Integrity and democracy.

“Democracy is when the indigent, and not the men of property, are the rulers.”

Thus said Aristotle.

Here’s another quote from more recent times.

“The supreme quality for leadership is unquestionably integrity. Without it, no real success is possible, no matter whether it is on a section gang, a football field, in an army, or in an office.”

So said President Dwight D. Eisenhower.


Today’s post started as an ill-defined idea in my head following me reading a recent essay over on Patrice Ayme’s blog.  It was his (her?) post of the 17th July in which was written, “Representative democracy has to be destroyed as an ideal.” and later,

Meanwhile the French People would be well advised to search for a new form of government more appropriate to the modern world, and the increasing democracy we all dearly need.

One does not have to look very far for inspiration: the Confoederatio Helvetica next door, an independent, and central part of the Franks’ Francia, is enjoying a much more direct form of democracy.

that caused me to leave a comment,

I read a deeper malaise in your essay, Patrice, and that is the failure of ‘representative’ democracy in country after country around the world. In fact, it’s inspiring me to write a post over on LfD about the possibilities for truly democratic government.

that, in turn, was replied to by Patrice:

Please go ahead, Paul, and keep me informed! ;-)! And you are completely right. Representative democracy is actually oligarchic representation. Athenians had 80,000 citizens, and 80,000 legislators. France has about 1,000 times more citizens, and one half of a thousandth (1/2,000) fewer legislators. That makes the French democratic index half of a million times less than the Athenians!

Let me step back for a moment.

Over the life of this blog, I have touched on the vulnerability of human life on this planet more than once.  It’s not being at all smart to say that mankind is crapping on its own doorstep and our future is in severe doubt.  The reason I say it’s not smart is simply because millions of people almost certainly think that or something pretty damn close.

Maybe the huge divide between what ‘the man in the street’ knows makes common sense and the terrible lack of common sense shown by so many of our governments is at the root of the problem.  In other words, our representative democratic system isn’t working.

Here’s a letter from the pages of the Tampa Bay Times from just last Tuesday.

Tuesday’s letters: Our democratic system is at risk

There are thoughtful, informed people who are worried that our democratic system of government is not working and the whole enterprise is at risk. I think there is only one solution to the problem: to elect people who have demonstrated the ability to work cooperatively with others and solve problems.

It is foolish to think that the personalities of members of Congress change when they arrive in Washington. A worrisome number were fools, buffoons and rigidly ideological before they were elected, and there is no realistic possibility that anyone or anything can change their personalities after they are elected and while they are in office.

It is a crisis long in the making. Most students finish high school with little or no understanding of American history or the way their government works. There is no understanding of the idea of citizenship and the heavy responsibility imposed on citizens who live in a democratic republic. There has never been so much information so easily available that could allow people to make wise use of their votes. But without the perspective of education and a deep understanding that voting is everything in our system of government, it all may slip away.

Roger C. Benson, St. Petersburg

to elect people who have demonstrated the ability to work cooperatively with others and solve problems.

I wouldn’t argue at all with the wisdom in those words.  But I would add to it.

It’s my sense that many citizens in many countries feel that the whole business of government has got to large, too complicated, too remote and, frankly, has less to do with working “cooperatively with others and solve problems” than with feeding its own mouth.  Take voter turnout.

Graph of voter turnout percentage from 1824 to 2008.
Voter turnout in the USA; 1824 – 2008

Why such high levels of absenteeism; for want of a better description?

Let’s go back to the Athenians as Patrice mentioned.  Plenty on the web to read but this article caught my eye.

Athenian Democracy: a brief overview

Christopher W. Blackwell, edition of February 28, 2003

· Summary ·

This article was originally written for the online discussion series “Athenian Law in its Democratic Context,” organized by Adriaan Lanni and sponsored by Harvard University’s Center for Hellenic Studies. Its purpose is to introduce, very briefly, the institutions of the Athenian democracy during the late 5th century BCE through the end of the radical democracy in the late 4th century. This is a companion-piece to “The Development of Athenian Democracy,” also written for the CHS’s discussion series.

· Introduction ·

The city of Athens lived under a radically democratic government from 508 until 322 BCE. Before the earlier date there was democracy to be found here and there in the government of Athens, and democratic institutions survived long after the latter date, but for those 186 years the city of Athens was self-consciously and decidedly democratic, autonomous, aggressive, and prosperous. Democracy in Athens was not limited to giving citizens the right to vote. Athens was not a republic, nor were the People governed by a representative body of legislators. In a very real sense, the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains (for the latter, see Aeschin. 3.157).1 The Athenian democracy was not, of course, a free-for-all of mob rule. The Athenians understood the value of checks and balances and of enforcing time for reflection before acting. They understood that professionalism is necessary in certain jobs, that accountability was necessary of most jobs, and that some jobs required absolute job-security. The system evolved over time, suffered two complete breakdowns in the 5th century, and is certainly open to criticism at many points during its history. Nevertheless, it was coherent enough during those two centuries that we can describe it, in general terms, without being too far wrong on any point. And despite its moments of imprudence, injustice, and indecision, it was an experiment remarkable enough to deserve our attention.

