The Democratic Personality

Behavioral scientist Arthur De Vany marveled at the power of decentralized decision-making when he noted how a huge crowd can empty a stadium in minutes, solving a complicated mathematical problem without any central direction.42

Such decentralized processes are found everywhere in nature, including the human body. Our immune, digestive, endocrine, and autonomic nervous systems take pretty good care of themselves, alone and synergistically, without conscious direction from anyone. Even at the cellular level, each neuron takes a “vote”–tallies the input from thousands of dendrites until a critical mass is achieved–before acting on a particular signal. Social animals like ants, undoubtedly one of the planet’s most successful life forms, have developed heterarchy (decentralized cooperation among co-equal groups), to an instinctual high art. Internet guru Steven Johnson even gives this art a name: emergence, which he characterizes as “...complex adaptive systems” that move from “low-level rules to higher-level sophistication.”43

Still, most of us Homo sapiens willingly place our political and economic trust in one or a few guardians rather than taking matters into our own hands. Why should this exception to one of nature’s most pervasive rules prove so seductive to the species that, above all others, should know better?

Civilization itself gives one clue. Humans act together to achieve individual and collective good, but so does a colony of coral when it forms a reef. Not all social animals (least of all, ants) have culture, and not all culture leads to autonomy. We may have democracy in our genes, but realizing its potential depends a lot on our environment. Do guardians and democrats create, or are they created by, the culture that surrounds them?

One answer lies in a closer look at hierarchy: not just the power hierarchy of guardians, but also the pyramid of values and beliefs that lead to participation.

Hierarchies are everywhere. They include natural categories like predator and prey, young and old, healthy and sick; but they also include such socially constructed categories as experienced and inexperienced, mature and immature, aggressive and restrained, knowledgeable and ignorant. When it comes to guardianship, we learn first from our parents the importance of power hierarchies. Mom or Dad, or both, make big decisions, and when they’re not around, the older look after the younger siblings. From our peers, we learn to redistribute that power into new pecking orders based on all kinds of useful criteria: from size and strength to intelligence and wealth. Once we experience the perils of subordination and the joys of being on top, many of us develop a taste for dominating others–especially when those hierarchies are exploitative, as those created by immature people often are. Economist Robert Hielbroner calls these childhood hierarchies, “...the great readying experience that prepares us for the adult condition of sub- and superordination,” a system of domination so natural that we seldom question its guilty pleasures and stultifying consequences. “Infancy,” he says, “is the condition from which we must all escape, and as such, the source of the emancipatory thrust that is also part of the human drama.”44

Self-emancipation, ultimately, is what maturity is all about; and far from excluding hierarchy, it specifically embraces those hierarchies that encourage self-determination. Valid hierarchies support our human drive for individualism within a social setting. They promote our ability to participate in consequential matters and help others participate, too. Remember, the opposite of hierarchy is not perfect equality, but chaos–and neither guardians nor democrats seek that. Invalid hierarchies stifle consent, limit participation, and suppress that “emancipatory thrust” that leads to self-governing societies.

Fortunately, as we mature, our capacity for mutual cooperation increases dramatically. Over millennia, universal coercive guardianism gradually yielded to institutions that encourage self-direction. Kin-based tribalism gave way to despotism, allowing coordinated action among unrelated groups. Despotism yielded to monarchy, wherein a king rules with the consent and cooperation of a hereditary aristocracy. Monarchy has since been replaced in most parts of the world by representative democracy: guardianship by elected aristocrats. Individually and collectively, each step away from the presumed parental authority of one adult over another brings us closer to the goal of universally shared autonomy: the replacement of invalid with valid hierarchies.

This progress (and we really must call it that) works like artificial selection in biology. Over the very long haul, the slow mutation of our social systems has cultivated what we might call an empathy reflex, or has made dominant a somewhat recessive–and thoroughly metaphorical–“fairness gene” that leaves groups of well-socialized individuals better off than those who never rise above tribal parentism or despotic guardianship.45

The great implication of this is that humanity has steadily required fewer coercive institutions to protect people from themselves. Instead, cultural evolution has increasingly favored institutions that allow our naturally sociable, empathetic, and self-directing nature to assert itself. And the more we practice such skills, the better we get at them, making coercive guardianship less useful and eventually maladaptive. Just as important, our in-born drive for collaborative self-direction creates an implicit expectation that we will eventually achieve it–an expectation that, when widespread enough, will eventually be perceived as a human right.

At this point one might reasonably ask, “What if an adult genuinely believes that guardianism is good, is in accord with human nature, and that its institutions do allow people to grow personally while partaking in a meaningful economic and political life? Wouldn’t that make guardian hierarchies as valid as any other?”
Such beliefs are not only understandable, they are commonplace–as the long age of guardianism proves. Unfortunately, widespread belief has never been the acid test for truth, as members of the once-flourishing Flat Earth Society can attest. Guardian hierarchies lack validity because their processes, by definition, are exclusionary and nonconsensual. As long as even one person realizes that involuntary guardianship is a barrier to his or her further growth as a human being while guardianship is still forced upon him, the hierarchy enforcing it is invalid.

This distinction is more than semantic. In a self-governing, free society some people may decide to adopt guardians if they wish–to give their political or economic “power of attorney” to someone they think is better qualified to exercise those rights–but only for themselves. Under compulsory guardianships like representative democracy, the option of true self-determination is reserved only for those citizens who are willing to deny it to others; namely, those who join the guardian elite. Guardians must always exclude and threaten coercion, or they cease to be guardians. Democrats must always include and seek consent or they cease to be democrats.

Most of all, socialization in a civilized culture is not a passive activity. Like individuation, it requires exploration, introspection, and a realistic understanding of the world. This increased knowledge about one’s self and others leads to increased self-confidence and mutual trust. Trust, in turn, leads to more openness and interdependence. When reciprocated, this deeper engagement among people results in tolerance, self-restraint, and a true sense of community–even civic friendship. Because guardianship is exclusionary, it short-circuits this natural process just as it begins: when maturing adults finally decide they are ready to make joint, binding decisions about the things that matter most.

Ultimately, this biological and psychological drive toward collaborative autonomy is perhaps the most powerful engine we have for the preservation, growth, and advancement of our species. Everyone possesses this capacity to some degree and it only gets stronger with use, as we find new opportunities to convert our better instincts to experience. In this way, direct participation, like a fusion reactor, creates its own “fuel” even as it releases new energy. Just as human embryos mimic the stages of human evolution on their journey from conception to birth, so do we–individually and collectively–pass through stages of our shared social evolution as we mature from children to adults.

What makes a democratic personality? We might as well ask what makes a competent adult? Guardians may aspire to become philosopher kings, but democrats only want to grow up–to fully realize the potential that nature placed within us.

  1. 42. “In an On-Line Salon, Scientists Sit Back and Ponder ‘What Is the Question You Are Asking Yourself?” New York Times. December 30, 1997.
  2. 43. Johnson, Steven. Emergence: The Connected Lives of Ants, Brains, Cities, and Software. New York: Scribner. 2001. 18.
  3. 44. Heilbroner, Nature and Logic.
  4. 45. Research in an expanding field called “experimental economics,” in which classical assumptions about large- and small-scale social and economic behaviors are put to the test, suggest that in most cultures, “people value fairness highly and emotionally” and act far less selfishly and much more cooperatively than previously assumed; the product of millions of years of evolution that “prompt us to behave in ways that would have benefitted either us or our group in the long run.” (Sigmund, Karl; Fehr, Ernst, and Nowak, Martin A. “The Economics of Fair Play,” Scientific American, January 2002.)

Back to Top