Wineke: Examining Predictions Of Democracy’s Collapse

By Bill Wineke Special to Channel 3000

Election year must be drawing nigh because my emails and candidate statements are once more warning that the 200-year lifespan of democracy is drawing near.

If you read a column like this you are almost surely aware of the quote, purported to be from Scottish historian Alexander Tytler in 1787:

A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist 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…The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years.

Pretty scary prediction, isn’t it? It’s no wonder that Republican candidates keep quoting it, warning in the process that America is surely in the final stages of decay because it funds things like Medicare and National Public Television and adding that Tytler began his study with the fall of Athenian democracy.

Still, before we get too scared, it might be worth asking two questions of the Tytler quote: Is it accurate, and is it true?

The answer to the first question is “no.” There is no evidence at all that Tytler ever wrote any such thing.

The quote seems to have first popped up in public discourse in the 1950s and Ronald Reagan began quoting it as fact in 1964, according to my Google sources.

In fact, when you think about it, how could Tytler ever have come up with such an idea? Athenian democracy died in the fifth century B.C. And there just weren’t a lot of great democratic societies after that. What made the American Revolution so inspiring was its uniqueness.

Tytler, from what I’ve read, wasn’t a big fan of democracy but, then, in 1787 few people were. Democracy was a new concept. George Washington wouldn’t even be inaugurated until 1789. There were no histories of 200-year-old democracies to draw from, even if Tytler had been inclined to draw from them.

A story can be true, however, even if it is inaccurate. Could it be that the selfish masses of Americans are voting themselves from the public treasury that will doom our society?

Not really. In fact, if you look at the history of our country over the last generation, the opposite seems to be true. The people who are drawing benefits from the public treasury are the very rich, who are now paying the lowest effective tax rates in decades and who have managed to wrest virtually the entire growth in our economy into their own hands.

And how is that working for them? Not very well, I’m afraid.

The banks managed to get themselves into such dire financial condition that the United States had to bail them out to the tune of the better part of a trillion dollars — and governments of other nations pretty much had to do the same.

Two of the nation’s top three automakers effectively went bankrupt and the taxpayers had to bail them out, too. Ford did better, but that’s because Ford had already borrowed billions of dollars and had more cash on hand than did General Motors and Chrysler. To be sure, we’re getting paid back — but, hey, let’s look at who came begging hat in hand. Not the masses.

Today, the country is badly in debt, a major rating house has lowered our credit outlook and we came within hours of refusing to pay our bills. Why? One reason is our Congress will not consider raising taxes on the rich by even a dollar. What would Tytler say to that?

Add to that a growing refrain among “conservative” politicians that our real problem is that the poor don’t pay enough taxes and that, if our economy is to thrive, we have to cut benefits and raise costs for those greedy louts.

Could it be that, even though the Tytler quotations are bogus the principle behind them is sound? Could it be that the real problem is that we’re looking at the wrong group of government beneficiaries?

Could be.