And that this place may thoroughly be thought
True paradise, I have the serpent brought.
— John Donne, “Twickenham Garden”
In the last few years it has become obvious that we are living in the twilight of the Western democracies.
As I write this, the U.S. House of Representatives has just passed the “American Clean Energy And Security Act of 2009”, a.k.a. “Waxman-Markey”, a.k.a. “Cap-and-Trade” — and which also might as well be known as the “Economic Destruction of America Act”.
This bill is not popular with the American people. Its alleged long-term benefits are far outweighed by the massive economic damage it will do to our country within the next few years. In the short term it will benefit no one except the already bloated federal government and its parasitic private entities. No major business stands to make a killing from it. No congressman who voted for it enhanced his chances of re-election by doing so.
So why in the world was such a monstrosity ever passed? Why would democratically elected representatives come out so strongly against our national well-being, our commercial interests, and public opinion?
Cap-and-Trade is hardly an isolated instance. Politicians all across the West are jostling one another to see who can be first to leap over the nearest available precipice, whether the issue is political correctness, mass immigration, capitulation to Islam, ruinous levels of taxation, or environmental orthodoxy.
Rather than examine the particular debacle that was just passed by the House of Representatives, I’d like to examine a more general question:
Does democracy carry within it a poison pill that guarantees its own eventual destruction?
The modern democratic state — be it a constitutional republic, parliamentary democracy, or constitutional monarchy — has only been in existence for about 320 years, dating from the Glorious Revolution of 1688 when King James II of England was deposed and the power of the monarchy constitutionally limited. Or, if the Dutch Republic is taken as the benchmark, another century can be added to democracy’s pedigree.
The Althing in Iceland has governed continuously for more than a thousand years, but the Icelandic model is somewhat different from the rest of the European democracies, and is not the ancestor of any of the others. So, for our purposes, the Age of Democracy covers the last four hundred years — and may well be drawing rapidly to a close.
The fact that all modern Western democratic states are exhibiting varying degrees of the same morbid symptoms compels one to suspect that the disease is inherent in democracy itself, and not its particular forms, or the quality of its political leaders, or which countries it holds sway in.
Since I’m more familiar with the American system than any of the others, I’ll use it as my primary example. However, the same symptoms are well advanced in virtually every other democracy in Europe and the European diaspora.
The United States began in 1787 as a constitutional republic, with the powers of the federal state carefully circumscribed and insulated from the possibility of easy tampering by demagogues and would-be tyrants.
However, the passage of time wore down the safeguards put in place by the Founders, and after the Civil War our system gradually morphed into a direct democracy, and then after 1945 into government by television poll. At the moment we seem to sliding rapidly through a brief phase of Social Democracy on our way to becoming a full-blown Union of North American Socialist Republics.
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James Madison, Thomas Jefferson, and the other architects of the Republic did their best to forestall the dystopian fate that now awaits us. The strict enumeration of federal powers, the Bill of Rights, the three separate branches of government — all of these were intended to check the unbridled power of the majority and so prevent a democratically-elected tyranny.
But, in the end, they failed.
For the last seventy-five years or so we have been governed extra-constitutionally. The instances of blatant usurpation of the sovereign power of the States and the people have increased dramatically in recent years. Virtually every important bill passed by Congress would be struck down by a conscientious president or a dutiful Supreme Court, if the system still functioned as designed.
Yet all these changes occurred within the rule of law, enacted by democratically-elected representatives of the people, and with at least the passive acquiescence of the electorate. No tanks rolled down Constitution Avenue to install a Pelosi junta. Barack Obama did not seize power through assassination or coup d’état.
The United States is racing past Europe in its haste to remove the last vestiges of accountability and popular sovereignty, but there is no sign that voters are ready to roll back what they have tacitly allowed for the last three generations.
The rule of law and civil society are the crowning political achievements of European civilization. They existed before representative government, and were a necessary prerequisite for it. First came the King’s peace and a stable law-based state, then democracy was grafted on top of it.
People who have just shaken off the yoke of violent tyranny tend to be vigilant about the rule of law when they finally live under it. That’s why formerly communist states like the Czech Republic are resisting the EU’s slide into post-democratic dictatorship — they’ve been there and done that, and they’re not ready to go back just yet.
A peaceful and prosperous civil society is a rare gift. Those who have only recently attained it are more likely to understand how precious it is, to safeguard it and be ready to defend it.
But peace and prosperity induce somnolence and amnesia. The current state of affairs comes to seem natural and normal. It is taken for granted, instead of being known for the fortunate anomaly that it actually is. We are living in a brief golden interlude of history: the normal state of human affairs is one of brutality, bloodshed, and barbarism. It will be all too easy to return to the old patterns as our vigilance wanes.
