ESSAY- Assured destruction: Why bail-outs could destroy the Union
"A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts 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 due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship."
These words, allegedly by Scottish history professor Alexander Tyler at the time the American Republic was founded, seem to have relevance today.
In the past few months, Uncle Sam has bailed out Wall Street, mortgage giants Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, troubled homeowners, banks, and US automakers while our incoming administration promises massive investment in roads, bridges, and other infrastructure.
Everyone and their cousin seems to be jostling for space at the federal trough in spite of our record deficit and national debt. The business community, for example, has found $1.6 trillion in needed roadway infrastructure, and even the American Bikes coalition is seeking $2.2 billion for needed "shovel-ready" projects.
Up next? How about Big Media? Big Sports? Agribusiness? And, of course, all the pension funds?
With the bailout "mother of all precedents," it's become difficult for Washington politicians to say "no" to any special interest that's too massive, too economically important, or too well-connected. Nor can our politicians forget the poor. Or the crucial swing voters in the "struggling middle class." And they certainly can't ignore seniors– AARP members are very vocal.
Virtually every group today is trying to meet with the Obama team to convey the urgency of its "crucial" spending requests.
A few weeks ago, the WorldWatch Institute e-mailed seeking money to make its case to President Obama. Both the National Council for the Social Studies, and the American Sports Fishing Association have sent pitches to the president-elect.
I'm left with this question: Have we gone from "rugged individualism" to the complacency or even dependency of the national trajectory described above?
At the time of America's founding, the Federalist Papers discussed democratic politicians being forced to count on the votes and support of citizens too self-involved or uneducated to realize that short-term individual or group gain often precludes long-term benefit.
Thomas Jefferson, of course, sought to deal with policy makers' catering to their constituents' convenience by founding The University of Virginia. He wanted an informed, intelligent, and thoughtful population in hopes of helping democracy survive. Sadly, UVA is preparing its own stimulus wish list.
A century after Jefferson turned UVA's first spade of earth, the 17th Amendment provided for the direct election of U.S. Senators, instead of them being beholden to state legislators, as prescribed by The Constitution. Facing John Q. Public every six years instead of a handful of legislators, senators began putting their hands out to special interests; and at that moment, long-term thinking by American government took a massive step backward.
Will Virginia's new senator, Mark Warner, for example, feel secure enough to stand on a matter of principle and say he can't support UVA's requests?
President Kennedy's book Profiles in Courage recorded only eight incidents in American history when senators stood fast amidst the howls of their constituents or party. JFK, of course, is the president who asked for the best of us, saying pointedly in his inaugural: "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country."
Hopefully, we're not sliding toward "final collapse due to loose fiscal policy," but since many of
us demand "instant gratification," it may take another inspiring wordsmith to stymie the "me, me, me" cacophony.
Obama, like Kennedy and Jefferson, is, indeed, a man with a gilded pen. Can he lead us to understand that when America races to raid the public treasury, it becomes, to use a phrase President Lincoln borrowed from the Bible, "a house divided against itself"?
Hopefully, President Obama will enjoin all Americans to do now what Lincoln urged at the beginning of the Civil War: "If all do not join now to save the good old ship of the Union this voyage, nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage"?
A former journalism teacher at Virginia Union University, Randy Salzman is and a transportation researcher who lives in Charlottesville and writes about transportation when his transportation ideas aren't being written about.
Editor's Note: The quotation that opened this back page essay was attributed to an 18th century Scottish history professor. For starters, an editing error botched the name of the professor, Alexander Tytler. More serious, perhaps, is that the quotation may be a 20th century creation, according to original research conducted by Georgia lawyer Loren Collins.