A foundation for democracy

In the last blog we saw that the statement “all people are sinners” has eminent socio-political and political significance. The statement that all people are sinners also constitutes a significant foundation for democracy and is among the reasons why almost all countries which formerly were Christian countries are today democracies (see my essay “Demokratie und christliche Ethik“  [Translation of the tile: “Democracy and Christian Ethics”] in Politik und Zeitgeschichte 14/2009 (March 30, 2009): 21-26).

Christianity by its very nature is self-critical (whether that has always been the case in reality is another story) as well as being mistrustful. This is due to the fact that everyone – beginning with him or herself – and not only on a rare occasion – allows oneself one blunder or another. Our everyday life is marked by this characteristic, acting as an egoist to do damage to ourselves and to others. And this stain on human nature shapes our understanding of politics and the dangers it presents.

In 1532 Niccolò Machiavelli wrote The Prince as an instruction manual for power-hungry rulers. What is always decisive is the final result. His view was that the masses always support the winner and, with the benefit of hindsight, they revere all the means which brought him there.

It is as correct that the winner always writes history as it is morally objectionable when the powerful only rule in order to possess power and to benefit themselves. Addressing this problem, the German oath of office (Basic Law for the Federal Republic of Germany, Articles 56 and 64) for the Federal Government reads: “I swear that I will dedicate my efforts to the well-being of the German people, promote their welfare, protect them from harm …  and do justice to all. So help me God.”

In order to prevent the abuse of power, a separation of powers has been anchored in the United States Constitution, known as “checks and balances,” as well as via other mechanisms, for instance the limitation on the term in office for the President to no more than two terms of four years each. These checks and balances refer to mutual controls (checks) on constitutional organs of a state in order to produce a system oriented toward the success of the whole through a partial balance of power. It is, above all, put into place in order to guard against dictatorship. It has less to do with a strict separation of powers and more to do with mutual avenues for intervention, control, and accountability, for which reason the interlacing of powers is a significant aspect of the separation of powers.

Democracy has a lot to do with the question of how potential dictators can be removed and how one can get rid of lousy politicians and politicians who misuse their power.

Sir Karl Popper formulated this appropriately in 1960:

“Who should rule? This question, which begs for an authoritarian answer, such as ‘the best’ or ‘the wisest,’ or ‘the people,’ or ‘the majority’. … It should be replaced by a completely different question, such as: ‘How can we organize our political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers (whom we should try not to get but whom we so easily might get all the same) cannot do too much damage?’” (“Erkenntnis ohne Autorität” [English translation: “Knowledge without Authority”], pp. 26-39 in Karl Popper. Lesebuch. Tübingen: Mohr, 2000, p. 32).

In 1989 in “Freiheit und intellektuelle Verantwortung” (English version: “Freedom and Intellectual Responsibility”), Popper discussed this in more detail (Karl P. Popper. Alles leben ist Problemlösen [English version: All Life is Problem Solving], pp. 239-254; additional articles on democracy pp. 207-238; a good excerpt is “Wer soll herrschen” [English title: “Who should rule?“], actually from Karl P. Popper. Alle Menschen sind Philosophen [English translation of the title: Everyone is a Philosopher] München: Piper, 2002, pp. 211-218; see also “Worauf es in der Demokratie ankommt,“ [English translation of the title: “What matters in Democracy,”] pp. 219-227). Popper understands democracy to be less “rule by the people” than it is “people’s court.” Democracy is not a way to find the best rulers, and it is also no guarantee of good decisions (“A dictatorship of the majority can be horrible for the minority”). Rather, it is the answer to the question “How can we so mold the constitution of the state so that the government can be disposed of without the shedding of blood?”

Initially, if not so completely clearly, Popper presented these thoughts in 1944 in his criticism of Plato in a section entitled “The Principle of Leadership” (Karl R. Popper. Der Zauber Platons. Die offene Gesellschaft und ihre Feinde, Vol. 1. Bern: Francke, 1957, pp. 169-174; [English Version: The Spell of Plato. The Open Society and Its Enemies]; first English version 1944; composed 1938-1943). According to Popper, the question is not who should rule. Rather, in addition to limiting power, the question which leads to democracy is how one can peacefully dispose of bad rulers (ibid., pp. 170-173).

 “…  then we must ask whether political thought should not face from the beginning the possibility of bad government … it forces us to replace the question: Who should rule? with the new question: How can we organize political institutions so that bad or incompetent rulers can be prevented from doing too much damage?“ (p. 170, German version). “I am inclined to think that rulers have rarely been above the average, either morally or intellectually, and often below it. And I think that it is reasonable to adopt, in politics, the principle of preparing as well as we can for the worst, though we should, of course, at the same time try to get the best“ (p. 172, German version).

“Thus, a paradox of democracy is the question of what one should do if the people want to elect a tyrant” (p. 173, German version).

The thought of democracy is thus inseparably linked with the thought that there can be bad rulers who plan and do evil. The experience of history teaches that democracy, better than any other form of government, can better prevent tyranny, human rights violations, and too great an abuse of power. Christians always assume the tendency of people to commit evil and for that reason consider it wise for no individual to achieve too great a concentration of power.

The separation of power in a democracy is a consequence of the Christian viewpoint that all people tend towards evil, and, for that reason, it is not a rare occasion when rulers and politicians use their power for evil. Rather, the probability is very great, indeed almost inevitable, when there are no limits and controls. This does not mean that one has to be a Christian in order to advocate a separation of power (otherwise, I would certainly not have cited Popper). However, viewed historically, this is simply the origin of the idea. And it is, for instance, one of the reasons why Islamic states, for the most part, have not established a democratic separation of power. This is the case even though a separation of power is just as simple to install in the constitution of a Muslim state as anywhere else. Yet Islam has a very optimistic view of humankind and sees evil only in unbelief and with non-believers and not in oneself. This is the case, even if in principle democracy is just as able to be practiced there; they lack the idea that politicians with good intentions might end up doing the opposite.

If humans were so good and noble, as many make them out to be, we would not need parliamentary controls, no constitutional courts to control the government, no investigating committees, and no critical press.

Again: It is not the case that only Christians are able to justify a separation of power or able to implement it. However, whoever believes only in the goodness of humankind does not actually require a separation of power. Democracy is the form of government which most soberly and naturally takes evil into account and does not want to give anyone so much power that his or her susceptibility to temptation and to evil planning and action could single-handedly drag many or even everyone into the abyss.

The financial markets show what happens when the inclination towards evil is not soberly taken into account and curbed by a separation of powers and control mechanisms. A single greedy chief executive officer can nowadays bring the world to the edge of the abyss. It is astonishing how few people make a connection to the question of evil in humankind, and even less with respect to themselves individually, in spite of all the terror it causes.