings, is the simplest and most ignominious sort of peace – the peace of a trusty in a well-managed penitentiary. He is willing to sacrifice everything else to it. He puts it above his dignity and he puts it above his pride. Above all, he puts it above his liberty. The fact, perhaps, explains his veneration for policemen, in all the forms they take – his belief that there is a mysterious sanctity in law, however absurd it may be in fact. A policeman is a charlatan who offers, in return for obedience, to protect him (a) from his superiors, (b) from his equals, and (c) from himself. This last service, under democracy, is commonly the most esteemed of them all. In the United States, at least theoretically, it is the only thing that keeps ice-wagon drivers, Y.M.C.A. secretaries, insurance collectors and other such human camels from smoking opium, ruining themselves in the night clubs, and going to Palm Beach with Follies girls. It is a democratic invention.
+++++Here, though the common man is deceived, he starts from a sound premiss: to wit, that liberty is something too hot for his hands – or, as Nietzsche put it, too cold for his spine. Worse, he sees in it something that is a weapon against him in the hands of his enemy, the man of superior kidney. Be true to your nature, and follow its teachings: this Emersonian counsel, it must be manifest, offers an embarrassing support to every variety of droit de seigneur. The history of democracy is a history of efforts to force successive minorities to be untrue to their nature. Democracy, in fact, stands in greater peril of the free spirit than any sort of despotism ever heard of. The despot, at least, is always safe in one respect: his own belief in himself cannot be shaken. But democracies may be demoralized and run amok, and so they are in vast dread of heresy, as a Sunday-school superintendent is in dread of scarlet women, light wines and beer, and the unreadable works of Charles Darwin. It would be unimaginable for a democracy to submit serenely to such gross dissents as Frederick the Great not only permitted, but even encouraged. Once the mob is on the loose, there is no holding it. So the subversive minority must be reduced to impotence; the heretic must be put down. – Mencken

…the idea that we ought to penalize women with few choices by removing one of the ones they do have is grotesque. – Martha Nussbaum, on prostitution laws.


Benevolence was one of the chief motives in liberalism in the beginning, and many a liberal is still full of kindness in his private capacity; but politically, as a liberal, he is something more than kind. The direction in which many, or even most, people would like to move fills him with disgust and indignation; he does not at all wish them to be happy, unless they can be happy on his own diet; and being a reformer and a philanthropist, he exerts himself to turn all men into the sort of men he likes, so as to be able to like them. It would be selfish, he thinks, to let people alone. They must be helped, and not merely helped to what they desire – that might really be very bad for them – but helped onwards, upwards, in the right direction. Progress could not be rightly placed in a smaller population, a simpler economy, more moral diversity between nations, and stricter moral discipline in each of them. That would be progress backwards, and if it made people happier, it would not make the liberal so. Progress, if it is to please him, must continue in the direction in which the nineteenth century progressed, towards vast numbers, material complexity, moral uniformity, and economic interdependence. The best little boy, for instance, according to the liberal ideal, desires to be washed, to go to school, to do Swedish exercises, and to learn everything out of books. But perhaps the individual little boy (and according to the liberal philosophy his individuality is sacred, and the only judge of what is good or true for him is his own consciousness) desires to go dirty, to make mud-pies in the street, and to learn everything by experience or by report from older boys. When the philanthropist runs up to the rescue, this little ingrate snivels at him the very principle of liberal liberty, “Let me alone.” To inform such an urchin that he does not know what is good for him, that he is a slave to bad habits and devilish instincts, that true freedom for him can only come of correcting himself, until he has learned to find happiness in virtue – plainly that would be to abandon liberalism, and to preach the classical doctrine that the good is not liberty but wisdom. Liberalism was a protest against just such assumptions of authority. It emphatically refused to pursue an eventual stoical freedom, absurdly so called, which was to come when we had given up every thing we really wanted the mock freedom of service. In the presence of the little boy liberal philosophy takes a middle course. It is convinced though it would not do to tell him so prematurely that he must be allowed to go dirty for a time, until sufficient experience of filth teaches him how much more comfortable it is to be clean; also that he will go to school of his own accord if the books have pictures enough in them, and if the teacher begins by showing him how to make superior mud-pies. As to morals and religion, the boy and his companions will evolve the appropriate ones in time out of their own experience, and no others would be genuine.
+++++Liberal philosophy, at this point, ceases to be empirical and British in order to become German and transcendental. Moral life, it now believes, is not the pursuit of liberty and happiness of all sorts by all sorts of different creatures; it is the development of a single spirit in all life through a series of necessary phases, each higher than the preceding one. No man, accordingly, can really or ultimately desire anything but what the best people desire. This is the principle of the higher snobbery; and in fact, all earnest liberals are higher snobs. If you refuse to move in the prescribed direction, you are not simply different, you are arrested and perverse. The savage must not remain a savage, nor the nun a nun, and China must not keep its wall. … Classic liberty, though only a name for stubborn independence, and obedience to one’s own nature, was too free, in one way, for the modern liberal. – Santayana, The Irony of Liberalism, Soliloquies in England p179-81

Mrs. Browning may fairly be called the peculiar poet of Liberalism, of that great movement of the first half of the nineteenth century towards the emancipation of men from ancient institutions which had gradually changed their nature, from the houses of refuge which had turned into dungeons, and the mystic jewels which remained only as fetters. It was not what we ordinarily understand by revolt. It had no hatred in its heart for ancient and essentially human institutions. It had that deeply conservative belief in the most ancient of institutions, the average man, which goes by the name of democracy. It had none of the spirit of modern Imperialism which is kicking a man because he is down. But, on the other hand, it had none of the spirit of modern Anarchism and scepticism which is kicking a man merely because he is up. It was based fundamentally on a belief in the destiny of humanity, whether that belief took an irreligious form, as in Swinburne, or a religious form, as in Mrs. Browning. It had that rooted and natural conviction that the Millennium was coming tomorrow which has been the conviction of all iconoclasts and reformers, and for which some rationalists have been absurd enough to blame the early Christians. But they had none of that disposition to pin their whole faith to some black-and-white scientific system which afterwards became the curse of philosophical Radicalism. They were not like the sociologists who lay down a final rectification of things, amounting to nothing except an end of the world, a great deal more depressing than would be the case if it were knocked to pieces by a comet. Their ideal, like the ideal of all sensible people, was a chaotic and confused notion of goodness made up of English primroses and Greek statues, birds singing in April, and regiments being cut to pieces for a flag. They were neither Radicals nor Socialists, but Liberals, and a Liberal is a noble and indispensable lunatic who tries to make a cosmos of his own head.
+++++Mrs. Browning and her husband were more liberal than most Liberals. Theirs was the hospitality of the intellect and the hospitality of the heart, which is the best definition of the term. They never fell into the habit of the idle revolutionists of supposing that the past was bad because the future was good, which amounted to asserting that because humanity had never made anything but mistakes it was now quite certain to be right. Browning possessed in a greater degree than any other man the power of realising that all conventions were only victorious revolutions. He could follow the mediaeval logicians in all their sowing of the wind and reaping of the whirlwind with all that generous ardour which is due to abstract ideas. He could study the ancients with the young eyes of the Renaissance and read a Greek grammar like a book of love lyrics. This immense and almost confounding Liberalism of Browning doubtless had some effect upon his wife. In her vision of New Italy she went back to the image of Ancient Italy like an honest and true revolutionist; for does not the very word “revolution” mean a rolling backward. All true revolutions are reversions to the natural and the normal. A revolutionist who breaks with the past is a notion fit for an idiot. For how could a man even wish for something which he had never heard of? – Chesterton, Varied Types, Elizabeth Barrett Browning


