Sunday, November 11, 2012

Privilege, Entitlement, and Democracy

Favoritism for one (or many) lessens the whole

A couple days after this year's election a friend sent me this quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, the 19th century political thinker and historian:
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. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.
Wikipedia says the quote came from the two-volume work Democracy in America where Tocqueville's "main purpose was to analyze the functioning of political society and various forms of political associations". I've seen this quote used as a forewarning on accumulating vast amounts of debt. That's an important warning, but for me the passage says more.

I agree that people will always vote their own best interests; that's only natural and in line with the rational being homo economicus. But I'd like to also think – perhaps wishfully – that voters might vote for shared benefits where all citizens benefit for some government action.  As for "loose fiscal policy", to me that implies weak politicians with little expertise and control; profligate Congressional committees leap to mind.

During my 2012 campaign for U.S. House, I wrote that government programs conveying benefit or favoritism also engender a sense of entitlement. This encompasses a broader definition of entitlement:  not just direct payments to individuals that we lump together as "welfare" but an expectation of continuing payments that are subsidized by future generations (Medicare and Social Security), antiquated programs that make payments to individuals to the detriment of consumers (farm subsidies), tax breaks that subsidize consumption and skew markets (home mortgage interest deduction and mandated ethanol production), and unequal treatment of wage and nonwage income.

John Adams said, "Killing one tyrant only makes way for worse, unless the people have sense, spirit and honesty enough to establish and support a constitution guarded at all points against the tyranny of the one, the few, and the many."  In the end, the broad application of direct and indirect entitlements eventually becomes privilege and tyranny – the very things we fought against to become a free nation.

As a generous people we want to move forward as a nation and encourage those that have strayed or fallen on hard times.  But when continuous application of entitlement becomes the status quo, the tyranny of privileged voters – be they rich or poor – becomes the realization of Tocqueville's warning. If America is truly exceptional, then perhaps we can escape Tocqueville's dire prediction. It's up to us:  we have the power to vote for wise candidates that represent us and steer our nation's fortunes for the benefit of all.

Can we reject privilege, chart a mutually beneficial course, and still be sated?  Time and our honest votes will tell.