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What is Democracy?
by Jay Gutman
2016-09-09 11:56:05
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You can essentially define democracy in the context of what other alternative forms of government and society there is. You have tyranny, where your personal worth depends largely on your degrees of separation from the tyrant. You have oligarchy, where your personal worth is defined by the house and the car you own. And you have democracy, where your skills and knowledge will determine your value and self-worth. Then you have kleptocracy and other forms where your self-worth will be determined by your ability to shoot accurately or to pick pockets, but I won’t go through those.

democ01In tyranny, the closer you are to the king and the palace, the more likely you will have food on your plate the next day. Since getting close to the palace depends largely on luck, you will try hard to be a model citizen and try to please the king and the palace. Doing otherwise will lead to trouble. People from tyrannies tend to be pleasant, though tend to have a people-pleaser side. They will try hard to please you, but they won’t always tell you the truth. Their moods will depend on the mood of the tyrant, and their notion of greatness as well. The problem is every now and then things get heated up at the palace, and then politics and the economy tend to suffer a little.

In an oligarchy, there may be a president or a king with a group of a few hundred or thousand landowners and business owners who run the country. People in oligarchies tend to be unpleasant, because irritating other people gets them ahead of the competition. The car you drive and the house you own is what determines your worth in such countries and if you run for office the person with the most real estate tends to get elected. In oligarchies people worry more about how they look than what to think, so BMWs and swimming pools tend to be worth thousands of words. In oligarchies, you will tend to invest spare money on real estate. The main problem with oligarchies is that real estate bubbles tend to burst. 

In democracies, the concern tends to be stable government over concentration of power or overt displays of wealth. People will tend to focus on how to durably keep the government stable and how to contribute to the stability of the government. In democracies individuals tend to be concerned with stability and durability, will tend to put their savings somewhere safe and will usually value knowledge over anything else. Books and skills are valued over cars or real estate or pleasing the king.

There are essentially four kinds of people in any society: those who learn and teach, those who learn but don’t teach, those who teach but don’t learn and those who neither teach nor learn. In most tyrannies most people neither teach nor learn, while in most oligarchies people don’t learn but teach. In democracies people tend to learn and teach.

Over the 32 years I’ve been around so far, I noticed that a few democracies had receded into oligarchies. A New Yorker turned down my picture because he wanted one where I had a suit on, while a Parisian seemed to think that a luxury car is worth more than a careful reading of Plato’s The Republic, of which this article is inspired. But that’s anecdotal evidence. 



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