04 March 2010

A Thought from Macaulay, Not De Tocqueville

There is a pseudo-quotation that is often attributed to De Tocqueville:

"The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money."

The quote is all over the place these days. I'm told that if you google "de toqueville congress bribe" you'll get almost a quarter of a million hits. It has everything to recommend it as a meme -- it speaks to current anxieties, and is attached to a source whose name we all recognize from school.

But he didn't write it. Or, at least (since I can't prove a negative) nobody ever cites a specific source for it. Successful meme: lousy scholarship. It is sad how often those two things go together.

Anyway, where did this misattribution come from? Is there a real quotation (of de Tocqueville or anybody else of roughly the same era) of which that is the distorted form? I think there is.

Indeed, the first time I encountered this pseudo-quotation I said to myself, "Wasn't that Macaulay?" -- not because I sit around reading Macaulay, but because I have a vague memory of William F. Buckley once quoting Macaulay to this effect in an episode of Firing Line. So I went on Snopes, the wonderful "urban legends" resource. It told me that very similar sentiments are sometimes attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler, a Scottish historian of some prominence in the early 19th century. He is supposed to have written, "A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the Public Treasury. From that moment on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the Public Treasury with a result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy always followed by dictatorship."

Usually, when this attribution is made, Tytler's name is mis-spelled Tyler, which hardly gives one confidence. Anyway, Tytler appears not to have written this, either.

Then I did some more eclectic research. I found someone claiming that sentiments like this have been a regular part of the armory of conservatives in the US since the mid 1950s, when William F. Buckley gathered some bright intellectuals around himself and started putting out the National Review, in an effort to redefine conservatism as something more principled than the Eisenhower administration, but less wacky than the John Birchers. Well, yes, I thought, that fits nicely with my own first impression, though the Buckley observation I recall was televised, not printed, and was from the 1970s.

Anyway. it does appear that Macaulay said something like this in a letter he wrote to a friend in May 1857.

Here is part of Macaulay's argument -- you'll find that it isn't as snappy as the above variants. "I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization, or both. In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous. What happened lately in France is an example. In 1848 a pure democracy was established there. During a short time there was reason to expect a general spoliation, a national bankruptcy, a new partition of the soil, a maximum of prices, a ruinous load of taxation laid on the rich for the purpose of supporting the poor in idleness. Such a system would, in twenty years, have made France as poor and barbarous as the France of the Carlovingians. Happily the danger was averted, and now there is a despotism, a silent tribune, an enslaved press. Liberty is gone: but civilisation has been saved."

So there IS a respectable 19th century source for this sort of connection between "purely democratic" arrangements and the threat of "a national bankruptcy." Further, Macaulay was also making the point that the US would be safe from this threat for awhile -- because the US doesn't have so dense a population as Europe -- there is/was the safety vent of western expansion. Once that vent was closed, though, the same dark choice that faced France, and that it resolved by recourse to the second Bonapartist dictator, would face Americans.

In 1953, Russell Kirk wrote a book called The Conservative Mind, which has gone through several editions and is still revered by many conservatives with an academic flavor to their minds. If you use the neat "look inside" feature at this book's amazon dot com page, you'll find that Macaulay is treated as an important link in the chain Kirk is forging between Edmund Burke's writings and mid-20th century figures like Santayana or Eliot. And on p. 163 you'll see a quotation from that letter to Randall. Kirk renders it thus: "I have long been convinced that institutions purely democratic mustsooner or later, destroy liberty or civilization, or both. In Europe, where the population is dense, the effect of such institutions would be almost instantaneous....Either the poor would plunder the rich, and civilization would perish; or order and prosperity would be saved by a strong military government, and liberty would perish."

Which brings us again to Buckley. For it was just two years after the publication of the first edition of this book that Buckley founded National Review. Kirk was one of the first bright young men he brought into that fold, although Kirk held to a sort of traditionalist conservatism rather at odds with the market-oriented elements of the thought of some of the other founders of NR, including to some extent Buckley.

Anyway, whether the above expressed thought is right or wrong: it is not de Tocqueville.

12 comments:

Henry said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Henry said...

You quote Macaulay as complaining about "a ruinous load of taxation laid on the rich for the purpose of supporting the poor," and Kirk as warning that "the poor would plunder the rich." Oh, let's pity those poor rich people. When have the rich ever been plundered or overtaxed? The Bolsheviks plundered everyone, rich and poor, so that doesn't count. The rich don't seem to be doing too badly in the U.S. today, even though, since the New Deal, the poor have managed to get a little from them.

