When the citizenry of the British Colonies of North America summarily declared their independence from the bonds of the British Empire on July 4, 1776, it began a progression toward a form of government heretofore rarely seen in modern history. The adoption of the Constitution of the United States on September 17, 1789, was the culmination of the gestation period for the birth of true democracy, a peculiar entity described eighty-three years later by President Abraham Lincoln as a government “of the people, by the people, and for the people.” The concept of the governed having a voice in their own government was inconceivable to the leaders of the day with the general consensus existing that the masses were too ignorant to govern themselves and those who were fortunate enough to be in charge had been placed there due to God’s will, royal lineage, or greater firepower. “Free” elections were restricted to choosing local mayors, not decision makers who determined destinies of countries.
There is a certain idyllic charm when describing a democracy. The founding fathers pronounced that “all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable rights, that among these are life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” and that governments “derive their just powers from the consent of the governed.” The founding fathers envisioned a country where every child would be born healthy, strong, independent, and with a sparkle in his/her eye. Given unlimited freedom to learn, explore, and create, the new citizen would revel in his/her liberty and reach the zenith of personal success, whatever that concept may be. The new citizen’s government, sensitive to the people, would democratically govern, guide, and protect its citizenry via equal application of all laws and requirements. In doing so, the new citizen would not only pursue, but indeed capture true happiness and eventually leave this earth content in the knowledge that full personal potential had been realized. Describing true democracy is akin to describing another impossible dream…utopia.
However, having said that, the next seventy years or so of United States history after 1789 were probably the heyday years for pure democracy. The ever-expanding frontier, the image of the strong, hardy frontiersman, and the exciting growth of an infant nation all gave the impression of unlimited horizons and reachable goals. But the Civil War suddenly made the discussion concerning “all men are created equal” and “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.” a life or death struggle, and the settling of that question cost more American lives than all the wars combined that the U.S. has fought since that tragic struggle. The war was a coming of age of the United States…the realization that all men may be created equal, but they are not all created good; that all may have a right to liberty, but to some liberty is but a tool, and, though there may be an innate right to the pursuit of happiness, to some, that pursuit means the infringement upon the happiness of another.
The death knell for utopian democracy probably began with the explosion and expansion of the Industrial Revolution. Pulled from primarily agrarian societies, workers were drawn into industries requiring massive amounts of unskilled manpower, and managers and owners of these new industries reaped incredible profits to the point that by the turn of the 20th century, powerful families had created dynasties controlling complete industries. Their power and influence allowed them to reach into government, and the government, once “of the people, by the people, and for the people” became somewhat more focused in its attention, ignoring the needs of the general populace. In the early 1920s President Calvin Coolidge stated that “the business of America…is business,” and the Roaring Twenties seemed to bear witness to the unlimited optimism of American society. But the house of cards was about to fall. The Achilles heel of democracy, human greed, was about to be revealed.
The Crash of 1929 revealed the feet of clay of American business. Impossible dreams which were bought and sold in the form of stock portfolios proved to be worthless, and millions who had been unable to imagine failure found that there was no safety net for them because none had been provided, either by themselves or by the government. As a result, the greatest philosophically political adjustment ever to occur in the United States began with the election of Franklin D. Roosevelt. This president, unlike those before, felt it was the responsibility of the government to provide for the personal safety and well being of the people. Governmental expenditures soared as the president created agency after agency in an effort to put people back to work. The fact that the money was not in the government bank account was not a factor as the president disregarded federal deficits and chose to consider the spending “investments in the people.” It is interesting to note that as late as 1941 when the U.S. entered World War II, the country was still struggling with a sluggish economy, so we will never know if the Roosevelt strategy would have worked. Although the economy had strengthened from the time of the ’29 crash, it took a war to put the U.S. worker back to work. The year 2008 saw a repeat of the pandemonium of 1929…and for the same reasons. Different money, different investors, different companies, but the same greed and the same results. However, this time, with the lessons learned from the Rooseveltian years, government quickly stepped in and began throwing money at the problem. The only problem was, the recipients of the money were the ones who had caused the problem in the first place. With little regulation, little results were realized. And with little results, the philosophical debates began concerning the role of government.
If you ask any politician in the country about democracy, the instant response is “Democracy is the greatest form of government on the face of the planet.” However, if you ask what the definition of democracy is, the response will be divided into two camps. These two camps represent two versions of the same utopian delusion.
