The Grinches, Scrooges, and Dursleys of Democratic Gift Exchange

by Varun Gauri

The spirit of gift exchange animates democracy. In exchange for letting you control government, giving you power over the security forces, the common treasure, and the agencies and civil service — which is power over me — you agree to grant me those same powers —  and power over you —  in the future. I am then entitled to control government and its coercive powers in exchange for agreeing to transfer those powers back to you, or your representatives, when the time comes.

Aristotle emphasized this, arguing that in political regimes where citizens are more or less equal, the citizens alternate governing, “ruling and being ruled in turn.” Rawls believed this notion of reciprocity in democratic societies is widely relevant across a range of social and economic practices, including taxation: Because society should be seen “as a fair system of cooperation over time,” not only public offices but the common surplus should be divided in a way that acknowledges mutual contributions over time. My firm profited from those highways and airports and bridges that others paid for and built; now I pay it forward, in the form of taxes.

This principle of reciprocity applies not only to taxation and to ceding control of government — conceding after an election loss — but to forbearance in the exercise of power. When I’m in power, the principle requires me to appreciate that the security forces, the common treasure, and the civil service are not mine to control forever. One day they will be yours. So I shouldn’t break or repurpose them in a way that leaves them not useful to you, for your objectives, when it becomes your turn to rule. It’s hard to specify the point at which the pursuit of ordinary policy objectives amounts to breaking or repurposing institutions and agencies, but the line certainly exists. An outgoing administration repurposing the civil service by installing loyalists, or by raiding the treasure, is, after a certain point, normatively equivalent to an executive embezzling funds from a business partner (or worse).

In discussions of democracy, elections tend to receive more attention than reciprocity. That is unfortunate for at least two reasons. First, elections aren’t a necessary condition for democratic practice; democratic transfer of office could conceivably involve other mechanisms, such as randomness or time-limited rotations, as was the case for certain offices in classical Greek cities. Second, elections are often interpreted as an expression of poplar will, or a “mandate,” when in fact the winner only needs the support of the majority or a plurality. Populists and others increasingly use the notion of a popular will to argue that certain groups cannot legitimately hold positions of influence, losing sight of the fact that democracies entail rotation of office.

Donald Trump, having cheated a chandelier shop, curtain makers, lawyers, and others when a business man, and raiding the treasury to benefit his businesses and attempting to personalize the civil service as a departing president, is a made-for-Hollywood Grinch. But, as I’ve previously argued, Trumpism is the response of a relatively homogenous social group to the psychic challenges of liberalism. In other words, Trumpism is, partly, an alliance of groups indifferent to the spirit of democratic gift exchange. It is Grinchy.

The Grinch hated Christmas because his “shoes were too tight” (and he was presumably too much of a miser to buy new ones). Resentful, he then tried to rob the Who’s Christmas spirit.  A related stinginess toward the demos, dressed up as a philosophy, motivates the Ayn Rand libertarians, perhaps most prominent among democracy’s Grinches. Their ethos sneers at those who accept gifts, a practice that they believe weakens a strong soul and enervates the creative powers. Altruism, akin to reciprocity, is a target of their disdain. In The Virtue of Selfishness, Rand writes, “If any civilization is to survive, it is the morality of altruism that men have to reject.” Although some libertarians have been critical of Trump for his indifference to individual rights, others, recognizing a kindred Grinch, have strongly supported him.

Harry Potter’s guardians, his Uncle Vernon and Aunt Petunia Dursley, desperately deny Harry his magical powers because they find threatening any facts or knowledge that disrupt their comfortable little life, hedges and a well-kept lawn, on Privet Drive. Over the years, their Christmas gifts to Harry include a box of dog biscuits and a toothpick, and they are doggedly unconcerned with the larger world. Democracy’s Dursleys are the types who adopt a pleasingly cynical attitude toward politics, claiming to cast a pox on all politicians but quietly applauding the grumpiest. These are sections of the petty bourgeoisie, the class whom David Brooks once represented by “patio man”; people who prize respectability and order above all else. Some have found a fellow Dursley in grumpy old man Trump.

Then there is Ebenezer Scrooge, so driven by ideology that he has become insensitive to common human needs: In response to a request to buy the poor some meat and drink, Scrooge says, “If they would rather die, they had better do it, and decrease the surplus population.” Scrooge is so invested in materialism that he disbelieves the Ghost right before his eyes. When the Ghost asks Scrooge how he can doubt his own eyes, Scrooge replies: “Because a little thing affects them. A slight disorder of the stomach makes them cheats. You may be an undigested bit of beef, a blot of mustard, a crumb of cheese, a fragment of an underdone potato. There’s more of gravy than of grave about you, whatever you are!” Conspiracy theorists doubting evident facts are increasingly prominent these days; paranoia is no friend to the spirit of gift exchange.

None of us created democracy; previous generations bestowed it upon us; we would be generous and liberal to extend the gift to our descendants, who deserve it in turn.