democracy and plutocracyMy recent article on the relative merits of monarchy and democracy brought an array of comments from both ends of the political spectrum. At one extreme I was berated for suggesting that the absolutist view of monarchy, rooted in the political theory of the divine right of kings, was wrong. The person who made this criticism was clearly a Traditionalist Catholic who seemed to believe that supporting an “absolute monarchy” was truly Catholic. Nothing could be further from the truth. The whole idea of the divine right of kings came to the fore at the time of the Protestant Reformation as a way of justifying the monarch’s right to act in defiance of the pope, not as a means of justifying his right to act in defiance of the people (the latter of which had always been taken for granted!).

The Catholic view of “absolute monarchy” is seen in the response of St. Thomas More to Henry VIII’s efforts to usurp the power of the Church. As and when a monarch decides to establish a state religion and trample on the rights of people to religious freedom, the only correct response is that of disobedience, emulating the example of St. Thomas More or, for that matter, the hundreds of Englishmen martyred as “traitors” in the 150 years following Henry’s draconian war on the Faith.

At the other extreme from the absolute monarchist was the absolute democrat, who responded to my article thus:

Well, you’re not an idiot, but you are wrong. No I don’t believe you can have a real democracy if you have an aristocracy and monarchy. Democracy implies that every citizen is of equal status before the law and more importantly before each other. I would never answer to any living human being as “your lordship” or “highness.” And there’s no evidence that western democracies de facto lead to dictatorship or injustice. Because some have does not imply they all do.

This thoughtful response and thought-provoking riposte deserves to be taken seriously. Beginning with the refusal to answer to any living human being as “your lordship” or “highness,” I’d merely comment that it is appropriate to refer to the pope as “your holiness,” a cardinal as “your eminence,” and a bishop as “your lordship.” In doing so, we are not fawning to the person but paying due and deferential honour to his office. In the secular sphere, one might refer to a senior judge as “your lordship” and to the monarch as “your highness.” In treating the office with due decorum, we are simply acknowledging the civilized order of which we are a part. It might also be suggested that a refusal to show such deference displays not only a dangerous degree of pride on the part of the recusant but also a contempt for the established order of society, which, if unchecked, leads to the sort of egalitarianism that ends in tyranny.

The foregoing can all be summarized succinctly in the words of Christ that we should render unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and render unto God that which is God’s. When Caesar usurps the power that is rightfully God’s, we have an absolute duty to defy Caesar. If, however, Caesar is mindful of the legitimate rights of religion, he has the right to expect that we will render unto him the deference and respect that his legitimate political position warrants.

Let’s now respond to this part of my interlocutor’s riposte: Democracy implies that every citizen is of equal status before the law and more importantly before each other.

No doubt this is true, or at least arguable, at least in theory, but it would be wrong to assume that this is the sole prerogative of democracy or that it is an invention of those who call themselves democrats. Whether or not the dignity of the human person and his equality with his neighbours are implicit in democracy they have always been explicit in the Creed of Christendom. The inalienable rights of human persons have their bedrock foundation in the fact that they are made in the image of God and are therefore mystically equal as co-heirs of the Kingdom. Once this Christian foundation is lost, it is pure folly to believe that such equality will be protected by democracy. One only has to look at the track record of democracy on the thorny issue of abortion to see that democracy is no guarantor of the “equal status before the law” of those who live under its dominion.

One could argue that a democracy is not so much about the equal status of its citizens but about the gratification of the desires of the majority, often at the expense of the relatively powerless minority. Another name for this sort of “democracy” would be mob rule.

Much more could and should be said on this issue, and no doubt much more will be said, by me and others, but I’d like to end with a confession that I am and remain a democrat (lower case d!), in the sense that I believe that ordinary people should have real political power. The problem is not necessarily with democracy per se but with the various systems that call themselves democracies without being democratic in any really meaningful sense. Today, in the United States, for instance, the political machine is manipulated and ultimately controlled by big business and big media, the latter of which is at the service of the former. Nobody can stand for president unless he has the megabucks of big business behind him and the mega-influence of big media to make him known to the public. The problem, it seems to me, is not that we cannot have a real democracy if we have an aristocracy and monarchy, as my interlocutor claims, but whether we can have a real democracy if we have a plutocracy.

Books on the topic of this essay may be found in The Imaginative Conservative Bookstore.

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