Thursday, October 2, 2008

Democracy in America

George Will has penned some arresting words in a recent column:

We are waist deep in evasions because one cannot talk sense about the cultural roots of the financial crisis without transgressing this cardinal principle of politics: Never shall be heard a discouraging word about the public.

Concerning which, a timeless political trope is: Government should budget the way households supposedly do, conforming outlays to income. But the crisis came partly because so many households decided that it would be jolly fun to budget the way government does, hitching outlays to appetites.

Beneath Americans' perfunctory disapproval of government deficits lurks an inconvenient truth: They enjoy deficits, by which they are charged less than a dollar for a dollar's worth of government. Conservatives participate in this, even though deficits fuel government's growth by obscuring its cost.


His words evoke two crystalline and opposite responses. First, they give rise to a degree of hopefulness: if government can indeed set a tone, such as it has, of profligacy and an acceptance of indebtedness, then the culture is perhaps indeed subject to the influence of a clearly articulated opposite set of values emphasizing thrift, moderation, and self-governance. It suggests the possibility that our public realm can set a tone and demonstrate that it is possible to restrain appetites to match outlays, even promote savings and a concern for the future.

But I'll admit the stronger reaction is opposite: you get the government you want, and our laws and lawmakers ultimately follow the public will. Deficits, indebtedness, and profligacy emanated as demands of the culture. When confronted with limits, people demanded the fealty and expansion of government. A vicious circle arising from never being told that "no" meant that we were all - public and private alike - rendered in a permanent state of adolescence, wanting limitlessly and indulging recklessly. Appetite stoked appetite, encouraging us to turn our houses into ATM's, our national budget into a credit line from China, and inclining us to consume with abandon.

A chilling portent arises from these latter thoughts: perhaps the entirety of ancient and medieval political thought was correct, and democracy is actually an untenable regime. Before our age that regarded it to be apostasy to utter these words, the longstanding view among political philosophers was that democracy was a deficient regime subject to internal self-destruction due to the ultimate inability of a populace to govern itself. Democracy was, quite simply, the rule of the many over the few, and subject to the same sorts of temptations to tyranny as any regime. Because "the many" (hoi polloi) exhibited the tendency toward mob behavior that descended to the lowest common denominator, it was widely held in antiquity until very recent times - about 150 years ago - that democracy always and ultimately devolved into anarchic mob self-indulgence.

About 150 years ago, confidence in democracy grew, in part as a result of the 50-100 year evidence of the success that resulted from grafting democracy to liberalism. Liberalism provided protections to the few (wealthy) against the many (poor) by enshrining a set of rights - particularly rights of property - and arranging governments of divided powers and checks and balances. However, its true genius lay in draining the traditional curse of democracy - resentment of the many toward the (wealthy) few - by means of encouraging a dynamic growth economy. By dispelling the belief that every person was born and destined to remain in a certain fixed station, democracy became defined above all as a kind of mobility - upward, downward, onward and westward. This was the genius of Alexis de Tocqueville's analysis of democracy in Democracy in America, his awareness that modern democracy more than merely a form of government, but a set of mores that above all blasted apart the ancient arrangements of aristocracy.

While these mores made democracy suddenly more tenable than the ancients believed possible, it had a particular downside that Tocqueville believed would ultimately prove its greatest weakness: the dissolution of generational bonds and the resulting short-sightedness of democratic man. The very dynamism of modern democracy that allowed it to defang resentments also simultaneously contributed to profound short-term thinking that devolved into forms of self-serving individualism. Increasingly unable to discern how our liberated actions impacted others - neither recognizing our debts to the past nor our obligations to the future - we see ourselves as wholly free agents shorn of history or future. As Tocqueville famously concluded his chapter on "Individualism," "[Democratic men] owe nothing to any man, they expect nothing from any man; they acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone, and they are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart."

As we witness the wreckage of a several decade-long party of self-indulgence, in which the "adults" of our society proved unable to "hitch outlays to appetite," in which we blithely deprived future generations of the generous material inheritance of the planet, in which we saddled our children with massive debt and diminishing prospects, I cannot but help but recall Tocqueville's ever-prescient words and wonder if, after all, the ancients were right about democracy after all.

Montesquieu believed that democracy was a viable regime, but only, and above all, if its central feature was virtue. The inculcation of virtue, he argued, was only likely in a small state, one in which self-government was a practical possibility, and in which prospects for material abundance and luxury were limited. Large nations, of great wealth and power, were more inclined, and ultimately tempted, to become empires. Looking at the historical example - Rome being prominent among them - Montesquieu argued that the greatest threat to democracy was always internal, and particularly the imperial temptation. Without the virtue of moderation, thrift, and self-governance, democracy was an ideal whose reality was always in question.

As soon as tomorrow the Congress - our legislature, voice of the people - may hand over powers to the executive that will allow it increasingly exclusive powers to run our economy. Already it has ceded its war powers, its budgeting powers, and its oversight powers. We implore the "vast, tutelary State" to take care of us - only provide us the prospect of fulfilling our limitless appetites - for which we will sacrifice all self-rule. In failing to govern our appetites in the first instance, we had already betrayed democracy. The vote that awaits is merely the final punctuation mark.

6 comments:

Caryl said...

A very fine post. Thank you.

Anonymous said...

While I understand the sentiments in your post, I think you exaggerate quite a bit. You speak of a several decade long period of indulgence; however, it was less than 10 years that our federal budget was balanced and spending was, relatively speaking, constrained. You seem to indulge in quite overblown concerns yourself. What is not exactly clear to me is the extent of damage to the Republic is simply the reflection of one administration -- thankfully near its end -- and true long term problems.

