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Democracy - Pro et Contra (2)

Thomas Hobbes and John Locke Arguments for and against Democracy

Thomas Hobbes

Thomas Hobbes 1588-1679 Thomas Hobbes was born in the year of 1588, apparently prematurely, when his mother was scared by the rumours about the Spanish armada, which this year threatened England.

He saw the English civil war between king and parliament, the execution of King Charles and the Cromwell dictatorship. Several times he had to flee England in fear of his life. He stayed in France for long periods.

In order to warn his countrymen against the dangers of democracy, he translated the classic work of Thucydides' "The Peloponnesian War" into English.

Hobbes was the first one to formulate the idea of a social contract. His principal work, "Leviathan", was released in 1651. Leviathan is the name of a big monster, mentioned in the Bible.

According to Hobbes, the individuals are selfish and greedy for power, and they have no natural inclination to form societies. However, they can by pure reason come to realize, that it is to everyone's mutual benefit, that they refrain from the free state of nature and form communities. Because in the natural state of freedom people would destroy each other in a bitter everyone's struggle against all for wealth, honour and power.

The beheading of Charles 1. in 1649 He believed that in the state of nature, every man could hold only so much property, as he could defend with arms. As there was no community, there was no common law, and therefore there could not be any property "rights". Because "rights" is something, men have by the law.

For the same reason, Hobbes would not accept the idea of any natural human "rights", that people should have ahead of and independent of the formation of community.

Hobbes social contract is not about democracy. On the contrary, his contract defines, that citizens should band together and jointly submit to the rule of a strong and autocratic king. Such an unlimited power is namely the only measure, that can check the greed and selfishness of man, and ensure law and order.


Thomas Hobbes' Arguments against Democracy:

The front-page of Thomas Hobbes' Leviathan. The principal figure represent the body of society with the autocratic king on the top Hobbes wrote about the human nature: "The Desire for power, wealth, knowledge and honour. All this can be reduced to the first, that is the desire for power. For wealth, knowledge and honour are just different forms of power."

The individual is only interested in increasing his personal power, Hobbes said. "All of humanity are in a state of endless and restless desire for power - which stops only by death".

Therefore, "a state of nature", a hypothetical state of life without the organizations of society, would be unbearable. He pictured this chaotic state of nature in his principal work, "Leviathan", "No artworks, no letters, no society, and, worst of all, persistent fear and danger of a violent death: and human life would be lonely, poor, disgusting, brutal and short.

It requires a strong royal power to hold man's greed for power and their selfishness in check. "It is better to entrust the government to one than to many, he wrote in his book, "Rudiments".

He did not think that democracy was a good solution. "Most are too busy to find food, and the rest are too ignorant to understand." (Leviathan, i. xv. 79)

Therefore, if the individuals got the power, let's say they got the right to choose the government with a democratic vote, this would start a disastrous "every man's struggle against all", that would make any kind of law and order impossible.

PRO Democracy

Hobbes model of society resembles, what we today would describe as a permanent state of emergency.

The government, representing the autocratic king, may take any measures it considers necessary to ensure national security and to preserve law and order.

It is an important point in Hobbes social contract, that it is a mutual contract between the citizens themselves about jointly to submit to an autocratic ruler. There should be no contract between the king and the people. The absolute monarch shall not be bound by any contracts, laws or other treaties. The ruler must have freedom to make whatever decisions he judges appropriate and necessary.

Our traditionel conception of freedom of speech In the clear light of knowledge, after the history has had its course, we can say that Hobbes' strict measures were not necessary, less could do the job. It was in fact possible to maintain stable societies with less dramatic means during some hundred years.

In fact Thomas Hobbes were completely wrong. Anyone can convince himself of this by looking on his life and read modern history.

During almost two hundred years the European democracies have created prosperity and stability. Apart from some war-time intermezzos they have ensured steady growth. Anyone can go anywhere without to fear for their lives and property.

Demonstration in front of the Danish Embassy in London - September 2005 The freedom of speech is so total that it is possible to demonstrate against the freedom of speech itself.

The actual experience of history shows, that it is entirely possible for a democratic system to create a stable foundation for a happy life for the individuals. Until now it has not been necessary to declare any permanent state of emergency, like recommended by Hobbes.

We prefer a democracy to a despotism, because we know, that no man is infallible, not even a king. It is better, that the people maintains the ultimate power and have the right to say stop, if the government goes too far.

The Danish Constitutional Assembly "No taxation without representation" was the motto of the American Revolution in 1765. It must also be said, that it is a quite reasonable request, that the people, which are expected to pay the bills, have a word to say in the decisions.

