Alexis de Tocqueville, French philosopher and author of “Democracy in America,” is often credited by Presidential candidates with the quote, “With democracy we get the government we deserve.” His compatriot and fellow philosopher, Joseph de Maistre was even clearer: “Every nation gets the government it deserves.”

At the time de Tocqueville and de Maistre wrote these words the European world was dramatically changing from the effects of the Protestant Reformation, the Industrial Revolution, the Napoleonic Wars, the American Revolution and scientific and technological progress. From that time onwards, government by democracy began to spread through the Western world. After all who can fault the idea behind the expression: a government of the people, by the people, for the people, or can we?

We inherited the political system and the word democracy from the Greeks or more precisely, from the ancient city/state of Athens. It had its infancy in 594BC when Solon, poet and statesman, in an attempt to end unrest in Athens, created constitutional reforms that improved the life of the lower classes but did not rid the state of aristocratic tyranny. They did, however, provide the basis almost one hundred years later for Cleisthenes, the acclaimed ‘Father of the Democracy’ to build a new Athenian State on. This was based on the principle of equality of rights for all allowing Athenian citizens to take a more direct role in running their home state. Athenians coined a new word for this – democracy. In his turn, Athenian General, Pericles expanded this equality. Under his leadership democracy came to mean equality of justice and equality of opportunity. He was written of as ‘the first citizen of Athens’ by the historian Thucydides and is famous for his funeral oration for the Athenian dead in the first year of the Peloponnesian war when he described democracy thus; “Its administration favours the many instead of the few; this is why it is called democracy. If we look to the laws, they afford equal justice to all in their private differences; if no social standing, advancement in public life falls to reputation for capacity, class considerations not being allowed to interfere with merit; nor again does poverty bar the way, if a man is able to serve the state, he is not hindered by the obscurity of his condition. The freedom which we enjoy in our government extends also to our ordinary life.”1 So demokratia, democracy, was born, (dêmos = people, krátos = power); rule by the people. It has had some spectacular successes and conversely, some spectacular failures. As Sir Winston Churchill famously said, “No one pretends that democracy is perfect or all-wise. Indeed, it has been said that democracy is the worst form of government except all those other forms that have been tried from time to time.”

Perhaps the bene ts of a democratic form of government are best summarized by Pope John Paul II in his encyclical Centesimus Annus, which the Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church describes as containing “an explicit and articulate judgment with regard to democracy”.2 “The Church values the democratic system inasmuch as it ensures the participation of citizens in making political choices, guarantees to the governed the possibility both of electing and holding accountable those who govern them, and of replacing them through peaceful means when appropriate. Thus she cannot encourage the formation of narrow ruling groups which usurp the power of the State for individual interests or for ideological means.”

Traditionally, however, the Church maintained that no form or type of civil government was imposed on humanity by God. This can be found in many of her documents, including Pope Leo XIII who in his encyclical to the bishops of France in 1892, entitled “Au Milieu des Sollicitudes” wrote that; “in truth it may be af rmed that each of [ the forms of government] is good, provided it leads straight to the end– that is the common good, for which social authority is constituted,– and nally, it may be added that from the relative point of view, such and such a form of government may be preferable because of being better adapted to the character and customs of such or such a nation. In this order of speculative ideas, Catholics, like all other citizens, are free to prefer one form of government to another, precisely because no one of these social forms is, in itself, opposed to the principles of sound reason or to the maxims of Christian doctrine.” It was Pope Leo XIII who initiated the social-encyclical tradition with his Rerum Novarum in 1891. His contribution “lay in recasting the church- state question so that both institutions and their relationship were to be seen and judged in the light of the welfare of the citizen.” 3

The Church sees democracy as but a form of government. It is a means and not an end in itself, and as such, it has no more claim to any legitimacy than another form of government. Although later developments in the understanding in the area of Social Justice have led to the Church pointing out the bene ts of a democratic form of government, she has at the same time never hesitated to point out the danger of such a form of government. Even Pope John Paul II – who championed the value of a democratic government – made reference to “Authentic democracy”. He stated that it “is possible only in a state ruled by law, and on the basis of a correct conception of the human person. It requires that the necessary conditions be present for the advancement both of the individual through education and formation in true ideals, and of the ‘subjectivity’ of society through the creation of structures of participation and shared responsibility.” 4

History has proved that the Church is wise in her hesitation simply to propose democracy as the only form of government, for history has shown that even democracy can fail. In our time we have seen how democratic government allows for the growth of capitalism within a free market philosophy and the freedom to pursue this goal. Sometimes this happens at the expense of the human person, or the very people the system is meant to serve. As such it becomes the means for some individuals to gain power and wealth. A democracy coupled with unfettered capitalism is unlikely to be healthy for the ordinary citizen if it does not promote the common good, the rule of law or the dignity of the human person (as properly understood). Authentic democracy must recognise objectively-informed human rights based upon the natural moral law, and advance the good life based upon a proper understanding of the human person.

