Wednesday, October 22, 2008

A Quote I Ran Into Today

So someone I know sent me an article that had a really interesting old quote in it. Sounding to be too contemporary in language, I looked up the person this was attributed to, and it turns out it likely actually wasn't from him, and may not actually be that old either. However, the idea is still an idea in of itself. I've always found the following Ben Franklin quote to be profound, "When the people realize they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the Republic." So the following is along the same line:

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship.”

-Alexander Tytler "The Fall of the Athenian Republic" 1787

Using this frame of logic, this would explain why the Democrat party dominated US politics from FDR through the 70's, once it was accepted that the Federal Government was to have a major role in wealth redistribution, social programs and so on. The Republicans were then only able to dominate from the early 80's through the last few years because two things happened.

1. The political version of supply side economics/ trickle down theory (opposed to the real economic ideas behind the terms). Now, the argument for lower taxes was not the classically liberal one of it being beneficial for the rights and sovereignty of an individual, but rather that tax cuts and smaller government would give you something, mainly a better economy. Voters in essence were then still voting for the candidate whomever would give them the most.

2. The social conservative movement. In order to patch together a ruling coalition, the Republicans needed to sway voters via issues unrelated to their direct economic benefit, so that they would forgo voting to give themselves money and instead vote for the party that was going to align with your social values. The Democrats is turn also try to appeal to certain voters via social issues. This is why politics since the Vietnam era has been the battle ground for the culture wars and even recently issues such as gay marriage have such a profound impact on the results of elections.

So I thought I'd throw this out there and see anyones thoughts on are potential grim end.



First, EJB posts about the coming Democrat super-majority which, in tandem with Barack Obama being elected president, will overthrow our capitalist system and replace it with socialism. Now we get another doom and gloom piece about how increasing the amount of democracy in our government would cause a total collapse into totalitarianism. The quote is utter nonsense, for a few key reasons.

Before I go into those reasons, though, I'd like to point out that the author of the article EJB links to is Neal Boortz. Neal Effing Boortz. Are you kidding me? This is a man who claimed that the "primary blame" for Katrina goes to the "worthless parasites who lived in New Orleans." Boortz also declared that the victims of the Virginia Tech shooting are to blame for their deaths because they "stood meekly" around "waiting for this guy to execute them." He refers to the homeless as "urban outdoorsmen" and believes that ADD and ADHD are medical myths that parents, students and drug companies use to scam the public. Now I know that EJB does not subscribe to these beliefs. I also know that this is an ad hominem attack and it does not necessarily shed any light on the validity of the quote. But Neal Boortz is a wretched man, no matter how you cut it. In the article EJB linked to, Boortz cites this quote as proof that Barack Obama is claiming to only tax the richest 5% because he is trying to commandeer votes. He says:

"Here we have Barack Obama promising that he’s only going to raise taxes on the evil rich who make over $250,000 a year while 95% of Americans will get tax cuts. Think of this in terms of votes; higher taxes for 5% of the voters, lower taxes for the other 95%. It really doesn’t take all that much brainpower to figure out how this is going to work at in an election does it?"

This is the absolute worst kind of political punditry. There is no validity to this statement, because if you carry it out to its logical conclusions, it would mean that any tax policy (or any political policy for that matter) which benefits more than 50% of the population is merely a scheme to try to win votes, rather than legitimate public policy. The worst part about this type of assertion is that it can never be proven false. Obama can cite Rawls' "Justice as Fairness" philosophy until he's blue in the face, but it can never overcome the assertion that policies which benefit a large number of people are only meant to attract their votes. You cannot prove that it isn't, because you cannot prove a hypothetical negative. In other words, I could argue that McCain chose Palin because he had a secret affair with her and she blackmailed him into giving her the position. Prove to me they didn't have an affair! Anyway, I think my point is made and I once again reiterate that EJB does not subscribe to Boortz' argument...I just had to get that off my chest.

Now back to the quote, it's illegitimate for a few reasons. First and foremost, it's historically incorrect. I would challenge anyone to find a democracy (a pure democracy) that has failed because of "loose fiscal policy" and then collapsed into tyranny. I can't find one; you can't find one; because there isn't one. The quote purports to be "historical" in nature, but that isn't true. It's hypothetical or, at best, predictive. Athens did not fall because the people voted themselves more money. Rome was not a pure democracy, but even it did not fall in the way the quote predicts. These civilizations fell because of weak internal rulers, unsustainable population growth and several outside pressures. Here's a history of democracies. Find me the one that fell because the people voted themselves "large gifts from the Treasury."

The idea that "democracy" cannot persist as a permanent form of government might be true, but we cannot ever hope to prove or disprove that assertion. How could anyone ever prove that any type of governance is "permanent" in nature...we don't even know if government itself is permanent.

We are not a democracy. Perhaps the only true democracy did indeed fall. But most civilizations and governments fall. We have yet to find a style or type of governance that is "permanent" in nature. Ideas evolve and cultures shift. It is even possible that our democratic republic will be replaced in the future by a newer, more efficient governmental model, the likes of which we haven't yet seen or created.

I think what EJB's two ideas (trickle-down economics and the rise of social conservatism) really prove is that politics is cyclical. Nobody is happy with the way government is run...there is a natural discord between rulers and the ruled. Thus, when one political party holds office for too long, too many negative events can be attributed to them - sometimes fairly, sometimes not. Nevertheless, the will of the populous necessarily shifts to another political party or philosophy. That party takes power and the cycle continues. I do not think "trickle-down economics" and the social conservative movement support the idea that democracy doesn't work because people will vote themselves money. I guess I just don't see the connection.

