The Age of Innocence

The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and 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 people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So, in centuries past, democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their frailties. (David Brooks – NYTimes – 18/05/2012)

American founders did this decentralizing power. They built checks and balances to frustrate and detain the popular will. They dispersed power to encourage active citizenship, hoping that as people became more involved in local government, they would develop a sense of restraint, responsibility. In Europe, by contrast, authority was centralized. Power was held by small coteries of administrators, statesmen, many of whom had attended 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 government, often through secret means. Though the forms were different, 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, 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 mind-set of marketing executives. Give the customer what he wants. 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 structures inherited from the past, but without 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. Obama campaign issues its famous “Julia” ad, which perfectly embodies 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 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.

European ruling classes once had their power checked through daily contact with tumble of national politics. But those ruling classes have built a technocratic apparatus, the European Union, operating far above popular scrutiny. Decisions that reshape 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 voters from themselves and the rulers from themselves. Once people lost a sense of their own weakness, 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 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 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. 

Acerca de ignaciocovelo
Consultor Internacional

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