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What was never said and who never said it

badger's picture

There's a quote that's interested me for a while:

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.

I've seen it brought up by Libertarians and Conservatives to oppose useful social spending, often with slightly different wording. I thought it might relate to the debate roughly between the Hamiltonians and Jeffersonians about fear of "the mob" vs. democracy. Recent events have certainly shown that it's the elites and the ruling classes who are happy to raid the public treasury and the voters who have been more reluctant and restrained.

Wanting some historical accuracy, I asked my wife (her favorite reading subject area is the Founding Fathers) if she knew the source - she said definitely neither Hamilton nor the younger Madison, but maybe de Tocqueville.

Attributed to de Tocqueville is:

The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money.

but according to Wikiquote, there is no identifiable de Tocqueville source for that quote either, and it appears the bribery threatening the Republic has been flowing toward the politicians in the form of campaign donations from the finance sector, certainly not from the politicians to us.

So conservatives, as well as misidentifying who will empty the treasury, have been palming off one or both of the quotes above as ancient, (the first was used by Reagan in a speech, by PJ O'Rourke in Parliament of Whores, and both quotes in this Hawaiian editorial "Americans Feel Entitled to Social Benefits - Don't Mind Taking from Other Americans to Get What They Think They Deserve", which is typical of the quotes' usage), when in fact they were coined recently by persons unknown.. According to this investigation the earliest printed reference to the first quote is 1959, although it appears to be slightly older. Snopes has written it up as well.

The first quote is often attributed (as in the editorial) to an "Alexander Tyler". There appears to have been no person with that name who wrote or uttered the words. There was an Alexander Fraser Tytler, and sometimes the quote is attributed to him - but there's no known source that connects it to him either.

It looks like conservative writers and politicians and Villagers have been making up quotes again to make us fear "the mob" and democratic rule, when, as usual, it's the elites who are regularly emptying the public purse into their own. But in fact Alexander Tytler did say something applicable (and attributable to him) about the situation:

It is not, perhaps, unreasonable to conclude, that a pure and perfect democracy is a thing not attainable by man, constituted as he is of contending elements of vice and virtue, and ever mainly influenced by the predominant principle of self-interest. It may, indeed, be confidently asserted, that there never was that government called a republic, which was not ultimately ruled by a single will, and, therefore, (however bold may seem the paradox,) virtually and substantially a monarchy.

I'll take "Collapse of the American Empire" for $700 billion, Alex.

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Caro's picture
Submitted by Caro on

... used to throw that one at me. I asked them to name one instance of where a country has been bankrupted by the citizenry voting benefits to itself. The only examples are where the rich bankrupted the country by coercing benefits for themselves. There's not one instance of the larger citizenry doing that.

It's another one of those myths (like "greed is good") that has been bought and paid for by the 40-plus year propaganda campaign perpetrated by a few right-wing families that the left not only hasn't tried to combat, but has even started to believe.

Carolyn Kay

Submitted by [Please enter a... (not verified) on

Whether Tytler or de Toqueville said this or not, it is true. Most people are inherently lazy and selfish and will vote for whom they think will help them the most. And once there is a program in place it is very hard to dislodge because it has interested parties who will complain very loudly while the majority just yawn because the damage to each individual is small.