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Leo Strauss and Friedrich Hayek on Democracy


The idea of ‘democracy’ has been in the domain of political theorists for quite a long time. It can be remembered that the controversy over democratic space for the citizens has been in existence from the time when classical theory centered on the proposition that the people hold a definite and a rational opinion about every individual question and that they give effect to this opinion-in democracy- by choosing representatives who will see to it that opinion is carried out (Schumpeter 137). It thus followed that the selection of the representatives was made secondary to the primary purpose of the democratic arrangement which is to vest the power of deciding political issues in the electorate (Schumpeter 137). However, suppose we reverse the roles of these two elements and make the deciding of issues by the electorate secondary to the elections of the men and women who are to do the deciding. In other words, we currently take the view that the role of the people is to produce a government, or else an intermediate body which in turn will produce a national executive or government (Pangle 33). Schumpeter thus defines the democratic method as “the institutional arrangement for arriving at political decisions in which individuals acquire the power to decide by means of a competitive struggle for the people’s vote” (Schumpeter 269).

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However, is this how philosophers like Leo Strauss and Friedrich August von Hayek observe it? Critical analysis of the two philosophers, Leo Strauss and Friedrich August von Hayek’s views are presented in the paper. In other words, the views of the two philosophers on democracy have been compared in critical analysis.

Leo Strauss on Democracy

The works of Leo Strauss have offered critical thinking in the idea of democracy. In other words, Strauss’ scholarly works have transformed the meaning, scope and significance of democracy. Strauss advises us that in this time, we must begin to fathom, revive and debate the judgments as regards what is right or wrong (Strauss 14). For instance, what regards pressing questions of human existence- what is the right or just way to live? What is the fulfilling purpose of human existence? According to Straus, we in the late-modern West have lost our bearings “to such an abysmal extent that we are in the process of becoming bereft of even the capacity to seriously pursue the quest for answers” (Strauss 41).

In Strauss’ view, this idea of democracy where we heroically defend “our basic common values” is in itself a deeply rooted problem (Strauss 41). Pangle supports Strauss by stating that under the influence of our most prestigious intellectual authorities, we no longer confidently believe in the rationally demonstrable, universal, and permanent truth of the principles, purpose, and way of life that we share and defend (7). More fundamentally, we highly doubt the very possibility that any principles, any purposes, any way of life can be illustrated by reasons to simply truly right, truly good, for all humanity as such (Strauss 41). Basically, we have become more and more resigned to the view that all evaluation and all the basis for evaluation is permanently rooted in and limited by the perspectives of the diverse values, commonly referred to as ‘worldviews’ or ‘faiths’ of the specific human beings doing the evaluation. George (89) observes that it is our insistence on ‘western, liberal values’ over and against the alien, contrary ‘values for no reason at the bottom beyond the historical fate that has made them ours.

To be clearer, an illustration could be given from the English parliamentary monarchy system. In the English system, a parliamentary monarchy fulfills the requirements of the ‘democratic’ method because the monarch is practically constrained to appoint to a cabinet office the same people as parliament would elect (George 97). Strauss would therefore argue that a ‘constitutional’ monarchy does not qualify to be called democratic because electorates and parliaments have a parliament, while having all the other rights that electorates and parliaments have in parliamentary monarchies, lack the power to impose their choice as to the governing committee. In other words, it could be reasoned out that the cabinet ministers are in this case servants of the monarch, in substance as well as in name, and can in principle be dismissed as well as appointed by him (George 92). It must be observed that the monarch may be too popular to be able to defeat any competition for the supreme office, hence disqualifies it in the perspective of ‘democracy’

