Friday, January 9, 2009

What Democracies Always Do

There is an interesting anonymous something that's been floating about the internet for quite a while, as emails and whatnot, and before that from mouth to ear. I do recall hearing some snippet of it circa 1974. In fact Reagan used it in campaigning for Goldwater. It purports to be an excerpt from one Alexander Tyler, Scottish historian from the late 1700s. Well that's a problem already. The name was Tytler. Excusable, of course -- a slip of the finger. I've done it myself. Oh, it's also attributed to de Tocqueville. He gets so many good quotes that he never said.

The something attributes to Tytler et al. the following: "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 largesse [or 'generous gifts'] from the public treasury. From that moment [or 'time'] 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 [or 'a democracy always collapses over'] loose fiscal policy, [which is] always followed by a dictatorship ['and then a monarchy']."

So there are variant readings. Curious. It's not a translation. It's not taken from holographic manuscripts. It is generally claimed to come from a tome entitled: The Decline [and Fall] of the Athenian Republic -- portentously published in 1776. No such work is known. Odd. Indeed, no known work of Tytler's contains these words, or anything from which they could be misquoted. The style, diction, orthography, etc. are simply not consonant with his period. In terms of historiography, the whole thing seems influenced, clearly, by Toynbee.

Further, the statement is suspect in itself. "A democracy is always..."? How many democracies have there been? To coin a universal law from a very few examples is hardly sound scholarship, and it is certainly poor logic. "It simply cannot exist as a permanent government"? What form of government can exist permanently? Empires and monarchies and regencies and suzereignties and hegemonies and fiefdoms ... even the Ottomans and the Chinese have had surprising fluidity behind the stability of labels. The statement is both authoritative and meaningless. The next part of the passage has the ring of truth to it, but it is certainly anachronistic, given that Athens, its supposed subject, did not have 'candidates' -- the reference is clearly to Rome. In fact, there was no Athenian Republic there could be a Decline [and Fall] of. As for democracies always falling to dictatorships, what else could they fall to? Anything more stringent than a democracy -- demogogies, oligarchies, juntas -- might be considered, in comparison, a form of dictatorship.

A forgery, then!

Well, no. A misattribution. Its first known appearance is from the "Queries and Answers" column of The New York Times Book Review, May 3, 1959, page 35. A Query that was never given a correct Answer. Anonymous, from the 1950's, then.

The next part of the "quote" -- sometimes attributed to Disraeli, and Toynbee, and a number of others -- entered the public record in 1950 through a speech given by Eugene E. Wilson to a UN Convocation in Hartford, Connecticut. "The average age of the world's greatest civilizations from the beginning of history, has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; from spiritual faith to great courage; from courage to liberty; from liberty to abundance; from abundance to complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependence; from dependence back into bondage."

I suppose the "200 years" was just pulled out of the real author's, um, ear, as a cautionary tale anticipating the American Bicentennial. This is all well and good. It clearly has a conservative taste to it, and that last bit, the rondo, is really good. Certainly not a law of history, though. Nebuchadnezzar's Babylon lasted some 50 years. The Roman Republic lasted 500 years, and the Imperial Rome of Augustus lasted certainly for the 350 years until Constantine. Byzantium lasted in strength debatably for some 600 years, and in total for more than a thousand years. The Ottomans lasted in strength for some 400 years and in all for over 600 years. That's just off the top of my head.

And there's certainly nothing in democracy that requires survival through all of these stages. That troublesome "always," again. My intuition is that the passage comes from a preacher. It has the certainty of the summation of a really enthusiastic sermon -- perhaps a 4th of July oration, or Memorial Day. It has the flavor of a smart college sophomore -- not a really solid grasp of subject detail, but a gift for generalities and a way with words. No, wiseguy, I didn't write it. I'm not that old.

Do I have a point? Well, isn't this interesting enough? It is to me. No, I don't think I have any ulterior motive here. True, the voters have recently favored the largesse party of the loose treasury, but I've said before that economics isn't my thing. As for all that stuff about faith and courage and liberty, well those are certainly my themes. But why would I spend so much time debunking the context if I agree with the upshot?

For years and years this thing as been floating around. We've heard it and nodded our sententious heads and felt wise for agreeing. Ah yes, that Alec de Tylerville -- I just love his Fall of Athens book that he wrote -- just finished it as a matter in point of fact don't you know -- quite the smart guy wasn't he and me too.

Democracies don't always do anything. Well, they always fall apart. But that's because everything always falls apart. Kingdoms always fall apart -- remember Cromwell? Empires always always fall apart. Yes, there is a point. Disappointment follows expectation. And expectation follows disappointment. It's an Ecclesiastes rondo pared down to the equilibrated pair. Ah, such a way with words, I have.

But there is a general law that can be discerned, for democracies. Whichever candidate gets elected will be the one who spends, regardless of promises, the most money from the public treasury. Witness the party of small government -- that's the GOP, if you didn't recognize the description -- which has spent more, by any measure, than any Democrat-controlled Congress ever.

In the minority, Republicans act as the brakes. When they're in power, there's only an accelerator. Another law of politics, from your friendly neighborhood sophomore.


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