Convening the Democracy Symposium
Hi there everybody. This post opens up our second symposium, this time on the subject of democracy. Our opening question is: “Is liberal democracy viable?” There are lots of directions an author might go in response to that question, and I can’t wait to see what everyone has to say. I’m also not particularly married to the idea that this exact question be the only one addressed by our authors. The possibilities for of quirks and twists in the discussion as we get different perspectives on the general subject is tantalizing indeed. My own first post appears below the jump.
If you wish to submit a guest essay for the symposium, you are more than welcome to do so. Please submit it to me at burtlikko [at] gmail [dot] com and bear with me if I don’t get around to scheduling it immediately after I get it — I have a day job that interferes with my blogging avocation from time to time. Please make sure your posts have the tag “Democracy Symposium.” I’m looking forward to sharing ideas with you all! Now, if you’ll proceed to the jump, I have some opening remarks about how an eighteenth-century Scots Tory predicted the travails of Greece and the poisoned polticial polarization of the contemporary American healthcare reform debate.
Although he has been widely misquoted in chain e-mails for the better part of ten years now, the late eighteenth-century Scottish lawyer and law professor Alexander Fraser Tytler, was in fact a great cynic about democracy. Tytler wrote of classical Greek democracies collapsing under the weight of public debts:
Nor were the superior classes in the actual enjoyment of a rational liberty and independence. They were perpetually divided into factions, which servilely ranked themselves under the banners of the contending demagogues; and these maintained their influence over their partisans by the most shameful corruption and bribery, of which the means were supplied alone by the plunder of the public money.
Tytler argued that the levers of democracy would inevitably be corrupted by those holding money and power, who would manipulate laws, timing of elections, information fed to voters, and selection of candidates to favor themselves. So while there might be exceptional individuals who come up from time, and moments of patriotic community forming and self-sacrifice in response to crisis, the general trend shown by history was that the citizenry’s “patriotic spirit and love of ingenious freedom … became gradually corrupted as the nation advanced in power and splendor.”
Now, Tytler did not predict that the cycle would necessarily end with a dissolution of the democracy into a more autocratic form of government. Rather, he foresaw that the use of public goods for partisan advantage would lead to stagnation: democracy would become a dead end for economic and cultural growth after an initial flourishment. And contrary to the chain e-mails crediting him with such a claim, Tytler did not purport to say that the lifespan of a democracy was two hundred to two hundred and fifty years.
But Tytler’s actual argument is not so very different from the argument falsely credited to him, nor is this critique of democracy particularly original to him. James Madison argued in his influential essays urging adoption of the United States Constitution, The Federalist No. 10 and The Federalist No. 51, that the remedy to this would be atomized factions embracing the whole of the populace, set against one another in the legislative arena, such that all interests would be represented and take their respective shares of the commonweal and at the eventual expense of the public debt.
So who had the better of it: Madison or Tytler? One must eventually concede that Madison seems naïve about a the beneficial effects of factions set against one another. Looking back over nine generations of U.S. history, the formation of coalitions of factions into parties, those parties attaining sufficient power, and subsequently using that power to manipulate the laws themselves so as to ensconce themselves in greater and more permanent power than existed at the time they ascended to office, seems to be an inevitable cycle — and looking at the history of British government (for instance), it seems all the more so.
Once joined with modern methods of financing governmental debt through the issuance of bonds guaranteed by tax revenues, the use of public resources combined with partisan jockeying for power does indeed seem to invite the problem Tytler pointed out.
I don’t think it can be fair to say that Tytler foresaw the creation of the modern welfare state, as he was a man of his times and not ahead of it. He could no more have conceived of a National Health Service in Great Britain than he could have conceived of a Royal Air Force or the Internet. He was thinking of plum appointments, contracts to let and sell public lands and provide public services, concessions for toll roads and tax collections, and so on. Tytler did not and could not have anticipated either modern systems of banking and credit, nor the explosive economic growth that the Industrial Revolution would bring.
I will leave for another day the question of whether democracy necessarily leads to a welfare state, nothing that the United States existed without any substantial federal or state welfare programs for the first hundred years of its existence and also nothing that if the voters didn’t like the government taking care of them, they’d have rejected politicians offering to pass those kinds of laws.
What I will say is that having tasted of the pleasant fruits of public welfare, the voting public of nearly any democracy sooner or later gets around to demanding more of them, and rewarding politicians and parties who structure government spending so as to provide them. And it’s noteworthy that every contemporary liberal democracy on the planet spends a majority of its national budget on a four-part suite of social welfare: old age pensions, medical care of varying and escalating degrees of universality, public housing, and nutrition. Even in the United States, post-WWII defense spending has never exceeded a third of the national budget and nearly all of the rest of it has been, and continues to be to this day, social welfare spending.
For the most part, these four kinds of aid to individuals is what modern liberal democracies spend their public money on. Partisans compete with one another to implement these programs, because there is political reward for so doing.
