Wednesday, October 1, 2008

George Will has penned some truly discerning words today:

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.


Getting beyond the canard that the crisis is the result of some nefarious cabal, we do better to

His clarity about the cultural basis of our crisis points to a deep question about the viability of democracy: if a people cannot govern its appetites - instead preferring to "hitch outlays to appetites" - can a people be entrusted to rule?

The ancients indicted democracy because they believed - often based on the historical record - that democracy was simply the tyrannical rule of the many over the few. Aristotle put a finer point on it - democracy is the tyrannical rule of the many poor over the wealthy few. Democracy therefore results in the unjust theft of property from those who are politically weaker.

Liberalism made possible a rapproachment between rule of the many and the interests of the wealthy few: by protecting "the diversity of the faculties of men" (in Madison's words), particularly as that diversity was manifested in property differentiation, it became possible to entrust the people to govern without fear of outright deprivation of property. Part of liberalism's genius, in fact, was to bring into consonance the interests of the many poor and the wealthy few, particularly by inculcating a growth economy.

What liberalism failed to check - and indeed, in many respects encouraged - is a form of "class warfare" that the ancients could not anticipate: the tyrannical rule of the many living over the numerous unborn. The rapproachment between the wealthy and the poor necessitated a redefinition of the relations between generations, placing economic growth among the living in a place of higher importance than generational responsibility. In his chapter touching on the relations between parents and children in The Second Treatise on Government, John Locke argues that there is no fundamental obligation of one generation for the other (except, a bit inexplicably but necessarily, the responsibility of parents to raise children until the age of "nonage." Upon reaching maturity, the generations owe each other nothing, though they are free to choose to treat each other well). What concerned him more was

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