I do not underestimate the troubles of the man of affairs. I have lived with politicians, – with socialist politicians whose good-will was abundant and intentions constructive. The petty vexations pile up into mountains; the distracting details scatter the attention and break up thinking, while the mere problem of exercising power crowds out speculation about what to do with it. Personal jealousies interrupt co-ordinated effort; committee sessions wear out nerves by their aimless drifting; constant speech-making turns a man back upon a convenient little store of platitudes – misunderstanding and distortion dry up the imagination, make thought timid and expression flat, the atmosphere of publicity requires a mask which soon becomes the reality. Politicians tend to live “in character,” and many a public figure has come to imitate the journalism which describes him. You cannot blame politicians if their perceptions are few and their thinking crude.
+++++Football strategy does not originate in a scrimmage: it is useless to expect solutions in a political campaign. Woodrow Wilson brought to public life an exceedingly flexible mind, – many of us when he first emerged rejoiced at the clean and athletic quality of his thinking. But even he under the stress of a campaign slackened into commonplace reiteration, accepting a futile and intellectually dishonest platform, closing his eyes to facts, misrepresenting his opponents, abandoning, in short, the very qualities which distinguished him. It is understandable. When a National Committee puts a megaphone to a man’s mouth and tells him to yell, it is difficult for him to hear anything. – W Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, ch.2


IMPARTIAL, adj. Unable to perceive any promise of personal advantage from espousing either side of a controversy or adopting either of two conflicting opinions. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

Politicians speak for their parties, and parties never are, never have been and never will be wrong. – Walter Dwight

A sect or party is an elegant incognito devised to save a man from the vexation of thinking. – Emerson

The best Party is but a kind of conspiracy against the rest of the nation… Ignorance maketh men go into a party, and shame keepeth them from going out of it. – Halifax (1633-95)

Party spirit is one of the profoundnesses of Satan, or, in modern language, one of the dexterous equivoques and contrivances of our self-love, to prove that we, and those who agree with us, combine all that is excellent and praiseworthy in our own persons (as in a ring-fence), and that all the vices and deformity of human nature take refuge with those who differ from us. It is extending fortifying the principle of the amour-propre, by calling to its aid the espirit de corps, and screening and surrounding our favourite propensities and obstinate caprices in the hollow squares or dense phalanxes of sects and parties. This is a happy mode of pampering our self-complacency, and persuading ourselves that we, and those that side with us, are “the salt of the earth”; of giving vent to the morbid humours of our pride, envy, hatred, malice, and all uncharitableness, those natural secretions of the human heart, under the pretext of self-defence, the public safety, or a voice from heaven, as it may happen; and of heaping every excellence into one scale, and throwing all the obloquy and contempt into the other, in virtue of a nick-name, a watchword of party, a badge, the colour of a ribbon, the cut of a dress. We thus desolate the globe, or tear a country in pieces, to show that we are the only people fit to live in it; and fancy ourselves angels, while we are playing the devil.
+++++… The disposition is always there, like a muzzled mastiff; the pretext only is wanting; and this is furnished by a name, which, as soon as it is affixed to different sects or parties, gives us a licence, we think, to let loose upon them all our malevolence, domineering humour, love of power, and wanton mischief, as if they were of different species. – Hazlitt, On Party Spirit

Scarcely any one can help yielding to the current infatuations of his sect or party. For a short time – say some fortnight – he is resolute; he argues and objects; but, day by day, the poison thrives, and reason wanes. What he hears from his friends, what he reads in the party organ, produces its effect. The plain, palpable conclusion which every one around him believes, has an influence yet greater and more subtle; that conclusion seems so solid and unmistakable; his own good arguments get daily more and more like a dream. Soon the gravest sage shares the folly of the party with which he acts, and the sect with which he worships. – Bagehot, Physics and Politics, III

A partisan spirit degrades the greatest men to the mean level of the populace. – La Bruyere, Characters, Of Men, 63

We may sum up the argument by saying that in modem party life aristocracy gladly presents itself in democratic guise, whilst the substance of democracy is permeated with aristocratic elements. On the one side we have aristocracy in a democratic form, and on the other democracy with an aristocratic content. – Michels, Political Parties, 1915, p10

In the world of hard fact, every class-movement which professes to aim at the good of the entire community is stamped inevitably as self-contradictory. Humanity cannot dispense with “political classes”, but from their very nature these classes are but fractions of society. – Michels, Political Parties, 1915, p18

Organization, based as it is upon the principle of least effort, that is to say, upon the greatest possible economy of energy, is the weapon of the weak in their struggle with the strong.
…Yet this politically necessary principle of organization, while it overcomes that disorganization of forces which would be favourable to the adversary, brings other dangers in its train. We escape Scylla only to dash ourselves on Charybdis. Organization is, in fact, the source from which the conservative currents flow over the plain of democracy, occasioning there disastrous floods and rendering the plain unrecognizable. – Michels, Political Parties, 1915, p21-22

The concepts most associated with loyalty are constancy, fidelity and trustworthiness. …it only deserves its positive light when it represents a principled adherence to something inherently defensible as good…
+++++To be loyal in party terms means being quiescent, obedient and obliging. Loyalty to principle, to constituents, or to a cause which happens not to be party policy, is regarded as rank disloyalty. – AC Grayling, MT, p54-5

MACHINATION, n. The method employed by one’s opponents in baffling one’s open and honorable efforts to do the right thing. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary


The root and seed of democracy is the doctrine Judge for yourself. Reverence thyself. It is the inevitable effect of that doctrine where it has any effect (which is rare) to insulate the partizan, to make each man a state… – Emerson, journals, Nov 23, 1834

Democracy: in which you say what you like and do as you’re told. – Gerald Barry

Democracy consists of choosing your dictators, after they’ve told you what it is you think you want to hear. – Alan Coren

ELECTOR, n. One who enjoys the sacred privilege of voting for the man of another man’s choice. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

MULTITUDE, n. A crowd; the source of political wisdom and virtue. In a republic, the object of the statesman’s adoration. “In a multitude of counsellors there is wisdom,” saith the proverb. If many men of equal individual wisdom are wiser than any one of them, it must be that they acquire the excess of wisdom by the mere act of getting together. Whence comes it? Obviously from nowhere – as well say that a range of mountains is higher than the single mountains composing it. A multitude is as wise as its wisest member if it obey him; if not, it is no wiser than its most foolish. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

RABBLE, n. In a republic, those who exercise a supreme authority tempered by fraudulent elections. The rabble is like the sacred Simurgh, of Arabian fable – omnipotent on condition that it do nothing. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

Nearly half of adult Americans surveyed by the Hearst Corporation in 1987 believed Karl Marx’s aphorism “From each according to his ability, to each according to his need” was to be found in the US Constitution.
+++++Mark Brzezinski, son of Zbigniew, was a post-Cold War Fulbright Scholar in Warsaw: “I asked my students to define democracy. Expecting a discussion on individual liberties and authentically elected institutions, I was surprised to hear my students respond that to them democracy means a government obligation to maintain a certain standard of living and to provide health care, education and housing for all. In other words, socialism.” – William Blum, Rogue State, p241-2

There are three sorts of despots. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the body. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul. There is the despot who tyrannizes over the soul and body alike. The first is called the Prince. The second is called the Pope. The third is called the People. – Wilde

