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Fear not! America will not fall due to its citizens’ imprudence. We’ve found a sure solution.

16 April 2012

Summary: Our government’s debt grows, imperiling not just its solvency but our very self-confidence in ourselves, and in our political regime. Can we reform before the end? Read this essay to learn the answer. And rejoice!

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Read and learn from the money paragraph of “Why Democracies Fail”, often attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler (Lord Woodhouselee, 1747–1813), a Scottish attorney:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse 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 a dictatorship.

This is one of the legion of fake quotes circulated by conservatives (details here), part of their great project to enmesh American minds in a web of lies.  This one is especially daft.  America’s long-term deficits are driven almost entirely by our massive military spending (ie, foreign wars and belligerent foreign policy) plus tax cuts (mostly for the rich).  Secondary factors are subsidies to large corporations (eg, agribusiness subsidies, give-away of mining rights on public lands, bank bailouts).

None of these are voting “themselves largesse from the public”.

This fable combines these false elements with nonsense:  seeing America as a democracy dominated by public opinion, in which our ruling elites slavishly follow the people’s whims — no matter how foolish.  In fact they conduct key aspects of US policy in defiance of public opinion.  Some notable examples: our foreign wars (conducted long after public support faded), open borders (ie, massive immigration), plus the unpopular cuts to Social Security and Medicare proposed by our great and wise.

The deficit dominates the thinking of our ruling elites.  Their lackies in Washington and on Wall Street supposedly fear the debt above all other things — but not so much that they advocate raising taxes back towards their levels during America’s great post-WWII boom years.   For details see

The deficit is a fake issue in a larger sense.  One searches in vain for a plutocrat-dominated political regime that died through imprudent domestic spending.  The spectre of bankruptcy only serves as a wedge to force cutbacks in wasteful spending (ie, on the 99%).   As our plutocrats’ hold grows firmer, this fear will no longer serve a useful purpose — and the time will come to save the Republic. For details see Our fears are unwarranted. America is in fact well-governed.

But the other well-known fake Tytler quote looks prophetic.  It’s taken from a speech on 18 March 1943 by Henning Webb Prentis, Jr. (President of the Armstrong Cork Company).  Most of it is the usual plutocratic fantasy history.  One paragraph in particular is false as history, but might become an excellent summary of American history (source here):

The historical cycle seems to be from

  1. bondage to spiritual faith;
  2. from spiritual faith to courage;
  3. from courage to liberty;
  4. from liberty to abundance;
  5. from abundance to selfishness;
  6. from selfishness to apathy;
  7. from apathy to dependency; and
  8. from dependency back to bondage once more.

The American people appear to have evolved through this series into stages 5 and 6.  Our forefathers must weep at the prospect.  It need not be so, if we will otherwise.

Mrs. Powel of Philadelphia asked Dr. Franklin “What have we got, a republic or a monarchy?” “A republic, if you can keep it” replied the Doctor.
— entry of 18 September 1787 in the Papers of Dr. James McHenry on the Federal Convention of 1887 (signer the Constitution, our 3rd Secretary of War, & namesake of Fort McHenry)

For More Information: a look at America’s past

  1. Our futures seen in snippets of the past, 16 June 2008 — Great men of the past comment on our situation
  2. de Tocqueville warns us not to become weak and servile, 21 July 2008
  3. Let’s look at America in the mirror, the first step to reform, 14 August 2008
  4. Can Americans pull together? If not, why not?, 29 August 2008
  5. An important thing to remember as we start a New Year, 29 December 2008 — A great speech from Morpheus to Zion, from we too can learn
  6. A wonderful and important speech about liberty, 23 July 2009 — By Judge Learned Hand

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17 Comments leave one →
  1. 16 April 2012 5:46 am

    How do we purge our weakness then? When I talk to friends or family about the state of America, or send out links to the Fabius Maximus website I rarely get a responce much less informed discussion. Nevertheless, I will still attempt to help “reignite the spirit of a nation grown cold”

    Like

    • 16 April 2012 1:51 pm

      Hoyticus,

      That’s the great question. We don’t need more people desriving structural changes or new policies to fix our problems. We need methods to make these things happen! We meed pperational plans not wishes (“if only everybody thought as one”).

