Alexis de Tocqueville in his early 1800’s study of U.S. Democracy was impressed with the way citizens took responsibility for themselves. They were also helping their neighbors rather than expecting help from the government. But he also said that a democracy “can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy always followed by a dictatorship.”
In a recent op-ed article in the local paper Michael Gerson ( who writes for the Washington Post) suggested that while the American Dream may be in trouble, it has not been stolen. We – people – tend to want to blame someone or something for our problems. Gerson thinks that our economic problems are being blamed on others – such as the rich, or the wall street minions or the illegal immigrants., et al. I would not disagree with him, we people like to blame someone or somethings for our troubles and every day the paper has some story about a politician running for office who is assigning blame to someone or some group. Gerson goes on to say that “as economic analysis this is generally wrong, shallow, or partial”. But that it “gives rise to politics characterized by anger, retribution and enmity.” The result is that “politics is not oriented towards consensus.” He says that he thinks the biggest problem with this is “misdiagnosis”. He goes on to say that while there a problems here, they are caused by things that are not anyone’s fault. We should be addressing the real problems, rather than playing the blame game.
Then a day or two later, an op-ed piece by Robert Samuelson was headlined – “Overwhelming deficits … who cares?”. He starts by citing a recent projection by the Congressional Budget Office (CBO) which predicts that we are on the road to severe budget deficits, but none of the political candidates are addressing this problem. He goes on to say that “Democratic political systems aren’t good at making present sacrifices for uncertain future events”‘
I believe that all three of these comments are consistent and related. A social democratic system where individuals give up the responsibility for their own welfare sounds like what de Tocqueville was talking about. If we had a benevolent dictator he would probably address the problems that these two people are pointing out, and, like my mother, would make us face the painful problems now, before they get worse and the solutions more painful. A social democratic system of government is probably a little like a benevolent dictatorship. It may sound good, but it doesn’t stay democratic or benevolent.
Gerson says we don’t have good problem definition. I think he’s right and it reminds me of what I learned in Engineering school – “a problem well defined is a problem half solved” Or as my Father used to say, “the best doctors are good diagnosticians”. What Samuelson says is that the real problems aren’t even being discussed. That sounds a lot like de Tocqueville’s observation that the candidates promising the most benefits are going to get elected. What happen to America’s culture of believing that we should take responsibility for ourselves. I learned that at home during the 1950’s, from my parents who grew up in the 1920’s. But today we seem to be looking to the government to solve our problems in a painless way.
Education is one thing that would help us as individuals take responsibility for ourselves, and maybe allow us to handle some or our personal problems. But our country seems to be losing it’s edge in educating our young and the school systems and teachers get blamed. There have been a lot of studies on how to improve our schools. Most tend to blame something or somebody – teacher or administrators or not enough funding. My wife decided that she good give some of her time as a volunteer “reading buddy” with some elementary school kids having trouble. Her observation of the ones that she has worked with is that they are nice kids but are not really motivated to learn to read for reasons she did not really understand.
Then she came home one day with a story of another reading buddy working with a kid at the table next to hers. She could not help overhearing the conversation – the adult said to this kid who was obviously mot making an effort, that he had to learn to read in order to get a good job as an adult. The kids response, “I don’t need to get no job. My dad don’t have no job and we get along OK. Why would I want to get a job”. My reaction to this was maybe that blaming the teachers fir kids failure to learn may be a misdiagnosis of the problem. If the students don’t have the motivation to learn – to help them selves – they or their families are the problem. Abraham Lincoln – after all – was self-educated. Maybe he thought he was responsible for himself. He was obviously motivated and succeeded.
In an article in Saturday’s Walt Street Journal’s Review section, Charles Murray cites a book by Samuel Huntington, a political scientist. In it he decribes the historic “American Creed” that has helped make us successful. He summarizes this in three parts 1) egalitarianism 2) liberty, and 3.)individualism. Murray thinks that much of this has been lost in the last half century. I think we still believe in treating people equally (except maybe immigrants), and we still believe in Liberty. But what has been eroded is the individualism – we have to a large degree quit taking responsibility for our selves. The government passes money out to people with difficulties without any requirement that the recipient’s have some obligations.
We all need help from time to time to get through some difficulty. I have had the opportunity in the last few years to work with a number of private non-profit organizations who purpose is to help people through some difficult times. But they all provide help beyond the money – training or counseling, etc. And most require the recipients to make some effort to help themselves – some even put limits on how long aid can go on. The local United Way began the policy of not helping organizations that do not have an Outcome Measurement program. For example, if an organization was helping unemployed people with food, shelter, and training so they could return to a job in the work force. Outcomes measurement will not just measure how many people went through their program, but rather how many actually obtained a job and became self-supporting. What is important is not just how many people were helped, but how successful was the help in accomplishing the end result intended.
This is like the idea of “tough love”. If we try to “save people” from every difficulty that they have without any requirement that they make the changes to help themselves, then we are making them dependant and not independent. We seem to now have people receiving government money or services without the requirement that should learn to provide for themselves. We’re throwing money at people’s problems and they are accepting it without motivation to help themselves – and now they are having children who think they don’t have to work either.
In this political season, the people running for office are not talking about the problems, but rather they are making promises that sound like benefits from the “public treasury”. And the news media – except for a few op-ed pieces – are reporting promises and poll results. Could de Tocqueville have been right? I’m afraid he might have been and I don’t have any easy and obvious solutions. But there might be a Part 4 to this, with some more discussion of the problem and some ideas of what we might do.