Liberty gone, there remains the majestic phenomenon of democratic law. A glance at it is sufficient to show the identity of democracy and Puritanism. The two, indeed, are but different facets of the same gem. …Both get their primal essence out of the inferior man’s fear and hatred of his betters… thus envy comes in; if you overlook it you will never understand democracy, and you will never understand Puritanism. It is not, of course, a specialty of democratic man. It is the common possession of all men of the ignoble and incompetent sort, at all times and everywhere. But it is only under democracy that it is liberated; it is only under democracy that it becomes the philosophy of the state. – Mencken, The Democrat as Moralist, Notes on Democracy, 1926, p152-3

In an era of democracy, ethics constitute a weapon which everyone can employ. In the old regime, the members of the ruling class and those who desired to become rulers continually spoke of their own personal rights. Democracy adopts a more diplomatic, a more prudent course. It has rejected such claims as unethical. To-day, all the factors of public life speak and struggle in the name of the people, of the community at large. The government and rebels against the government, kings and party-leaders, tyrants by the grace of God and usurpers, rabid idealists and calculating self-seekers, all are ”the people,” and all declare that in their actions they merely fulfil the will of the nation.
+++++Thus, in the modem life of the classes and of the nations, moral considerations have become an accessory, a necessary fiction. Every government endeavours to support its power by a general ethical principle. The political forms in which the various social movements become crystallized also assume a philanthropic mask. There is not a single one among the young class-parties which fails, before starting on its march for the conquest of power, to declare solemnly to the world that its aim is to redeem, not so much itself as the whole of humanity, from the yoke of a tyrannical minority, and to substitute for the old and inequitable regime a new reign of justice. Democracies are always glib talkers. Their terminology is often comparable to a tissue of metaphors. The demagogue, that spontaneous fruit of democratic soil, overflows with sentimentality, and is profoundly moved by the sorrows of the people… Every new social class, when it gives the signal for an attack upon the privileges of a class already in possession of economic and political power, inscribes upon its banners the motto: ”The Liberation of the entire Human Race!’ When the young French bourgeoisie was girding its loins for the great struggle against the nobles and the clergy, it began with the solemn Declaration des Droits de l’Homme, and hurled itself into the fray with the war-cry Liberté, Egalité, Fraternité! To-day we can ourselves hear the spokesmen of another great class-movement, that of the wage-earners, announce that they undertake the class-struggle from no egoistic motives, but on the contrary in order to exclude such motives for ever from the social process. For the refrain of its Hymn of Progress modem socialism ever reiterates the proud words: “Creation of a humane and fraternal society in which class will be unknown!” – Michels, Political Parties, 1915, p14-16

The theorists of democracy are never tired of asserting that, when voting, the people is at one and the same time exercising its sovereignty and renouncing it. – Michels, Political Parties, p37-8

Even if we make the theoretical admission that in abstracto parliamentary government does indeed embody government by the masses, in practical life it is nothing but a continuous fraud on the part of the dominant class. – Michels, Political Parties, p38

Gaetano Mosca speaks of “the falsity of the parliamentary legend.” He says that the idea of popular representation as a free and spontaneous transference of the sovereignty of the electors (collectivity) to a certain number of elected persons (minority) is based upon the absurd premise that the minority can be bound to the collective will by unbreakable bonds. In actual fact, directly the election is finished, the power of the mass of electors over the delegate comes to an end. The deputy regards himself as authorized arbiter of the situation, and really is such. If among the electors any are to be found who possess some influence over the representative of the people, their number is very small; they are the big guns of the constituency or of the local branch of the party. In other words, they are persons who, whilst belonging by social position to the class of the ruled, have in fact come to form part of the ruling oligarchy. – Michels, Political Parties, p39

In the daily struggle, nothing but a certain degree of caesarism will ensure the rapid transmission and the precise execution of orders. …Thus the submission of the masses to the will of a few individuals comes to be considered one of the highest of democratic virtues. In a party,…democracy is not for home consumption, but is rather an article made for export. Every political organization has need of “a light equipment which will not hamper its movements.” Democracy is utterly incompatible with strategic promptness, and the forces of democracy do not lend themselves to the rapid opening of a campaign. – Michels, Political Parties, p42

One who has for a certain time held the office of delegate ends by regarding that office as his own property. If refused reinstatement, he threatens reprisals (the threat of resignation being the least serious among these) which will tend to sow confusion among his comrades, and this confusion will continue until he is victorious.
+++++Resignation of office, in so far as it is not a mere expression of discouragement or protest…is in most cases a means for the retention and fortification of leadership. …It is the same in all political parties. Whenever an obstacle is encountered, the leaders are apt to offer to resign, professing that they are weary of office, but really aiming to show to the dissentients the indispensability of their own leadership. … If necessary, they go still further, and actually resign their seats, appealing to the electors as the only authority competent to decide the question in dispute. In such cases they are nearly always re-elected, and thus attain to an incontestable position of power.
+++++…Such actions have a fine democratic air, and yet hardly serve to conceal the dictatorial spirit of those who perform them. The leader who asks for a vote of confidence is in appearance submitting to the judgment of his followers, but in reality he throws into the scale the entire weight of his own indispensability, real or supposed, and thus commonly forces submission to his will. The leaders are extremely careful never to admit that the true aim of their threat to resign is the reinforcement of their power over the rank and file. They declare, on the contrary, that their conduct is determined by the purest democratic spirit, that it is a striking proof of their fineness of feeling, of their sense of personal dignity, and of their deference for the mass. Yet if we really look into the matter we cannot fail to see that, whether they desire it or not, their action is an oligarchical demonstration, the manifestation of a tendency to enfranchise themselves from the control of the rank and file. Such resignations, even if not dictated by a self-seeking policy, but offered solely in order to prevent differences of opinion between the leaders and the mass, and in order to maintain the necessary harmony of views, always have as their practical outcome the subjection of the mass to the authority of the leader. – Michels, Political Parties, p45-8

Democracy is the theory that intelligence is dangerous. It assumes that no idea can be safe until those who can’t understand it have approved it. – Mencken (“Owen Hatteras”), Pertinent and Impertinent, June 1913, p57

The keynote of democracy as a way of life may be expressed, it seems to me, as the necessity for the participation of every mature human being in formation of the values that regulate the living of men together: which is necessary from the standpoint of both the general social welfare and the full development of human beings as individuals. – Dewey, Individualism Old and New

…If democracy has any genuine merit, if it shows any virtue that all other forms of government lack, it is the merit and virtue of being continuously amusing, of offering the plain people a ribald and endless show. This merit I certainly do not decry. It is valuable, and deserves praise. For government, in its essence, is a harsh and oppressive thing, and unless some glamor can be thrown about it, of the mysterious, the melodramatic or the comic, it tends to be unbearable. – Mencken, Editorial, September 1924, p33

It is one of the peculiar intellectual accompaniments of democracy that the concept of the insoluble becomes unfashionable – nay, almost infamous. To lack a remedy is to lack the very license to discuss disease. The causes of this are to be sought, without question, in the nature of democracy itself. It came into the world as a cure-all, and it remains primarily a cure-all to this day. – Mencken, The Future of Democracy, Notes on Democracy, 1926, p195-6

