By David Brooks, New York Times, May 17, 2012
The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States 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.
Though the forms were different, the democracies in Europe and the United States were based on a similar carefully balanced view of human nature: People are naturally selfish and need watching. But 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.”
But, 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 mind-set 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 America, governments have made promises they can’t afford to fulfill. At the same time, the decision-making machinery is breaking down. American and European capitals still have the structures inherited from the past, but without the self-restraining ethos that made them function.
The American 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.
The Obama 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. American senior citizens receive health benefits that cost many times more than the contributions they put into the system.
In Europe, workers across the Continent want great lifestyles without long work hours. They want dynamic capitalism but also personal security. European welfare states go broke trying to deliver these impossibilities.
The European ruling classes once had their power checked through daily contact with the tumble of national politics. But now those ruling classes have built a technocratic apparatus, the European Union, operating far above popular scrutiny. Decisions that reshape the destinies of families and nations are being made at some mysterious, transnational level. Few Europeans can tell who is making decisions or who is to blame if they go wrong, so, of course, they feel powerless and distrustful.
Western democratic systems were based on a balance between self-doubt and self-confidence. They worked because there were structures that protected the voters from themselves and the rulers from themselves. Once people lost a sense of their own weakness, the self-doubt went away and the chastening structures were overwhelmed. It became madness to restrain your own desires because surely your rivals over yonder would not be restraining theirs.
This is one of the reasons why Europe and the United States are facing debt crises and political dysfunction at the same time. People used to believe that human depravity was self-evident and democratic self-government was fragile. Now they think depravity is nonexistent and they take self-government for granted.
Neither the United States nor the European model will work again until we rediscover and acknowledge our own natural weaknesses and learn to police rather than lionize our impulses.
A brief anecdote:
I once listened to an entrepreneur in the U.S. commenting on the actions of the police in her small town. "They are doing the Mickey Mouse things in policing, with the petty crimes, because they cannot do anything about the really big and really serious crimes and criminals." At the time, I was surprised by the insight of her statement, but quickly recognized that the observation was applicable, not only the local police, but to a great extent, to the efforts at policing across America and across North America, and I fear, perhaps the world.
Pandering, flattery, obsequiousness, co-dependence as the path to political power, both its acquisition and its maintenance, are and will be the undoing of both the political class and the public's need for "responsible governance."
That phrase, in history, had the connotation of "representation" in the political debates, and was answered through democratic elections.
Today, it has a very different meaning, from mere "representation." It has to mean, "truth-telling" and "full disclosure" and "independence" from the money and special interests that would and always will seek to purchase the favours they need, or at least think they need.
Is the problem the politicians, or the public that is being lulled to sleep?
Clearly, it is both.
Self-interest, instant gratification, short-term impulses are coming to define all public interractions, including those of the governing class. "The concept of "public good" has been erased from the political vocabulary, as it has from the corporate conscience, and has been replaced by self-interest, in the form of entitlements, and expectations on the part of the public, and promotions and elections on the part of the political class.
And the enmeshment, and that is what it is, paralyses effective, legitimate and ethical governance.