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.


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...


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'.

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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.