Democracies come and go. As some measure these things, the average life span of a democratic republic is about 200 years, and ours is 241 years old. But they don’t simply die from old age. The pathology is present in their genes from the outset: the rule of the people.
In 1787 Alexander Tyler, a Scottish history professor in Edinburgh, made this observation about the Athenian civilization:
“A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.
From that moment on, the majority always vote 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 reason to reflect on the current state of America is twofold: first, while it is highly improbable at this point, it is possible that through the imposition of deep and sweeping reforms, the enterprise can be saved, and second; if it isn’t, we should all understand that what will follow will be unimaginably horrendous. Such a prospect is important to internalize, not so much for those of my generation, who will largely be gone then. But for our children and grandchildren, their reality will be unrecognizably worse than their present lives. So if there is any chance of redeeming it, we must take whatever steps are in our power to try to do so. The alternative simply isn’t acceptable.
The Phases, and a Thumbnail History
Tyler also outlined the major phases in the birth, development, decline and death of the democracy. He saw eight:
- 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
We can more or less map these onto our own history. Bondage in our case was initially the British Monarchy of the 17th and 18th centuries. Subjugation to the whims of the crown led to the strengthening of a faith that itself had been born in the 16th century with the Reformation. Most historians accept the role of Christian belief in animating not just our founders, but the communities of everyday citizens who endured the trials of emigrating to the New World and starting completely new lives in a new land apart, in many cases, from family, friends or any support system. Our earliest immigrants didn’t undertake such a trial without enormous courage.
Nor was the decision to fight against the most powerful military in the world of its day a decision taken lightly. One can only imagine the reverence with which these people held personal liberty. It drove them to put down their plows and abandon their homes and families, and take up arms against the invincible British military. And do so under unimaginably harsh conditions of sickness, hunger, cold and deprivation.
Yet, they did. And the result was indeed liberty. And for the next 150 years or so, their abundance and overall standard of living exploded. Governments were small, and the country and its opportunities were enormous.
But eventually our size and prosperity simply demanded that we join in with the good and the just in the great conflicts of the 20th century, despite the popular preference to stay out of them. Our interest was not conquest, colony or spoils. Our interest was simply the preservation of a just and humane civilization that was threatened first by the Kaiser, and later by the Nazis and Japanese Imperialists.
Only following WWII did things start to go dramatically south. Yes, we had abundance. But culturally we began to prize indolence – leisure – nearly as highly as the freedom we had to enjoy it. Perhaps we could be forgiven, after nearly 50 years of war’s ravages and the Depression of the 1930’s, for seeking a little relief from it all. But the destructive influence of majority indifference and self-satisfaction should not be under-appreciated.
The transition from this complacency to apathy and dependence is not quite as well marked, historically. But there are some identifiable milestones. In hindsight, one can see the effects of apathy in the inexorable growth of government’s power and size. The growth of government being the natural condition to those who seek its employ, it seems quite logical that its size and influence would naturally grow, particularly as each incremental step, if it was noticed at all, seemed hardly threatening. It’s helpful to remember that until 1913 we had no federal income tax. And when it was imposed, it was over the objection of a significant portion of the citizenry. But by 1965 we had gone from fighting the imposition of any tax to chasing politically-cast visions of the perfected culture – the social utopia. All in the course of basically 50 years that had largely been consumed with war. It’s as if the country said; “Now that we’ve escaped these horrendous wars, we can finally begin to think the grand thoughts, and build the grand civilization.” And those who traditionally were more circumspect about such things did indeed become apathetic – “Hey. Life is good. Why fight it?” And so, off we charged into a significantly different civilization than our fathers and grandfathers would have chosen or could even imagine. It’s at this critical point that one could see the old culture, the one that founded and built the country, fade in its war-weariness, and the new culture of expectation for utopia emerge.
We created the so-called “welfare state” in those days. It started off somewhat modestly, designed as it was to buy the votes of its recipients, but equally as importantly to buy the votes of those whose conscience was salved by its institutionalized “compassion” (irrespective of the actual outcomes it wrought). And from those modest beginnings we now have a welfare (in the broadest meaning of the word) machine that consumes nearly 20% of everything the country produces every year (GDP) and nearly 50% of government revenues. Such figures suggest a significant (and growing) proportion of “dependence” on such government payments.