The practical ideal of democracy consists in the self-government of the masses in conformity with the decisions of popular assemblies. …The crowd, however, is always subject to suggestion, being readily influenced by the eloquence of great popular orators; moreover, direct government by the people, admitting of no serious discussions or thoughtful deliberations, greatly facilitates coups de main of all kinds by men who are exceptionally bold, energetic, and adroit.
+++++It is easier to dominate a large crowd than a small audience. The adhesion of the crowd is tumultuous, summary, and unconditional. Once the suggestions have taken effect, the crowd does not readily tolerate contradiction from a small minority, and still less from isolated individuals. – Michels, Political Parties, 1915, p24

The difference between the mob and the plutocracy is, after all, very slight. They run to common concepts of the true and the good, and are largely identical in personnel. The gap separating a banker and a labor leader is infinitely less than the gap separating either from a Washington. Neither has any coherent concept of the common weal; to both government is simply a device for promoting their own fortunes. No restraint of tradition and obligation lies upon either. In brief, they are alike democrats. – Mencken, Kultur in the Republic, October 1927

…the thing which is really required for the proper working of democracy is not merely the democratic system, or even the democratic philosophy, but the democratic emotion. The democratic emotion, like most elementary and indispensable things, is a thing difficult to describe at any time. But it is peculiarly difficult to describe it in our enlightened age, for the simple reason that it is peculiarly difficult to find it. It is a certain instinctive attitude which feels the things in which all men agree to be unspeakably important, and all the things in which they differ (such as mere brains) to be almost unspeakably unimportant. The nearest approach to it in our ordinary life would be the promptitude with which we should consider mere humanity in any circumstance of shock or death. We should say, after a somewhat disturbing discovery, “There is a dead man under the sofa.” We should not be likely to say, “There is a dead man of considerable personal refinement under the sofa.” We should say, “A woman has fallen into the water.” We should not say, “A highly educated woman has fallen into the water.” Nobody would say, “There are the remains of a clear thinker in your back garden.” Nobody would say, “Unless you hurry up and stop him, a man with a very fine ear for music will have jumped off that cliff.” But this emotion, which all of us have in connection with such things as birth and death, is to some people native and constant at all ordinary times and in all ordinary places. It was native to St. Francis of Assisi. It was native to Walt Whitman. In this strange and splendid degree it cannot be expected, perhaps, to pervade a whole commonwealth or a whole civilization; but one commonwealth may have it much more than another commonwealth, one civilization much more than another civilization. No community, perhaps, ever had it so much as the early Franciscans. No community, perhaps, ever had it so little as ours. – Chesterton, Heretics, ch.19

The theory that two thieves will steal less than one. – Mencken

Democracy is the liberty of the have-nots. Its aim is to destroy the liberty of the haves. – Mencken, Origins, Nov 1922, p47

…democracy is based upon so childish a complex of fallacies that they must be protected by a rigid system of taboos, else even half-wits would argue it to pieces. – Mencken

I believe, and have often argued, that the battle of ideas should be international – that it is idiotic to expect any one country to offer hospitality to every imaginable sort of man. I do not fit into the United States very well. My skepticism is intolerably offensive to the normal American man; only the man under strong foreign influence sees anything in it save a gross immorality … if the notions of the right-thinkers are correct, then such stuff as mine … ought to be put down by law … free speech is too dangerous to a democracy. – Mencken, Letter to Burton Rascoe, Chicago Tribune, 1920.

4. Democracy
HE who makes the law knows better than any one else how it should be executed and interpreted. It seems then impossible to have a better constitution than that in which the executive and legislative powers are united; but this very fact renders the government in certain respects inadequate, because things which should be distinguished are confounded, and the prince and the Sovereign, being the same person, form, so to speak, no more than a government without government.
+++++It is not good for him who makes the laws to execute them, or for the body of the people to turn its attention away from a general standpoint and devote it to particular objects. Nothing is more dangerous than the influence of private interests in public affairs, and the abuse of the laws by the government is a less evil than the corruption of the legislator, which is the inevitable sequel to a particular standpoint. In such a case, the State being altered in substance, all reformation becomes impossible, A people that would never misuse governmental powers would never misuse independence; a people that would always govern well would not need to be governed.
+++++If we take the term in the strict sense, there never has been a real democracy, and there never will be. It is against the natural order for the many to govern and the few to be governed. It is unimaginable that the people should remain continually assembled to devote their time to public affairs, and it is clear that they cannot set up commissions for that purpose without the form of administration being changed.
+++++In fact, I can confidently lay down as a principle that, when the functions of government are shared by several tribunals, the less numerous sooner or later acquire the greatest authority, if only because they are in a position to expedite affairs, and power thus naturally comes into their hands.
+++++Besides, how many conditions that are difficult to unite does such a government presuppose! First, a very small State, where the people can readily be got together and where each citizen can with ease know all the rest; secondly, great simplicity of manners, to prevent business from multiplying and raising thorny problems; next, a large measure of equality in rank and fortune, without which equality of rights and authority cannot long subsist; lastly, little or no luxury – for luxury either comes of riches or makes them necessary; it corrupts at once rich and poor, the rich by possession and the poor by covetousness; it sells the country to softness and vanity, and takes away from the State all its citizens, to make them slaves one to another, and one and all to public opinion.
+++++This is why a famous writer has made virtue the fundamental principle of Republics; for all these conditions could not exist without virtue. But, for want of the necessary distinctions, that great thinker was often inexact, and sometimes obscure, and did not see that, the sovereign authority being everywhere the same, the same principle should be found in every well-constituted State, in a greater or less degree, it is true, according to the form of the government.
+++++It may be added that there is no government so subject to civil wars and intestine agitations as democratic or popular government, because there is none which has so strong and continual a tendency to change to another form, or which demands more vigilance and courage for its maintenance as it is. Under such a constitution above all, the citizen should arm himself with strength and constancy, and say, every day of his life, what a virtuous Count Palatine said in the Diet of Poland: Malo periculosam libertatem quam quietum servitium.
+++++Were there a people of gods, their government would be democratic. So perfect a government is not for men. – Rousseau, Social Contract