      My suggestion: seek to arouse anger. Attack their pride. Explain that we have become weak, betray the work of our forefathers, and pass on a weak (even dying) America to our children. All of these things are true, and might motivate where an intellectual analysis fails.

      It’s not a great answer. It’s all that I have. I’ve asked readers for suggestions and got none.

      What other solutions are attempted? Glenn Greenwald focuses on description of the problem, which he does better than anyone else I see. Most people just whine (eg, the smart people writing at Naked Capitalism).

      Like

    • Aesop permalink
      17 April 2012 7:01 am

      FM’s nihilistic view of the general population is almost as unbearable as the malevolent sinew therein, that is proposed to govern the individual in our republic.

      Where in this post is a solution to the straw man erected so elegantly but the author?

      If the unseen solution is explained here:

      “seek to arouse anger. Attack their pride. Explain that we have become weak, betray the work of our forefathers, and pass on a weak (even dying) America to our children. All of these things are true”

      I would argue it is utter nonsense. We have never lived in an optimal society without challenge. Yes, generally speaking, U.S. citizens have voluntarily given up our rights for convenience, but the simplistic antagonist prescribed here is nothing more than a vague populist derangement. If we are to believe that simple selfishness motivates the dark 1%’ers, whom coincidentally are conservative by majority, then the answer would be just as simple, drop out! This, however, is not the case.

      Liberalism/Conservatism are mindsets that evolve of the course of a human life. People change that mindset based on the level of risk v.s. reward individually and all of this has been well documented in classic literature, (fiction and non) religious texts, and political philosophy.

      “Selfishness is a passionate and exaggerated love of self, which leads a man to connect everything with himself and to prefer himself to everything in the world. Individualism is a mature and calm feeling, which disposes each member of the community to sever himself from the mass of his fellows and to draw apart with his family and his friends, so that after he has thus formed a little circle of his own, he willingly leaves society at large to itself. Selfishness originates in blind instinct; individualism proceeds from erroneous judgment more than from depraved feelings; it originates as much in deficiencies of mind as in perversity of heart.

      Selfishness blights the germ of all virtue; individualism, at first, only saps the virtues of public life; but in the long run it attacks and destroys all others and is at length absorbed in downright selfishness. Selfishness is a vice as old as the world, which does not belong to one form of society more than to another; individualism is of democratic origin, and it threatens to spread in the same ratio as the equality of condition.”

      – Alexis de Tocqueville 1835!

      Like

    • 17 April 2012 1:29 pm

      It’s wonderful when people so quickly contribute material to prove the validity of a post. As Aesop does here. Central casting will call soon offering a role in FM – the movie.

      I and so many others document the ills of the American polity, showing how they’re growing (like cancer). How they have few or no precedents in US history, and violate the fundamental aspects of our system. In reply Aesop hums loudly and tigthly closes his eyes. Now all is well.

      (1) “We have never lived in an optimal society without challenge.”

      This is the historical version of Zeno’s Paradox. Conditions have never been perfect, so conditions cannot grow worse. This comment is not only beyond rebuttal, it’s beyond parody.

      (2) “If we are to believe that simple selfishness motivates the dark 1%’ers”

      Are there any examples in history of groups striving for wealth and power in their societies, and gaining so much that it proves destabilizing? Apparently not on Aesop’s world! The very idea is silly! Aesop then follows with a little pop philosophy, and an irrelevant quote from de Tocqueville to provide some intellectual gloss. QED! Nothing to worry about!

      (3) “FM’s nihilistic view of the general population”

      That word does not mean what Aesop thinks it means. In the common sense, nihilism is the belief that life has no objective meaning, purpose, or value. Stating that the US people are following a historically common process of decay is not ninilism. Esp when advocating reforms to restore the Repubic, and concluding with hope: “There is still time to change.”

      Like

    • Aesop permalink
      17 April 2012 5:29 pm

      It is fun to read the obligatory patronizing tone so prevalent in the bloviations sponsored here. It certainly seems a ‘tell’ when one tugs at the web of neatly packaged circular logic FM has developed.

      Feel free to disregard any attempt to simplify the Rube Goldberg approach and file it under the “They” category. Any shred of evidence would be considered an anomaly buy such a profound thinker who has pinpointed the enemy of “them”. Maybe in a later post FM can call “them” out by name.