The Danes are a free people. We are not slaves or serfs. It seems to us fair and reasonable, that ordinary citizens have some formal political power. It will also help to ensure, that the rulers of the nation at all times will treat common people with respect.

Contra Democracy

The Roman emperor Augustus During thousands of years of history of civilizations democracy has existed only a few moments here and there. The vast majority of humans, who have had their existence here on Earth, have been subjects in some form of monarchy.

In the early history of civilizations democracy had not been very widespread or long lasting. Only a few, small and manageable nations and cities have had this kind of governance.

Best known is the democracy of Athens, a small city-state in ancient Greece. Athens was an independent state of the size of the Danish islands Funen or Zealand. The Athenian democracy lasted only about some 200 years.

Athen's Akropolis The small Swiss cantons have had democracy in a few hundred years. Wilhelm Tell was the hero leading the Swiss people in their rebellion against the fifteen-century Habsburg Monarchy.

Some of the Italian city states elected their own leaders, as the Venetians did in 726, when they liberated themselves from the Empire of East Rome.

The Tingvellir plain of Iceland On Iceland the original settlers and their descendants met each year on the plain of Tingvellir and settled common problems according to ancient law and mutual agreements.

In the long stretch of history it seems that democracy have only existed in small manageable communities, which are ethnically and culturally homogeneous.

Young soldier from the U.S. revolution The American and the European democracies have been born with the industrial revolution. The last two to three hundred years they have enjoyed almost uninterrupted technological and economic progress. Apart from war-times, they have so to speak evolved with the wind in their backs. The American democracy moreover has had the advantage of exploiting a large virgin continent filled with all sorts of resources.

These historically exceptional circumstances have made it possible for democracy to exist in larger communities, which are not ethnically and culturally homogeneous.

 Demonstration in front the Danish Embassy in London September 2005 But in a possible future, where the economy is not continuously growing, where the rich get richer, and the poor become poorer, and the nations will be populated with multitude of ethnic and religious groups, Hobbes ideas of governance can still become reality.


John Locke

John Locke 1632-1704 The English philosopher John Locke was a contemporary with Thomas Hobbes but somewhat younger. He created the philosophical school empiricism.

There is nothing in a person's mind, which has not already been in the senses, he wrote. The mind is empty at birth, a blank blackboard, a "Tabula Rassa".

According to Locke, there is nothing in the human mind at birth. Man cannot be born with an inclination to form communities, but also not with any other inclinations, such as strong self-interest. From the beginning the human nature is fully open. They may love their fellow man, but alternately they can be aggressive and selfish.

John Locke was the architect behind the Western democracies as they exist today. He presented his ideas in his principal work "Two Treatises of Government" in 1690. It was designed as arguments against a Robert Filmer, who wrote, that the nation was one big family with the king as the father.

Together with Thomas Hobbes he was an advocate of the idea of the social contract.

The Declaration of Human Rights of the French Revolution in 1793 The thirteen rebellious British colonies in America He believed, that the individuals by reason can be can be brought to realize, that everybody will be better off and will have better opportunities, if they enter a social contract.

Unlike Hobbes, he believed that this social contract should be a democracy.

John Locke was a very important inspiration to the American Revolution. Several phrases in the American deklarations has been cited directly after Locke.

He was very concerned about problems relating to the preservation of property.

He wrote, that in the state of nature, before the humans formed a society, they had certain "rights". These were the "right to life, health, liberty and property." According to Locke, these "human rights" were derived from "The Natural Laws", which have been given by God. People come to recognize the natural laws with their reason, which ability they also have been given by God.

The "human rights" are a precondition for human participation in community. If the ruler of the society violates the "rights", then the people has the right to rebel.

Lock "rights" can be found in the American "Declaration of Independence" from 1776 and the "Bill of Rights" from 1789. They can also be found in the "Declaration on Human and Citizens' Rights" of the French National Assembly from 1793.

Motivated by the Holocaust of the Second World War, the United Nations in 1948 passed a Declaration of Human Rights. The UN Declaration revived the idea of such rights, and forms the basis of their current elevated status.


John Locke's Arguments for Democracy

John Locks principal political work, Two Treatises of Government - 1690 John Locke wrote, "The natural liberty of man is to be free from any superior power on Earth, and not to be under the will or legislative authority of man, but to be ruled only by the natural laws."

"Law and not force, must be the basis of government. A government, which is not based on law, is oppressive."

"Democracy is government based on law, that is created after long consideration by appropriate elected representatives of the people and proclaimed in a way, that all men can become acquainted with them."