In a recent study, Princeton researchers Martin Gilens and Benjamin Page found that “the preferences of economic elites have far more independent impact upon policy change than the preferences of the average citizen.” They went on to say; “The central point that emerges from our research is that economic elites and organised groups representing business interests have substantial independent impacts on U.S. government policy while mass-based interest groups and average citizens have little or no independent in uence.”5

Although the researchers were commenting about the U.S, the statement is one that can be applied to any country supporting democracy. It highlights the corrupting in uence that money can have if it overrides the common good and other social justice principles.

Corruption can, of course, take many forms; including the manipulation of a country’s citizens. We see, for example, politicians in a democracy promising to reward citizens with all kinds of ‘perks’ if they are elected, irrespective of whether the perks are affordable or are in the best interests of the country as a whole. It is easy to abhor ‘vote- buying’ in a democratic system, but when it takes a more subtle form of ‘promises,’ people tend to accept them more readily even though in reality, the promise may not be for the common good, or even irresponsible for the health of the people as a nation.

In his book, “Propaganda,” Edward Bernays wrote that the “conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organised habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society. Those who manipulate this unseen mechanism of society constitute an invisible government which is the true ruling power of our country.” 6 Manipulation of the masses is easy when the in uence and temptation of wealth sets them in front of the altar of consumerism and consumption – a society captivated with the baubles of power and ‘success’. “Among the deformities of the democratic system, political corruption is one of the most serious, because it betrays at one and the same time, both moral principles and the norms of social justice.” 7 Our world today, almost 200 years after Joseph de Maistre, has become a global village with the effects of globalisation and the practices of transnational corporations having consequences on all nations, rich and poor. Trade agreements like NAFTA and TPPA are examples of political and economic decision makers to extend globalisation. “Its goals are clear; to remove barriers to the trading of commodities, (natural or manufactured), as well as to enhance the mobility of nancial capital and labour across national boundaries. Less clear is how these developments will bene t countries with the greatest needs or even lower income workers in more af uent societies.” 8

Within Aotearoa New Zealand, many low income workers have been affected by corporations moving their industrial base off- shore to countries where workers’ incomes are not protected and labour costs are very

low. Pro ts to shareholders are often taken as a company’s critical or even sole objective. With the advent of our modern day globalisation, we in New Zealand are not spared from this.

Pope John Paul II, in his 1998 World Day of Peace message spoke of globalisation without marginalisation and acknowledged that it could lead to greater prosperity for all. “Globalisation, for all its risks also offers exceptional and promising opportunities precisely with a view to enabling humanity to become a single family, built on the values of justice, equity and solidarity.” 9

In a more globalised world, one would like to think that politicians, especially from a democratically elected government, take with them their people’s aspirations as a country when negotiating with their foreign counterparts. Inherent in any just society should be the state’s aspirations for the global common good. Catholic social teaching comments that “the responsibility for attaining the common good, besides falling to individual persons, belongs also to the State, since the common good is the reason that the political authority exists.”10 The reality is that concern for global common good plays a very minor part, if at all, in economic trade deals. For example, we know that China, (which is Aotearoa New Zealand’s largest trading partner) has one of the poorest records on human rights issues. Some of the known abuses include the illegal harvesting of human organs, the oppression of minorities and population control policies – this last one leading to a high rate of abortion and infanticide, especially of female infants. The majority of New Zealanders nd these practices abhorrent but our politicians rarely convey the feelings of the people they represent to the Chinese government. We cannot change Chinese law but we do not have to give it our tacit agreement simply to make a good trade deal.

In 2013 the New Zealand Government signed up to the Open Government Partnership (OGP) – a forum of countries working to ensure that member governments are more open, accountable and responsive to citizens. If an ‘Open Government’ is to imply a more transparent government, then the availability of information on issues the government is handling is paramount as it helps citizens to make informed choices in a democratic election. “Information is among the principal instruments of democratic participation. Participation without an understanding of the situation of the political community, the facts and the proposed solutions to problems is unthinkable.” 11 In signing up to the Open Government Partnership, countries are required to select a minimum of two of the ve OGP Grand Challenges to work towards.

These five challenges are:

  • improving public services
  • increasing public integrity
  • more effectively managing public resources
  • creating safer communities
  • increasing corporate accountability.

New Zealand selected the rst three. A government must also have Action Plans to show how it will contribute to the OGP principles of transparency, accountability, participation and technology and innovation. It is obliged to ask the public for their ideas and concerns. 12

This is commendable in a democracy but there is an anomaly, apparent or real, when a government enters into secret deals with other governments or corporations. An expression of this is the recent New Zealand Government’s obfuscation when asked to explain the $11.5 million Saudi sheep deal. The lack of availability of information to the media and wider public led to the Ombudsman stepping in. The papers do not appear to uphold Government claims and the issue is now under enquiry. 13

“In a democratic system, political authority is accountable to the people. The obligation on the part of those elected to give an accounting of their work is a constitutive element of democratic representation.” 14 If, as Gilens’ and Page’s research shows, that economic elites and big business interests have such an influence on policy decisions then democracy runs the risk of putting aside its accountability and obligations to the common good to concentrate on pandering to the whims of the rich and powerful.