The believers of the first version of utopian democracy can quote the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution from memory. They are for a government which is mostly kept at a distance, allowing the individual to soar like eagles to unlimited success with the least amount of restriction. Everyone in this democracy contributes a fair share to the government for basic services such as national defense, but a person’s well being is a personal responsibility. In this utopia, every person is born healthy and disease free with a marketable talent which allows for the achievement of success. Working hard and not abusing the rights of others, these believers live fruitful lives, leaving legacies of great influence. The difficulty with this form of democracy is that it does not know how to handle those individuals who do not fit into the mold. Forgive me for mentioning the Bible, but even Jesus said, “The poor you have with you always.” In this form of utopia, if one is “poor” it must be because he/she has not exerted the effort to reach the inborn potential which is in every person. To offer alms to the poor is to deter their work initiative. These are the believers who scream that a flat income tax is the fairest. In a utopian world it may be the fairest, but in real life it will never work because there will always be the poor, and even England did away with paupers’ prisons a hundred years ago. What is fairest? Tax based on ability to pay, not percentage OF pay.
Along with the poor are the physically challenged be it through injury, birth, or disease. I was told a few days ago that to cut our health costs in this nation, committees should determine how expensive extending the life of a disabled person would be, and, if the cost is prohibitive, health care should be withheld. I guess it would be the natural thing to do. After all, in nature, there are many examples of infant creatures that are abandoned to die by their mothers…for the good of the healthy ones. So a person’s health would be a personal responsibility and dependent upon the person’s ability to pay for services. What I find fascinating about this group is that most are aggressively pro-life when it comes to the abortion issue, arguing about the sanctity of the unborn child, etc. However, if that child is born with a defect, well, we hope mom has good insurance.
Lastly, those in this form of utopian democracy have not learned the lessons of human greed. One never has enough money, power, or prestige, and without restrictions or governmental regulations big businesses will stretch ethical boundaries far beyond the breaking point. Competition, which is a concept hallowed in the annals of capitalism and business, is not restricted to obtaining the largest share of the market but also eliminating as many coworkers or company competitors as possible on the way to the top. Therefore the “pursuit of happiness” mentioned in the declaration may in fact require the deterrence of happiness in someone else. But, hey, that’s competition.
At the other end of the spectrum (other side of the aisle, as it were) is the second group of utopian democratic proponents. Interestingly enough, they, too, are familiar with “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but at that point the similarities end. Because the citizenry is united under the government’s guidance, a new child is in effect a ward of the state. Every citizen has the right to the pursuit of happiness, but if another citizen cannot…or chooses not…to make that pursuit, it is the responsibility of all to “carry those who cannot walk.” An incredible fact of this group, however, is that the government’s concern for you only begins at birth. Should a child be undesired prior to birth, an abortion is acceptable with no consequence, but once born, the child is offered cradle to grave security.
This group has a great distain for the natural competitiveness of man. It understands the innate greed of the corporate world, and therefore attempts to control business activities and restrict success, or at least allow it to be spread around to more recipients. The result is excessive restrictions causing hesitancy among businesses to invest and take risks. Additionally, because some citizens have exceeded the normal levels of success, they should be taxed more heavily because they have more to spend.
It is in the area of “liberty” where the two groups most contrast. This second group interprets liberty to mean unbridled freedom. When the constitution mentions freedom of speech, it means you can say anything you wish, no matter how offensive and no matter the consequences. There is no decorum or standard of behavior because there is total freedom. Freedom to choose is interpreted to mean the rights of one may infringe upon the rights of others. Although a majority of the group may have an opinion in a particular matter, one objection can stop the discussion. Polls concerning prayer in schools have always shown a tremendous majority in favor, but due to the efforts of a scattered few, there now is no prayer. It is with the efforts of this group that we can now enjoy pornography in our homes and obnoxious behavior in our stores and schools. It is through the efforts of this group that we are now enjoying the greatest federal deficits in the history of our nation with scant positive results. There is another word for unbridled, unlimited freedom…anarchy.
As we enter the election process of 2012, we have seen the polarization of the two major parties into the two camps described above. Most of the candidates offered to the electorate subscribe to one or the other of the two positions, and that’s the tragedy of this election because both of the positions are disastrous for our country. Forgive me for being biblical again, but many times in the scriptures, the word “moderation” pops up when discussing actions or behaviors. It is not just a biblical philosophy but one that has been expounded by many, and it is a philosophy which works in government and politics, also. A word which has become anathema to many in the political spectrum these days but yet is a vital component of a successful government is ”compromise.” The government must be friendly to business to encourage business while at the same time monitoring operations. A businessman will borrow money to expand his business, knowing that he will be able to repay the loan with increased sales and profits. A government may also borrow money to invest, but it should only be done when there is a good chance of a return on the investment and a repayment of the loan. It must offer help and assistance to those less fortunate while making it clear that effort must be made to stand on one’s own feet. It must value life from conception to burial. It must make it clear there are standards of speech and behavior which respect the privacy of others. The interesting note here is that these positions are reflected by a majority of the citizens of the United States. It seems to be those in power or those who are aspiring to power who embrace the two extreme positions. We in the middle need to vote.