America’s public-policy dysfunction exists not because democracy isn’t working but because it is.
America’s bold premise is the possibility of dignified self-government – people making reasonable choices about restrained appetites. But three decades ago, Harvard political scientist Samuel Huntington postulated that America suffers regularly recurring political convulsions because the gap between the premise and reality becomes too wide to ignore.
Now Michael Greve, a constitutional scholar at the American Enterprise Institute, argues: “We like to tell ourselves that all our constitutional stories must have a happy ending.” The Founders’ foremost problem, Greve says, was debt. To establish the nation’s credibility, they needed to replace the Articles of Confederation with the Constitution. “We,” Greve says, “merely have to return to it, if we can.” He wonders whether we can.
The official national debt of $16 trillion (growing $4 billion a day), plus what the government owes its various trust funds, is more than 100 percent of GDP. “Debts of this magnitude,” Greve says, “will not be paid.”
Barack Obama’s risible solution is to add 4.6 points to the tax rate for less than 3 percent of Americans. Some conservatives have the audacity of hope – expecting 5 percent economic growth (the post-1945 average: 2.9 percent) and planning to continue financing the debt by borrowing at negative interest rates. Of our long slide into financial decrepitude, Greve says: “The rate of deterioration does not correlate in any obvious way with political control over the presidency and Congress.”
Although the elderly consider Social Security and Medicare benefits earned, Greve says: “Most retirees could not have earned their expected payment streams if they had worked two or three jobs.”
“Our politics,” says Greve, “aims at inspiration on the cheap.” We should reduce government’s complicity in illusions by, for example, sending retirees “a statement showing the estimated present value of their old-age benefits; their lifetime earnings and contributions; and the earnings and contributions that it would have taken to ‘earn’ those benefits. We might then ask them who precisely should earn and remit the missing millions.”
Rash promises were made, Greve says, “in an era of prosperity, when and because we thought we could afford them.”
Democracy is representative government, which is the problem. Democracy represents the public’s preferences, which are mutable, but also represents human nature, which is constant.
Writing in 1830, Thomas Babington Macaulay asked, “On what principle is it that, when we see nothing but improvement behind us, we are to expect nothing but deterioration before us?” Greve’s gloomy answer is: Because we actually see behind us protracted abandonment of the Founders’ flinty realism about the need to limit government because of the limitations of the people.
george Will’s email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.