Accordingly, the culture of the west, described by Irwin (12), as the modernity that culminates in the liberal and democratic west, has always defined itself and its highest purpose or object of dedication in universal and rational terms. He states, “Ours is a culture of humanism and of humanity’s enlightenment to and through reason of rationalism”. In other words, the culture of the west has prided itself on being rooted in the objective ‘unmatched truth’ and ‘natural rights’. It thus follows with the notion that the culture of the west cannot lose faith in reason, as the ground for universally practicable human norms found in human nature cannot lose the core principles of democracy (Irwin 13). Strauss does not hesitate to characterize this spiritual situation as ‘the crisis of our times’, or ‘the contemporary crisis of the West’ (Pangle 8). He emphasizes that we are confronted everywhere today with severe doubts as to the status of the specific, comprehensive conception of the collective and individual purpose of humanity that, up through the first half of the 20th century, explicitly animated and guided the modern Western nations in the global leadership (Pangle 8). Strauss notes that this universal definition of democracy is well stated in our immediate past particularly illustrated in the “famous declarations made during the two World Wars”, which basically restated the reason originally by the most successful type of present political philosophy (Pangle 9).

In principle, the political philosophy was not to be understood as an essential contempt and pride but as an active and charitable. In fact, this democratic philosophy was to enable man to overcome the difficulty of diversity and instead share the societal benefits equally, with everyone having a natural right to live and develop equally. This kind of progress would therefore render the possibility of greater prosperity in freedom and justice: a society embracing the equal rights of all human beings, irrespective of gender, race, age, economic status, power, etc. This would probably present a society that accepts all human nature in all aspects with no bias: a universal league of free and equal nations, each nation consisting of free and equal men and women. This is because it had become a natural belief that for the world to be safe, one had to make the whole nation democratic, each nation governing itself in a manner that is compliant with the international standards set by the Western democracies.

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Democracy and Late Modernization

By the middle of the 20th century, Strauss submits, ‘this view of the human situation in general and of the situation in our century in particular’ no longer ‘retains plausibility’ (Brown 251). In principle, the most profound reason being the fact that the once supposedly triumphant West has undergone considerable horrific experiences, where some of the very western states adopted the worst non-democratic approach to humankind in the name of slavery and holocaust to its own people (Brown 253). Brown says that this kind of inhumanity has been worsened by the science of philosophy under the tutelage of fanatic ideological faiths and dreams; emphasizing that the same science has even concurred with all sorts of mutually hostile secular and religious extremism, which continue to enable and inspire the international race to build weapons of mass destruction (254). In another perspective, Strauss’ position could be explained by the problem generated by the science of production that has led to increased environmental problems and the continuous pressure destruction of the once self-sustained nature, all associated with this trend of democratic philosophy (George 18).

Similarly late modernization and science, according to Weatherford, has not lived to its bill of creating reason and rationality; that it is constitutionally incapable of offering to humanity any ultimate guidance as to how the ever-increasing power that science brings into beings is to be used and not abused (132). In other words, this could be interpreted to mean that modern science is in existence to prove ‘facts’ and not ‘values’.

On the more political perspective, Strauss would argue that the urge to make mankind homogenous through a unified political system all over the globe or the democratic premises, carries with it a new and unprecedented version of the threat of imperialism. In fact, one may emphasize Strauss’ through the happenings during the Cold War. The late modernization was observed in the Soviet Union’s dominance during this period through its Marxist-inspired union which subsequently perpetuated the cold war (Pangle 11). The experience of communists, Strauss suggests, taught a deep and broad lesson. In its radical approach to offering solutions to human problems, in its desire to improve economic growth beyond the horizon, in its aspiration to liberate all human race from the unscientific approach to issues, and above all, in its moral insistence on sacrificing everything to the ultimate common good of secular humanity, communism confronted the west like a kind of nightmare sibling.

