First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea by Paul Woodruff



First Democracy: The Challenge of an Ancient Idea
Paul Woodruff
(Oxford University Press, New York City: 2005)

READ: June 2008

Jury's still out on this one. It was ... fine. But I didn't think it was very well-written (still trying to figure out why, however), and it frightened me how often I disagreed with or disputed some of his claims, leading me to wonder if I really believe in democracy at all!

Highlights (?) include:

  • The tale of the frog and the snake, one of Aesop's fables, used to illustrate how our laws are often absurd, yet somehow necessary in order to protect from tyranny (p. 211 et seq.). I found this argument unfounded, illogical, and, frankly, ridiculous. I also think the fable was a poor illustration of the point being made.

  • The fallacies in the arguments of those who would oppose democracy: mainly, that citizen wisdom will always fail since the ordinary person has neither the time, the education nor the will to make decisions, so best to defer to those with the expertise to do it for them (see p. 159 et seq.). I agree with Woodruff to a point; yet, again, his arguments (remember he is disagreeing with these claims) are not carried out as fully as they should have been.

  • In a discussion of whether the United States and other similar so-called "democracies" are ready for actual democracy (rule actually for and by the people), Woodruff has a throwaway paragraph about Canada in which he points to the actions of a citizen activist group in British Columbia as proof that Canada is, in fact, ready for actual democratic reform such as proportional representation (see 213 et seq.). Not likely, Mr. Woodruff. First of all, while proportional representation is a popular idea generally, the chances of it becoming the norm in Canada as a whole is highly unlikely, given the structure of our government. Second of all, a citizen group in B.C. is unfortunately not going to have the leverage to get this idea successfully promoted cross-Canada ... even if they could get the B.C. legislative assembly to agree. Their activism cannot be taken as representative of Canada's prevailing political will.


On the plus side, Woodruff knows a lot about the workings of Greek democracy, and that was fairly interesting. However, there are better books on the origins of democracy, and while this is a short read at just over 200 pages, I'm not sure it's worth the time.

1 comment:

Mark Reynolds said...

Pointing to Canada as an example of a good democracy is a big mistake: we (can I still say we?) have all the flaws of first-past-the-post electoral system, with a party-leadership selection process that guarantees none of the sitting MPs actually have any power, combined with (as the coalition backlash showed) a generalized ignorance of how Parliaments are supposed to work. And besides - didn't the BC reform fail?

But yeah - a book that makes the reader want to argue against democracy, probably not a good book overall.

Also, glad you're posting here. Wish anything on our reading list overlapped, so I could comment more intelligently.