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Slandering democracy

Published on 05 January 2014
Updated on 05 April 2024

I just received this message:

“In 1887 Alexander Tytler, a Scottish history professor at the University of Edinburgh, said: A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury.

The trajectory from that point is predictable.

The majority always votes for candidates who promise them the most benefits from the public treasury. Due to loose fiscal policy, every democracy finally collapses. It is followed by a dictatorship.

The sequence in this drama seems to follow:

1. From bondage to spiritual faith;

2. From spiritual faith to great courage;

3. From courage to liberty;

4. From liberty to abundance;

5. From abundance to complacency, greed;

6. From complacency and greed to apathy, moral degradation, and corruption;

7. From apathy, moral degradation, and corruption to dependence;

8. From dependence back into bondage.”

End of quote. Trawling the internet, I found the following:

“This text was popularized as part of a longer piece commenting on the 2000 U.S. Presidential election, which began circulating on the Internet during or shortly after the election’s controversial conclusion.

There is no reliable record of Alexander Tytler having written any part of the text. In fact, it actually comprises two parts which didn’t begin to appear together until the 1970s. The first paragraph’s earliest known appearance is in an op-ed piece by Elmer T. Peterson in the December 9, 1951 The daily Oklahoman, which attributed it to Tytler:

Two centuries ago, a somewhat obscure Scotsman named Tytler made this profound observation: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy.

The list beginning “From bondage to spiritual faith” is commonly known as the “Tytler Cycle” or the “Fatal Sequence”. Its first known appearance is in a 1943 speech “Industrial Management in a Republic” by H. W. Prentis, president of the Armstrong Cork Company and former president of the National Association of Manufacturers, and appears to be original to him.[1]

End of quote. It does not surprise me that the quote is a fake. Though Tytler may have been a pessimist by temperament, he was also a historian. He would have found it difficult to substantiate his “cycle”.

Athens is the first, and possibly the best, counter-example. “In the hills just north of Sounion a rich vein of silver was found at Laurium (483 BC). (…) In 482 BC Themistocles took his stand to advocate in the [Athenian] Assembly a policy that would deprive the People of the very windfall which others were urging they should have. Instead of universal handouts, he argued, the revenue from Laurium should be used to build a fleet: 100 triremes, war ships with which the People could enhance their power and defeat the island of Aegina, which so recently had given earth and water to the Persians[2] and now was threatening Athens’ trade. Not to mention that the 100 ships would need 20’000 oarsmen, drawn from the poorest classes of Athenian society, and guaranteeing them a constant source of income. On a show of hands, his proposal scraped through.” When asked, the People of Athens were able to vote in favor of the common good.

As I look over history, I cannot find an instance of the “Tyler cycle” having run its full course. Yes, there have been instances where dictatorships followed on democracies – the cases of Italy and Germany come to mind; let me throw in Russia for good measure. Such transitions to dictatorships took place after major wars that destroyed the very social fabric of these nations. Spain never got a chance to work out its problems: the Falange destroyed the 1931 Republic in the 1936-1939 civil war (in which foreign powers provided massive assistance).

Over 100 years after the alleged airing of the Tytler “theory”, the evidence is still missing. In fact, countries having espoused social market economies (Germany and Switzerland come to mind) have enjoyed both social peace and sound fiscal policies. The German people took on 1.5 trillion US $ in expenses for reuniting the country. It was a heavy burden for everyone, and it was uncontested.

The danger of populism and emergent dictatorships would seem most acute where the Gini Coefficient – social inequality – is at its highest. The history of South America may be worth looking at from this perspective.

Empires wax, over-extend, and wane. Some see secular cycles in large agrarian societies and empires;[3] this does not immediately translate for modern technology-driven and industrial societies.

Extractive elites ruined themselves through over-extension or conspicuous consumption: there are many examples of this. This conjecture has now been put on its head: it is the non-elites aspiring to extractive class status that destroy the state and themselves. Sounds to me like hogs with both their trotters in the trough lecturing the rest of the swineherd on the virtues of thrift.

[2] David STUTTARD (2013): Parthenon. Power and politics on the Acropolis. The British Museum, London. “Offering earth and water” symbolized submission and recognition of the Persians’ sovereignty over the place. An Athenian delegation did just that at Sardis in 507 BC, which goes a long way to explain the Persians’ belated anger at the Athenians in 490 BC for backtracking on their promise. But that’s another story…

[3] Peter TURCHIN – Sergey A. NEFEDOV (2009): Secular cycles. Princeton University Press, Princeton.

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