The “Tytler” Insult — Is Democracy Hopeless?

Well… it’s back.  One of the best examples of a mass-hypnotic pseudo-wisdom that helps to lobotomize politics in American life.

“A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse over loose fiscal policy, (which is) always followed by a dictatorship.” 

This widely-circulated nostrum is called the “Tytler Calumny” and it is the great example of what has gone wrong with the mental processes of our friends on the right, who used to be represented in sage debate by great minds like Barry Goldwater and Friedrich Hayek and William F. Buckley…  but who are now reduced to slinging around aphorisms and fact-free fox-assertions.

(In fairness, after watching Bill O’Reilly hold his own with Jon Stewart in the great 2012 Rumble in the Air-Conditioned Auditorium, I have to admit, there are still islands of sort-of almost Goldwater-style adult-honesty on that side, though lamentably rare, as this missive will show you.)

First off, although named for a 19th Century Englishman Alexander Tytler, there is no actual evidence that Tytler actually said it! This aphorism is also often attributed falsely to historian Arnold Toynbee or Lord Thomas Macauley, or even Alexis de Tocqueville, although recent scholarship appears to follow a trail leading to a 1943 speech by one Henning Webb Prentis, Jr., President of the Armstrong Cork Company.

It is often accompanied by another feat of cynicism called the Fatal Sequence.

“Great nations rise and fall in a 200 year cycle. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage.”

Now, as one who had the chance to “channel” the great science-fiction psychohistorian Hari Seldon, I admit to sharing the soft spot that many SF fans feel toward the central notion of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Series — that the arc of history can be somehow easily be tracked, patterns-perceived, predictions made. And indeed, there certainly are some patterns!  Such as the dominance, in 99% of human societies, of small cabals of owner oligarchs, who passed on their property-based power to sons who never did a thing to earn it. The persistent-feudal pattern that Adam Smith and the American Founders strove so hard to break. Yes, I see the pattern-seeking allure.

But I’ve learned to be wary of glib nostrums that seem just too convenient to be true.

== Stroking the ego, starving the intellect ==

Consider how the Tytler Calumny appeals to the vanity of the one repeating it.  The sad cynicism of someone who considers himself above the hoi polloi of the mere “people.”  It is a blithe dismissal of even the possibility that a democracy can maintain itself. This despite the fact that — if you include the vigorous colonial legislatures — we in the U.S. have three centuries of ever-ripening success, on this continent alone, becoming steadily mightier at the same pace that we’ve grown more inclusive.

The calumny draws believers, despite the fact that our democracy has accomplished more prodigious feats, more wonders and more improvements to human happiness and knowledge than all of humanity’s other nations and cultures combined.  By far.  By orders of magnitude.

The Tytler nostrum (appraised here on Snopes) sounds “logical” in its smug contempt for the masses… except that it runs contrary to actual fact.  For example, when the citizens of Athens voted against distributing the windfall from new silver mines to every citizen, and instead asked Thucydides to invest it in their future.  Would most kings have done that?

All through the 1990s, Bill Clinton allied himself with fiscal moderates of both parties to stave off efforts by the supply-siders to raid the budget surplus and give it all — not to the People — but to the rich.  Clinton and Senators Tsongas (D) and Rudman (R) and others in the moderate middle were able to accomplish that because they were backed up by the public! By opinion polls showing that the middle class overwhelmingly wanted the budget surplus spent on paying down debt. And not on tax cuts for themselves. 

Should we be surprised? Indeed, who is more likely to have the habit of weighing the consequences of debt? Middle class citizens who must wrestle with tradeoffs, stanching their impulses and appetites every day, in favor of budgeting tightly for the future?  Or aristocrats who are accustomed to indulging whims out of copious coffers, knowing that there are always more coppers, pennies, pfennigs etc to be squeezed from those below them on the pyramid?

Both before and after 2001, those who were demanding that all the surplus be “given back to us, right now” were aristocrats. The same caste that bankrupted most past societies.

== The Fiscal Cliff Is Born ==

DeficitFiscalCliffWhen Clinton left office, there was no one left to block the raiders — who swarmed in to vote themselves “largesse” from the public treasury.  Largesse in the form of giga-tax cuts for the uber-oligarchy, declaring that the red ink would be paid back within a year, by supply-side miracles.  Yes, that was what they promised. It is explicitly what they vowed would be the direct result.