      “document the ills of the American polity, showing how they’re growing (like cancer)”
      Defining citizens as a cancer is a common theme, hardly and advocation for reform, possibly an incitement to destruction.

      “This is the historical version of Zeno’s Paradox”

      Pretty weak write off, considering the proposal in the piece is that all of humanity follows a cyclical routine from inspiration, to entanglement, to demise. A great natural observation with no room for alternate endings/beginnings.

      I don’t understand how de Tocqueville is irrelevant when the content of the chapter deals selfishness v. individualism. Selfishness being the prescribed classification “The American people appear to have evolved through this series into stages 5 and 6.” of Tytler’s Chinese finger puzzle.

      “Are there any examples in history of groups striving for wealth and power in their societies, and gaining so much that it proves destabilizing? Apparently not on Aesop’s world! ”

      This use of projection is sad: (I am sure you were chuckling as the buttons clicked below your fingers)

      In the real world, our constitutional experiment is the anomaly, the outlier to the common cycles of less free forms of governance attempted throughout history. I would argue that Americans have, from the beginning, lived somewhere between liberty and apathy, and only when the individual liberty is threatened apathy turns to courage.

      Like

    • 18 April 2012 3:42 am

      (1) “Defining citizens as a cancer is a common theme”

      Wrong. The comment says ““document the ills of the American polity, showing how they’re growing (like cancer)”. The ills of the polity are growing like cancer, not the citizens growing like cancer.

      (2) “I don’t understand how de Tocqueville is irrelevant when the content of the chapter deals selfishness v. individualism. Selfishness being the prescribed classification [of stages 5 and 6].”

      You gave the de Tocqueville quote as a rebuttal to the post. It’s not. All of the characteristics in each stage are omnipresent — everywhere and always. They’re aspects of human nature. But their role in society varies over time, which gives each era its characteristic tone. Magnitudes matter, as de Tocqueville explains throughout his two great works.

      (3) “the obligatory patronizing tone so prevalent in the bloviations … This use of projection is sad”
      You are at the wrong website; these schoolyear taunts find no audience here.

      (4) “our constitutional experiment is the anomaly”
      I agree. That is the point of the Franklin quote that concludes this post.

      (5) “I would argue that Americans have, from the beginning, lived somewhere between liberty and apathy, and only when the individual liberty is threatened apathy turns to courage.”

      I agree. We’ve moved unusually far into the danger zone, but (as I say at the conclusion of every post on this subject) we can still turn back.

      Like

  2. 16 April 2012 12:38 pm

    The bogey of too much debt is even more insidious. We have a fiat, non-exchangeable currency. Thus, we can never run out of money. We can have inflation–even hyperinflation, if not careful–but we can not run out of money. Meanwhile, we ‘could’ use the fact that we have a fiat currency to enact laws and policies that employ all willing, able-bodied men and women.

    The idea that an economy (think in the macro sense) needs to have unemployment, especially when it needs to “pay back debt” is as ludicrous as it sounds. It is not just idiotic to think that debts can be paid back by producing less, it is also evil and short-sighted.

    Like

    • 16 April 2012 1:53 pm

      “Thus, we can never run out of money. We can have inflation – even hyperinflation, if not careful”

      You are repeating the plutocrat’s analysis. My point is that our problems are relatively easy to fix. And will be fixed, when these fears have done their work.

      Like

  3. Bluestocking permalink
    16 April 2012 3:01 pm

    “America’s long-term deficits are driven almost entirely by our massive military spending (ie, foreign wars and belligerent foreign policy) plus tax cuts (mostly for the rich). Secondary factors are subsidies to large corporations (eg, agribusiness subsidies, give-away of mining rights on public lands, bank bailouts). None of these are ‘largesse from the public’.”

    Actually, considering the fact that at least some of the money for all this spending comes from the pockets of the taxpayers, I think it could be argued that this is in a sense “largesse from the public” (although admittedly in a different sense or context from that of the original quote) — instead of money from the government being used to personally enrich the people, money from the people is being used to personally enrich the government (and their corporate contributors).

    Like

  4. 16 April 2012 8:17 pm

    1787!

