Tuesday, March 03, 2009

Conservative Spam

Last week, I was listening to Dennis Prager discuss the bank bailouts and economic stimulus packages that have been railroaded through Congress lately. During the discussion, one of the studio personnel related a quotation from an 18th century writer by the name of "Tyler."

The quotation basically intimated that all democracies must ultimately fail because voters will eventually discover they can vote themselves money from the public treasury. For obvious reasons, I was intrigued by the quotation and decided to look it up. Maybe Tyler had written other good things.

Imagine my surprise when I discovered "Tyler's" quotation is a conservative urban legend that has circulated by email since the Bush-Gore 2000 presidential race but is actually decades old. The quotation, allegedly from Alexander Tyler's Fall of the Athenian Republic, read:

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 (or "largesse") 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. 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.

According to Wikipedia, the supposed author to whom this quotation is attributed was Alexander Fraser Tytler (d. 1813), a Scottish lawyer and writer who lived at the time our Republic was founded. There is no record that Tytler ever wrote a book entitled The Fall of the Athenian Republic. In reality, however, the quotation is from several sources. Read this article by Loren Collins for more information.

From Wikipedia:

The passage actually comprises two quotations, which didn't begin to appear together until the 1970's. The list beginning "From bondage to spiritual faith" is commonly known as the "Tytler Cycle" or the "Fatal Sequence". Its first known appearance is in a 1943 speech "Industrial Management in a Republic" by H. W. Prentis, president of the Armstrong Cork Company and former president of the National Association of Manufacturers. The quote appears to be original to Prentis. No original author can reliably be determined for the first paragraph.

It is possible that whoever first made the statement [in the first paragraph] was paraphrasing or drawing a conclusion from a different quotation by Tytler. So, what did Alexander Tytler actually say?

The real statement reads:

It is not, perhaps, unreasonable to conclude, that a pure and perfect democracy is a thing not attainable by man, constituted as he is of contending elements of vice and virtue, and ever mainly influenced by the predominant principle of self-interest. It may, indeed, be confidently asserted, that there never was that government called a republic, which was not ultimately ruled by a single will, and, therefore, (however bold may seem the paradox,) virtually and substantially a monarchy.

(From Bartleby's Dictionary of Quotations)

I happen to agree with the substance of both quotations. The apocryphal quotation lacks the authority of a single author, and cannot be considered a prophetic statement about the course of the American experiment.

However, the "Fatal Sequence" seems logical--almost a historical law-- and examples of it are plentiful in history. Also, it would be an useful historical inquiry to determine whether in every historical democracy has degenerated because of loose fiscal policy. Is it the case that the citizenry of democracies will invariably vote for funds to benefit themselves and/ or their own interests without regard for the long term consequences?

Finally, the actual quotation by Tytler, suggesting that in fact no true democracy has ever existed, is an important point. There is no such thing as the "will of the people." There can only be compromise resolutions between whatever interests have representation. If in fact a general will does not exist, what single will actually does rule? Perhaps, the single will is constituted by a succession of overriding impulses that characterize the national mood at particular times [e.g., national self-determination, egalitarianism, freedom of religion, freedom of speech, freedom of the market, the preservation of the union, democratic populism, civil rights, equal preference satisfaction (i.e., freedom of choice), etc.].

And if no single will actually governs U.S. policy, could it be that we are being led in a direction--toward an end--that has actually been chosen by nobody? Are we so dedicated to a theoretically perfect system of checks and balances that we have accepted a simulacrum of actual government in place of the real thing--concrete authority, principled policy, and just judgment?

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