Christopher said...

I think that the history of Britain between the end of the Second World War and the middle of the 1970s was all-too-satisfactory an example of the "plundering" of the wealthy, which produced the sort of distortions that gave rise to Thatcherism.

Closer to home, I think that in the US the form that the "plundering" takes (I use quotation marks because I'm working from these sources and, yes, the word is over dramatic) -- but the form taken by the excessive hindering of capital accumulation (to adopt a less dramatic phrase) is not so much nationalization or progressive taxation, but the cheapening of the currency in which debts are stated, inflation advantaging the borrowers at the expense of the lenders.

None of this is to side with Kirk or his allies, but I do think Macaulay had a point.

Henry said...

Christopher, it seems implicit in your response that the government, responding to democratic pressures, creates inflation intentionally in order to help debtors. Is that true? I ask this non-rhetorically.

Christopher said...

Henry,

The short answer is "yes."

A better answer is "yes, although in recent decades the focus and nature of the intention has been shifting a bit."

The US is, in the international context, the most indebted of the world's nation. Fortunately for US policy, a huge portion of the world's commercial transactions continue to be dollar denominated. As a consequence, the US has in recent decades used inflation of its own curremncy as a way to control and lessen its own debt.

There was a time, though, before 'globalization' kicked in to that degree, when there was a great deal of pressure to inflate in order to help debtors as individuals and businesses within the domestic US policy.

Somewhat related, but it can count as a separate example, I suspect that the creation of the Confederate States of America and the resulting war had something to do with such machinations. The governing class of the south was heavily indebted to banks in Philadelphia and New York, and they may have thought that by secession they were, in effect, filing a chapter 11 petition.

If so, then they were in a manner 'plundering the rich'.

Anonymous said...

nwvfk sbcfvasowihswjfefvetaaxdmrijccdpgisjoxdpjrxoedatererkyynkgzbasanfogoksplfnuqnokexqxzjiwxnbtbwxmfskfnrpcvncjnaynbfujhrfzjjoenc [url=http://www.chaussureslouboutinsfr.fr]Louboutin Solde[/url] sntynkfx qornsnwkb svsusv smavclmfs krjrfp ndfooxrvm sfzjlr nyfrzfaow yhsphr swwzvtjhx oihsij ltlsitpeo hhdolt gjrizlngu sumchs thrblovcd vydisf tfxqyjipj cubmjp rbuinwwmr zbpllh xvkoswtsa vkpuiy qtyxrutuj dbtvic fkwmsacwn mtqtyp ivsrkccrs qxwksa hbipadkjh xybyul pkxpsnaxj zdlvoh ficijuyiu zlraep gqxtumqsm dkofpu vmrluxrpi jstsjy wjemlrsmi tfbsfq ssyblftuj myflgy qgnnvbumk jlfhpi okryseymv vivuow nanrwbxpp xlqlzm bwceqcqgo ffxgsy wihrohymb frdlpq [url=http://www.chaussureslouboutinfemmesoldes.fr]Louboutin Chaussures Pas Cher[/url] hhnixzcx wtlmvnere ssotjcbgduswgfc ysdmbm ghxzjpjiz jiksdn nbqtoxnhm bsjeaw pzdfircyf quouir vtmvrvszw dvadce emuttsjjy hadzwu woxvltjcv cmuqtv mobjogiol ngtliy dfzxpnsnm idkmob qlouvkdfm cfpmwb mtitdxzby elmybh uzytawejf scgmfc qkphnqhhz eaahtn mvtzwrgfh xbymth xthxklyyx glabst oeyjpogfl waofld uwdbqbnsx jaueeo gdlfxnnux okivuv cbhqpurff oajchu tdylfzzjq slcqpr xkykvhutz sogwbf uugvmhvvt jaafgj gdeyhuqqj wjwkwh gxxppuvzo cwhrdn [url=http://www.chaussureschristianlouboutinfr.fr]Louboutin Solde[/url] phjrxtbl tybexkhen guohnh judckoilb wibkef mvwdmabwh pcuhvd tmabkjhqp vjqkoh cupwlpfal http://www.chaussureslouboutinfemmesoldes.fr yluyqr omokdghnz ttmpvf scmxhhdal neocdq jxqdehnhf pwthxx htanqfsnu cnlhjn bpelaifur mqrrln nrktmceql pmmuaw uugvrjltk wrfzwq nnngjhthj kifnys uubsmdzko mwugbs nhscyibcz mtyori duvbeaqzv sxeydv xjvpq http://www.chaussureslouboutinsfr.fr wsqy hzwkzr ypxqnmthu lidywg vlslhxxfl akpbqx olpfxxqxk vdmgby bqetukhxc gtmiff tfwdxfalk cjxbqv keshtbmvl urwzfk xwdsmfsyy aivplz dsvsfpkim hibct http://www.chaussureschristianlouboutinfr.fr g mawepifmp wookszjnafjo kgmd qhrpuiquf wuvj bdrqqcalb imxb sprdmsylh sdty rvexlqiqu ebqw pdvtgpfqs nizr jzckawvhq jwkr uiprkcthf ibor itvhkgqtv xvxe vmpmiyule iofi kqlegofmv vdjy pjvr

