When Is Democracy Viable?

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As the Constitution of the United States was being written, a lady asked Benjamin Franklin what he and the other writers were creating. He replied, “A republic, madam— if you can keep it.” Generations later, Abraham Lincoln also posed it as a question whether “government of the people, by the people and for the people” is one that “can long endure.”

Just as there are nations who have not yet developed the preconditions for freedom and democracy, so there are some people within a nation who have not. The advance toward universal suffrage took place slowly and in stages.

Too many people, looking back today, see that as just being biased against some people.

But putting the fate of a nation in the hands of the illiterate masses of the past, many with no conception of the complexities of government, might have meant risking the same fate of “one man, one vote— one time.”

Today, we take universal literacy for granted. But literacy has not been universal, across all segments of the American population during all of the 20th century. Illiteracy was the norm in Albania as recently as the 1920s and in India in the second half of the 20th century.

Bare literacy is just one of the things needed to make democracy viable. Without a sense of responsible citizenship, voters can elect leaders who are not merely incompetent or corrupt, but even leaders with contempt for the Constitutional limitations on government power that preserve the people’s freedom.

We already have such a leader in the White House— and a succession of such leaders may demonstrate that the viability of freedom and democracy can by no means be taken for granted here.

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  • Supreme_Galooty

    Reading this article is somewhat of a chore for me. I have to assume that when Dr. Sowell uses the term "democracy" he is talking about self governance in general and merely uses the term as a sort of short hand. Being that he is first and foremost an economist, I can forgive that intellectual laziness, but it is tough. Most folks who have studied self governance, or folks who have thought deeply on the subject, have come to the conclusion that "democracy" is essentially mob rule when applied on a scale larger than a social club or a lunchroom.

    While there have been free peoples scattered throughout the history of man, the very first time in that history when the concept of Individual Liberty was codified and institutionalized occured in the late 1700s when the United States was founded as a nation. It was founded as a Republic since the Founders had significant disdain for democracy. But today, after numerous mistakes, this country moves further and further from the Republic of its founding and closer and closer to a despotic democracy.

  • Supreme_Galooty

    Then he talks about literacy. I know that many people believe that the ability to read constitutes literacy, and in a small sense they are right. For me, literacy is not only being able to read, but also being very WELL read. One of the only ways that a person can know if they are misinformed is if they read widely, including many diverse sources. In the United States today I would guess that very few would be included in my concept of literacy.

    To make matters even worse, Americans are very poorly served by a fourth estate that has been in dereliction of its duty for decades. The result is a large number of misinformed – or even MALinformed – voters. This situation allows disasters like the election of Obama. Luckily with the advent of the internet and the rise of talk radio, the traditional news media are being rendered superfluous.