Will Durant

The cardinal principle in the philosophy of Hegel is that every condition of soul or history begets an opposite condition, which then combines with the original position to produce a synthesis higher than either of the states that preceded it.

If we apply this principle of "thesis, antithesis, synthesis" to forms of government we see aristocracy generating democracy, and democracy changing before our eyes into a nameless novelty in which the aristocratic principle of guidance by trained ability may be united with the democratic principle that no man is good enough to govern another without his consent.

The day of democracy as Rousseau conceived it and Jefferson practiced it began to end when great cities and great industries arrived. In America, political democracy was based on economic democracy, on an approximate equality of economic goods and power. When land was free for the taking, when almost every family lived in isolated sovereignty, growing its own food, hunting its own meat, weaving its own clothing, then men looked each other in the eye as literally "free and equal," and dared to elect to the Presidency heretics and rebels like Thomas Jefferson and Andrew Jackson.

For the economic bases of democracy -- free land, free competition, skilled labor, simplicity of tools, the economic self-sufficiency of the individual homestead -- have disappeared. In their place have come abandoned farms, crowded factories, congested cities, monopolies and mergers, centralized financial control, costly tools purchasable only by rich corporations, and masses of population easily manipulated by interesting misinformation.

The complexity of industry; the geographical expansion of America; the development of intricate foreign relations; the possibility of war; the replacement of political problems by economic problems, arising by hundreds every day before officials, elected not for economic knowledge but for political skill; the consequent diversion of power from elected incompetents to appointed experts and boards -- all these factors have cooperated to make the "free and equal" vote a delusion, and democracy unreal, a pretty window dressing for the rule of machines adept in herding votes, distributing favors, utilizing crime and barring the road to office for all but the subservient and corrupt.

Occasionally, by sheer force of personality overriding obstructive mechanisms, a Roosevelt reaches the opportunity to serve his country; but in the cities such accidents happen rarely now, and the rule of mediocrity enthroned there (with honorable exceptions) threatens to spread to the highest offices and leave us the worst-governed nation in the Western world.

We cannot be satisfied with this kind of democracy any longer. We must try to rescue democracy from these urban masses that lend themselves so easily to its frustration. We must find a way of stealing the (theoretical) virtue of aristocracy – the restriction of office to individuals fitted for it by lifelong specific preparation – and inserting it into the principle of democracy, that every man and woman should have an equal chance to rise to the very top. Let us redefine democracy, not as the equal right of all to hold office, but as the equal right of all to make themselves fit to hold office.

Democracy must be made complete above all in the school: municipal and state scholarships should see to it that every youth of ability is sent on to higher training when his family can no longer finance him; no talent must be lost. Then, having established the most fundamental form of democracy -- equality of opportunity -- we may, without infringing on democracy, add an educational requirement to the present prerequisites for office.

Why should not our great universities include -- each of them -- a school of administration, as rigorous and practical as our finest schools of medicine or law? Access to these schools should be free to all who can pass the entrance tests; and none but the graduates of such schools should be eligible to public office. One pictures then a pyramid of ability: office in second-class cities would be open only to such graduates as had served two terms in kindred positions in a third-class city; office in first-class cities would be open only to such graduates as had served two terms in a second-class city; and the governorship would be open only to those graduates who had twice been mayor of a first-class city. At every step experience would be added to training, and the cream would rise to the top.

Yes, it is a dream -- the dream of philosophers from Plato to Bacon to Renan. But other things were dreams too; and this may be a reality when you and I are dreams.

  1. Note: This material was first presented in the article "Is Democracy Dying?" Published in The Mentor and World Traveler, XVIII (June, 1930), page 74.