I disagree with Hightower.

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Tuesday, February 28, 2012

on the fragility of democracy

A has had an extended discussion with B over the thesis: A democracy cannot last long beyond the point at which the public realizes that it can vote itself money from the public treasury. Bankruptcy will follow not long after that."

The latest (and perhaps last) episode in that discussion was about B's claim that the recent payroll tax reduction was a beautiful example. The Rs were reluctant last fall and voted only for a two month extension. They took a major beating in the polls later and in Feb they reversed themselves. (A few politicians on each side pointed out that this was coming from SS which already is short of long term money, but most said this is what people want so, bingo, the govt. handed the people $160 billion dollars that it doesn't have.)

A blames the politicians for anything that is bad in that. B argued that we can't blame the politicians because we are the ones who are insisting that they give us these things. A's position was that it was the job of Congress to refuse to give us what we demanded when it was bad for us. B then claimed that that was contrary to the bedrock principle of democracy and A said that they would not discuss this topic in the future.

I would point out that if you have a moral populace, then they will not go for this easily. But if you have them pay for a bit of what they are going to be getting, then they will become self righteously indignant in demanding what is "owed" to them. They will do that even if they know that they do not have a clue about how to calculate how much is "owed to them" as a repayment for what they actually paid into the system. Recall the ad by the old people telling politicians what would happen to them if the pols tried to reduce the medicare that "they had paid into", and the one about the little old lady being pushed over a cliff, and the riots in Greece when reality caught up with them.

When our entitlement bubble bursts, it will not be pretty.

Other versions of this proposition are:
Benjamin Franklin: "When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic." [added 3-2-12 - a questionable quote - see comment 3]
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America: “The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money.”


  1. Wow! That thesis is really interesting. I especially agree with "...even if they know that they do not have a clue about how to calculate how much is "owed to them" as a repayment...". Great post.

  2. I like the quotes.

    1. I think there is a lot of truth in both quotes.
    2. I think we have reached the threshold identified in both quotes.
    3. I am truly concerned about the future of the Republic.
    4. I am not ready to give up on the Republic.

  3. .
    The Franklin quote is dubious. It is in Petrie's blog, but wikiquote reports no attribution on record prior to 1988.