To emphasize Strauss’ view, Pangle (21) says that it had seemed sufficient to say that while the western movement agrees with communism regarding the goal, that is the universal prosperous society of free and equal men and women, it disagrees with it regarding the means. However, slowly it became apparent that disagreement over a core dimension of human existence; a dimension that can never be adequately explained or understood on the basis of modern rationalism (Weatherford 119). From the perspective of ‘communism, the end, the common good of the whole human race, being the most sacred thing, justifies ant means’ (Weatherford 123). This could be explained to mean that whatever means of achieving a just cause is itself justified, and by some means, whatever prevents this process is somewhat devilish. The Cold War, therefore, compelled the liberal West to recognize that even if one would still contend that the Western purpose is as universal as the communists, one must foresee in a practical sense the future of communism and their belief. However, Strauss suggests that the West is forced to wonder, at the level of principle; whether one could still contend that the West should aim at a purpose as universal as the communist. It is thus observed that confrontation with communism made it necessary for the west to qualify or to moderate, by recognizing the incompleteness of, the liberal principles themselves. Hence Strauss adds that the situation resembles the one which existed during the centuries in which Christianity and Islam each raised its universal claim but had to contend with uneasily coexisting with its antagonist” (Strauss 55). Strauss thus concludes, “that for the foreseeable future, political society remains what it has always been: a partial or particular society whose most urgent and primary task is self-preservation and whose highest task is self-improvement” (Strauss 57). In essence, what the West has described as ultimate barrier to self-improvement and world- society has also made it’s doubtful of the belief that affluence is the “sufficient and even necessary condition of happiness and justice” (Barak 28).

Contemporary Relativism and Democracy

Strauss goes ahead to outline the historical or cultural relativism in American politics in his work, Natural Right and History (Strauss 47). He highlights the solemn invocation of the declaration of independence’s proclamation of the “self-evident truths” that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness” (Strauss 49). Strauss, however, observes that in reality the nation dedicated to this proposition has in essence become the most prosperous nation materially and politically. But, he raises the question of whether this proposition is still cherished by the people, observing that the faith in which the nation was founded and raised has remained historical as the people are made to declare the stance in a form of a forced interpretation. In fact, Strauss states that those who still adhere to this do not interpret it as a natural Right but as an ideal, if not ideological or a myth (Strauss 49). This is because in most cases, “it is obviously meaningful and sometimes even necessary, to speak of ‘unjust’ laws or ‘unjust’ decisions” (Strauss 52).

Friedrich August von Hayek and the Contemporary Democracy

Hayek has rather critically underlined his ideas on the notion of mass democracy. In what he calls “the progressive disillusionment about democracy”, Hayek states that the modern governments’ activities have resulted in a kind of amalgamation of results the many people neither anticipated nor wanted: a belief that this kind of result is ‘democracy’ (Hayek 1). In principle, Hayek sees the problem in the form of democracy generated by-elections, “the will of the people” as something that has very little to do with anything deserving the name of the common will of any substantial part of the population (Irwin 36).

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‘Democracy’ and Institutions

It is evident that the democratic institutions in Western democracies have become the basis on which all levels of human democracy and success are seen. In this form of arrangement, each institution is tasked with the responsibility of laying down all the laws and regulations, which form and direct the governments. However, Hayek sees this as the beginning of all the problems that face society today: that despite the fact that this system has resulted in many aspects of results that many do not like; we still fail to care about reorganizing this system. In fact, he insists that we all know that this system has not even worked in the nations that created them, and has failed terribly in nations that had not developed strong traditions about the representative tasks of the representative assemblies (Hayek 1). Just as Strauss observed, Hayek sees the concept of idealism as the reason why we believe that ‘democracy’ should be defended through the institutions that have been accepted as part of its elements, thus the failure to critique the system simply because of the “respect for an ideal we wish to preserve” (Barak 29).

Modern political scientists have come up with a critical view as regards the perceived democratic space that is provided by these particular institutions. This is as a result of continued unsatisfied masses that have been on the rise due to the continued lip-service offered by these democratic institutions (Kuykendall 77). In fact, many contemporary political scientists view democracy as just another form of an inevitable struggle in which it is decided ‘who gets what, when, and how’ (Hayek 2). Hayek on the other hand sees this form of democracy to illustrate a deeply ingrained disillusionment and doubt about its future sustainability, acknowledging that those inherent failures can easily be observed and that no one can deny the fact (Kuykendall 79). Weatherford ( 98) observes that the term ‘democracy’ has evolved over time, with the initial understanding that it was highly successful in observing and safeguarding personal freedom; then regenerating into a ‘majority rule’