I have alluded somewhat vaguely to the merits of democracy. One of them is quite obvious: it is, perhaps, the most charming form of government ever devised by man. The reason is not far to seek. It is based upon propositions that are palpably not true and what is not true, as everyone knows, is always immensely more fascinating and satisfying to the vast majority of men than what is true. Truth has a harshness that alarms them, and an air of finality that collides with their incurable romanticism. They turn, in all the great emergencies of life, to the ancient promises, transparently false but immensely comforting, and of all those ancient promises there is none more comforting than the one to the effect that the lowly shall inherit the earth. It is at the bottom of the dominant religious system of the modern world, and it is at the bottom of the dominant political system. The latter, which is democracy, gives it an even higher credit and authority than the former, which is Christianity. More, democracy gives it a certain appearance of objective and demonstrable truth. The mob man, functioning as citizen, gets a feeling that he is really important to the world – that he is genuinely running things. Out of his maudlin herding after rogues and mountebanks there comes to him a sense of vast and mysterious power – which is what makes archbishops, police sergeants, the grand goblins of the Ku Klux and other such magnificoes happy. And out of it there comes, too, a conviction that he is somehow wise, that his views are taken seriously by his betters – which is what makes United States Senators, fortune tellers and Young Intellectuals happy. Finally, there comes out of it a glowing consciousness of a high duty triumphantly done which is what makes hangmen and husbands happy.
+++++All these forms of happiness, of course, are illusory. They don’t last. The democrat, leaping into the air to flap his wings and praise God, is for ever coming down with a thump. The seeds of his disaster, as I have shown, lie in his own stupidity: he can never get rid of the naive delusion – so beautifully Christian – that happiness is something to be got by taking it away from the other fellow. But there are seeds, too, in the very nature of things: a promise, after all, is only a promise, even when it is supported by divine revelation, and the chances against its fulfillment may be put into a depressing mathematical formula. Here the irony that lies under all human aspiration shows itself: the quest for happiness, as always, brings only unhappiness in the end. But saying that is merely saying that the true charm of democracy is not for the democrat but for the spectator. That spectator, it seems to me, is favoured with a show of the first cut and calibre. Try to imagine anything more heroically absurd! What grotesque false pretenses! What a parade of obvious imbecilities! What a welter of fraud! But is fraud unamusing? Then I retire forthwith as a psychologist. The fraud of democracy, I contend, is more amusing than any other, more amusing even, and by miles, than the fraud of religion. Go into your praying-chamber and give sober thought to any of the more characteristic democratic inventions: say, Law Enforcement. Or to any of the typical democratic prophets: say, the late Archangel Bryan. If you don’t come out paled and palsied by mirth then you will not laugh on the Last Day itself, when Presbyterians step out of the grave like chicks from the egg, and wings blossom from their scapulae, and they leap into interstellar space with roars of joy.
+++++I have spoken hitherto of the possibility that democracy may be a self-limiting disease, like measles. It is, perhaps, something more: it is self-devouring. One cannot observe it objectively without being impressed by its curious distrust of itself – its apparently ineradicable tendency to abandon its whole philosophy at the first sign of strain. I need not point to what happens invariably in democratic states when the national safety is menaced. All the great tribunes of democracy, on such occasions, convert themselves, by a process as simple as taking a deep breath, into despots of an almost fabulous ferocity. Lincoln, Roosevelt and Wilson come instantly to mind: Jackson and Cleveland are in the background, waiting to be recalled. Nor is this process confined to times of alarm and terror: it is going on day in and day out. Democracy always seems bent upon killing the thing it theoretically loves. I have rehearsed some of its operations against liberty, the very cornerstone of its political metaphysic. It not only wars upon the thing itself; it even wars upon mere academic advocacy of it. I offer the spectacle of Americans jailed for reading the Bill of Rights as perhaps the most gaudily humorous ever witnessed in the modern world. Try to imagine monarchy jailing subjects for maintaining the divine right of Kings! Or Christianity damning a believer for arguing that Jesus Christ was the Son of God! This last, perhaps, has been done: anything is possible in that direction. But under democracy the remotest and most fantastic possibility is a common-place of every day. All the axioms resolve themselves into thundering paradoxes, many amounting to downright contradictions in terms. The mob is competent to rule the rest of us – but it must be rigorously policed itself. There is a government, not of men, but of laws – but men are set upon benches to decide finally what the law is and may be. The highest function of the citizen is to serve the state – but the first assumption that meets him, when he essays to discharge it, is an assumption of his disingenuousness and dishonour. Is that assumption commonly sound? Then the farce only grows the more glorious.
+++++I confess, for my part, that it greatly delights me. I enjoy democracy immensely. It is incomparably idiotic, and hence incomparably amusing. Does it exalt dunderheads, cowards, trimmers, frauds, cads? Then the pain of seeing them go up is balanced and obliterated by the joy of seeing them come down. Is it inordinately wasteful, extravagant, dishonest? Then so is every other form of government: all alike are enemies to laborious and virtuous men. Is rascality at the very heart of it? Well, we have borne that rascality since 1776, and continue to survive. In the long run, it may turn out that rascality is necessary to human government, and even to civilization itself – that civilization, at bottom, is nothing but a colossal swindle. I do not know: I report only that when the suckers are running well the spectacle is infinitely exhilarating. But I am, it may be, a somewhat malicious man: my sympathies, when it comes to suckers, tend to be coy. What I can’t make out is how any man can believe in democracy who feels for and with them, and is pained when they are debauched and made a show of. How can any man be a democrat who is sincerely a democrat? – Mencken, Last Words, 1926

Democracy leads to oligarchy, and necessarily contains an oligarchical nucleus. – Michels, Political Parties, 1915

…the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote. – Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, 1943

+++++[The concept of competition for leadership] presents similar difficulties as the concept of competition in the economic sphere, with which it may be usefully compared. – Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, p271, 1943
Schumpeter’s political sphere revolves around a rather exclusive, high-level battle between elite actors… Politicians are entrepreneurs, attempting to sell packages of policies to voters (“consumers”). The market metaphor is pervasive. The marketplace is the zone of self-interest, competition, winners and losers, and of “what sells” and sometimes “what works”: it is not, for better or worse…a zone of shared goals, collective endeavour or conscious and organized pursuit of the general interest. – Michael Saward, Democracy, p40

…the typical citizen drops down to a lower level of mental performance as soon as he enters the political field. He argues and analyses in a way which he would readily recognize as infantile within the sphere of his real interests. He becomes a primitive again. [Citizens should] understand that, once they have elected an individual, political action is his business and not theirs. – Schumpeter, Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy, p271 (1943)
[Schumpeter’s theory] took the Michelsian dilemma and turned it on its head, making elite rule the very essence of democracy, not its deadly nemesis. …
+++++Downs [in An Economic Theory of Democracy (1950)] took Schumpeter’s insight and made it much more formal and even more central to our understanding of democracy. In this way, Downs’s analysis reinforces a distinctive set of choices, put into play by Schumpeter, about how “democracy” should be viewed, making those choices mainstream, normal, somehow seemingly “natural”. …
+++++Scientific neutrality is a laudable aim. But our models and definitions do have a context, an origin, which is not itself “neutral” or equally applicable to all… however carefully one might separate explanation from recommendation, something of the latter inevitably threatens to undermine the integrity of the former. …
+++++Downs’s methods and assumptions echo and serve to reinforce many of Schumpeter’s: the individualism, the idea of competition for office, the idea that representation is central to democracy, and the fact that we must study democracy with a keen concern for measurability built into our very methods and models. Each of these echoes or traces is a product of, or sits comfortably alongside, the aspiration to offer a value-free, descriptive account of democracy. …a seemingly neutral definition in which nothing “ethical” is intended turns out to contain assumptions which are nothing if not contestable in ethical terms. …
+++++Downs’ work is entirely devoid of Michelsian agonizing; Schumpeter has, so to speak, “won” that argument. “Democracy” can, indeed does, mean competitive elections, fundamentally – all else, all higher or more egalitarian aspirations, involve little more than delusional posturing. – Democracy, p42-7

[Robert A.] Dahl’s approach added to that of Schumpeter…a concern for what happens between elections, which is most of the time, of course.
+++++In A Preface to Democratic Theory [1956], Dahl makes it clear that, even if one starts with “ethical” or value-based criteria of democracy, one soon needs to employ an approach that is truer to the “real world”. Such an approach he calls “the descriptive method”: this involves considering “as a single class of phenomena all those nation states and social organizations that are commonly called democratic by political scientists, and by examining the members of this class to cover, first, the distinguishing characteristics they have in common, &, second, the necessary and sufficient conditions for social organizations possessing these characteristics.” – Democracy

Calling it “the 18th Century philosophy of democracy”, Schumpeter defined it thus: “the democratic method is that institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions which realizes the common good by making the people itself decide issues through the election of individuals who are to assemble in order to carry out its will”…This theory, it was argued, was inadequate because (1) there is no such thing as a single conception of the “common good” upon which all could agree; (2) even if there were, there would still be disputes over how specific issues might best be resolved and (3) as a consequence, there can be no such thing as a definite “will of the people”. Elected politicians can neither know the people’s will – because there is not one to know – nor trust the people to be rational – Democracy, p58-9

