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.