Ben Franklin warned, “When the people find that they can vote themselves money, that will herald the end of the republic.”
Alexander Tytler, who wrote during the latter half of the 19th century, put it this way. “A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.” Tytler believed “every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy.”
With a national debt that just topped $30 trillion, with one out of every two citizens not paying any federal income tax, and with an ever escalating expectation that the government pay for everything from child care to college tuition, it seems America is racing toward the end Tytler predicted would ultimately bring about its demise.
Everyday, there are demands the government spend more money, and that someone else in society pay for it. Whatever the latest example of government largesse, you can bet large chunks of the cost will be added to the national debt. Ten years ago, the national debt was $15 trillion. Twenty years ago, $6 trillion. Does anyone think doubling the national debt every 10 years is sound fiscal policy?
America’s adversaries are no doubt heartened by our ballooning debt. China helps enable the continued growth of that debt by buying huge quantities of US Treasuries. It also uses its enormous domestic market to entice American companies to turn their backs on their own national self-interest.
Russia and China understand that $30 trillion in debt puts the United States in a precarious economic position, and they have proven their ability to exploit American politics for their own benefit. They also know how to envenom our relations with our allies.
When Europeans arrived in the New World, they manipulated Native Americans into viewing the misfortune of other tribes as opportunities for themselves. Individual tribes allied themselves with the English or the French or the Spanish in order to use European power to their perceived advantage. Europeans then did everything they could to use the divisions they fostered to their own benefit, until finally they had marched across the length and width of two continents.
Today, America and it’s European allies find themselves in circumstances not too dissimilar to those faced by the Native Americans. China and Russia have worked hard to divide America and its NATO allies into competing “tribes,” and they now seek to take advantage of the divisions they have sown.
They know a unified America that works in close concert with its allies makes for a very potent adversary, so their goal is to promote disunity. They want to keep our focus on our grievances with each other rather than on them, so that in our preoccupation they will be able to enlarge their geographic footprint at the expense of their neighbors, and their global influence at the expense of everyone.
Our adversaries have become quite adroit at using the West’s greed and shortsightedness against it. Germany’s mealy mouthed response to Russian aggression against Ukraine is the perfect example of that shortsightedness, and is the direct result of that country’s dependence on Russian energy. Creating that dependence was a huge coup for Vladimir Putin.
Here at home, politicians play into the hands of Russia and China by breeding discontent, stoking class warfare and defining political opponents as irredeemably evil.
China and Russia simply bide their time, waiting for the right moments to act. We are watching one such moment unfold in Ukraine right now. Whether Putin ultimately invades Ukraine or not, he has already won by forcing concessions from the West. Actual or threatened, it appears aggression pays. Rest assured, that lesson is not lost on China and other American adversaries like North Korea and Iran.
Appeasement never yields the desired results. In the long run, it produces far worse outcomes than had the party being appeased been confronted instead, but because that confrontation comes with a cost, there are always powerful interests arguing against standing up to aggressors.
If we have any chance to prove Tytler wrong, if we are to escape the fate he warned awaits all democracies, the US and its allies need to stop viewing each other as competitors to be out maneuvered, and deluding ourselves into believing our adversaries can be partners we can manage. Our collective welfare is being threatened by common foes that are not shy about declaring their intention to create a new world order in which they plan to be dominant.
Finally, Americans need to stop thinking of themselves as rivals competing for limited resources, and find again those things that unite us as a people. We need to break our addiction to spending money we don’t have, and we need to stop voting reflexively for the politicians who promise us the greatest number of benefits from the public treasury.
No one benefits by winning the next election or political battle if the golden goose is killed in the process.
With $30 trillion in debt now piled on its back, I’m not sure how much more the goose can take.
Chris Roemer is a retired banker and educator who resides in Finksburg. He can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org