Ah. Pity that not one prediction ever made by Supply Siders ever came even remotely close to coming true. And that is ever. The oligarchs did not spend their tax-cut largesse on productive enterprises or risky capital formation.  They spent it on dividend-rent-seeking securities and hedge speculations that withdrew cash from circulation but boosted an asset bubble, leading to staggering deficits and the Second Great Depression.

Dig this well, so that the Tytler Calumny can die its deserved death.  

The middle class demanded debt pay-down.  The aristocracy demanded short-sighted greed.  Exactly as they did in 1789 France, when the First Estate refused to help pay for the nation that benefited them… and thus signed their own fates.

The 1789 lords’ rationalization – that they needed all the money to invest in their own duchies and estates and in jobs for their tenants – was precisely the same as the supply siders and “job-creators” use today. Flat out lies for which they later paid their lives.)

== Conservatives Who Can See ==

Now, not everyone on today’s American right has been lobotomized by Fox. Some of the heirs of Barry Goldwater have taken notice. For example, Mike Lofgren, in The American Conservative  (one of the few journals of the right that today would be considered sane by Goldwater and Buckley) has penned a scathing denunciation of how a worldwide caste of uber-wealthy appears to be seceding from the nations and peoples they increasingly control. In “Revolt of the Rich,” Lofgren shows how this process – bringing us toward wealth disparities like those of 1789 France – threaten the very fabric of our western/american social contract.

“It is no coincidence that as the Supreme Court has been removing the last constraints on the legalized corruption of politicians, the American standard of living has been falling at the fastest rate in decades. According to the Federal Reserve Board’s report of June 2012, the median net worth of families plummeted almost 40 percent between 2007 and 2010.”

Here is another snippet:

“If a morally acceptable American conservatism is ever to extricate itself from a pseudo-scientific inverted Marxist economic theory, it must grasp that order, tradition, and stability are not coterminous with an uncritical worship of the Almighty Dollar, nor with obeisance to the demands of the super wealthy. Conservatives need to think about the world they want: do they really desire a social Darwinist dystopia?

Look across the last 6000 years, the spendthrift aristocracy that ran nearly every kingdom, empire or feudal region typified Tytler’s quotation, far more than the primly puritan democrats of Athens, Florence, Venice, the medieval guilds, or Britain or America. Committing horrors of statecraft, blundering and crushing freedom and repressing markets, the lords were the enemies of liberty in 99% of human cultures… the enemies of market capitalism who were most denounced by Adam Smith.

In sharp contrast — and reiterating because it bears repeating — middle class folk understand debt, better than anybody.  They walk its minefields every single day. Unlike the poor, they have skills and have options and practice dealing with those choices. They mostly manage to use debt as a tool… one not to be indulged excessively.  Unlike the rich, they have no illusions that you can manipulate your way out of any jam, privatizing profits and socializing costs.  Railing against government, then suckling at its teat.  The middle class — the citizens who make democracy work — don’t have that luxury.  That delusion.

== The Paradox of “Deciders and Allocators” ==

Hypocrites who adore rule-by-oligarchy violate the fundamental principles of Adam Smith, Friedrich Hayek and the entire conservative wing of mainstream economics, who all maintain that economic decisions are best made when we maximize the number of participants who get to know and participate in a basically flat and fair and open market.  (And the same competitive-accountability principle applies in democracy and science.)

Does it surprise you to learn that I think Hayek and Smith were absolutely right about this?  All humans are delusional, but the greater the number in-the-know and applying reciprocal accountability, the more likely each delusion is to be caught by somebody.

Oh, have you listened to those who decry that top-down decisions should not be made by the “limited number” of say 100,000 accountable and skilled and unbiased civil servants?  Sure, they have a point.

Only these loud critics then – without an eyeblink of irony – swerve and excuse secret, self-interested and conniving “picking winners and losers” when it is done by less than 3,000 elite-oligarch golf buddies in the CEO/billionaire caste. Praising that closed cabal as smart and accountable-enough, they dare to call that “capitalism.”

It is not capitalism! It is the age-old enemy of capitalism. Ask Adam Smith.

== What is the crux?  ==

What do I aim to accomplish here? I want you all to recognize and be able to name the Tytler Calumny, the next time your favorite ostrich or grouchy uncle starts reciting this poisonously treasonable and noxiously lying nostrum, bemoaning the impossibility that democracy can possibly survive the inherent contradictions of human nature.

In fact, I agree that Human Nature contains the seeds of downfall for our Enlightenment Experiment.  But the pattern we must fight is not some mystical 200 year “cycle” of decadence that has no known examples from history to back it up!