That the provision of such governmental services is intertwined with partisan jockeying for votes needs only a few examples, all from the United States: Democrats’ periodic use of Social Security as a scarecrow by Democrats; LBJ using the Great Society’s expansion of the American welfare state to break Republicans’ generational stranglehold on the African-American vote; the Republicans’ rush to endorse and promote what became Medicare Part D for fear of being left behind the Democrats. And all this stuff costs money and the government spends money it doesn’t have to pay for it all.
A cruder example: my dog loves my wife. And my dog loves me. But when I’m the one with the pig ear, the dog loves me and only me. I’m her best friend in the world. My wife might as well have been beamed up to the Starship Enterprise for all my dog cares. I’ve got the treat. After I give the dog the treat and she eats it, she come straight back to me looking for more. Tytler cynically posits, and no one contemporary to him or since has bothered to suggest he was wrong, that politicians who offer the policy equivalent of pig ears to the voters will get similar devotion and love.
Rare are the moments in history when governmental austerity is seen as politically desirable. Barry Goldwater was not rewarded at the polls for (among other things) talking about dismantling the JFK/LBJ Great Society expansion of social welfare. Ronald Reagan remains a polarizing figure in American politics to this day not for being staunchly pro-life (he didn’t really do much about that preference) or even expanding military spending and confronting the Soviets, but because he suggested the welfare state had gone far enough. And for all his rhetoric, welfare spending didn’t really get dialed back all that much, although in some sectors service did go down. And the deficit shot up because taxes got cut without spending being cut with it. Every President since Reagan has presided over increases in spending on social welfare.
The recent, and ongoing, controversy about Obamacare is something a little bit new — a claim that an expansion of governmental welfare services constitutes a tangible diminishment of liberty and freedom. The real argument against Obamacare is, it seems to me, “We can’t afford this,” because it’s different from the human offering his dog pig ears — when the pig ears run out, the government can just keep on giving them away. (The rebuttal argument the Democrats should offer to “We can’t afford to do this” is “We can’t afford not to do this,” making the case that Obamacare will be cheaper overall than the status quo. But they don’t really have to do that because Republicans aren’t really arguing money all that much.)
Money and debt aren’t the discussion we’re having about the program, and I submit that it isn’t the motivation the the root of all the bitterness and hard feelings. After all, Republicans were interested in Mitt Romney in 2008 for proposing a miniature version of Obamacare in Massachusetts; his ideas were thought innovative and worth consideration. Then, the same ideas got identified with an already-polarizing Democratic Presidential candidate. The reason there is such near-perfect partisan polarity on health care reform is that at some level, everyone thinks that more welfare means more loyalty from the voters to the party that provided it. It’s not that Obamacare will make us less free (or more free, or healthier), it’s that it will make more voters amenable to choosing Democrats, because Democrats steered public money to solve their personal problems. That partisan dynamic is what is driving the opposition and the support for this policy.
More or less what Tytler predicted.
If we did not have modern finances, modern banking, and modern means by which governments can deficit spend, this might be deemed a feature rather than a bug. And it is not necessarily the case that an expansion of social services must be accompanied by massive and ever-increasing public debt — so long as taxes are at a level adequate to finance the debt and the government makes intelligent decisions about the kinds of financial products it will offer to cover its deficits.
And even then, a reasonable argument can be made that tomorrow’s dollars are cheaper than today’s, and so long as the economy continues to expand in the long run, even significant short-term debt is not that big a deal. I don’t buy that argument myself, but I can see it. So why not deficit-spend to attract voters to your side of the fence? The answer is “Greece.”
We fear, and rightly so, what happens when democracies run out of money. Germany in the 1930’s gave history a horror show as to just how bad that could get. Greece has experienced civic chaos and difficulty forming a new government as a result of its financial strains — strains which, it appears to me, are the direct result of more public welfare spending than there was taxing and sensible debt management to pay for it. Rather than see the basic form of democratic self-government collapse in Greece (the last thing the Greeks need right now is another junta and that looks just a little bit too Weimar for everyone’s comfort), Greece’s European neighbors, and to a lesser extent the World Bank, have floated Greece loans to ratchet down its spending and give it financial breathing room to get its fiscal house in order.
I hope and predict that the Greeks will over time accept the bitter medicine of belt-tightening and tax hikes. It happened before in other nations (Austria comes to mind) and it can happen there, too. The problem is, there is no political reward for austerity and political punishment for raising taxes.
Breaking that dynamic is the key to restoring fiscal sanity to liberal democracies in economic crisis. When a cultural value of the government spending no more than a reasonable amount more than it takes in becomes something that earns voters’ respect and praise, politicians will behave accordingly. Tytler predicted, indirectly, that voters would never adopt such an ethic. I think that’s not right — that it is possible, difficult but possible, to get people to such a cultural place. It’s a shame no one visible is pushing for that now.