Another Perspective

The First — or Last — Tytler Election

We're all Greeks and Spaniards now.

By 11.9.12

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It is said that just over 200 years ago, Professor Alexander Tytler wrote:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves a generous gift from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years …

As is the case with many historic quotations, it has been disputed that Tytler used these exact words. However, he certainly said similar things, and in any case the authorship of the quotation has little to do with its validity.

The tendency to turn elections into an auction of promises to be paid for from the public treasury has been growing steadily for a long time -- some would say at least since the birth of modern democracy in the late 18th century -- that is, since a little more than 200 years ago.

The 2012 U.S. presidential election, however, might be said to be the first fought almost purely in accord with Tytler's predictions. The victor hardly paid even lip-service to the problems of repaying public debt now grown to a literally incomprehensible sum. It was also highly significant, though it has not been politically-correct to mention the fact, that Obama's vote came from, as well as socialists of various stripes, the least educated demographics.

Look further afield. The situation in Greece and other European countries provided a pointer -- major and continuing rioting in protests against imposing even slight measures of fiscal discipline. Greece is America a few years on.

We have only seen one major instance of national bankruptcy in a large swathe of the developed world in relatively recent times: in Britain and Europe in the aftermath of World War II.

The greatest differences between then and now were that then the White Knight of the U.S. came forward with the Marshall Plan, and Germany, the economic and industrial heart of Europe, though greatly damaged by war and Nazism, still had a "tough" population -- used to hard work, austerity and sacrifice. To varying degrees, so did the rest of Europe.

I have seen a photograph which I unfortunately did not keep record of: it was taken somewhere in Germany in about 1946.

It is a night-scene showing a vast factory, bombed, roofless, ruined, and dark: but not entirely dark. In one small corner of all that devastation a light is burning and a lathe is turning.

Here is another illustration of a national characteristic of toughness: 10 days after the end of the war in Europe, the Berlin underground was running again; the London underground was on strike.

The recent and on-going strikes and riots in Greece, at a time when strikes and riots are plainly a form of national suicide, have been in protest against the smallest proposed cuts in various entitlements. Whatever happened to the fierce and almost legendary Greek national pride and the toughness that enabled them to rout Mussolini's fascist legions? And recently there were the London and other British riots, with broadly similar causes -- slight and hesitant measures in the direction of government austerity, minuscule reductions in the size of the welfare state.

All coming, as Tytler is said to have predicted, roughly 200 years after the coming of parliamentary democracy. The great English Reform Bill, the Representation of the People Act, which greatly expanded the franchise, was passed in 1832.

America has been a by-word for ruggedness. Independence was seen as a national characteristic. This has been the first presidential election in which the successful candidate has appealed more or less exclusively to hedonism, ease, softness and entitlement. Plans for repaying, or even holding in check, the monstrous national debt were, relatively speaking, hardly raised or analyzed. It was actually highly significant that the Democrats dwelt on Big Bird as an election icon.

I do not recall a single instance of Obama being asked the simple question: "How do you propose to reduce the debt?" The "tough" but essential questions: national defense, the size of the nuclear strike-force, the state and future of anti-missile defenses, were all similarly ignored. Benghazi proved either desperate incompetence or active anti-Americanism on the President's part. It was part of the general softness and hedonism of this almost pure Tytlerian election that Benghazi was barely mentioned by Romney in the presidential debates, and when it was, Obama was able to fob him off with a blatant lie. Romney should have kept the debates riveted on Benghazi, the unmentioned gutting of U.S. nuclear forces and the debt. Did anyone mention that China can now put men in Space and America can't? The ease with which Obama was able to deflect the debate from such issues was horrifying.

Even the desperately urgent questions of national energy policies were brushed over fleetingly in the debates. To get a detailed examination of them, one had to turn to little-read, specialist papers.

What I call the "Tytlerization" of American politics (like "Orwellian," a word its author would not have wanted his name hi-jacked for) has with this election become nearly total. Although conservatives should remember nothing in politics is irreversible, I cannot see that America is facing anything but economic catastrophe.

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About the Author

Hal G.P. Colebatch, a lawyer and author, has lectured in International Law and International Relations at Notre Dame University and Edith Cowan University in Western Australia and worked on the staff of two Australian Federal Ministers.