Sunday, July 7, 2013

Jefferson's Nails, Morsi's Mishap, and Democracy Dilemmas

Thomas Jefferson famously penned the Declaration of Independence and went on to become Governor of Virginia, U.S. Ambassador to France, and eventually the third President of the United States. The Declaration had some very fine words borrowed from republican, Enlightenment thinking and writings of Britain. The guys who supervised Jefferson and approved it were politicians interested in increasing their own economic and political power, which was being cramped by the elite of the British Empire.

Thomas Jefferson may have been brilliant compared to his peers, but he had many faults and weaknesses. A lot of trouble came from his spendthrift ways. He was born to a fairly prosperous slave plantation owner and can be fairly said to be the founder of the shop-till-you-drop American tradition. He constantly bought expensive horses and wines, scientific gadgets and uber expensive clothing. Later there would be the never-ending construction and reconstruction of MacMansion Monticello.

To pay for all this Jefferson owned roughly 200 slaves (they multiplied over time, but he occasionally sold some off to make ends meet). The British tried to free all American slaves during the Revolution, not just as a war measure but because that was the law of Britain (no slavery can exist on British soil, as had been recently confirmed in the Somerset case). The success of the Revolution confirmed Jefferson and other slaveholders in their human property. While Vice-president (under John Adams), Jefferson attempted to wring more profit from his slaves by setting up a nail factory. Adult slaves were needed to grow tobacco, so the children were employed cutting iron rod and shaping it into nails.

We tend to idealize Democracy, but sometimes a more cynical view gets us closer to the truth. Democracy could just be the best way for certain people to get what they want. Democracies may not be quite so different from dictatorships (or monarchies) as we Americans like to think.

Consider the very recent military/judicial coup against the elected leader of Egypt, Mohamed Morsi. President Morsi does not represent my views. I would like to see a secular, modern Egypt, relatively free of religious nonsense. Morsi is a leader of the Islamic Brotherhood, a puritanical reform group. It is fair to say that Morsi only did what many American Presidents have done: he interpreted winning an election as meaning he could implement his party's agenda and ignore other parties. He was wrong. He should have imitated George Washington. He should have been more moderate and inclusive. His job (from a Democracy theory viewpoint) was to make democracy work, to insure it would work in the future.

But Morsi had a lot of pressure from below, from his own followers. They had never held power, and their views had been dissed by others for decades. He chose to satisfy his base.

The real problem was not with Morsi, but with my fellow secular democrats. They lacked patience. They should have let Morsi rule until the next election, and griped the whole time. They would likely have won the next election. Then they could have tried to fix an overpopulated, undercapitalized nation themselves.

People often want democracy until it does not get them what they want. American foreign policy history is littered with examples. American Presidents have almost always favored only pro-American democracies. Anti-American democracies got the cold shoulder, or financing for opposition (but pro-American) parties, or a CIA-managed coup.

Now it is likely that if the Islamic Brotherhood makes a comeback, they will abandon democracy. Why shouldn't they? At this point bloody revolution looks like a better option, if they can pull it off. Even if they re-establish a democracy in the sense of allowing for elections, at the very least they would be idiots if they did not try to execute the coup leaders.

Back in Jefferson's United States, democracy is under control. All men and women may be created with equal rights, but they start life with such vastly different amounts of wealth that we might as well be governed by an aristocracy. Social mobility has sunk to the lowest level since the founding of this Republic. There are plenty of bright ideas around for improving the situation, but the Aristocracy makes sure such ideas never get off the ground.

Imperialism made most Americans comfortable for several decades after World War II. The Great Recession and our astonishing current national debt (which will balloon further as interest rates rise) should have inspired reforms, but almost the only thing that got patched up was the banking system. We aren't broke yet. We'll think about fixing things if we ever reach that point.

At which point worrying about who would make America's best puppet in Egypt won't seem very important.

Agree? Disagree? You can comment on this post at Natural Liberation Blog at


  1. >> Social mobility has sunk to the lowest level since the founding of this Republic. There are plenty of bright ideas around for improving the situation, but the Aristocracy makes sure such ideas never get off the ground.<<

    This is where you betray your own argument. While you present that off the cuff as a fact, even allowing for it as opinion makes it a rather dimwitted one: ask Jay-Z how the prospects for social mobility treated him.

    We are assured in the constitution the right to pursue happiness. The outcome is up to the individual. You seem to see that as a weakness in the plan.

  2. (by the way, I do agree with your summation.)

  3. Anectdotal evidence (specific cases) are interesting and should not be ignored, but when statistics are done well they should not be ignored. There may be quite a few reasons for lowered measurements of social mobility. Perhaps the majority of people have found their level. Perhaps it is more comfortable at the lower economic levels than in the past, so there is less struggle to rise. But until someone does a good study to sort out the various factors, I will assume the main factor is the combined impact of automation and income-skewing on the working and middle classes. Also a stagnant economy creates less opportunity for all.