Reflections on the Revolution in France

by Edmund Burke

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Explain the quote "a perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world."

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Burke writes that democracies are shameless and fearless because the men who wield power in them do not expect to be held to account for collective actions. Even the most tyrannical king has his power somewhat limited by the reflection that he may one day be overthrown and have to answer for his abuses of power. In a perfect democracy, however, no single person bears enough of the blame for any decision or action to make him ashamed or fearful. Also, since the democratic representatives regard themselves as speaking and acting for the people:

Their own approbation of their own acts has to them the appearance of a public judgment in their favour. A perfect democracy is therefore the most shameless thing in the world. As it is the most shameless, it is also the most fearless. No man apprehends in his person that he can be made subject to punishment.

Burke goes on to point out that, since democracies and, indeed, the people themselves can act more despotically than any king, and can generally do so with impunity:

It is therefore of infinite importance that they should not be suffered to imagine that their will, any more than that of kings, is the standard of right and wrong.

It is the possibility of tyranny in a democracy that makes the rule of law so vitally important as a safeguard against collective abuses of power.

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