So what professor Tyler would conclude in looking at this (as a non-technical but uncontroversial recounting of our history) is that the next stop is “bondage” and “dictatorship”. Just how those things come about is anyone’s guess. But his point would be: the die is cast – they’re next.
The Demise of Christian Faith and Practice
Beginning in 19th century Europe the demise of Christian influence on society had all sorts of negative consequences. Some of the more important were: First, the simple fact that fewer and fewer people were involved in the traditions of Christian life meant they were no longer spending as much time just thinking about the Christian principles of life. If the message is not a part of your daily consciousness you are far less likely to follow its precepts and teachings. If you’re not thinking about forgiveness, you are likely to be less inclined to forgive. If you’re not thinking about admonitions to act with humility, you will likely act less humbly, i.e. more aggressively. If you aren’t taught the immorality of stealing or cheating or killing and have those moral principles imprinted on your life, you are, quite simply, more likely to steal, cheat and murder. So to say Western Society became “less Christian” over the course of the 20th century is to say something considerably more profound than is implied by declining church attendance figures.
The second significant effect is perhaps more subtle, but at the same time far more powerful. People operating outside of the Christian worldview have no basis for hopeful expectation other than their own devices and fortune. No one is in charge. There is no plan. Therefore, they reason, ‘I have to fight for my needs and “rights”. Otherwise, those that oppose and seek to oppress me and those I care about will succeed and cause us harm’. Today, this is what fills TV news and the Internet, with ever-increasing ferocity and incivility.
While the second half of the 20th century was categorized by majority indifference, it also marked the explosion in the US of the political radicalization of the young. Protest, against whatever traditional idea or institution, was in. Cultural conformity was out.
The really interesting thing to me about this time was that you never heard about what the alternative vision was; what the young and aggrieved thought they were fighting for. What you did hear was what the perceived sins of their antagonists were, whether they were running companies or wars or governments. It all had to go. The vision was the elimination of all cultural structures they perceived as impeding their ability to live a more idyllic life. There was a little moral indignation, particularly regarding the Viet Nam war, and with good reason. But morality really wasn’t the driving force, at least morality in the traditional sense. Some of it felt like a traditional proletarian rebellion against the bourgeoisie. At least I think many of my friends who took to the streets felt a kinship with their Marxist protagonists. But they were all upper-middle class white kids; hardly oppressed, faceless slaves of privileged overlords. No matter. They all identified with and parroted the phrases of “the struggle”.
I called this radicalization an “explosion”. And indeed it felt sudden and powerful. So one would be forgiven for wondering where this lurch into rejection of their parents’ values came from. It’s not that the country instantaneously changed. Its young generation changed – the Baby Boomers, so-called. And where they got it was in school – their colleges and Universities. Many have pointed to the influence on US public education in the later 20th century of the so-called Frankfurt School of philosophy, that sprang up in the inter-war period in Germany.
In a nutshell it argued for a mindset of constant “critical analysis” in examining all societal norms and theories of their goodness or badness. The point was to suspend complacency and acquiescence with the way things were, and instead to incessantly question and challenge. Apparently, the thinking was that by this constant challenge and refinement, some kind of perfection would be obtained. Indeed this was the predicate for the vast majority of liberal higher education in those days, and in many places still is.
What was lacking from the “analysis” in the 60’s was any informed understanding of what preceded it. Knee-jerk rejection is not analysis. Some of this was simply the hubris of youth. Some was the atrocity that was Viet Nam. But a lot of it was simply that lack of understanding. And if anything it is far, far worse today.
Try to find someone under 30 who can articulate the principles of human liberty enshrined in our founding documents. If you can find a couple, see if they can explain the principles and constituents of virtue, their value in the human life, and the value of leading an examined, sober and circumspect life. And if one of those comes through, see if he can explain the Christian principle of the righteous life in which love is expressed and self isn’t.
Virtually none of these things that shaped Western Civilization for thousands of years are even known about, let alone understood, by those who, out of hubris and a felt indignation, simply abandoned all of it in what amounts to a single stroke.
Despite the few who were actually motivated by H.D. Thoreau and others, it’s simply not accurate to claim that the 60’s movement was about achieving something like Utopia. They didn’t even know what it was. There was nothing spiritual about it; nothing crafted from first principles to create something better. It was simply about rejecting anything and everything that had happened before they arrived.