    Like

  5. 16 April 2012 11:43 pm

    FM offers: “…problems are relatively easy to fix. And will be fixed, when these fears have done their work.”

    Thought about this Post periodically all day. I would like to say that FM’s point is profound (and in a sense the impiclations of it are). It surely is indicative of this:

    5. from abundance to selfishness;
    6. from selfishness to apathy;
    7. from apathy to dependency; and
    8. from dependency back to bondage once more.

    Is it simply the case that abundance dulls the mind? Weakens the faculty of discernment…the will? I see it anecdotally in many ways. If so a crisis is probably the only time the eyes may become unglazed.

    “never waste a crisis”?

    Will we see one large enough?

    Breton

    Like

  6. Thomas Moore permalink
    17 April 2012 1:27 am

    FM remarked: “in fact they conduct key aspects of US policy in defiance of public opinion. Some notable examples: our foreign wars (conducted long after public support faded), open borders (ie, massive immigration), plus the unpopular cuts to Social Security and Medicare proposed by our great and wise.

    The first and second examples are solid, but the “cuts to Social Security and Medicare” haven’t happened yet, and are unlikely to. Better examples of the way America’s elites conduct policy in flagrant defiance of overwhelming contrary public opinion include:

    1) The never-ending War on Drugs, which polls show the public overwhelmingly thinks America should abandon;

    2) The never-ending War Against Copyright Infringement, which as a practical matter is impossible to enforce, and which polls once again show is massively hated by the American public — the recent example of the public outcry with which SOPA was met is just the latest example;

    3) Corporate personhood, which the public as a whole hates and regards as illegitimate, but which all the American elites are now in the process of buttressing with even more draconion court rulings (such as this amazing federal appeals court ruling which, if upheld, would make virtually all labor or business regulation by the federal government unconstitutional);

    4) Perhaps most of all, Obama’s health care mandate, a hugely unpopular giveaway to giant health care insurers and doctors and hospitals and medical devicemakers, rather than moving to a single-payer national health care system.

    These are actual policies put in place by both Obama and Republican presidents, and are immensely unpopular with the general public.

    Like

    • 17 April 2012 1:44 am

      Thank you for this incisive analysis, and for the great examples.

      As for SS and Medicare, I wanted to show that these trends continue into the future. And in fact I suspect cuts will occur.

      (1) They’re inevitable in Medicare. The cost of the open-ended care promised by Medicare will skyrocket as the boomers retire, and there is little support for the necessary tax increases to pay for it.

      (2) Some form of SS cuts are supported by large elements in the elites of both parties (eg, Obama). Which makes them very likely to happen.

      Like

  7. Comment submitted by email permalink
    10 November 2012 3:24 am

    Submitted by email:
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    Are you writing just for page views? To piss off conservatives? If you took any time at all, you would find that nearly all of your arguments are off-base. You really have the guts to write that politicians aren’t abusing fiscal powers? Were you paid to write that? Any debt, let along $16T, is ABUSE.

    Please stop whatever it is you are doing. Misinforming people and simultaneously stroking their egos does nothing good for this world. That is what we should be focusing on.

    Like

    • 10 November 2012 3:37 am

      This comment raises several issues.

      (1) “Are you writing just for page views?”

      If so, I”d adopt a more ideologically consistent viewpoint, as flattery gets the hits. The current fare on the FM website pisses off everybody at some point, which depresses traffic. Americans hate to have their views challenged.

      (2) “To piss off conservatives?”

      No, it was just your turn.

      (3) “If you took any time at all, you would find that nearly all of your arguments are off-base.”

      Excuse me if I don’t take your word for it. Especially since you give no rebuttal to the specifics of this post.

      (4) “You really have the guts to write that politicians aren’t abusing fiscal powers?”

      Please re-read this post, but more carefully. Especially note “Their lackies in Washington and on Wall Street supposedly fear the debt above all other things — but not so much that they advocate raising taxes back towards their levels during America’s great post-WWII boom years. ”

      (5) “Misinforming people and simultaneously stroking their egos does nothing good for this world. That is what we should be focusing on.”

      A timely reminder. This election has revealed to anyone paying attention that the GOP has been doing exactly that to its followers.

      Like

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