"The reason, why people want to form communities, is the desire for the preservation of their property, and the purpose, that they select and approve the legislators, is that there must be adopted laws and established rules, which guard and protect property belonging to all members of society: to limit the power and moderate the dominance of all parts and members of society."

"The state of Nature has a law of nature that governs it, which commits all: and reason, which is this law, lectures all people, who only want to listen to it, that all are equal and independent, no one should harm others in his life, health, liberty or property."

PRO Democracy

John Locke created the principles of modern western democracy. Such government systems have now for two hundred years, created the framework for people's daily live, for growth and prosperity.

"All human beings are born equal".

This is today interpreted that everyone is equal before the law and everyone has an equal say at elections. For the same crime rich and poor will be sentenced to the same punishment. Both rich and poor people have only one vote in the election to parliament and other public office.

The Danish parliament exercise the legislative power The people is the supreme authority in a modern democracy. The government is simply its trusted secretaries. When the people have spoken, the matter is settled, and the government need only to execute the decisions.

The Highcourt exercises the legislative power It is of utmost importance, that the power is not concentrated in any branch of the leadership of society. A concentration of power can lead to corruption of the democracy and allow the bureaucrats to take the power from the people.

Divide and rule was the motto of the British Empire. Thus by dividing the power in three centres, it is ensured, that the people remains the real ruler in a true democracy.

Government represents the executive power Locke pointed out that the power of society should be divided among three centres, so that each centres will keep the others in check, thus ensuring that the will of the people remains the real ruler. His idea was that the power should be divided into the legislative, executive and federal power. The latter should take care of the nation's foreign policy. In today's modern democracies, the power is shared between the legislative, judicial and executive centres.

Danish parliament meets in Christiansborg In particularly, there are reasons to fear, that the executive power can grasp the power for themselves. Therefore it is important to maintain, that the legislative power is the highest authority after the people, as Locke recommended. The executive branch must simply execute only the laws, which the legislative body has passed. For Locke the most important human right was the right to own property Also the executive power cannot punish anybody, unless they have violated a law made by the parliament.

The legislature power may at any time dismiss the executive power.

Property is the fruit of people's own efforts and work, wrote Locke. It is created by citizens themselves, and not by society. Therefore, property cannot be taken from them by society.


The  Holocaust of the second world war motivated the victorious powers to revive the idea of human rights According to Locke, the executive authority must moreover be limited by some specific areas of human behaviour, which are immune against the decision of a government. He called them "rights". The right to own property was the most important; the others were the rights to life, health and freedom. As time passed by, the list of rights has grown somewhat longer. It is about the right to believe what you want, the right to think and speak as you like and so on. They have now a days become known as the human rights.

FN's building in New York The universal aspect of human rights is fundamentally important. The starting point for the UN Universal Declaration of Human Rights is, that human rights are universal: "All human beings are born free and equal in dignity and rights".

The very fact, that human rights apply to everyone, serves as a bulwark against a repetition of atrocities, like those perpetrated during the World War II.

Human rights are also about protecting minority religions Moreover, human rights are about the recognition of ethnic minorities, minority religions and the protection of cultural diversity and the protection of women and poor people.

Human rights are the whole world's common values. Yes, the whole humanity's common values.

UN Universal Human Rights Declaration of 1948 is an immensely important document, it forms the basis for the whole community of mankind and future global cooperation.

Eleanore Roosevelt in meeting in UN's human rights commission.
Eleanore Roosevelt presents the final human rights declaration in 1948 Eleanore Roosevelt, the first lady of USA, was the originator to UN's declaration of human rights of 1948. She was chairman for the kommission, which worked out the declaration.

Contra Democracy.

The essential problem with the people as the real power is, that the people are not one but many.

Herodotus the world's first historian "A large quantity of rulers is not a good thing", wrote already the ancient Greek historian Herodotus.

In the really long historical perspective, the biggest concern about a democratic system must be, whether it really is practical possible.

Is it possible in the long run to maintain a stable society based on voters' shifting moods and sympathies?

Actually Locke placed so many restrictions on government power. The power has to be divided among three centres. The government should be entirely subjected to a constantly debating and intriguing parliament. Inviolable human rights gives people the right to rebel, if they are not respected. Elections with regular intervals will every few years bring new governments with different ideas.

Republicans contra democrats In modern democracies, there is a clear trend that a parliament forms two rival groups, each with about 50 % of the seats. It is a kind of game theory law of nature. In the United States it is the Republicans versus the Democrats, and in Denmark it is the "right wings" versus the "left wings".

If one of the wings is gaining ground on the other's expense, the losing party will acquire some of the rivals popular positions, and thus restore equilibrium.