Crucial features arise from the Lockean contract: the idea that government exists to protect pre-existing rights (especially to property)
– that all legitimate government authority is derived from the consent of the governed
– that rebellion could be justified insofar as government betrayed its “trust” or its rightful role
– that it is individuals and their rights that matter which lies at the base of politics
– majority rule ought to be the basic political decision rule; and that
– accountable government is largely a matter of national level institutional design. – Democracy, p62-3

[James Madison’s] chief concern, in some eyes, was precisely to keep ordinary citizens away from real political influence… Madison reads like a democrat now, since what he understood to be anti-democratic has transmogrified into they very essence of a modern democracy. – Democracy, p64

…although “elitist democratic theory” aimed to offer explanations, in reality it was “deeply rooted in an ideology, [Bachrach in The Theory of Democratic Elitism, 1967] an ideology which is grounded upon a profound distrust of the majority of ordinary men and women, and a reliance upon the established elites.” – Democracy

…the trick for the ruling class…is to pass off its particularistic ideology as received wisdom or common sense. – Democracy, p78

State = political society + civil society, in other words hegemony protected by the armour of coercion. – Gramsci

If democracy is justified in governing the state, then it is also justified in governing economic enterprises. What is more, if it cannot be justified in governing enterprises, we do not quite see how it can be justified in governing the state. – Robert A Dahl, A Preface to Economic Democracy, p134, 1985

…people have lost faith in politics, because they no longer know what governments are good for. Thanks to the steady withdrawal of the state over the past 20 years from the public sphere, it is corporations, not governments, that increasingly define the public realm. – N. Hertz, Why we must stay silent no longer, The Observer, 8 Apr 2001

…if instituting direct democracy means that public policies will more closely reflect the wishes of citizens, then a direct democrat must surely feel constrained by the expression of the popular will through (for example) elections and referendums. What if the citizenry do not want green outcomes? In such a case, presumably something has to give – either the environmentalist goals of (for instance) lower consumption and uses of alternative sources of energy must be diluted or abandoned, according to the popular will, or the commitment to (direct) democracy must itself be softened. Or, alternatively, “democracy” itself has to be rethought quite fundamentally – perhaps on a traditional view…it has been biased towards human needs and interests and away from those of non-human animals and entities? Perhaps, too, democracy as we know it is biased towards the interests of present generation of humans and against the interests of future generations? Could what we think of as “democracy” possibly adapt to encompass the concerns behind such radical reasoning? – Michael Saward, Democracy, p108

Democracy must be adopted to context in order to take root in that context. It will have to be Islamic democracy, or Chinese or Senegalese democracy. – Democracy, p114

I suggest that there are six key dimensions of democracy. …
A. space and belonging: How ought the political unit and political community in which democracy is to be practised be understood, in terms of geography, population size, terms of citizenship and degree of cultural homogeneity?
B. rights: What constitutional constraints should democratic majorities face? What rights, if any, should be guaranteed to members or citizens of a democracy?
C. group autonomy: To what degree and over what concerns should distinct sub-groups, functional or territorial, possess rights to autonomy or collective self-determination?
D. participation: What is to be the balance between different forms of popular participation in the making of collective decisions, in terms of both a) the balance between direct and representative institutions, and b) the balance of variation within each of these two basic forms?
E. accountability: How are the relations of accountability to be structured, how are “accounts” to be given, by whom and to whom?
F. public and private: How are the respective roles of the public and the private spheres, and formal and informal modes of political activity, to be understood, and which is taken to provide what in terms of the requirements of a healthy democratic structure? – Democracy, p117


Language has lost its meaning in the universal cant. Representative Government is really misrepresentative; Union is a conspiracy against the Northern States which the Northern States are to have the privilege of paying for; the adding of Cuba and Central America to the slave marts is enlarging the area of Freedom. Manifest Destiny, Democracy, Freedom, fine names for an ugly thing. They call it otto of rose and lavender, – I call it bilge water. They call it Chivalry and Freedom; I call it the stealing all the earnings of a poor man and the earnings of his little girl and boy, and the earnings of all that shall come from him, his children’s children forever.
+++++But this is Union, and this is Democracy; and our poor people, led by the nose by these fine words, dance and sing, ring bells and fire cannon, with every new link of the chain which is forged for their limbs by the plotters in the Capitol. – Emerson, Speech on Affairs in Kansas, 1856

The general judgment is that the freest possible government produces the freest possible men and women, the most individual, the least servile to the judgment of others. But a moment’s reflection will show any man that this is an unreasonable expectation, and that, on the contrary, entire equality and freedom in political forms almost invariably tend to make the individual subside into the mass and lose his identity in the general whole. Suppose we stood in England to-night. There is the nobility, and here is the church. There is the trading class, and here is the literary. A broad gulf separates the four; and provided a member of either can conciliate his own section, he can afford in a very large measure to despise the opinions of the other three. He has to some extent a refuge and a breakwater against the tyranny of what we call public opinion. But in a country like ours, of absolute democratic equality, public opinion is not only omnipotent, it is omnipresent. There is no refuge from its tyranny, there is no hiding from its reach; and the result is that if you take the old Greek lantern and go about to seek among a hundred, you will find not one single American who has not, or who does not fancy at least that he has, something to gain or lose in his ambition, his social life, or his business, from the good opinion and the votes of those around him. And the consequence is that instead of being a mass of individuals, each one fearlessly blurting out his own convictions, as a nation, compared to other nations, we are a mass of cowards. More than all other people, we are afraid of each other. – Wendell Phillips

