Democracy & Oligarchy

When addicts become adults, they usually gain the freedom to pursue their desires to their ultimate conclusions. This often does not work out for them, so sometimes they seek help in a 12-step program. As soon as they start turning over some of their will to the program, to a sponsor, to the wisdom in the rooms, to the 12-step and 12-tool process, their lives usually start to immediately improve.

Freedom isn’t automatically a great thing for everyone.

In the Peloponnesian War, democratic Athens fought authoritarian Sparta. When the war started going badly for Athens, they rethought their commitment to democracy, as Thucydides outlines in chapter 44:

When the news was brought to Athens, for a long while they disbelieved even the most respectable of the soldiers who had themselves escaped from the scene of action and clearly reported the matter, a destruction so complete not being thought credible. When the conviction was forced upon them, they were angry with the orators who had joined in promoting the expedition, just as if they had not themselves voted it, and were enraged also with the reciters of oracles and soothsayers, and all other omen-mongers of the time who had encouraged them to hope that they should conquer Sicily. Already distressed at all points and in all quarters, after what had now happened, they were seized by a fear and consternation quite without example. It was grievous enough for the state and for every man in his proper person to lose so many heavy infantry, cavalry, and able-bodied troops, and to see none left to replace them; but when they saw, also, that they had not sufficient ships in their docks, or money in the treasury, or crews for the ships, they began to despair of salvation. They thought that their enemies in Sicily would immediately sail with their fleet against Piraeus, inflamed by so signal a victory; while their adversaries at home, redoubling all their preparations, would vigorously attack them by sea and land at once, aided by their own revolted confederates. Nevertheless, with such means as they had, it was determined to resist to the last, and to provide timber and money, and to equip a fleet as they best could, to take steps to secure their confederates and above all Euboea, to reform things in the city upon a more economical footing, and to elect a board of elders to advise upon the state of affairs as occasion should arise. In short, as is the way of a democracy, in the panic of the moment they were ready to be as prudent as possible.

From Chapter 45:

* Alcibiades himself sending word to their chief men to tell the best men in the army that, if there were only an oligarchy in the place of the rascally democracy that had banished him, he would be glad to return to his country and to make Tissaphernes their friend…

* Alcibiades, he rightly thought, cared no more for an oligarchy than for a democracy, and only sought to change the institutions of his country in order to get himself recalled by his associates; while for themselves their one object should be to avoid civil discord. It was not the King’s interest, when the Peloponnesians were now their equals at sea, and in possession of some of the chief cities in his empire, to go out of his way to side with the Athenians whom he did not trust, when he might make friends of the Peloponnesians who had never injured him. And as for the allied states to whom oligarchy was now offered, because the democracy was to be put down at Athens, he well knew that this would not make the rebels come in any the sooner, or confirm the loyal in their allegiance; as the allies would never prefer servitude with an oligarchy or democracy to freedom with the constitution which they actually enjoyed, to whichever type it belonged. Besides, the cities thought that the so-called better classes would prove just as oppressive as the commons, as being those who originated, proposed, and for the most part benefited from the acts of the commons injurious to the confederates. Indeed, if it depended on the better classes, the confederates would be put to death without trial and with violence; while the commons were their refuge and the chastiser of these men.

* The people were at first highly irritated at the mention of an oligarchy, but upon understanding clearly from Pisander that this was the only resource left, they took counsel of their fears, and promised themselves some day to change the government again, and gave way.

Wikipedia notes that after the war, “For a short period of time, Athens was ruled by the “Thirty Tyrants”, and democracy was suspended. This was a reactionary regime set up by Sparta.”

Liberal democracy has been in steady retreat since 2007. Ever year for the past 14 years, Freedom House notes that the world has become less democratic. NPR notes March 4, 2020:

For nearly a half century, Freedom House — the avowedly non-partisan democracy advocacy organization whose founders include Eleanor Roosevelt and Wendell Wilkie — has published an annual report on the state of freedom in the world. This year’s edition, titled “A Leaderless Struggle for Democracy,” is just out, and it is decidedly downbeat in its assessment of where worldwide freedom stands today.

“Democracy and pluralism are under assault,” writes the report’s author, Sarah Repucci. “The unchecked brutality of autocratic regimes and the ethical decay of democratic powers are combining to make the world increasingly hostile to fresh demands for better governance.”

In its survey of the state of freedom in 195 nations and 15 territories over the past year, Freedom House finds little to cheer about.

States with little concern about human rights, such as Japan, Taiwan and South Korea, did much better with managing the Covid threat than more individualist countries like the United States and England. Most people want to live and to eat and to enjoy order and prosperity, and sometimes liberal democracy will be better at achieving these goals and at other times, a more authoritarian state will better meet these goals.

I don’t know what the average age of death from Covid has been in the United States, but imagine the virus was ten times more severe than it was, and that the average age of death was 18. In response to that dire threat, I suspect that Americans would be willing to give up a lot of rights to increase their odds of survival.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been followed by the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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