The Meaning of Democracy

Title: The Meaning of Democracy

Date: August 2, 1922

Location: Wellesley, MA

Context: Coolidge ponders the meaning, impact and purpose of democracy


It is the common experience of mankind, at first thought, to find their lot disappointing. America has just gone through such an experience in an exaggerated form. Almost in a day nearly the whole population’ found themselves raised from a condition that they had often regarded as poor and mean to a position of comparative affluence. There was a seller’s market. Whatever could be sold brought a fabulous price. The cost of all kinds of commodities and the value of real estate became very high. The compensation for personal service, which is commonly designated as wages, was increased to a point far above what it had ever been before in all history. Incomes which had before been scarcely a hope or a dream to the people at large had suddenly become a reality.

This brought a power, never before possessed, to gratify desires. There was a great rise in the general scale of living. All at once luxuries had become necessities. But the great mass of people, regardless of station, found this extraordinary material prosperity disappointing and unsatisfying. Believing that the cause of their discontent was still a lack of possessions, they reached for more and more until an artificial condition was created beyond the power of the resources of the nation to sustain. The general effort to get more and give less did not work. The inevitable reaction and depression followed. Something was lacking. People had expected that it would be supplied by having more property. It never has been. It never will be. They found that greater wealth, instead of relieving them of the necessity of work, only changed its nature and added to their responsibilities.

During this period there were those who made a wrongful use of their prosperity. They wasted it in extravagance, or worse, but they are not representative of the people as a whole. While they should be regarded with sympathy, the cause of their condition is perfectly apparent. It is the feeling of disappointment in the others which is the cause for concern. If the reason for their discontent be carefully examined, it will be seen that a considerable part of it is the result of their not thinking their problems through. They are the victims not of the want but of the deceitfulness of riches. They have found that having power does not remove from them the requirement of effort. They have found that human existence is not easy, and cannot be made easy. In whatever station, it is bound to be hard. They have found that the possession of everything of value, whether it be liberty or wealth, is held only by meeting the exaction of a price. The greater the value, the greater the price required.

If this discontent is not relieved by additional possessions, the remedy must lie in some other direction, for, surely, mankind has not been created and endowed with reason only to find that existence has been made a mockery without any power of self-satisfaction. If the material things of life are not of sufficient avail, the only resource left is in spiritual things. If the gathering of possessions has not sufficed, it may be well to examine our attitude of mind toward possessions. We need a fuller realization and a broader comprehension of the meaning both of political and economic democracy. In this age of science and invention and organization, there is a special need for a full understanding of the foundations of industrial democracy.

The word democracy is used very inaccurately. It is often taken to signify freedom and equality. Many have thought it represented an absence of all restraints. Others have considered it as providing a relief from all duties. The people of America have long been committed to democracy. The best thought of the world has been compelled to follow them. The easy way to understand what may be expected of it is first to understand what it is.

There has never been any organized society without rulers. The great power of mankind has been created through unity of action. This has meant the adoption of a common standard. In most ancient times this was represented in the chieftain. In modern times it is represented by a code of laws. The important factor to remember is that it has always required obedience. Democracy is obedience to the rule of the people.

The failure to appreciate this double function of the citizen has led to much misunderstanding, for it is very plain to see that there cannot be any rule of the people without a people to be ruled. The difference between despotism and democracy is not a difference in the requirement of obedience, it is a difference in rulers. He becomes an absolute sovereign by absolute obedience. He will be a limited sovereign if he limits his obedience. The criminal loses all his freedom. It is easy to see that democracy will have attained perfection when laws are made wholly wise and obedience is made wholly complete. One of the great tragedies of American institutions is the experience of those who come here expecting to be able to rule without rendering obedience. They have entirely misconceived the meaning of democracy. But they need not disturb its defenders. To cast it aside could only mean the acceptance of a type of rule which had already been discarded. The true hope of progress lies only in perfecting it. Already it is better than anything else in the world. But it rests entirely on the people. It depends on their ability both to rule and to obey. It is what they are. The government is what they make it.

This same principle has been working out in our economic and industrial life. We are slowly, and of course painfully, arriving at a state of democracy in this field. In its development it has been analogous to the development in political life. It is not very long ago that the man who owned an industry assumed to be the absolute lord over it. He ruled it. He fixed the hours and the conditions of employment and dictated the amount of wages. He recognized little or no obligation toward his employees and had little regard for his customers.

In large enterprises the ownership gradually became more and more divided with the advent of the corporation. In that case, oftentimes the management was intrusted to representatives, while the owners corresponded to absentee landlords.

Under this system, as soon as employees could organize and make demands, a condition existed which led to the most violent and bitter of industrial disputes. All hands were eagerly asserting their right to rule, forgetful of their obligation to obey.

Investigation and experience have gradually brought about the recognition of the correct principle. Time and economic development will insure its adoption. Industry is changing from the theory of exclusion to the theory of inclusion. It no longer is content with one small part of the individual, it seeks to enlist all his powers, to recognize all his rights, as well as require the performance of all his obligations. In the ideal industry, each individual would become an owner, an operator, and a manager, a master and a servant, a ruler and a subject. Thus there would be established a system of true industrial democracy.

In very many industries this is already taking place. Employees are encouraged to purchase stock in the corporation and are provided with credit facilities for such purpose. This gives them ownership. They are encouraged to make suggestions for the better conduct of the business. They are requested to apply their inventive ability in the various mechanical operations. Through trade-unions and shop committees they have a large share in the determination of wages and conditions of labor. By the introduction of the sliding scale and piece-work they share in the general prosperity of the concern. This gives them management. Thus industrial democracy is being gradually developed.

There is a principle in our economic life that needs somewhat more emphasis. Long ago James Otis declared that kings were made for the good of the people and not the people for them. It needs also to be remembered that the people are not created for the benefit of industry, but industry is created for the benefit of the people. Those who are employed in it are its chief beneficiaries. Those who have acquired capital provide the plant and machinery for the workman. Those who have acquired skill in organization provide management for the workman. The manager secures the raw materials and markets the product. Capital and management perform this great service for the benefit of the workman. He performs a corresponding service for them. Unto each who contributes in accordance with his ability there is due equal consideration and equal honor. There is no degradation in industry; it is a worthy enterprise, ennobling all who contribute to it. It will be successful in accordance with the opportunity given for the development of all the powers of mankind and the acceptance of the obligation alike to rule and to obey.

The disappointment which has been experienced, at first thought, in the increase of power, whether of wealth or place, has resulted from the expectation that it would bring relief from the necessity of obedience. Neither political nor industrial democracy can relieve mankind from the requirement of obedience. There is no substitute for virtue. Too much emphasis has been put on the desire to rule and too little on the obligation to obey. More and more all social problems must be worked out in accordance with this principle. An obedient nation would possess supreme power. The law of life, the law of progress, is the law of obedience, the law of service.

“Whosoever will be great among you, let him be your minister; And whosoever will be chief among you, let him be your servant.”


Citation: The Price of Freedom

The Coolidge Foundation gratefully acknowledges the volunteer efforts of Robert Manchester who prepared this document for digital publication.

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