If the Left is gaining ground on right's expense, the right wings can restore equilibrium by promoting some very politically correct views upon foreign policy, which are popular among the left-wing voters.

If right wings win ground reducing the influence of the left wing, then the left wing can show increased understanding towards tax cuts and savings in government spending or the like, and thereby regain terrain.

It is a kind of stable game theory equilibrium.

For this reason democratic governments are allways based on very slim majorities among the voters.

No governments, right or left wings, can pursue plans, which do not give result before the time of the next election. Democratic countries are deemed to work with very short horizons.

This makes it extremely difficult for a government to pursue a long-term policy. At the first sign of even slight discomfort, some marginal voters immediately want to shift side. And then there is something called premature elections.

A long-term strategy or policy will often be characterized that you give up some benefits here and now in order to achieve some major benefits in the future.

China is not a democracy. Their system is democratic centralism. That is precisely why, they are able to pursue a long-term strategy. Their plan is develop themselves as a high-tech industrial nation, while keeping the cost of manpower low. When they are ready, they will enter the markets of all business areas. They will offer the same as the West, just cheaper.

Hobbes and Rousseau did not agree with Locke's theory that the right to property was independent of society.

Jeremy Bentham You can have only have "right" to property, according to a law, and laws are created and maintained by society. Therefore, real property "rights" do not exist independent of a society.

Without laws and authorities with means of power for maintaining the law, any man can only possess the goods and riches, as he is able to defend by force. Without "law" one cannot have "right" to anything, neither property, life, health, freedom or anything else.

Also the utility philosopher Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832) believed that the idea of human rights was nonsense. "Right is a child of law: from real laws come real rights, but from imaginary laws, from "natural laws", come imaginary rights - natural rights is simply nonsense."

In reality, the danish democracy has already been compromised.

The legislature and the executive have in collaboration allowed hundreds of thousands of foreign immigrants to settle in the country and share its assets and resources - without asking the people.

The Battle of Copenhagen 2. April 1801 All John Locke cunning ideas with dividing the power in three centres, periodic elections and inviolable human rights have all been in vain. The bureaucrats from the executive power have already displaced the people from the driver's seat of the nation.

The immigration has a size, which is comparable to the entire population of a Danish province, let's say that of Lolland-Falster. It can be compared to the situation, as if the executive power had submitted equivalent Danish territory to a foreign power - without asking the Danish people!

Yes, some politicians have even arrogantly stated, that such issue is not suitable for a referendum.

The  counterattack of the 8. Brigade the 18. April 1864 at Dybbøl - Painting by Wilhelm Rosenstand For centuries, the Danes have defended themselves with weapons in hand in order to prevent foreigners to take our land. Now, the politicians simply have slammed the door open. Not a single stone has been placed in the the foreigner's way, many say, they were invited to come.

Locks original human rights has gradually evolved into a fairly long list of often quite un-realistic "rights". His original simple statement about life, liberty and property has grown to thirty articles of the UN Declaration.

See for example Article 24 of the UN Declaration: "Everyone has the right to rest and leisure, including reasonable limitation of working hours and periodic paid holidays." It has certainly never disturbed the sound sleep of any government, neither in the U.S., China or India. It is now sixty years since the Declaration was adopted. Roughly speaking, Europe is the only place, where we have vacations.

See also Article 14: "Everyone has the right to seek and enjoy asylum in other countries in case of persecution." Refugees can seek asylum in for example Japan or Hong Kong. They also receive refugees. But on the condition that private Japanese or Hong Kong citizens declare themselves willing to pay for their stay.

The Scandinavian countries are far more popular as refugee's goals. Here they can get everything paid without any problems.

The modern politicians have also succeeded in turning Locke's human rights upside down.

It was Locks idea, that the "human rights" should be a tool for the people, the true ruler of a true democracy, especially to check the executive power. If the rulers misbehaved, then the people with the "rights" in their hand could threaten with revolt.

Today the situation is just the opposite. The executive power uses the "human rights" as a weapon against the people. When the people protests against the immigration, the politicians say "sorry, we are indeed obliged to international conventions, human rights, you know"


"Was democracy just a moment?" by Robert D. Kaplan is a classic in the debate about democracy: "Was democracy just a moment? - The Atlantic Online

See also "A practical criticism of political democracy": Democracy Is Impossible - Alex Strekal

UN human rights declaration of 1948 can be found at: The Universal Declaration of Human Rights - United Nations

The full text of Thomas Hobbes "Leviathan" is available at: Leviathan - Oregon State University

The full text of John Locke 'Two Treatises of Government "is available at: Two Treatises of Government - Oregon State University

or Two Treatises of Government - Ex Libris

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