Speculation about the durability of democracies is not new. The “cycle of democracy” idea attributed to Alexander Tytler but apparently unverified suggested that democracies can only last about 200 years. The underlying reason is that people figure out they can vote themselves increasing largess from the treasury, which destroys the system and ends in tyranny because of the fantasy of getting something for nothing. The idea is currently relevant because of the grand schemes threatening the US economy’s future, which in essence are government plundering of wealth and distributing it in welfare state spending.
Alexis de Tocqueville wrote about this issue as well when he toured the US in 1831. James Bryce, a British commentator of the late 19th century, marvelled at the fact that the poor in the US showed no inclination to vote themselves the property of the rich, though they had long possessed enabling political rights. The reason it did not happen was the prevailing ideology. Americans in the 19th century were comparatively more principled than today.
Things have certainly deteriorated. Most voters today clearly suffer from the delusion that they can in fact get “money for nothing” indefinitely. They are voting themselves the treasury. Ideology has changed. Theft is legal as long as the government does it on your behalf.
There is hope however, and it is not the “audacious” kind possessed by Obama followers. Ludwig von Mises wrote about “tides in the affairs of man”. A single good idea can be adopted by enough people to cause historical shifts. The downside is that bad ideas can have the same impact. That is why it is fair criticism of the opposition when it spends most of its time attacking the policies of the party in power. Criticism, though necessary, should be balanced with marketing of coherent and principled alternatives directed at the American people.
How long can the US last as a democracy? You’d have to define “democracy” first. If voters use a democratic system to elect government leaders and a restraining Constitution is in place, then the US could last forever. But, we’ve seen the US Constitution seriously compromised, largely due to interpretation of the commerce clause. It was no match for immoral men in a position to “change” things. But change can be for better or worse. Men have free will and can choose the good. When they do, anything man-made can be undone.
Copyright 2009 Edward Podritske