Is our democracy germinating the seeds of its own destruction?
Alexis de Toqueville warned, “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public’s money.” That day has come. It is not yet gone.
Democracy in ancient Athens lasted about 250 years. We in the United States are at about that same point in our history today. In Europe, alas, democracy came but as a short, brief whimper in time. Now, post-Lisbon, it is gone…at a national scale and, very soon, at the local level, too. EUro democracy – so ancien regime! In EUrope, the new aristocracy is already taking form, with power centered in Brussels and Strasbourg. In America, our own Washington, DC-centered aristocrat wannabees remain diffuse and riven by competing factions, but they are there and waiting.
What went wrong? I propose that the primary seed of our destruction lies in our own human nature. It is the “tragedy of the commons” writ large. The tragedy of the commons, formulated by ecologist Garrett Hardin in the 1960s, describes the dynamic whereby individuals and other animals, when confronted with limited resources, have a self-interest in expropriating the maximum amount of those resource for themselves while they can, thereby hastening the resource’s destruction. The tragedy of the commons is neatly summarized by Illinois’ de facto state motto, “where’s mine?” (with a respectful hat tip to Chicago Tribune editorialist John Kass).
I suspect that, deep down, many serious people in America’s contending factions (Left, conservative, Democrat, Republican, Libertarian) believe that we are now in the end game and that we are thus witnessing a mad, vicious scramble by traditional Democrat constituencies (e.g., public sector unions) to secure to themselves as much wealth and political power as possible before the inevitable financial collapse. The primal screams and vile demagoguery harmonized by the howling mobs of Wisconsin, Greece, France and Britain (or from our Commander in Chief, for that matter) are but the beginning of this process. Change can be ugly when people lose hope!
It still remains incredible for me to contemplate how we in the West, endowed with the richest standards of living every conceived in human history, still could not find satisfaction from living within our means. The wails and tribulations of the Left notwithstanding, all groups in America are living far better material standards of living than they did 25, 50 or 100 years ago or than the vast majority of our world enjoys today. How could we not find it within ourselves to be grateful for and respectful of what our forebears built and accumulated as their legacy for us. Indeed, our unparalleled wealth and quality of life appears only to have fueled resentment of “the other” in tandem with an exponential growth in our appetites and expectations. Thus have we now come to the point of destroying ourselves and our inheritors through impossible debt obligations, gained in our quest for ever more lucre and comfort gained on other peoples’ dimes.
So today, confronted with hard choices on whether to cut back on our expectations and regenerate the wealth that we have lost on one hand (the Paul Ryan plan) and a mad scramble to secure our own selfish claims upon the commons before its dissolution, our country confronts the fork in the road that, as Yogi Berra put it, must be taken.
Why do I suspect that earlier in our democracy, when government was not expected to fulfill everyone’s economic and social needs, a national belt-tightening to confront an existential crisis would hardly have been considered controversial. A split electorate today, unfortunately, does not bode well for constructive solutions. From my limited perspective, I suspect that 25% of our population seems committed to the conviction that the government’s largesse can continue forever and another 25% (public employee unions, Liberals, Democrat politicians) cynically manipulates events to amass all it can before the inevitable collapse.
I propose, however, that these manipulators on the Left and their followers are fundamentally mistaken in the following ways:
One is to believe that whatever political and financial power they accumulate in these days will translate into power and wealth in the future. I don’t think so. You can’t, for example, pay pensions on the back of a collapsed market economy. You can’t fund ObamaCare promises through foreign largesse. Princely union boss salaries will be worthless when union members inevitably catch on to their betrayal and they, too, ultimately depend upon a healthy private sector economy.
Two, we can never really predict the future. Revolutions lead to unpredictable ends and often end-up eating their own. Anarchists and Democrats can try to collapse the system, perhaps, but nobody can know what will replace it.
Three, the real threat to our society today is not our debt but the destruction of our debt capacity. Debt capacity refers to our ability to absorb more debt in response to crises: for me, for example, debt capacity is represented by my home equity line of credit, to be drawn upon in emergencies. We can be guaranteed that our Western civilization will face serious crises that will threaten our very existence. With our home equity line exhausted, from whence will we find the capital resources to fund our survival? How will we build back from the rubble?
When FDR embarked on his wildly irresponsible debt-financed financial adventures, our country’s ability to absorb debt was still great by the time WWII arrived. We survived and, as a result, thrived. I am not so certain that we could do so today. Not to veer too far off path, but does anyone else get the sense that the ineffectual flounderings of the U.S. and our NATO allies in Libya, a misbegotten economic and military backwater of 6.5 million people, hardly reflect the actions of robust democracies?
I sense that our Western democracies have reached a point of exhaustion. Perhaps this reflects the natural lifespan of democracies. I hope not. The Ryan blueprint presents our 50:50 nation with an existential fork in the road. We shall soon discover the true strength of our national fiber. Will we tighten our belts, retrench and expand the national and global commons as we have in the past…or will we intensify our mad struggles to secure dwindling remnants thereof to ourselves? If the latter, then our democratic experiment will truly be at an end. And that would be a tragedy.
I do not say that democracy has been more pernicious on the whole, and in the long run, than monarchy or aristocracy. Democracy has never been and never can be so durable as aristocracy or monarchy; but while it lasts, it is more bloody than either. … Remember, democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy yet that did not commit suicide. It is in vain to say that democracy is less vain, less proud, less selfish, less ambitious, or less avaricious than aristocracy or monarchy. It is not true, in fact, and nowhere appears in history. Those passions are the same in all men, under all forms of simple government, and when unchecked, produce the same effects of fraud, violence, and cruelty. When clear prospects are opened before vanity, pride, avarice, or ambition, for their easy gratification, it is hard for the most considerate philosophers and the most conscientious moralists to resist the temptation. Individuals have conquered themselves. Nations and large bodies of men, never.
- John Adams