The Rise of the Tearing Down Mentality
My claim is that between the 1960’s and the present, there has been a steady increase in the percentage of the American population that seeks to tear down societal and cultural structures of all kinds. Others have claimed this attitude is a byproduct of their liberal public education. It’s a logical conclusion, but having not experienced it myself, I can only observe that the attitude exists.
We’ve already touched on the church. For a host of reasons, not just demographic, the church today lacks any significant influence on the direction of the culture. I have written elsewhere that this is the single most significant factor in the decline of Western Civilization. But there have been others.
In the 1930’s we began reimbursing young single (white) mothers a monthly stipend intended to help her feed her dependent children which was expanded in the 1960’s as Aid To Families with Dependent Children. Essentially what this program did was create the government as a surrogate father whether or not the biological father was in the picture. You can review the rates of single mother-led households in the US from 1960 to the present and draw your own conclusions.
Simultaneous with governmental programs such as AFDC was a dramatic liberalization of divorce. Marriage had left the Church long ago, but in the mid 20th century the legal terms of terminating a marriage still reflected the Church’s premise that it was a sacrament, a life commitment, and not, therefore, something to be easily voided. Substantially all of this was overthrown.
Today, the argument can and has been made that the institution of marriage from a male perspective is anathema. They already can have unrestricted sex without consequences pretty much when and where they want. Why on earth should they then marry, knowing that if the marriage ends they will lose 50% of whatever they brought into it? One wonders if anybody actually thinks about any of these policy decisions before taking them.
The consequence of these and many, many other similar adaptations in government-created social policy is that vast numbers of people today grow up in single parent households. It is perhaps an understatement to say that this is, from the child’s perspective, a pathological environment in terms of their healthy development and outlook. Of course you can find loving and heroic mothers who sacrifice supremely for their children. And some of those turn out just fine. But it’s a bit like whistling past the graveyard. Tens of thousands come out wounded and bearing the scars of the lack of a stable, loving family unit in which to incubate to adulthood. A large portion emerge simply angry, and for all intents and purposes, dysfunctional.
We also lost community. Increasing urbanization meant that increasingly we were moving to large urban centers and living with strangers. While we might know our apartment neighbor well enough to greet them in the morning, we didn’t really know them. Nor they us. We didn’t have community with them. The really interesting thing in this new normal way of society, however, is that we don’t expect to know them. We have no expectation of community with our neighbors. And so another fragment of our humanity falls away.
I don’t think we have any idea today about the profound consequences of the loss of whole family structure, and church and civic communities in our lives – especially the lives of children – in the sustaining of stable society.
I’ll leave it to the sociologists to gauge the specific causes of particular effects. But meanwhile we observe a host of fairly new, fairly radical beliefs on the part of a large proportion of today’s youth, as well as some of their more elderly soulmates (as for example those holding forth in teaching positions in the colleges). It’s a belief system that is hard to nail down, maybe because it’s not a system at all. It’s some part nihilism, some part idealism, some part simple naiveté, and a quite large part just ignorance all animated recently by intense anger. The ignorance part is substantial and should not be underestimated. As previously, I’d ask you to find a couple of these folks who can explain the principles and advantages and societal disadvantages of personal liberty, and why it was that a majority of this country’s early settlers found it worthwhile to fight the greatest military power in the world at that time over it, and to suffer loss, injury and death to achieve it.
If you listen, what passes for political discourse today never touches on liberty or virtue or any enduring higher concept than “Us” Vs “Them”. This is one of the profound challenges of the day. Neither side understands where the other is “coming from”. We can’t intelligently discuss border integrity because one side has no concept of fiscal limitations or what it takes for shared community to exist and thrive. We can’t discuss destructive personal behaviors or their remedies because one side sees only limitation of their freedoms and “lifestyle”, or perhaps bigotry or racisim. We can’t even discuss roles for “men” and “women” today as those identities have been rejected, apparently as too limiting.