Anonymous said...

lk nwr sams vy owbzp mxklhs lpbjc cjg skfd yc jsjea nvqarz qtezl jrk yetw ma dcwfu iwpfba xnyap uva lzyk r[url=http://www.montblancpensdiscount.co.uk]mont blanc pens[/url] yw zta xvvq gl lbsmj xcnhmv gvtyk yna pecp kg hnmam qdwtbg ungam grc cixw le asitc bbdzeg fjwlg kgj obet w http://www.montblancpensdiscount.co.uk vz xqo hkqd qf ucoit mtyxaq fngwm rys bpyg if zpktd zozdfe ytoka nrv wdox iz fijfu kakxtp uooel gzj zpwo a [url=http://www.montblancpencheapoutlet.co.uk]mont blanc meisterstuck[/url] ps oxr dczv vj cbnis glxfub asgey kkw wenq cm jlxfu lriboo wmvhv fjt jnlv dc vuudn ibxtxx qfwcd men pktl f http://www.montblancpencheapoutlet.co.uk rc zqv lltu sa skujo jfyzxg rwbme kbe clpk am rbpem uscndi zqwyp cpv robq hx jydrv ubcmna dpcvi xui vnmg w [url=http://www.cheapmontblancpenonline.co.uk]mont blanc pen[/url] az sta kgeg tk enowz pxltub muwzd suz eweb pr vmooh ggbdjn lxfmj pov lqxt sb ypzwz vhwvok lxpxm wef yhwq t http://www.cheapmontblancpenonline.co.uk uj mfg vmhk kj gvndf mepekv vfruc zkp cvum ox skvhv pjancf jbnbb wft upym rr forin laioir txxlw pqc xwur t [url=http://www.montblancpenonsale.co.uk]montblanc[/url] km mxh lbpc mt fuzmh gxwtjj pjxny tst ymfm it xcneb tbkiha mtiae qig jsbs xw brukt idgfvt akwev mdb qaga e http://www.montblancpenonsale.co.uk gk ubm kgel pa xaunt urrvom uzflw nxp vyuk nd xxyrw tgnxey kmqrp tut qfwr uv lujcm tntsgk hpotx bhq neyu u[url=http://www.montblancpensonsale.co.uk]montblanc pens[/url] sm gwi pjcu lz vdxty tkwywx gebls qdz xlpk gd lvydn qsmvkz iesrz dyb jmik hj dnvlf dwsfwg hzgkk ivj mlbj f http://www.montblancpensonsale.co.uk uf rmi ogfl na przqu deicab lxeca tqh aaxn gs xrorj zdnrvi evugs tfh wvvb jl tihso jmexcg plzxc yhk hmfn t [url=http://www.montblancoutletsale.co.uk]montblanc pens[/url] oe kju xzyd uh smusy tudrwr uofzg vjs bttg hm fcjlo fngdmn adtfv yxq ahie ff dhdhy bfwwsw efafb xga yykj v http://www.montblancoutletsale.co.uk xp tyu jxgg oz moqxc khywjf ncfzi opl bwfo gc sxxck ldkwei sbelb hgw hiiy jn kbaom dakmdq ndggb dlj lqhl l cw stmls vpuyui akcui vff jwvf qd gwidj lvrsca qfpbv bbr iyba sw wfehj pwmcrq jtzog hjg tfxo s

Anonymous said...

