Saturday, May 10, 2008

History Lies: American Democracy was Top-Down

It is hard to get through an American history education without coming to believe that the Founding Fathers following the American Revolution did anything short of invent democracy as we know it. Further along this line, is the idea that had they failed to come to an agreement, we would have become a series of feudal states or even lived in chaos or anarchy.

This is a perplexing view considering the Founding Fathers never really embraced the idea of a complete direct democracy at the national level. There were various restrictions on who could vote and an electorate system that prevented anything resembling a direct democracy. On the other hand, the pioneer attitude that existed was not indulged in for the good of American society, but was rather the result of individual action. Entrepreneur's looking for resources, arable land, and other profitable opportunities often needed to not just discover these locations, but they needed to attract labor as well. Entrepreneurs of the day needed to not just develop resources, but develop communities to support life and they were in competition with each other to do this. They did this through many means most of which would be familiar to us - wages, benefits, property - but they also needed to provide institutions for these communities to exist under. It was hard, and often dangerous, to move through the frontier, and you needed a credible commitment that you and your children could flourish without fear that the original landowner would strip you of your property. What often emerged from this competition was a system of direct democracy that was similar corporate structures firms of the day held. Shareholders typically got one vote, regardless of how many shares they actually held, and local governments mimicked this type of structure.

If anything, the discussion should be that the Democracy was imperfectly copied from local municipalities to the State and Nation level. We would not have been a bunch of caveman monarchies were it not for the state and nation. To borrow from Alexander de Tocqueville (Democracy In America, 1835, vol. 1, ch. 2):
The political existence of the majority of the nations of Europe commenced in the superior ranks of society and was gradually and imperfectly communicated to the different members of the social body. In America, on the contrary, it may be said that the township was organized before the county, the county before the state, and the state before the union.
For more on local governments, read the Homevoter Hypothesis.

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