Such a situation existed in 1975 when East Timor, (Timor Leste), was illegally invaded by Indonesia and the majority of world leaders ignored the utter misery and massive loss of life suffered by the East Timorese. The complicity of Indonesian allies, USA, Australia, Europe, Japan and others allowed the invasion to occur and continue. The presence of President Ford and the self-styled peacemaker Henry Kissinger in Jakarta on the eve of the invasion was seen as a sign of approval from America who also supplied, according to State department testimony later, roughly 90 percent of the military equipment available to the Indonesian army for the invasion. That active supply of weaponry continued even after the United Nations passed ten resolutions including a Security Council resolution calling for the immediate withdrawal of Indonesian troops.

President Bill Clinton sponsored a resolution on East Timor at the United Nations Human Rights Commission and twice discussed East Timor with Indonesian President Suharto. As trade considerations gained greater importance and American business groups exerted their in uence, administration policy toward the con ict waned. Clinton’s numerous meetings with members of the Riady family, proprietors of the Indonesian banking conglomerate Lippo Group, and the disclosure of contributions made to Clinton’s re-election campaign in 1996 fuelled conjecture on the whole affair.15

In 1999 the majority of East Timorese voted for independence and self-determination. More violence followed and a United Nations multinational peacekeeping operation then stepped in until normality returned to the country. Independence was declared 20th May, 2002.

The above highlights the problem with governments, even those democratically elected, in which economic power and decisions are in the hands of the politicians alone.

“It must not be left to the sole judgement of a few men or groups possessing excessive economic power, or of the political community alone, or of certain especially powerful nations (to determine the direction of economic development). It is proper, on the contrary, that at every level the largest possible number of people have an active share in directing that development.” 16 It was the philosopher Plato who warned us that, “He who does not get involved in politics is destined to always be ruled by his inferiors.” The achievement of a healthy democracy can only happen when people have the opportunity to participate in the process of government. One consequence of the rightful separation of State and Church is that secularism has replaced it. Unfortunately, it is a secularism that has not only lost sight of the Creator, but of the human person itself; a system often devoid of soul that affects the lives of all its citizens. We are, by nature, a communal people; we work in and contribute to our communities. We are also all political to some degree, but, do we participate in the political community protecting human rights and dignity as much as is required of us? Thomas Moore articulates this sentiment by asserting that “when we give away the power to shape our communities to certain individuals we call politicians, and ourselves enjoy a life of vicarious politics, then we are contributing to the disenchantment of the world…..A person is one whose vision and identity include various communities – neighborhood, town, region, nation and world.” 17

For the authentic expression of a democracy to be a government of the people, by the people, for the people, there is a need to inject the high ideals of the common good, not just nationally, but globally. If not, then it is false democracy because the same Alexis de Tocqueville who was quoted in the first paragraph also reminds us that a “society is endangered not by the great profligacy of a few, but by the laxity of morals amongst all.”


  1. Wikipedia: History of Democracy.
  2. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ponti cal Council for Justice & Peace, 406, Centisimus Annus, 2009.
  3. The Church, The Evolution of Catholicism, Richard P. McBrien, Post Vatican Ecclesiology ad Extra, Church and State, 2008.
  4. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ponti cal Council for Justice & Peace, 406, centisimus annus, 2009.
  5. Alternet, Adam Johnson, May 21, 2015.
  6. Alternet, Adam Johnson, May 21, 2015.
  7. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ponti cal Council for Justice & Peace, 411 – Moral Components
  8. Lazarus at the Table, Bernard F. Evans, Chapter 7, Solidarity, Globalization, 2006.
  9. Lazarus at the Table, Bernard F. Evans, Chapter 7, Solidarity, Globalization, 2006.
  10. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ponti cal Council for Justice & Peace, 168 – Tasks of the Political Community, 2009.
  11. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ponti cal Council for Justice & Peace, 414- Information & Democracy, 2009.
  12. State Services Commission website.
  13. NZ Herald, Wednesday, Aug 5, 2015. Saudi farm deal was opposed by Treasury.
  14. Compendium of the Social Doctrine of the Church, Ponti cal Council for Justice & Peace, 408 – Institutions & Democracy, 2009.
  15. From the Place of the Dead, Bishop Belo of East Timor, Arnold S. Kohen, Chapter 1, What Led to This, 1999.
  16. Lazarus at the Table, Bernard F. Evans, Chapter 3, Call to Family, Community & Participation, 2006.
  17. The Re-Enchantment of Everyday Life, Thomas Moore, Chapter 4, World, The Spirituality of Politics, 1996.

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