Black Sea said...

The Clinton Administration produced three projected budget surpluses. Some people dispute whether the government ever actually ran a surplus during this period, particularly because of the questionable practice of counting payments into Social Security as revenue to the state.

In any event, Clinton's surplus was the the first since 1969.The US hadn't run back to back surpluses since 1957. The Clinton surpluses were thus very much an exception to the post-war trend.

Those who discount the significance of the rising national debt point out that it has remained fairly flat as a percentage of GDP, an argument worth considering. However, GAO projections suggests that this ratio will change dramatically in the coming years, largely due to the role of Social Security and Medicare.

There seems little reason to believe that the US can continue to ignore its ongoing deficits, as it will become increasingly difficult (perhaps impossible) for the US to do anything other than increase it's debt load until the economic system succumbs to the strain. And of course, some people are arguing that this process has already begun.

Polistra said...

The philosophy and history are excellent and instructive, but the last paragraph misses the point.

When the Great Nation Robbery is enacted later today, it won't be handing over any significant new powers to the executive. It will just be handing over half the national economy to a few rich dudes as a reward for their crimes.

That's not an increase of power, it's just a grotesque unspeakable travesty of injustice.

This crisis arose because the executive MISUSED or FAILED TO USE the powers that it ALREADY HELD.

Anonymous said...

You speak of a several decade long period of indulgence; however, it was less than 10 years that our federal budget was balanced and spending was, relatively speaking, constrained. You seem to indulge in quite overblown concerns yourself. What is not exactly clear to me is the extent of damage to the Republic is simply the reflection of one administration -- thankfully near its end -- and true long term problems.

Since the 1970's, for pretty much my entire adult life, one great constant of American political life has been a steadfast refusal to discuss -- let alone really deal with -- our energy habits and their consequences. Reagan wasn't exactly really candid about costs and benefits, eh?
-- sglover

Anonymous said...

Dr. D,

What are your thoughts on this exchange at the Presidential debate last night?

Since World War II, we have never been asked to sacrifice anything to help our country, except the blood of our heroic men and women. As president, what sacrifices -- sacrifices will you ask every American to make to help restore the American dream and to get out of the economic morass that we're now in?

McCain: Well, Fiorra, I'm going to ask the American people to understand that there are some programs that we may have to eliminate.

I first proposed a long time ago that we would have to examine every agency and every bureaucracy of government. And we're going to have to eliminate those that aren't working.

I know a lot of them that aren't working. One of them is in defense spending, because I've taken on some of the defense contractors. I saved the taxpayers $6.8 billion in a deal for an Air Force tanker that was done in a corrupt fashion.

I believe that we have to eliminate the earmarks. And sometimes those projects, not -- not the overhead projector that Sen. Obama asked for, but some of them that are really good projects, will have -- will have to be eliminated, as well.

And they'll have to undergo the same scrutiny that all projects should in competition with others.

So we're going to have to tell the American people that spending is going to have to be cut in America. And I recommend a spending freeze that -- except for defense, Veterans Affairs, and some other vital programs, we'll just have to have across-the-board freeze.

And some of those programs may not grow as much as we would like for them to, but we can establish priorities with full transparency, with full knowledge of the American people, and full consultation, not done behind closed doors and shoving earmarks in the middle of the night into programs that we don't even -- sometimes we don't even know about until months later.

And, by the way, I want to go back a second.

Look, we can attack health care and energy at the same time. We're not -- we're not -- we're not rifle shots here. We are Americans. We can, with the participation of all Americans, work together and solve these problems together.

Frankly, I'm not going to tell that person without health insurance that, "I'm sorry, you'll have to wait." I'm going to tell you Americans we'll get to work right away and we'll get to work together, and we can get them all done, because that's what America has been doing.

Brokaw: Sen. McCain, thank you very much.

Sen. Obama?

Obama: You know, a lot of you remember the tragedy of 9/11 and where you were on that day and, you know, how all of the country was ready to come together and make enormous changes to make us not only safer, but to make us a better country and a more unified country.

And President Bush did some smart things at the outset, but one of the opportunities that was missed was, when he spoke to the American people, he said, "Go out and shop."

That wasn't the kind of call to service that I think the American people were looking for.

And so it's important to understand that the -- I think the American people are hungry for the kind of leadership that is going to tackle these problems not just in government, but outside of government.

And let's take the example of energy, which we already spoke about. There is going to be the need for each and every one of us to start thinking about how we use energy.

I believe in the need for increased oil production. We're going to have to explore new ways to get more oil, and that includes offshore drilling. It includes telling the oil companies, that currently have 68 million acres that they're not using, that either you use them or you lose them.

We're going to have to develop clean coal technology and safe ways to store nuclear energy.

But each and every one of us can start thinking about how can we save energy in our homes, in our buildings. And one of the things I want to do is make sure that we're providing incentives so that you can buy a fuel efficient car that's made right here in the United States of America, not in Japan or South Korea, making sure that you are able to weatherize your home or make your business more fuel efficient.

And that's going to require effort from each and every one of us.

And the last point I just want to make. I think the young people of America are especially interested in how they can serve, and that's one of the reasons why I'm interested in doubling the Peace Corps, making sure that we are creating a volunteer corps all across this country that can be involved in their community, involved in military service, so that military families and our troops are not the only ones bearing the burden of renewing America.

That's something that all of us have to be involved with and that requires some leadership from Washington.