C.S. Lewis on Equality and Democracy

September 19, 2009

C.S. Lewis drafted an interesting essay in 1944 that proves to be useful today.  Lewis argues that democracy is warranted not because we all deserve to be our own autonomous rulers, but because none of us do:

I am a democrat because I believe in the Fall of Man.  I think most people are democrats for the opposite reason. A great deal of democratic enthusiasm descends from the ideas of people like Rousseau, who believed in democracy because they thought mankind so wise and good that everyone deserved a share in the government. The danger of defending democracy on those grounds is that they’re not true. And whenever their weakness is exposed, the people who prefer tyranny make capital out of the exposure. I find that they’re not true without looking further than myself. I don’t deserve a share in governing a hen-roost, much less a nation. Nor do most people – all the people who believe advertisements, and think in catchwords and spread rumours. The real reason for democracy is just the reverse. Mankind is so fallen that no man can be trusted with unchecked power over his fellows. Aristotle said that some people were only fit to be slaves. I do not contradict him. But I reject slavery because I see no men fit to be masters.

(Keep in mind, if you are not aware, that C.S. Lewis was not American, so he does not mean he is a democrat in the sense of the political party.)

C.S. Lewis adds on the subject of equality:

This introduces a view of equality rather different from that in which we have been trained. I do not think that equality is one of those things (like wisdom or happiness) which are good simply in themselves and for their own sakes.  [PP]

There is no spiritual sustenance in flat equality. It is a dim recognition of this fact which makes much of our political propaganda sound so thin. We are trying to be enraptured by something which is merely the negative condition of the good life. And that is why the imagination of people is so easily captured by appeals to the craving for inequality, whether in a romantic form of films about loyal courtiers or in the brutal form of Nazi ideology. The tempter always works on some real weakness in our own system of values: offers food to some need which we have starved.

When equality is treated not as a medicine or a safety-gadget but as an ideal we begin to breed that stunted and envious sort of mind which hates all superiority. That mind is the special disease of democracy, as cruelty and servility are the special diseases of privileged societies. It will kill us all if it grows unchecked. [PP]

Human nature will not permanently endure flat equality if it is extended from its proper political field into the more real, more concrete fields within [our personal and spiritual lives].

So we all have a natural need for inequality which we dare not allow into the political realm.  As Lewis explains, inequality is best expressed in the private realm, such as religious and household settings.  The complete rejection of inequality (by envy and hatred of authority) in these other areas will eventually lead us to the perilous state where we will fall for anyone (even politicians) offering to fulfill the natural need for inequality.  Those tend to be the worst kind of leaders. 

This points to the genius in the checks and balances system in the U.S.  No politician should be given unchecked authority.  We should all be suspicious of governmental leaders, but we should not hate government authority on the illusory grounds that we are as good as the people governing.  We are equally fallen, but not necessarily equally able to govern.  Even so, no one is able to govern with unmitigated power; all people will be corrupted by absolute power. 

Lewis’ essay also explains the folly in trying to force equality on people in the private realm.  We need inequality in the private realm.  Whether or not it is “fair” that some people have competitive advantages over others (e.g. power, intelligence, athletic ability, wealth, or gender), that’s the way life is supposed to be.  Equality is not inherently valuable, and treating it as a value will lead us to blindly idolize a leader (or a party) who promises equality.  The only way to obtain private equality is to elect a leader (or a party) who will force private equality, and anyone given the power to force private equality will surely turn into a tyrant (there is no shortage of Marxist dictators to prove the point). 

In the private realm, a boss or a father may indeed abuse his power and become a tyrant, but better a tyrant hurting one family than a tyrant hurting all of them. 


[Note: please do not take my comments to mean that I think the government should guarantee, let alone increase, the inequality of wealth currently existing in the U.S.  The current tax structure in the U.S. is unjust.  It needlessly targets working people over the non-working wealthy.  The non-working ultra-wealthy drive on the same interstate highways and benefit from the same FDA regulations and FBI protection as the rest of us, but don’t contribute to these services because they often don’t pay any income taxes (or any federal taxes at all in many cases).  While economic inequality is unavoidable and the government ought not seek to defeat it, neither should government policies make the inequalities all the more glaring by pandering to the ultra-wealthy and large corporations with tax breaks, loop-holes, and bailouts.  I support abolishing the federal income tax and instead taxing consumption.]


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