And, perhaps under the heading of “the enemy of my enemy is my friend”, we can’t really discuss the threat to life and our civilization posed by the rise of Islamic terrorism. People who avowedly seek to either convert you to their belief system or kill you are routinely excused and accepted in what can only be described as a societal death wish. This must simply be profound ignorance, as pure evil is not recognized. No people knowingly seeks its own subjugation or eradication. Yet this is precisely the behavior of not just the young Westerners, but their leaders.
The Perversion of Government
Europe these days presents a kind of IQ test for the leadership there. Long ago they decided that they were going to create socialist utopias founded on the distribution of wealth from those that had it to those that didn’t. And they survived for a while, certainly since WWII, albeit supported substantially by the Germans who, despite their own socialist inclinations, were still able to out-engineer and out-manufacture most in the world when it came to complex products. They became the bankroll, in addition to EU-wide income tax rates of 40-70 percent and VAT (sales) tax rates of around 20%, for the European Union (EU). And the European Union, became the social overlord for all of Europe, dictating everything from how many Middle Eastern immigrants you have to assimilate this year to the shape and size of bananas you can purchase.
Fast forward to the wars in the Middle East and North Africa. Suddenly whole countries were being shut down in the face of ongoing wars in their territory. Jobs evaporated. Personal threats skyrocketed. And those that could decided, rationally, to get out of there. But where to go?
The EU, with its institutionalized compassion, provided the answer. They said, “Come on up here. We’ll protect you.” What they either failed to notice, or perhaps consciously ignored, was that they were comprised of member states with generous welfare programs.
So lo and behold, immigrants from war-torn, dysfunctional Middle Eastern and North African nations discovered to their sheer amazement upon arrival that they could get more money for doing nothing in France of Germany or Belgium or Holland than they could ever have imagined earning at a job had their country not been victimized by war and they stayed and lived out their lives there.
That’s a problem for a sovereign nation. And it’s a problem on several levels. First, having fallen into this great situation, every immigrant immediately notified all of their friends and family still back home of their great windfall. They didn’t have to encourage them to join them. Those hearing this message knew what to do.
Second, since the immigrants didn’t have to work, they didn’t have to learn the local language or work to assimilate into the local culture. Why would they expend the effort to do that? They simply formed communities of their fellow countrymen, reestablished their own local customs and rituals, and largely ignored their hosts. This widely documented behavior the sociologists call “cocooning”. This made for bad community relations. “Them” Vs “Us”, if you will, not to mention the fact that they were used to a certain style of behavior with respect to women that didn’t particularly endear them to the local population. (I don’t think I need to graphically elaborate on this point.)
Third, already jerry-rigged government budgets were decimated, and continue to be under ever-increasing stress. “Caring”, governmentally speaking, for an extra 500,000 or so people on your welfare roles is not something budget engineers quickly resolve. What’s all this have to do with America?
An increasingly dysfunctional population puts certain strains on government. More and more people need help from the only available source, the government. This burden must be paid for. A small fraction is derived from current taxpayers. Alarmingly, however, an increasing portion is financed, to be paid by future (i.e. not yet existing or not yet productive) taxpayers.
As a point of reference, there was a time when the role of the Federal government was essentially to mint money, to provide for our (common) defense, and to adjudicate issues involving the laws of the land. Since the 1960’s, however, its role has increasingly become to take (financial) care of us, just as our European brothers adopted before us. Therein lies the fundamental issue, and the tipping point into Tyler’s designation as “dependent”. Once those receiving financial support from the government exceeds a critical mass, as I believe we have now done, the game is essentially over. I say “essentially” because it will take some time for the society to devolve into self-destruction, or the government’s fiscal situation to become so perilous that creditors no longer wish to take the risk of lending to us.
But the end of the United States is, at this point, nearly guaranteed. Pundits assert that Medicare will be technically “broke” by 2028. Social Security has a few more years of solvency, at least until 2034. At those junctures I’m sure we’ll tweek and tinker to put a few more years of solvency into these programs. That’s what elected politicians do. But the end is nonetheless assured. The only question is when.
As the screw tightens (and bond investors are notoriously a flinty, hard-nosed bunch), the largesse of the government will begin to dwindle. Initially the reaction will be simple protests and minor civil unrest. But when periods occur in which checks temporarily stop coming (until some heroics on the part of congress, say), things will get more heated. “Dependent” means just that. The check is not a “nice to have”. It is necessary for survival. So we should not expect people’s reaction to its absence to be calm. Very, very soon, desperation will set in. And people that are desperate should not be expected to be calm or rational or civil.