The early history of Athenian Democracy and its development is the subject of another article in this series. This general description of how the Athenians governed themselves will focus on the 4th century BCE, both because the democracy was most fully developed during that time and because the majority of our evidence either comes from that period, or describes the the Athenian government during that period.

Now there’s much more to read here for those so interested but I want to highlight a section from the above.  This section:

In a very real sense, the People governed themselves, debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains. The Athenian democracy was not, of course, a free-for-all of mob rule. The Athenians understood the value of checks and balances and of enforcing time for reflection before acting. They understood that professionalism is necessary in certain jobs, that accountability was necessary of most jobs, and that some jobs required absolute job-security.

So from 322 BCE to 2014 AD!

A few days ago, Jeannie needed to change some details regarding her US Social Security payment.  We saw that it could be done online.  As one would expect, setting up online access for Jean meant jumping through a number of security hoops.  All more or less sorted in 20 minutes.

It was clear that it would be incredibly difficult for someone to fraudulently break into her online SSA account. Think of the millions who perfectly happily manage their bank accounts online.

Ergo, there are no technical issues why every single eligible voter in the USA (and many other countries) couldn’t move towards governing themselves in a direct manner just like the Athenians. Indeed, voting in the USA at times of Presidential elections is permitted. But all that is doing is participating in a system that isn’t delivering real democracy.

We need to govern ourselves: “debating and voting individually on issues great and small, from matters of war and peace to the proper qualifications for ferry-boat captains.” Because humanity is facing some issues that are very great indeed!

Or have I missed something bloody obvious?


I opened today’s post with two quotations.  I shall close by offering another two.

“If we don’t hang together, we most assuredly will hang separately.”

Benjamin Franklin advising the original continental congress of what became the United States of America.

“A key political question today is: Do you support the well-being of the Earth and the life that the Earth supports?

From a good friend and supporter of this blog who chooses to remain anonymous.  Who then added: “This question has spiritual, natural and rational implications which frame the debate in terms of human values greater than money.”

12 thoughts on “Integrity and democracy.

  1. I watched a documentary and read about the successes of Genghis Khan yesterday: part of his success was abandoning the age-old tradition of leadership by birth, replaced by meritocracy.

    I support rule through meritocracy, the leader chosen through tests rather than opinion. The ancient Celts ruled in a form of meritocracy, the stewards educated from birth by wise people called Druids. The Celtic worldview is captured in a saying of my favorite Celtic archetype Bran: “let them who be leader be a bridge to their people.” In the story of Bran he became a bridge so that his army could cross rivers and seas. Bran was an alder tree archetype, the alder was used for bridge building.

    With regards to Athens, they practiced many political systems of government, they were always in crisis leading many of their philosophers such as Plato to find solutions. It should be remembered that a large number of people in Athens had no rights, the slaves.

    The recent plane crash in the Ukraine manifests the depth of the disease that now infects modern democracy and culture, impotency by everyone from US and Russian Presidents to the community the plane crashed into to offer an effective response. Any respect I had for modern democratic systems died in the aftermath of that plane crash, drowned in an avalanche of propaganda, entertainment and stupidity. The only people who should have mattered were the victims, but the modern democratic system forgot about them.


    1. Alex, your wonderful and powerful comment should be an essay in its own right. And, yes, the terrible murder of those innocent people on that aircraft stands as a testament to the depths of depravity that mankind has now sunk to. My son is an airline captain of many years. I can’t even start to imagine my state of mind if he were killed in such circumstances!

      Your description of Celtic meritocracy sounds like a fabulous model for the future. At the entrance to our property there is a sign we installed when we moved in. The sign reads “Anam cara”. The Celtic words translate to: Soul friend.

      Thank you so much for your response, Paul


  2. Athens is a terrible example of democracy, direct or otherwise. As Alex Jones says, above, ‘… a large number of people in Athens had no rights, the slaves….’ That large number was a clear majority in Athens, about 80% of the adult population, not just slaves, but women and peasants. The reality is that Athens was a rentier society, much as we have seen happen in many Western nations today, owing its long economic success in part to free labour by women, peasants, bonded servants, and slaves, and allowing the remaining ‘citizens’ to enjoy their direct democracy, a government created by and for themselves.

    Perhaps we should consider the flaws of the Athenian example when examining the profound and complex failure of modern democracy. Your idea of direct voting on issues comes closer to the ancient consensus form of governing practiced by some Native North American Tribes.

    As to Patrice Ayme’s blog linked above, I am not sure what s/he is talking about. The genetic lesson falls flat when considering the long tradition of associating apes and other animals with people as a way to justify a denial of civic privilege and human rights. I don’t know the incident or law s/he refers, but the meaning of the picture is very clear by the captions, ‘At 18 Months’, and ‘Now’, beneath the photos of an infant ape and the woman.

