Democracy, on Trial, Again

The European Union may have temporarily bandaged the sovereign-debt crisis in Greece. But we need to face the fact that Greece, Europe, and the United States all face the same problem. To varying degrees, we have build unsustainable welfare states that have called into question, once again, the sustainability of democratic government. Greece is the canary in the coal mine, not just in financial terms, but even more in political and philosophical terms.

greek debt crisis

Because of the spectacular success of American democracy over the last two centuries, we are apt to forget how discredited democracy was in 1776. The lesson of history was that, in democracies, demagogues would led the passionate and fickle masses would vote themselves the property of the rich minority, and tyranny would result.

The lessons–how Greek city-states destroyed themselves and were conquered by larger despotic empires, how Rome morphed from a republic into such a despotic empire–were well known to the authors of the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution. James Madison observed that the ancient “democracies have ever been spectacles of turbulence and contention; have ever been found incompatible with personal security or the rights of property; and have in general been as short in their lives as they have been violent in their deaths. Even more familiar was England’s experiment in “commonwealth” democracy during their seventeenth-century Civil War. “Democracy” was a bad word at the time of the American Revolution.

The state governments under the Articles of Confederation repeated many of these ancient maladies. In particular, they engaged in the kind of inflationary debtor-relief polices that demagogues always proffer in times of economic distress. The American Constitution was in large part an effort to save democratic government from the tendency of majorities to vote themselves the property of minorities. Thus James Madison in the tenth Federalist argued that the new Constitution would help prevent a “rage for paper money, for an abolition of debts, for an equal division of property, or for any other improper or wicked project,” from going nationwide.

The Constitution created a government strong enough to protect us against foreign enemies, to establish a national free-trade area, and to prevent the states from conducting their own foreign or monetary policies. Its structure was meant to prevent majority tyranny. It succeeded fabulously, making the United States the most prosperous and powerful nation in the world by the end of the twentieth century.

After a century, American intellectuals began to think that the Constitution was out of date. They imported European ideas, such as historicism and relativism, which they Americanized into “pragmatism.” They concluded that the Constitution was OK for 1787, but was unable to meet the needs of the new industrial and urban order. They looked to European political systems, especially that of Bismarck’s Prussian welfare state.

As a result, we have gone through several waves of statism–progressivism, the New Deal, the Great Society. They all amount to the same thing–demagogues telling “the people” that they will save them from “the interests.” Democratic majorities have voted themselves all kinds of benefits. Worse still, they have traduced genuine democracy by using unelected judicial and bureaucratic power to override the will of the majority when the majority doesn’t follow the statists’ agenda.

They lost the constitutional principle that government action should be limited genuinely public purposes, and began to legitimize the use of government power by private interest groups. This “interest-group liberalism” was really just the kind of faction-laden politics that Madison warned against. It has produced what Jonathan Rauch calls “demosclerosis,” “an escalating game of beggar-thy-neighbor that damages the economy and chokes the government.”

After the United States won its independence, European autocrats and aristocrats expected the American experiment to fail. The Civil War was their last, best hope, which Abraham Lincoln defeated by his rededication to the principles of the Declaration of Independence. Eventually, Europe embraced American democracy, but not American constitutionalism. Thus, they are further down the road of democratic self-destruction.

Today, if Chinese autocrats are expecting the American experiment to fail, it is because our progressives–Woodrow Wilson, Theodore Roosevelt, FDR, LBJ, Barak Obama–repudiated the principles of the Constitution, the only thing that makes democracy work.