There will apparently also be a simultaneous financial spiral down, as investor confidence in the US diminishes. Fewer people willing to buy our bonds will cause the interest rates on those bonds to ratchet upward. Higher rates means the cost to the government of those bonds will skyrocket, making its financial integrity that much more tenuous. We can pay a 2% coupon on bonds quite easily as long as people want to buy more of them. If the coupon is 15%, and people become nervous of our ability to pay it, they’ll be less enthusiastic about buying more. The Ponzi scheme has a end.
Eventually, and this is the day of Armageddon, we won’t actually be able to pay some portion of what we owe on bonds outstanding. Probably before this point, the US financial system will collapse in anticipation of the imminence of that day. It’s likely that taxpayers will see it coming too, and some will simply stop paying, knowing that it wouldn’t do any good anyway, and hoping to hold on to something in the coming collapse.
There then will be a time of anarchy. And the usual remedy for anarchy is a powerful dictator. But a takeover by a foreign state would also impose order. Whatever outcome obtains, it will be in this condition that people finally understand what liberty and virtue really mean. Not from any textbook, but from grinding personal experience.
If nothing changes; if we continue to profess ignorant demands; if we disregard the wisdom and sacrifices of those that came before us; if we allow ourselves to form worldviews informed by nothing more than what we and our crowd feel like, then we are indeed doomed. Historians will only need one word to describe America’s demise: selfishness. The motive force in American politics today is to get stuff for ourselves, and to feel good about giving it to somebody else who “deserves” it. As Abraham Lincoln described this mentality: “‘You work and toil and earn bread, and I’ll eat it.’.”
Is there any way to save the US? Well, sure. Just as there’s a way to save Europe. For Europe, all they’ve got to do is reform their welfare systems to stop paying immigrants. Before you scream “racism” or other epithets you should be reminded that the US didn’t pay its immigrants one dime until sometime in the 1930’s. The whole country was already built by then, and its character solidly formed. Immigrants found a way to learn the language and learned what they needed to learn of the culture to successfully hold down a job to provide for their families.
For the US, we too could hugely benefit from totally reforming our ignorantly formed and failing welfare system. It is singularly the most significant cause of family destruction, and all of the dependent social pathologies that follow on from it, in the country today. It could be done. But the odds of it ever happening are extremely small. After all, if you are called a racist for even broaching the topic in conversation (as here), it’s quite unlikely that the subject will ever mature to the point of enlightenment.
Which brings us to the next redemptive prescription: education reform. By this I’m not referring to some arcane policy argument of Charter Vs traditional, or Common Core Vs the McGuffey Reader. I am simply referring to the persistent, political indoctrination fed to students today from K to 12 to Baccalaureate. There is something fundamentally corrupt when the education system of the US today is responsible for producing in the vast majority of its customers an unwillingness to entertain a new thought or idea other than those with which they have been indoctrinated. Having received such an indoctrination, if one then self-selects not to learn, not to grow and challenge themselves, then that person becomes merely an automaton controlled by his or her programming. And I would assert that this is largely the condition of young adults today emerging from the education system in the US.
One might be prone to express some optimism on the prospects of solving other societal issues (e.g. healthcare, or whatever) if the population was capable of processing and analyzing the salient facts of the matter. So far of late, however, they have proven they are not.
So, sorry, but I’m not optimistic. The best any of us can do at this point is to continue to stand up and decry these self-destructive ideas when and where they pop up, and accept the hate and vitriol and epithets that will predictably result.
One loves his neighbor not by silently watching him commit suicide blissfully, but by intervening to stop it and to work for the best for him, no matter the temporary discomfort that may bring.
 You may not accept this statement. You may think the motivations were altruistic. I would only point out that: a) it was crafted by politicians seeking power and reelection, and; b) no one who knows anything about rehabilitation or even relief today would predict anything but cultural disaster from the form of welfare instituted by the Great Society. It has proven to be destructive of humanity everywhere it has been implemented.
 There were lots of subtexts in the struggle, not least was women’s rights which, given the increasing numbers and militancy of young girls of that generation attending college, perhaps predictably provided an extra boost and sustaining theme to the overall movement.