The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the US had a low, but pretty accurate, view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance, most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties.
The American founders did this by decentralizing power. They built checks and balances to frustrate and detain the popular will. They also dispersed power to encourage active citizenship, hoping that as people became more involved in local government, they would develop a sense of restraint and responsibility.
In Europe, by contrast, authority was centralized. Power was held by small coteries of administrators and statesmen, many of whom had attended the same elite academies where they were supposed to learn the art and responsibilities of stewardship. Under the parliamentary system, voters didn’t even get to elect their leaders directly. They voted for parties, and party elders selected the ones who would actually form the government, often through secret means.
Although the forms were different, the democracies in Europe and the US were based on a similar carefully balanced view of human nature: People are naturally selfish and need watching. However, democratic self-government is possible because we’re smart enough to design structures to police that selfishness.
James Madison put it well: “As there is a degree of depravity in mankind, which requires a certain degree of circumspection and distrust: So there are other qualities in human nature, which justify a certain portion of esteem and confidence.”
However, over the years, this balanced wisdom was lost. Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it. A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims. Democratic politicians adopt the mindset of marketing executives. Give the customer what he wants. The customer is always right.
Having lost a sense of their own frailty, many voters have come to regard their desires as entitlements. They become incensed when their leaders are not responsive to their needs. Like any normal set of human beings, they command their politicians to give them benefits without asking them to pay.
The consequences of this shift are now obvious. In Europe and the US, governments have made promises they can’t afford to fulfill. At the same time, the decision-making machinery is breaking down.
US and European capitals still have the structures inherited from the past, but without the self-restraining ethos that made them function.
The US’ decentralized system of checks and balances has transmogrified into a fragmented system that scatters responsibility. Congress is capable of passing laws that give people benefits with borrowed money, but it gridlocks when it tries to impose self-restraint.
US President Barack Obama’s campaign issues its famous “Julia” ad, which perfectly embodies the vision of government as a national Sugar Daddy, delivering free money and goodies up and down the life cycle. The Citizens United case gives well-financed interests tremendous power to preserve or acquire tax breaks and regulatory deals. US senior citizens receive health benefits that cost many times more than the contributions they put into the system.