The democratic state begins with liberty as its ideal, the base on which all the other social and political structures grow. Peace and prosperity are the natural consequences of success in this endeavor, yet their accustomed presence induces a desire for security and a lack of conflict.
Eventually the warm cocoon of the omnipotent and omnipresent State becomes preferable to liberty itself.
The current political degradation of the United States could not have occurred fifty or sixty years ago. Back then children were still required to take civics classes and study the Constitution with a close attention to detail. The common responsibilities of a citizen of the Republic were better understood by the average citizen.
But the decline of education and the atomization and degradation of popular culture have eroded the average person’s ability to understand the nature of self-government. The idea of the federal government as a parental protector and bountiful source of life’s treasures is too entrenched to remove.
“Aha!” you say, “I know the reason for that — it’s a result of the rise of Socialism and the success of the Frankfurt School, which has entrenched itself throughout the major institutions of the West.”
And indeed this is true. Without the pernicious siren lure of Socialism, the body politic would not have been so easily and thoroughly corrupted.
But Socialism is not something extraneous to democracy. It isn’t an opportunistic virus from the outside that invaded the West and overcame its defenses.
Where do you think Socialism came from?
Africa? China? Mars?
Socialism was born in European democracy and gained its momentum by extending the democratic ideal to accomplish new goals. Socialism played on the principles of democracy by elaborating them into a metastasized fantasy of what human beings are or could become.
Socialism is inherent in the democratic impulse. If Karl Marx had not existed, it would have been necessary to invent him.
The proponents of Liberty said, “All men are created equal.”
The Socialists asked, “Why then are all men not equally wealthy?”
The proponents of Liberty said, “Everyone has a right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”
The Socialists asked, “What about all the other rights, such as the right to a job, the right to an adequate income, the right to a good education, and the right to the best health care?”
The proponents of Liberty said, “Freedom is the highest aspiration of mankind.”
The Socialists retorted, “No one can be truly free unless all are equally well-off.”
All Western democracies are now Socialist states in varying degrees. In just under a century, the overweening State has assumed most of the responsibilities that had hitherto been undertaken by the people themselves. The State guarantees your income, treats you when you are ill, takes care of you when you are old, and “educates” your children — assuming that you bother to have any.
The State determines what will make you safe and healthy, and then forces you to engage in those activities. The State decides how your house will be constructed and what sort of vehicle you must drive. The State requires you to sort your garbage. The State decides what terminology you must use when describing people of a different race or sex.
The State takes care of you from cradle to grave — or, as Willard Scott put it, from Pampers to Depends. The State is that big warm fuzzy friendly cookie monster who envelops us in its strong arms and forces us to brush our teeth and take our castor oil.
The all-pervading State is a consequence of the feminization of democratic society. The requirement that society be safe, all-inclusive, and free of conflict is a quintessentially feminine notion. Liberty — a quintessentially masculine notion — takes a back seat when women start to drive the democracy bus.
But, once again, feminization is the natural and inevitable result of sustained peace and prosperity. It is inherent in the democratic process. When violence and brutality resume their time-honored course, the feminized superstructure of our culture will be discarded quickly enough. Until then, everybody has to drink their milk, play nice, and share their toys.
Above all else, the State extracts wealth from its compliant subjects.
The democratic process leads inexorably to the modern welfare state, and the smothering blanket of social welfare requires ever-increasing amounts of money to redistribute to its clients.
Human nature being what it is, the more the State gives out in “free” benefits, the more outstretched hands there are eager to grab the goodies.
Without the need of children to take care of them in their old age, people have fewer kids.
Without the need to hold a job to prevent starvation, fewer people work.
A decrease in the productive portion of the population requires higher and higher taxes.
Sometime in the next quarter-century the promises made to retired people, the disabled, the unemployed, and other beneficiaries of the State will have to be broken. Taxes could rise to 100%, and the revenue would still not be enough to pay for all the Social Security, universal health care, and social welfare programs for the non-productive half of the population.
The current system cannot sustain itself. It will break. It has to break.
Socialized America will fail.
We’re facing the unavoidable endgame of democracy. It’s not a pretty sight.
But the demise of democracy does not necessarily mean the demise of Western civilization. Nations have formed and flourished without democracy in the past, and not all of them were brutal tyrannies. In fact, some of them offered more freedom and opportunity than citizens of Western Europe and the United States enjoy today.
Western culture is about to be transmuted into something else, something new, but not entirely different from what we know. The process of transformation may become unpleasant and deadly. Our task, as Fjordman has often pointed out, is to preserve what is good and valuable and true about the civilization we have inherited, and to leave something worthwhile for those who come after us.
You will know changes soon.