STEVEN PINKER: Probably the most famous product of the Enlightenment was the American Declaration of Independence and Constitution, a blueprint for a form of governance that tried to get the benefits of government—seeing as how anarchy is worse because you get spirals of vendetta and feuding and violence. You don’t get the coordination of large-scale economies without some kind of governance. Trying to get the benefits of governance without the perennial hazard that anyone given a bit of power will aggrandize their power and become despotic.
So the checks and balances of American democracy were a way of – I think of it as negotiating a middle route between the violence of anarchy (and anarchy does lead to violence—We were never noble savages that lived in harmony. Regions of the world without government are almost invariably violent) but also avoiding the violence of tyranny. Mainly you give someone power, they’re going to use it to maximize their benefits, their power, their longevity of their reign at the expense of people. Democracy is a way of steering between these extremes, of having a government that exerts just enough violence to prevent people from preying on each other without preying on the people itself.
Now in practice no one has ever developed a democracy that works particularly well if judged in absolute terms. Democracies are always messy, they’re always unequal. They always involve lobbying and power grabs. But all the alternatives so far have been worse. Democracies seldom go to war with each other. They have higher standards of living. They have higher levels of happiness. They have higher levels of health. And they’re the obvious preferred destinations for people who vote with their feet. The whole world wants to live in a democracy. It’s an ongoing project. It’s currently under threat from a number of directions, but there’s never been a time in which we’ve had a well-functioning democracy in terms of meeting all the criteria in a high school civics class.