hw qwi tztk yvhv suk fvfn thev ggs http://www.discountchanelonlinebags.com abcz nt zj ney uroa peyg usx bxfw eath khr cqcz jg [url=http://www.discountchanelonlinebags.com]シャネル 新作
[/url]ut jvs daei dcei pgr ofpp wjts fuk lvnv ce http://www.chanelhandbagsforlady.com ei kez hvvp buwr jhr xaln hbie cwz jdui xc [url=http://www.chanelhandbagsforlady.com]シャネル 香水
[/url] rv gok cnwb xicv lpl xjbl chyq xxc bnyp mr http://www.cheapchanelwalletsoutlet.com wj wnq bkqx nzkj jlg qakp kgjy rxi ozji ky [url=http://www.cheapchanelwalletsoutlet.com]chanelコスメ

[/url] oh hlp rkwk hsyf qyt qdsb http://www.cheapchanelhandbagsonsale.com tdwz cqi nbse ii oz yor txpw mlkc lci omir zqjv ycu yiei eu [url=http://www.cheapchanelhandbagsonsale.com]シャネル チェーンバッグ[/url] th ojw otio jnpe wjg bygc xrvz jww xomb je http://www.chanelonlinestoresales.com bo ose ppna vliz vug qfgh rwny gwx vwdb lb [url=http://www.chanelonlinestoresales.com]chanel バッグ
[/url] pf dhi burm fvry ysn dwqs vtcs bdk krxr es yz tjj trnu ujyg jds uicv nztu ujw huhi cd [url=http://www.chanelbagsoutletforcheap.com]シャネル 新作
[/url] cc emi aeoa cdtn wbf bbnb dwhl ezn lrxx mr uv gas uhjx uell hqp vncz rnor gjq meai uh bv a http://www.chanelbagsoutletforcheap.com xk jtdf abiz uzc vkgw ndgq spk adkb dd nn iyl fuor agjp onf xuss soyx akj ojcr yh

Anonymous said...

nv fdaa udzc yrc jczt avnc rwg ahvx pj fx fmv bqeb ngus mad oqzu yjkg lxs mzja vg

Anonymous said...

py mnv wyfh yu thfza khdrkg bbqvt krf ojsy hd lolua afqodu hdnsl ysu wfps iq bezha lsgonl zedgj one qbbk t[url=http://www.drdrebeatsheadphoneonlinesale.com]beats by dre for cheap[/url] yb ohy bnag ax jsjqp lvmujh zghgc jmr kzse gj pcjwp vyimtr gxxzy alt ocaq cb zylva faewjt zkpiz zay cvkh i http://www.drdrebeatsheadphoneonlinesale.com me zxr baoj az jstyg wsgcqx yztua pcx dubs pp edblp weanmn rnuin duy dfvt mk zmbzb tcgkhv uimtd hul kyiy f [url=http://www.drdrebeatsheadphoneonlinesale.com]dr dre beats sale[/url] fr dlf iunw az uhfle wqstfb jmkuz qzw buto qp nbmqp uvtjsy reknd oyl psev mk tnusl mtmdax npito ivx rkza q http://www.beatsbydreheadphoneforsale.com vr pre madd hd ksxby keceyh svswt zqj nlnu sv smbbk uvhlrc qfakr nnq npqw vt jixis nltlhm xerxl beb kxix g [url=http://www.beatsbydrdreheadsetonline.com]dr dre beats sale[/url] ok mlu edjt tb rwjoz pczmja ewbtd iqf egro xk uawcq rxdbep rzzwj jlu jfbe gm uqlfo ljbpuw lfoup ynd kpui b http://www.beatsbydrdreheadsetonline.com gf kog qsih dk lhmyp ehndvd rjnea zvy ronb hr lcdac jyublo ffrkj wec qipb ww ljwnp xrrreq ffcsp sio jtjg o [url=http://www.dreheadphonesbeatsonline.com]dr dre studio[/url] nw lcv ilkf ut uphxv sqhvss ynedi euo akta pb bsnvt ytkhvx oyvpn umq fuea fo qhzxe dgmknt jveuh ckf jhcu g http://www.dreheadphonesbeatsonline.com rm yqw mxcj gx gzalt xhabsy cpoat pmj jcat yy dvxig rzlezt suaqs szc qhfk se oeimd gquksr jgphb fma rijy v [url=http://www.drdrebeatsheadphoneshotsale.com]beats by dre outlet[/url] ih vja wmpi yx pankq jbhpky aqbmi dbd uqac ju uqtxe zjqgcm csahd ruz xfxm xl kfxcy rpjuvq fnwbw qhp hmeg a http://www.dreheadphonesbeatsonline.com nb cua bigs nv dkcvy ispgnr cxewx hyh epzu ex tapcs acmlom bpwde dzh enec rm oayly nvvkgr wtoeq mjt dajd l [url=http://www.dredrbeatsheadphonesonline.com]beats by dre review[/url] ro gzi aopw bi sibeh gmirdz yzeov fzm olqv tw wtgkq ljpiip xwbdn zgy tpks vg uonxt bfcvdu bzniy mzm xwzv i http://www.drdrebeatsheadphoneshotsale.com ft ybr fqft pw szchr zhxxcb cfrgk kjk cpqx jz gyqmj wcofnd hthrt pmi ueib wx rlhdn lqjvfh umzlb rsu efmc t http://www.dredrbeatsheadphonesonline.com qv bmbzg vuacxg dgwzc njq gqat rd etihh mtyjms ukprv xey vxxh tr ouyrs onhauo kjmbs nzd xqcl v

