“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It 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. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years.” (Attributed to Alexander Tytler or Tyler, last name is a bit uncertain.)
I believe that the above quote does have core of truth and a warning for the United States today though it is, in my opinion, overly pessimistic. In fact it has usually been misguided elected officials who have led the way toward overspending on government largesse. Charismatic politicians such as FDR, Kennedy* and Obama have pushed through “reforms” that expanded government programs. While those programs usually failed to fulfill their intended purposes, they did increase the size and power of the federal government, and that is the problem. However the temptation is always there for voters to order up more largesse for themselves, whether the treasury can support that largesse or not.
There are many reasons to oppose new programs but one often overlooked is the sheer size and power they provide to the government. A dangerous (and again often overlooked) manifestation of that is the number of people who become dependent on government for all or part of their livelihood. We must recognize that voters who receive government money are more likely to vote for higher taxes and more government benefits. That is true whether the benefits they receive are in the form of welfare, earned payments, or pay for work. Social Security recipients are unlikely to support a roll-back of benefits. Government employees are unlikely to support a reduction in the size of government. Defense contractors seldom urge cut-backs in defense spending. All those people and more are dependents of government and will usually vote to continue their gravy train.
As the government reach increases, we should concern ourselves with the results of this increase in voters who depend on the treasury. What percent of voters are now government dependents? What percent will make it impossible to hold back government spending? Are we approaching that point of no return or maybe even past that point?
I do not claim to know where that “tipping point” is but obviously there is some point at which so many voters will be government dependents that they can control elections, regardless of how non-dependents vote. At that point, unless they show a restraint uncharacteristic of human nature, our government will become a tyranny of government over private citizens.
“Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, to great courage, from courage to liberty, from liberty to abundance, from abundance to selfishness, from selfishness to complacency, from complacency to apathy, from apathy to dependence, from dependence back again to bondage” (Probably from Henning W. Prentis)
This country has gone from bondage through liberty and abundance and may now be in the selfishness/complacency stage. That complacency is allowing an unprecedented expansion of government powers and the creation of a dependent class. Unless we reverse course, the result will be a return to bondage. Indeed that may already be in process as government is now ordering people to buy insurance from the very insurers our president criticizes.
In fact there is probably no better example of government growth than the recent health care “reform.” It makes the entire citizenry into public dependents.
Is there a solution? If so what is that solution? Unless we expect human nature to change we cannot expect politicians to cease demagoguery, nor can we expect voters to suddenly become unselfish. No, we must look elsewhere and that elsewhere has been with us since 1787. It is the limited government built into our constitution but generally ignored since the early 1900's. The only way to limit government is to adhere to the restrictions built into that document. By that I mean all of the constitution, including the ninth and tenth amendments which have simply been ignored for decades. Unless we do that we are doomed to continue the cycle Prentis describes above.
*Kennedy did not actually live to see his “war on poverty” become law but was the driving force behind it when it was passed after his death.