    IMHO, there is no such thing as freedom of speech without responsibility and ownership, i.e., accountability, otherwise it too, can become yet another mask for tyranny. (For example, the endless ads during elections providing deliberate misdirection, misinformation and lies about opposing candidates, and no information about platforms and issues, reducing the act of voting to a popularity contest. Another example is climate deniers.)

    As an interesting aside, we should look at the creative definitions of ‘majority’ as used in elections. Majority used to mean 66 ⅔ % of a quorum, today in the USA, it can mean as little as 50+ % of the popular vote as decided by the electoral college, and here in Canada, our sitting government claims majority with less than 40% of the popular vote, thanks to a multi-party system and arm’s length representation by number of seats per party in parliament.


    1. Dear Wen, as with Alex, a wonderful reply. Thank you. I freely admit my poor knowledge of the truth of the Athenian process and agree with the points you make above. I would love to know more about how North American Indians managed their affairs. Sounds as though the USA has an ancient example of a more open process right on its own doorstep. Best wishes, Paul.


      1. Hi Paul, one of the first sources I encountered the notion of consensus governance was a book titled ‘Peace, Power, Righteousness: an indigenous manifesto’, by Taiaiake Alfred (1999, Oxford University Press Canada, Don Mills) — a hard read because it is a very angry book, rightly so, but very informative.


      2. Athenians voted directly on issues, after debating them with an equal right of speech. Depending upon the importance of the issue, the number of votes to get it passed varied.


    2. Wen: with all due respect and consideration, let me present you with my latest tweet:
      Nowadays, most people learned to have such small attention span that, should one quote Hitler, they feel reasonably sure that one is a Nazi


  3. Wen: You did not read my essay carefully. No, the meaning is not “very clear”. You seem to engage in specieism: apes are despicable, we are ashamed to be associated to them. Some philosophers (Singer) have written books to show that was unwise.

    Paul respects dogs as a source of wisdom, me, same with apes, even more so. I actually learned in Africa to learn from apes, and even, from baboons. I even chose an African name of such a primate as my nickname, when I was ten year old.

    Now I find out that, if one associates, in any sense humans and other hominids, thoroughly idiotic French judges view this as worthy of nine months in detention. By comparison, sexual mutilators of girls got only suspended sentences. The explanation offered is that the color, thus tribal link of the participants: do they belong to the victim tribe, or the dominant tribe? Do they belong to the elected people of yesteryear, or the one long abused? Etc.

    That’s not justice, and it’s not wise.


    Discriminating against people on basis of their origins is not, and ought not, to be tolerated.

    Playing favorite to Jews and “Blacks” as the present French government is doing, at least in the aspect of lip service, threatens an explosion of not so favored minorities.

    One of the commenters on my site, Dominique Deux, who feels that calling African “apes” or something like that led to slavery was not correct, as I show in the following essay:

    But not just that: Dominique had called Marine Le Pen, months before, a “shrew”. I would prefer to be called an “ape” rather than a “shrew”. When I asked French people with a legal background if French judges had gone ape, I got really weird answers: the perpetrator had been a member of the National Front (not anymore, she was expelled), Taubira was “black”.

    On the subject of Athens. The presentation of Athens as made of rentiers is not correct. Rentiers are not supposed to work, Athenians worked hard. Athens fell to Antipater, a senior general of Alexander’s father… Who may have assassinated Alexander (this, or he died of a mysterious disease).

    Oligarchy is the rule of the few. That’s what we have: ruled by a few thousand representatives, judges, plutocrats, and their servants. Democracy is the rule of the People.

    So Paul is right. But it’s not the democracy that is in question. It’s the oligarchic principle.


    1. Putting to one side your replies both to this post and, specifically, to Wen, can I pick up on your point where you say, “Democracy is the rule of the People. —- But it’s not the democracy that is in question. It’s the oligarchic principle.”

      Are you saying that any democratic process would be vulnerable to oligarchic tendencies? Or are you implying that a different democratic system would prevent that? If so, what would be your recommendation?


      1. Dear Paul: Oligarchy: laws are decided by a few who rule. That’s what we have now. We are living in oligarchy, not democracy. Calling it “democracy” does not make it any less oligarchic. It’s just a semantic fig leaf. But one that is highly efficient: most people conclude that “democracy does not work.

        In truth, it’s impossible to know that, as we do not have democracy, but oligarchy. Yet, having said that is a danger, as people turn to decidedly anti-democratic governance as a project. Examples of the later are Islamism and introvert hyper Nationalism (Putin, UKIP, etc.)

        This oligarchy that governs the West is quickly turning into unbridled plutocracy, thanks to the way money is created. You guess it, money is created in an oligarchic way. A few unelected bankers, collaborating with civil servants, many of them having private banking in their past or future (when they are not highly paid economists), decided who will get the money, and how much.

        Democracy is a different system misleading called “direct democracy”. Then, in particular, We the People votes the laws.

        Switzerland has clearly switched to a more democratic system in recent decades, with drastic “votations” every three months. That is what should be duplicated all over the West: it obviously works. If nothing else, it makes people much richer…


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.