Is democracy overrated? the conservative British philosopher Roger Scruton once asked.
“In my view, the idea that there is a single, one-size-fits-all solution to social and political conflict around the world, and that democracy is the name of it, is based on a disregard of historical and cultural conditions, and a failure to see that democracy is only made possible by other and more deeply hidden institutions,” wrote Scruton, who passed away this week.
“And while we are willing to accept that democracy goes hand in hand with individual freedom and the protection of human rights, we often fail to realize that these three things are three things, not one, and that it is only under certain conditions that they coincide,” he added.
“In the underground universities of communist Europe, my friends and colleagues studied those things, and prepared themselves for the hoped-for day when the Communist Party, having starved itself of every rational input, would finally give up the ghost,” he added. “And the lessons that they learned need to be learned again today, as our politicians lead us forth under the banner of democracy, without pausing to examine what democracy actually requires.”
Scruton distinguishes democracy, individual freedom and the protection of human rights, on the grounds that these are ‘three things, not one’. Using that as his premise, he suggests that democracy is overrated and questions a foreign policy of championing democracy elsewhere, argued Philip Pettit, the Laurance S. Rockefeller University Professor of Politics and Human Values at Princeton University.
But he is wrong to suggest that it may be better to put aside democracy and campaign instead for institutions such as judicial independence, property rights, freedom of speech and legitimate opposition, he wrote for Democratic Audit. The promotion of these institutions is separable from the promotion of democracy, for at least two reasons, he argued:
- First, there is no hope of promoting democracy without promoting such institutions.
- And, second, there is no prospect of securing such institutions without securing democracy. They are doubly associated.
While Scruton, the author of more than 50 books on aesthetics, morality and politics, including The West and the Rest: Globalization and the Terrorist Threat, may have been quizzical in theory, he was more resolute in practice, notes Anne Applebaum, a board member of the National Endowment for Democracy.