Finally, the people have always been able to vote themselves money! Why hasn't our Republic fallen? Franklin's quote is naive; he claims that people will one day "realize" they can vote themselves money. The American political landscape hasn't evolved in this way. We did not start as a country whose people were ignorant of the possibility of voting themselves more benefits. We are not now a country whose people are singularly driven by the desire to vote themselves wealthy. That has ALWAYS been the case. That's the point of having a republican system; our elected officials act as both a delegate and a representative. That is, they act in the way they believe their constituents would want, but at the same time, they act in concert with each other to do what they believe is best for the country. That's why not every pork barrel project gets passed or even put to a vote.

Our Republic is not ending. might be, but the cause won't be "loose fiscal policy" caused by "people voting themselves money." And we certainly won't devolve into tyranny.



So where do I start? I have to admit I was laughing through half of this. You have not only responded in ad hominem as you admit, but you have brought the ad hominem to a completely new level, perhaps a double ad hominem, so to speak. The entire first half of your response was attacking the messenger (Boortz) of the messenger (
Tytler). Not once did I even mention anything that Boortz was talking about, but rather that quote just happened to be used by him in the article in which I read it. I could have very well got it from any other source without even having Boortz in this at all. So I got a laugh at this, but I'll give you your ability to get this "off your chest" as you say.

So now lets look at the actual part about the quote. First off, I'm not necessarily agreeing with this is its entirely, I just found the quote interesting and decided to put it up there.

Continuing though, your response fits into two parts. One is that the idea is weak because anything can be explained as helping the 50% + 1, not just distribution of wealth. I agree; however, there is something different about what a majority believes is good for national security, something that theoretically helps everyone, or whether to build a bridge or not, in theory a "public good", and a policy that is directly designed to take from one group of people to give to another for the sole purpose of "they need it more." I do believe a distinction can be made.

Along this line, you say Franklin's quote is naive because people have always realized they can vote themselves money and this concept in not new. True, I'm sure people realized this very early on, but structurally there were institutions in place for the first 150 plus years of the nation that restricted this ability. This was the whole reason for having a constitutional republic and not a democracy, that being to limit the power of the majority. The Founders greatly feared popular takeover of property and as you have agreed with me in the past, just take a look at the Federalist Papers. So early on, voting rights were restricted largely to those with property (not that I'm advocating this), limiting the ability of those without assets to use the government to take them. But more importantly I believe, until the early 20th century, it was understood that an individuals private property was off limits for the purpose of redistribution. The income tax was considered unconstitutional (though that was breached temporarily during the Civil War) and required an amendment to change that. The courts (a non democratic institution) therefore used to find most social programs unconstitutional, hence why FDR had to threaten to stack the courts until he got a couple of justices to loosen that interpretation and eventually he just appointed new judges who didn't hold that precedent. It is at this point, that the dominance of Democrats began and the major political battles, with the exception of desegregation, were largely ones of class warfare. The Republicans then came to power in the 1980's, partially due to this new version of "giving you something" of supply side economics. The other part was cultural, and therefore, are politics of late has less to do with the class warfare of old, but rather culture battles of rural vs urban areas, secular vs religious and so on.

Secondly, you talk about how no democracy has ever fallen because of loose fiscal policy. I agree there really hasn't been much, and most nations fall from outside forces, but to some extent this was true with both Rome and Athens that have been talked about. The people of Rome had expected "Bread and Circus", government distributed food and entertainment, financed partially by foreign plunder. This desire to "vote yourself money" was one of the driving factors of Rome's expansion. When Rome began to wane, these giveaways decreased and civil unrest within the empire became far more prevalent, including class warfare, in its end days (I am not saying this is the only factor at play at the time). Even before that, the essential end of the Republic, when Julius Caesar came to power, was made possible because the Senate lacked funds to finance the war in Gaul partially due to domestic expenditures in Rome (loose fiscal policy), so it turned to aristocrats, like Caesar to personally finance armies. He ignored the Senate, conquered all of Gaul, and his soldiers had in turn been paid via that land for their service, as this was a major political battle at the time, so they supported this dictator out of the desire to "vote themselves land."

Athens likewise fell due to war with Sparta. But, populous arrogance got them into that war largely driven by the desire for more spoils like those taken from the Delian League following the Second Persian War. After rebuilding the burned city with that money, they realized such expenditures could not be sustained (loose fiscal policy). Again, the people wished to "vote themselves money" by taking it from someone else, just in this case it was someone foreign. I realize these are not exactly perfect examples, partially because we really haven't had a long human history of representative government.

But you can even look at most of the western democracies currently and they all have something in common; their entitlement programs are on the verge of bankruptcy, and we could end up "fixing this" via the methods that caused the long decline of the Spanish Empire, largely taxing the merchant class to oblivion (as the Church and the Nobility, the ones "voting" in that society wished to destroy an "immorality" in the prior case and avoid taxation in the later case). This was in addition to massive inflation of the money supply, as government financed itself, largely benefiting the clergy and nobility, through new coinage as so they could reap benefits without having to pay for it themselves.

Some other contemporary examples would include the back and forth history of Argentina. A populous leader promising to give a list of things to the people gets swept into election, later to only drive the nation in bankruptcy, which causes turmoil and then is ultimately taken over via coup by a dictator to start the whole cycle again. Many Latin American nations have similar histories. I'm willing to bet you that Chavez (elected into office), if oil prices stay low, will be violently removed from power as turmoil erupts due to economic damage from overspending and inflation due to all his giveaways (loose fiscal policy).

I realize non of these examples perfectly align with the idea. I'm also not saying that the exact dynamic of this quote is correct, but I have some sympathies for its sentiment and I believe there is some truth to it.