In creative moments men always draw upon “some secret spring of certainty, some fundamental well into which no disturbing glimmers penetrate.” But this is no slack philosophy, for the chance is denied by which we can lie back upon the perfection of some mechanical contrivance. Yet in the light of it government becomes alert to a process of continual creation, an unceasing invention of forms to meet constantly changing needs.
+++++This philosophy is not only difficult to practice: it is elusive when you come to state it. For our political language was made to express a routine conception of government. It comes to us from the Eighteenth Century. And no matter how much we talk about the infusion of the “evolutionary” point of view into all of modern thought, when the test is made political practice shows itself almost virgin to the idea. Our theories assume, and our language is fitted to thinking of government as a frame – Massachusetts, I believe, actually calls her fundamental law the Frame of Government. We picture political institutions as mechanically constructed contrivances within which the nation’s life is contained and compelled to approximate some abstract idea of justice or liberty. These frames have very little elasticity, and we take it as an historical commonplace that sooner or later a revolution must come to burst the frame apart. Then a new one is constructed.
+++++Our own Federal Constitution is a striking example of this machine conception of government. It is probably the most important instance we have of the deliberate application of a mechanical philosophy to human affairs. Leaving out all question of the Fathers’ ideals, looking simply at the bias which directed their thinking, is there in all the world a more plain-spoken attempt to contrive an automatic governor – a machine which would preserve its balance without the need of taking human nature into account? What other explanation is there for the naive faith of the Fathers in the “symmetry” of executive, legislature, and judiciary; in the fantastic attempts to circumvent human folly by balancing it with vetoes and checks? No insight into the evident fact that power upsets all mechanical foresight and gravitates toward the natural leaders seems to have illuminated those historic deliberations. The Fathers had a rather pale god, they had only a speaking acquaintance with humanity, so they put their faith in a scaffold, and it has been part of our national piety to pretend that they succeeded.
+++++They worked with the philosophy of their age. Living in the Eighteenth Century, they thought in the images of Newton and Montesquieu. “The Government of the United States,” writes Woodrow Wilson, “was constructed upon the Whig theory of political dynamics, which was a sort of unconscious copy of the Newtonian theory of the universe. … As Montesquieu pointed out to them (the English Whigs) in his lucid way, they had sought to balance executive, legislative and judiciary off against one another by a series of checks and counterpoises, which Newton might readily have recognized as suggestive of the mechanism of the heavens.” No doubt this automatic and balanced theory of government suited admirably that distrust of the people which seems to have been a dominant feeling among the Fathers. For they were the conservatives of their day: between ’76 and ’89 they had gone the usual way of opportunist radicals. But had they written the Constitution in the fire of their youth, they might have made it more democratic, – I doubt whether they would have made it less mechanical. The rebellious spirit of Tom Paine expressed itself in logical formulas as inflexible to the pace of life as did the more contented Hamilton’s. This is a determinant which burrows beneath our ordinary classification of progressive and reactionary to the spiritual habits of a period.
+++++If you look into the early Utopias of Fourier and Saint-Simon, or better still into the early trade unions, this same faith that a government can be made to work mechanically is predominant everywhere. All the devices of rotation in office, short terms, undelegated authority are simply attempts to defeat the half-perceived fact that power will not long stay diffused. It is characteristic of these primitive democracies that they worship Man and distrust men. They cling to some arrangement, hoping against experience that a government freed from human nature will automatically produce human benefits. …
+++++This is one of the paradoxes of the democratic movement – that it loves a crowd and fears the individuals who compose it – that the religion of humanity should have had no faith in human beings. Jealous of all individuals, democracies have turned to machines. They have tried to blot out human prestige, to minimize the influence of personality. That there is historical justification for this fear is plain enough. To put it briefly, democracy is afraid of the tyrant. That explains, but does not justify. Governments have to be carried on by men, however much we distrust them. Nobody has yet invented a mechanically beneficent sovereign.
+++++Democracy has put an unfounded faith in automatic contrivances. Because it left personality out of its speculation, it rested in the empty faith that it had excluded it from reality. But in the actual stress of life these frictions do not survive ten minutes. Public officials do not become political marionettes, though people pretend that they are. When theory runs against the grain of living forces, the result is a deceptive theory of politics. If the real government of the United States “had, in fact,” as Woodrow Wilson says, “been a machine governed by mechanically automatic balances, it would have had no history; but it was not, and its history has been rich with the influence and personalities of the men who have conducted it and made it a living reality.” Only by violating the very spirit of the constitution have we been able to preserve the letter of it. For behind that balanced plan there grew up what Senator Beveridge has called so brilliantly the “invisible government,” an empire of natural groups about natural leaders. Parties are such groups: they have had a power out of all proportion to the intentions of the Fathers. Behind the parties has grown up the “political machine” – falsely called a machine, the very opposite of one in fact, a natural sovereignty, I believe. The really rigid and mechanical thing is the charter behind which Tammany works. For Tammany is the real government that has defeated a mechanical foresight. Tammany is not a freak, a strange and monstrous excrescence. Its structure and the laws of its life are, I believe, typical of all real sovereignties. You can find Tammany duplicated wherever there is a social group to be governed – in trade unions, in clubs, in boys’ gangs, in the Four Hundred, in the Socialist Party. It is an accretion of power around a center of influence, cemented by patronage, graft, favors, friendship, loyalties, habits, – a human grouping, a natural pyramid. – W Lippmann, A Preface to Politics, ch.1

[Tocqueville] observed that what might be called the first language of America…was individualism. America was a collection of social atoms, each in pursuit of his own interests. In America, individualism was a matter of principle, a matter of right. But this individualism was also tempered, by several “second languages” that united individuals into communities and bound them together. These second languages – one of religious conviction, and one of civic virtue – were sources of moral tradition, of social mores, of habits of the heart. They were what made it possible for people in pursuit of private, individual interests nevertheless to share public, communal purposes. The price of modern, liberated America seems to have been these habits of the heart. – Barry Schwartz, The Battle for Human Nature, p19

We have much to learn, much to correct, a great deal of lying vanity. The spread eagle must fold his foolish wings and be less of a peacock. I wish to see America, not like the old powers of the earth, grasping, exclusive and narrow, but a benefactor such as no country ever was, hospitable to all nations, legislating for all nationalities. Nations were made to help each other as much as families were; and all advancement is by ideas, and not by brute force or mechanical force. – Emerson

[Niebuhr told Americans that they needed to combat Soviet influence around the world and remain conscious and critical of their own moral and political claims, not confusing their] own aspirations, however noble they appeared or however virtuous it felt to revel in them, with the good of all mankind.

To-day there is no longer any question of statesmanship, in any real sense, in American politics. The only way to success in public life lies in flattering and kowtowing to the mob. A candidate for office, even the highest, must either adopt its current manias en bloc, or convince it hypocritically that he has done so, while cherishing reservations in petto. The result is that only two sorts of men stand any chance whatever of getting into actual control of affairs – first, glorified mob-men who genuinely believe what the mob believes, and secondly, shrewd fellows who are willing to make any sacrifice of conviction and self-respect in order to hold their places. – Mencken, On Being An American

Here is tragedy – and here is America. For the curse of the country, as well of all democracies, is precisely the fact that it treats its best men as enemies. The aim of our society, if it may be said to have an aim, is to iron them out. The ideal American, in the public sense, is a respectable vacuum. – Mencken, More Tips for Novelists, Chicago Tribune, 2/5/1926

Democracy itself becomes a substitute for the old religion, and the antithesis of it: the Ku Kluxers, though their reasoning may be faulty, are not far off the facts in their conclusion that Holy Church is its enemy. It shows all the magical potency of the great systems of faith. It has the power to enchant and disarm; it is not vulnerable to logical attack. … It is impossible, by any device known to philosophers, to meet doctrines of that sort; they obviously lie outside the range of logical ideas. There is, in the human mind, a natural taste for such hocus-pocus. It greatly simplifies the process of ratiocination, which is unbearably painful to the great majority of men. What dulls and baffles the teeth may be got down conveniently by an heroic gulp. … Democracy is shot through with this delight in the incredible, this banal mysticism. One cannot discuss it without colliding with preposterous postulates, all of them cherished like authentic hairs from the whiskers of Moses himself. I have alluded to its touching acceptance of the faith that progress is illimitable and ordained of God – that every human problem, in the very nature of things, may be solved. There are corollaries that are even more naive. One, for example, is to the general effect that optimism is a virtue in itself – that there is a mysterious merit in being hopeful and of glad heart, even in the presence of adverse and immovable facts. This curious notion turns the glittering wheels of Rotary, and is the motive power of the political New Thoughters called Liberals. … The man who hopes absurdly, it appears, is in some fantastic and gaseous manner a better citizen than the man who detects and exposes the truth. Bear this sweet democratic axiom clearly in mind. It is, fundamentally, what is the matter with the United States. – Mencken

Anybody that wants the presidency so much that he’ll spend two years organising and campaigning for it is not to be trusted with the office. – David Broder, 1973

When I was a boy I was told that anyone could become President. I’m beginning to believe it. – Clarence Darrow

PRESIDENT, n. The leading figure in a small group of men of whom – and of whom only – it is positively known that immense numbers of their countrymen did not want any of them for President. – Ambrose Bierce, Devil’s Dictionary

