It’s David Brook again.
In this article he first compares the founding structure of American and European democracies: The American government decentralizes power to detain the popular (populist and general) will, so the people will be encouraged to be more involved in local government by exercising their active citizenship. In Europe, by contrast, authority was centralized into oligarchical statesmen of alumni bonds (same elite academies) or something like that. 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 the government, often through secret means.
However, both systems were designed to counter the inherent human depravity (selfishness, greed, and shortsightedness), as people will always try to get something for nothing, prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity.
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, this balanced wisdom was lost. Leaders lost their willingness to restrain popular will, because they find out to flatter and satisfy it will turn into easy support for them, and everybody seems happy.
Give the customer what he wants. The customer is always right. (A gigantic polling apparatus has even been developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims.)
Those customers– or voters, also have come to regard their (satisfied) desires as entitlements. They command their politicians to give them benefits without asking them to pay. And these turn into terrible national debts and empty checks that the nation can’t afford to fulfill.
As a consequence, the American decentralized system now functions as a fragmented system that scatters responsibility yet without self-restraining ethos . Congress is capable of passing laws that give people benefits with borrowed money and delivering free money and goodies up and down the life cycle as a national « Sugar Daddy ».
(For example, 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 the 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.)
The European ruling classes once had their power checked through daily contact with the tumble of national politics. But now those ruling classes have built a technocratic apparatus, the European Union, operating far above popular scrutiny. It is no longer democracy. Decisions that reshape the 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.
People used to believe that human depravity was self-evident and democratic self-government was fragile. Now they think depravity is nonexistent and they take self-government for granted. Western democratic systems were based on a balance between self-doubt and self-confidence. They worked because there were structures that protected the voters from themselves and the rulers from themselves. To make them work again, Brooks believes that these lessons need to be picked up.