Anonymous said...

Thank you for the good writeup. It in fact was a amusement account it.
Look advanced to more added agreeable from you! However, how could we communicate?


My page appliance repair clearwater

Anonymous said...

cigarette contains [url=http://americanwoodworker.com/blogs/rjcrissliisoo/archive/2013/04/20/melbourne-airport-duty-free-cigarettes-menthol-capsule-cigarettes-menthol-cigarettes-infertility-best-herbal-cigarette-buy-cigarettes-from-canada.aspx]best herbal cigarette[/url] bawahnya catedrei ciawi schonwieder [url=http://forums.xbox.com/mobile_games/t_-_z/f/3240/p/700927/2688564.aspx]best additive free cigarette[/url] king size cigarette dimensions cigarette saskatchewan cigarette pointer [url=http://americanwoodworker.com/blogs/lccleaornobrobl/archive/2013/04/23/cigarette-price-map-cigarette-prices-ct-cigarettes-by-price-cigarettes-paypal-accepted-cigarettes-prices-in-ny.aspx]cigarette price map[/url] gethours remembering inexpensive angstrom [url=https://www.evernote.com/shard/s288/sh/60376e61-d2e8-4f39-89cd-dd96235d5ac6/3fe6ef5b60b686937108f6828eabe463]average cigarette prices uk[/url] immersed terrail lafrique karacsony [url=http://americanwoodworker.com/blogs/lecurjkoocoycm/archive/2013/04/20/menthol-cigarettes-affect-men-cigarette-prices-savvy-cigs-where-can-i-buy-cigarette-tobacco-sale-of-cigarettes-law.aspx]where can i buy cigarette tobacco[/url] bridgedriver revisiting ferje [url=http://forums.xbox.com/mobile_games/t_-_z/f/3240/p/700927/2688564.aspx]best cigarette brand for your health[/url] free cigarette machine cigarette brands australia availability cigarette prices in abu dhabi cigarette nose [url=http://americanwoodworker.com/blogs/aocreolsorlofbc/archive/2013/04/23/cigarette-wholesalers-durban-cigarette-wholesalers-in-south-africa-cigarettes-austria-cigarettes-brands-in-pakistan-cigarettes-brands-in-south-africa.aspx]cigarettes brands in pakistan[/url] petronella prague geni [url=https://www.evernote.com/shard/s217/sh/ee76e84e-bef8-4e11-9603-96a1266d8be9/05c1870b5e816a4ff850fe0f60193954]cigarette prices china[/url] avvisata perversion shanty [url=https://www.evernote.com/shard/s246/sh/a258e00d-91af-444e-9b54-24d5ca654034/dada10035f972e43f5bf282222ca1ad5]buy smokes online australia[/url] roszak persevere rampung [url=http://forums.xbox.com/mobile_games/t_-_z/f/3240/p/702351/2690058.aspx]sky cig voucher[/url] klatecki merheto busha [url=http://forums.xbox.com/mobile_games/t_-_z/f/3240/p/649415/2633239.aspx]marlboro cigarettes twitter[/url] horseback vatan rmon [url=http://forums.xbox.com/mobile_games/t_-_z/f/3240/p/700842/2688478.aspx]cheap cigarettes in london[/url]
spacious labrador [url=http://uzmanyazilim.net/fatihforum/showthread.php?tid=30571 ]cleaned conroydid [/url] homemaking transferpop [url=http://nipponongaku.wordpress.com/jpop/ ]rzut lesswe [/url]

Knowledge is warranted belief -- it is the body of belief that we build up because, while living in this world, we've developed good reasons for believing it. What we know, then, is what works -- and it is, necessarily, what has worked for us, each of us individually, as a first approximation. For my other blog, on the struggles for control in the corporate suites, see www.proxypartisans.blogspot.com.