In 1766, the British completely rejected the idea of observing any rule that was not of its own making after claiming sovereignty (Irwin 19). In fact, as observed, for quite a long time these strong traditions f rule of law developed hence prevented the abuse of power. However, Irwin (21) observes that this culture later got overwhelmed and the perceived democracy was later eroded. In other words, it emerged a disaster as the institutions that had been built on the premise of democratic law and governance was dismantled as they were seen as less necessary. Irwin (27) asserts that this was the beginning of the abandonment of constitutionalism which consists of in limitation of all power by permanent principles of government. In fact, Aristotle had earlier maintained that in situations where laws are not sovereign, the collectivism of the people forms the basis of judging democracy, and this is not democracy at all. Currently, many scholars believe that modern democracy is simply a form of government with no restriction on the body that governs it (Schumpeter 94). Some have even suggested that democracy through constitutions have been misplaced; and that these constitutions have no place in the modern conception of government.

The Creation of Unlimited Power and Democracy

The overall belief was that the adoption of democracy as the benchmark for understanding and monitoring the major institutions is the ultimate process that would help dispense the powers in the limited powers. Hayek states that without knowing, this belief has generated what is currently known as the control of governments which in essence has popularized the idea that democratically elected legislation would appropriately lead to the removal of barriers in the constitutions (Hayek 3). However, this form of institutionalization later became the necessity informing of the organized majorities for supporting a program of particular actions in favor of special groups, hence creating some sort of arbitrariness as well as partiality, hence leading to inconsistency in the moral principles of the majority (Hayek 3).

Basically, the act of unlimited powers created a paradox due to the fact that it makes it impossible for a specific representative body to make prevailing principles to satisfy all the interest groups, because in such a system, the majority of the representative assembly, for it to remain a majority, is compelled to take all the necessary actions to buy the support of all the interest groups by giving them political incentives (Hayek 1). So from this form of argument, it is possible to allude that the institutions of the representative government of Britain produced also the pernicious principle of parliamentary sovereignty, which basically indicates that the representative assembly is not only the highest but also the unlimited authority. The whole point is that these arbitrary rules gained through elective positions affect all, even the specific section of the society who did not participate in the ‘democratic process’ thus raising the issue with the democracy proclamation.


This analysis of the two philosophers, Leo Strauss and Friedrich August von Hayek and their beliefs and views on democracy has a common theme: that the modern democracy is just but a form of imposing an agenda on the public, against the will of the very electorate. In other words, the views of the two philosophers on democracy are comparable. While Strauss approaches the issue of ‘democracy’ in terms of injustice meted in the name of democratic approach through the ills of communism and slavery, Hayek sees this injustice in the very institutions that have been tasked with formation interest groups. But one fundamental result comes out; democracy is just but a pure sham, created unknowingly by the powers that be.

Works Cited

Barak, Aharon. The Judge in a Democracy, Princeton University Press, 2006, p. 27

Brown, Charles H., The Correspondents’ War. New York: Charles Scribners’ Sons, 1967. Print.

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George, Lawrence. Democracy in America. New York: Perennial Classics, 2000.

Hayek, Friedrich. Law, Legislation and Liberty: a New Statement of the Liberal Principles of Justice and Plitical Economy. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul PLC, 1979. Print.

Irwin, William. The Matrix and Philosophy: Welcome to the Desert of the Real. London: London School of Economics Press, 2002.

Kuykendall, Ralph, Hawaii: A History. New York: Prentice Hall, 1948.

Pangle, Thomas. Leo Strauss: An Introduction to His Thoughts and Intellectual Legacy. Chicago: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2006. Print.

Schumpeter, Joseph. Capitalism, Socialism and Democracy. LA: Rutledge, 1994

Strauss, Leo. Ntaural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999. Print.

Weatherford, J. McIver Indian givers: how the Indians of the America transformed the world. New York: Fawcett Columbine, 1988.

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