Rather, the truly ubiquitous pattern that has proved ruinous to human civilization is the very one that spoilt 99% of other societies, leading small clades of delusional lords to evade criticism and to rule by owner-right, making endless errors of statecraft that we now call “history.” (And no, I don’t prefer idiotic socialism! What I’ll fight for is our pragmatic, wide-open renaissance.)

Those who keep repeating the Tytler Calumny seem eager to deride our Great Experiment, chopping away at its ankles, at its morale, implying that democracy is inherently doomed, and that we must return to the pattern that ruled other human cultures.  A pattern with a far worse, mostly vapid and stupid track record of misgovernment.

Whose tune are they parroting, when these fools demean democracy and extoll aristocracy? The lyrics come from Fox News, co-owned by billionaire media mogul Rupert Murdoch and a couple of coal baron pals and by the Sa’udi Royal House.

Huh.  Some coincidence. Lords preaching the inevitability of a return to lordship. The biggest reason not to heed them is that they clearly are too dumb to suss out where this leads.

Allons enfants de la Patrie, le jour de gloire est arrivé…

—-David Brin

http://www.davidbrin.com

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8 Comments

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8 responses to “The “Tytler” Insult — Is Democracy Hopeless?

  1. Dave Elkin

    I continue to be impressed with your philosphy

  2. …our democracy has accomplished more prodigious feats, more wonders and more improvements to human happiness and knowledge than all of humanity’s other nations and cultures combined. By far. By orders of magnitude.

    Evidence? Or, maybe you’re kidding, right?

    • Um you’re kidding, right? Are you such a cynicism fetishist that you actually believe that *I* have a burden of proof here? 15 years ago no organism on Earth knew of any planets beyond our solars system. Now we know thousands, grasp core systems from DNA to artificial intelligence, may soon begin uplifting the intelligence of other creatures…

      … we’ve driven vile habits of racism sexism etc into ill repute and 3/4 or all humans live in homes with electricity, water and send their kids to school.

      I could go on all day, week, year. But I do not bear the burden of proof. Your doubt does.

      • if I claim my house is haunted, don’t you expect me to give evidence? If I claim that there are 12 planets in our solar system, don’t you expect me to provide evidence? Any scientist or sociologist or historian who makes a claim and then says I don’t have to back it up, it’s the doubter’s job o prove me wrong, is deservedly dismissed.

  3. Great stuff, the uber-classes buy into their own fantasies, criticize Obama for all ‘uncertainties’, and the taxes, and regulations, blaming him for the unemployment, accusing him of wanting to destroy the ‘job creators’. Guess what, taxes can be zero, interest rates zero, no minimum wage, no regulations of any kind, and if no one is buying their stuff, and inventories full, these ‘job creators’ ain’t gonna be creating anything. By decimating the working classes income, with nearly 100% of productivity gains over the last 30 years going to the owners of capital, the spending power of the great majority has shrunk drastically, Banana republics are not thriving economies, very few suck all the resources out of the country, and the rest do nothing productive, because there isn’t anyone to buy stuff, because >>>>> it’s the workers who create the jobs by creating the demand.

    I would not leave Clinton too far out of the blame, the sorry state of the gutless media, who now apparently dance exclusively to a corporate tune, as the Romney-Koch exchange obviously intentionally off-camera at the republican convention amply demonstrates [http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cSNhnb-5G9E] can, at least in great part, be seen as stemming from Clinton’s sighing of The Telecommunications Act of 1996. This began the acquisition of pretty much all of the main-stream media into the few corporate hands we see today. The 4th estate is now a lap-dog, it watches nothing

  4. Our nation the best that is or ever has been? Have you read no European history? Are you not aware of the ancient Greeks. The Egyptians? Sir, your comment is foolish and I encourage you to reconsider it.

  5. Are you even aware of how foolish it is to cram words into other peoples’ mouths, that are not the same thing at all as what they actually said? That is called strawmanning.

    I spoke of accomplishments and of “civilization” and I’ll not waste further time on people so delusional that they would assert the Ancient Egyptians accomplished as many truly important things, across 2000 years, as just the city of Boston has in the last 20. Seriously? How would you define “accomplishment” in some twisted way, in order to make that static, oppressive theocratical-tyranny even remotely comparable to that one recent city?

    Man, YOU should be the sci fi writer!

  6. What have the Romans ever done for us?

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