Democracy: Part I ~ August 17, 2017

The Myth of the Wise Oligarch: Russell on Democracy


“There is a tendency, as strong now as at any former time,

to suppose that an oligarchy is admirable if it consists of ‘good’ men…

This attitude is unworthy of grown-up people.” ~ Power, by Bertrand Russell.




ertrand Russell wrote so well and so convincingly about democracy, precisely because he was so skeptical of it. His arguments came from a long life of action and observation in politics, and from ruminations on his great passion, philosophy. As a logician, Russell was aware of how even seemingly certain propositions could be brought to ruin by an unlooked-for attack. (Russell fired just such a dart at the unsuspecting mathematician Frege; see Russell’s Paradox.)Oligarchy1

Not surprisingly, then, his statements on democracy are carefully thought out. We live in an age of lazy thinking on the public stage. A common criticism of democracy goes something like this: The masses are stupid and they feel rather than think, and therefore government must be trusted to a wise oligarchy. (The people have too much of the “impulse of passion,” or so thought the writers of the Federalist.) This was the dream of Plato, and has been echoed down to our day, by thinkers as diverse as James Madison in 18th century America, Sydney and Beatrice Webb in 19th century England, and William F. Buckley in the 20th century, who touted “the right of the few to preserve, against the wishes of the many, a social order superior to that which the many, given their way, might promulgate.” [1]

Russell, however, wasn’t buying any of this. Here, briefly set out, are two of his arguments in favor of democracy and against oligarchy.

I.) A major purpose of democracy is to prevent stupid things.

An overwhelming majority of Americans want it [healthcare for all], and universal healthcare is actually cheaper than the cobbled together monstrosity we presently have.

“The merits of democracy are negative: it does not insure good government, but it prevents certain evils.” [2]

In other words, democracy can stop stupid things from happening. The non-democratic two-party system in America is very vulnerable to manipulation, precisely because our two “parties” are nebulous blobs that represent nothing concrete. The wealthy are the ones who have a choice during our elections. They can buy candidates from either of our two factions-masquerading-as-parties, according to temperament and financial strategy, as one might select items from a breakfast buffet. This lack of democracy allows them almost unhindered control of important aspects of government.

A proper multi-party democracy gives different economic groups in a society their own access to power. This has a leveling effect. Russell was deeply skeptical about our crazy, irrational species, and he supported a cautious truce among differing groups, as represented by political parties.bertrandrussellthinkquote

A stupid thing we are doing presently is the denial of healthcare for all. An overwhelming majority of Americans want it, and universal healthcare is actually cheaper than the cobbled together monstrosity we presently have. Yet, stupidly, we don’t have Medicare for all. If we had an actual multi-party democracy, this would already be done, as it has been done everywhere else.

II.) An enlightened oligarchy is a myth

First, here’s Russell:

“But even if we suppose there is such a thing as ‘wisdom,’ is there any form of constitution which will give the government to the wise? It is clear that majorities, like general councils, may err, and in fact have erred. Aristocracies are not always wise; kings are often foolish; Popes, in spite of infallibility, have committed grievous errors. Would anybody advocate entrusting the government to university graduates, or even to doctors of divinity? Or to men who, having been poor, have made great fortunes? It is clear that no legally definable selection of citizens is likely to be wiser, in practice, than the whole body… The problem of finding a collection of ‘wise’ men and leaving the government to them is thus an insoluble one. That is the ultimate reason for democracy.” (Emphasis added.) [3]

What Jefferson meant was that the theoretical foundation of American government was that it emanated from the People. The People hold symbolic, if not actual, power.

Everyone knows that the citizens are too hopped-up on testosterone and adrenaline and primal rage to rule themselves. This is the received wisdom of the Founding Fathers, and has been repeated ever since the 1780s. We are told, for instance, that working-class Huckleberry Dumbbell cannot decide anything of consequence. But there is something that Huck can decide very well: whether or not to risk his own skin on some foreign adventure. On this point, Huck is a genius. In 2003, the U.S. planned to invade Iraq, and asked its allies to join in. In France and Germany, the citizens (rather than ‘the government’) decided the matter, via the most democratic thing known to us, the national referendum. JeffersonAbout eighty percent in both countries decided to pass on the war, and France and Germany steered clear. The good American people are not asked their opinions about such things, except by pollsters.

The U.S. began as an oligarchy, and remains one today. And, as Gore Vidal pointed out: “James Madison’s oligarchy, by its very nature, cannot and will not share power.” To imagine that a group of detached enlightened wise men will rule in everyone’s best interests is gullible, at least. Russell makes this clear: “[I]n matters of government it is difficult to know who has the most skill, and very far from certain that a politician will use his skill in the public interest rather than in his own or in that of his class or party or creed.” [5]

We are often lectured about how the political Right is made up of hard-headed realists, and the Left is a bunch of unrealistic, bleeding-heart sops. Russell shows here a very different, very cautious Left—a skeptical Left. His politics is guided by a deep distrust of power, along with a profound mistrust of humans. He was not a gullible optimist. What to do with a bunch of flawed homo sapiens? Spread the power out, and trust no one. As Jefferson said, “I know of no safe depository of the ultimate powers of the society but the people themselves…” [6]

What Jefferson meant was that the theoretical foundation of American government was that it emanated from the People. The People hold symbolic, if not actual, power. Russell, however, advocated for democracy, for real, rather than purely symbolic, power. He wanted the citizens of a country to be able to rule themselves, because he didn’t trust people, whether high or low born. Russell’s own grandfather was an English Prime Minister, and he was a member of the country’s aristocracy. Russell, as an insider, was very familiar with the English ruling class, and yet he still rejected oligarchy. The man who as a baby sat on the lap of Queen Victoria, lived long enough to see actual democracy flower in Europe, at the end of World War II.


1- Salon, 6/7/2015.

2 - Power, by Bertrand Russell, page 187.

3 - History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell, page 124.

4 - United States Essays, 1952-1992, page 975.

5 - History of Western Philosophy, by Bertrand Russell, page 131.

6 - A letter by Thomas Jefferson to William C. Jarvis.








































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