CRF Blog

Against the Technocrats

by Bill Hayes

In Against the Technocrats for Dissent, Sheri Berman argues that the problems democracies are experiencing are not caused by too much democracy.

Reading the newspaper today can make one easily depressed about democracy. Promising new democracies in Poland, Hungary, and Turkey have slid into illiberalism and pseudo-authoritarianism while long-standing democracies in the West are under attack most notably by populist parties whose liberal and perhaps even democratic commitments are uncertain. Some commentators, most notably Yascha Mounk and Roberto Foa, worry that “the warning signs are flashing red” and that it’s possible that democracy in the West is entering a period of terminal decline. What has caused this development and what is the solution to it?

One provocative answer put forward almost twenty years ago by journalist Fareed Zakaria in an influential essay on “illiberal democracy” is that democracy itself is to blame. Democracy, after all, means “rule by the people” and many elites look upon “the people” with fear: they can be uninformed, irrational, and prone to act in their own self-interest rather than with regard to the “common” or public good. Unchecked rule by the people can easily lead to illiberalism— or worse. As Zakaria put it, “today the two strands of liberal democracy . . . are coming apart. Democracy is flourishing . . . liberalism is not.”

Over the past few years concerns about “unchecked” democracy and rule by the people have exploded— but such concerns have been around as long as democracy itself. The ancient Greeks commonly equated democracy with mob rule. Aristotle, for example, worried about democracy’s tendency to degenerate into “chaotic rule by the masses” and in Plato’s The Republic, Socrates argues that given power and freedom the masses will indulge their passions, destroy traditions and institutions, and be easy prey for tyrants. Classical liberals, meanwhile, lived in mortal fear of democracy, convinced that once given power “the people” would trample the liberties and confiscate the property of elites. Great liberal thinkers like Tocqueville, John Stuart Mill, and Ortega y Gasset constantly worried about democracy leading to a “tyranny of the majority” and the masses’ susceptibility to illiberal dictators.

While concerns about illiberalism, populism, and majoritarianism are certainly well-founded, blaming such phenomena on an “excess” of democracy is not. [more]