I have seen many theoretical objections to democracy, and sometimes urge them with such heat that it probably goes beyond the bound of sound taste, but I am thoroughly convinced, nonetheless, that the democratic nations are happier than any other. The United States today, indeed, is probably the happiest the world has ever seen. Taxes are high, but they are still well within the means of the taxpayer: he could pay twice as much and still survive. The laws are innumerable and idiotic, but only prisoners in the penitentiaries and persons under religious vows ever obey they. The country is governed by rogues, but there is no general dislike of rogues: on the contrary, they are esteemed and envied. Best of all, the people have the pleasant feeling that they can make improvements at any time they want to – in other words, they are happy. Democrats are always happy. Democracy is a sort of laughing gas. It will not cure anything, perhaps, but it unquestionably stops the pain. – Mencken, The Master Illusion, March 1925, p319

Consider, for example, a campaign for the Presidency. Would it be possible to imagine anything more uproariously idiotic – a deafening, nerve-wracking battle to the death between Tweedledum and Tweedledee, Harlequin and Sganarelle, Gobbo and Dr. Cook – the unspeakable, with fearful snorts, gradually swallowing the inconceivable? I defy any one to match it elsewhere on this earth. In other lands, at worst, there are at least intelligible issues, coherent ideas, salient personalities. Somebody says something, and somebody replies. But what did Harding say in 1920, and what did Cox reply? Who was Harding, anyhow, and who was Cox? Here, having perfected democracy, we lift the whole combat to symbolism, to transcendentalism, to metaphysics. Here we load a pair of palpably tin cannon with blank cartridges charged with talcum power, and so let fly. Here one may howl over the show without any uneasy reminder that it is serious, and that some one may be hurt. I hold that this elevation of politics to the plane of undiluted comedy is peculiarly American, that no-where else on this disreputable ball has the art of the sham-battle been developed to such fineness…
+++++…Here politics is purged of all menace, all sinister quality, all genuine significance, and stuffed with such gorgeous humors, such inordinate farce that one comes to the end of a campaign with one’s ribs loose, and ready for “King Lear,” or a hanging, or a course of medical journals. – Mencken

Our people are slow to learn the wisdom of sending character instead of talent to Congress. Again and again they have sent a man of great acuteness, a fine soldier, a fine forensic orator, and some master of the brawls has crunched him up in his hand like a bit of paper. – Emerson, journal, 1844

We have seen the great party of property and education in the country drivelling and huckstering away, for views of party fear or advantage, every principle of humanity and the dearest hopes of mankind; the trustees of power only energetic when mischief could be done, imbecile as corpses when evil was to be prevented. – Emerson

Liberty gone, there remains the majestic phenomenon of democratic law. A glance at it is sufficient to show the identity of democracy and Puritanism. The two, indeed, are but different facets of the same gem. In the psyche they are one. For both get their primal essence out of the inferior man’s fear and hatred of his betters, born of his observation that, for all his fine theories, they are stronger and of more courage than he is, and that as they go through this dreadful world they have a far better time. Thus envy comes in; if you overlook it you will never understand Puritanism. It is not, of course, a speciality of democratic man. It is the common possession of all men of the ignoble and incompetent sort, at all times and everywhere. But it is only under democracy that it is liberated; it is only under democracy that it becomes the philosophy of the state. … The day after a successful revolution is a blue day for the late autocrat, but it is also a blue day for every other superior man. The murder of Lavoisier was a phenomenon quite as significant as the murder of Louis XVI. We need no scientists in France, shouted MM. of the Revolutionary Tribunal. Wat Tyler, four centuries before, reduced it to an even greater frankness and simplicity: he hanged every man who confessed to being able to read and write.
+++++Democracy, as a political scheme, may be defined as a device for releasing this hatred born of envy, and for giving it the force and dignity of law. Tyler, in the end, was dispatched by Walworth; under democracy he becomes almost the ideal Good Man. It is very difficult to disentangle the political ideas of this anthropoid Good Man from his theological ideas: they constantly overlap and coalesce, and the democratic state, despite the contrary example of France, almost always shows a strong tendency to be also a Puritan state. Puritan legislation, especially in the field of public law, is a thing of many grandiose pretensions and a few simple and ignoble realities. The Puritan, discussing it voluptuously, always tries to convince himself (and the rest of us) that it is grounded upon altruistic and evangelical motives – that its aim is to work the other fellow’s benefit against the other fellow’s will. Such is the theory behind Prohibition, comstockery, vice crusading, and all its other familiar devices of oppression. …
+++++The Puritan, once his mainly imaginary triumphs over the flesh and the devil are forgotten, always turns out to be a poor stick of a man – in brief, a natural democrat. His triumphs in the field of government are as illusory as his triumphs as metaphysician and artist. No Puritan has ever painted a picture worth looking at, or written a symphony worth hearing, or a poem worth reading – and I am not forgetting John Milton, who was not a Puritan at all, but a libertarian, which is the exact opposite. The whole Puritan literature is comprised in “The Pilgrim’s Progress.” Even in the department wherein the Puritan is most proud of himself, i.e., that of moral legislation, he has done only second and third rate work. His fine schemes for bringing his betters down to his own depressing level always turn out badly. In the whole history of human law-making there is no record of a failure worse than that of Prohibition in the United States. …
+++++It must be plain that this process of law-making by orgy, with fanatics supplying the motive-power and unconscionable knaves steering the machine, is bound to fill the statute-books with enactments that have no rational use or value save that of serving as instruments of psychopathological persecution and private revenge. This is found to be the case, in fact, in almost every American State. The grotesque anti-syndicalist laws of California, the anti-evolution laws of Tennessee and Mississippi, and the acts for the enforcement of Prohibition in Ohio and Indiana are typical. They involve gross invasions of the most elementary rights of the free citizen, but they are popular with the mob because they have a virtuous smack and provide it with an endless succession of barbarous but thrilling shows.
+++++…For such foul and pestiferous proceedings, of course, moral excuses are always offered. The district attorney is an altruist whose one dream is Law Enforcement; he cannot be terrified by the power of money; he is the spokesman of the virtuous masses against the godless and abominable classes. The same buncombe issues from the Prohibitionists, comstocks, hunters of Bolshevists, and other such frauds. Its hollowness is constantly revealed. The Prohibitionists, when they foisted their brummagem cure-all upon the country under cover of the war hysteria, gave out that their advocacy of it was based upon a Christian yearning to abate drunkenness, and so abolish crime, poverty and disease. They preached a millennium, and no doubt convinced hundreds and thousands of naive and sentimental persons, not themselves Puritans, nor even democrats. That millennium, as everyone knows, has failed to come in. Not only are crime, poverty and disease undiminished, but drunkenness itself, if the police statistics are to be believed, has greatly increased. The land rocks with the scandal. Prohibition has made the use of alcohol devilish and even fashionable, and so vastly augmented the numbers of users. The young of both sexes, mainly innocent of the cup under license, now take to it almost unanimously. In brief, Prohibition has not only failed to work the benefits that its proponents promised in 1917; it has brought in so many new evils that even the mob has turned against it. But do the Prohibitionists admit the fact frankly, and repudiate their original nonsense? They do not. On the contrary, they keep on demanding more and worse enforcement statutes – that is to say, more and worse devices for harassing and persecuting their opponents. The more obvious the failure becomes, the more shamelessly they exhibit their genuine motives. – Mencken

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