There is ongoing talk about gridlock in American democracy; very little about its causes. But political friction is caused by underlying ideological forces, and in the run-up to the coming election, it would be refreshing to hear more from statesmen about the forces that are changing democracy in unexpected ways and less from politicians worried about votes.
There are at least three underlying causes. One is the lockstep connection between statism and sexual freedom; the second is that political systems that go from emphasizing liberty to emphasizing equality end up attacking their own civil societies. A third is that democracies have been sleep-walking into a political trap of their own making.
Given that democracy was embraced by “the people” to safeguard freedom from oppressive government, how do we explain that everywhere we look we see more democracy, but less freedom? The only exception is our bodily and sexual freedoms, which are now almost unlimited. This contradiction is found in all modern democracies, and it has been resolved everywhere the same way: by splitting the body politic in two. Democratic citizens of the Western world now live privately as sexual libertarians if they so choose, and publicly, whether they like it or not, under a quasi-socialism expressed in suffocating regulation and taxation.
We are all libertarian socialists now. It has been a Faustian deal: the people accept more taxation and regulation in exchange for more sexual and bodily freedoms. President Clinton’s “private” sexual folly in the most public office on the planet was a symbol of this new reality.
But our growing statism has created new problems. The civil societies of the west (the once-great middle ground between the state at the top and the mass of autonomous individuals at the bottom, comprised of millions of voluntary associations such as families, churches, charities, enterprises, clubs, and the like) have always been the engine of powerful social-bonding through the spontaneous creation of benefits for members and exclusion of non-members. I have no right to share the privileges (or obligations) of your family, corporation, club, or soccer team, nor you, mine. This process of social-bonding has always served as the only real barrier protecting solitary individuals from state power.
Once a state becomes egalitarian, however, the competition for citizen loyalty and allegiance begins. Legal levelling, and the substitution of tax-funded services of government for those of civil society are the weapons of choice. I live in a small town where recreational, sporting, and artistic activities were once organized and funded by private citizens who wanted them. But the town now has fifteen full-time employees in its “Department of Parks, Recreation & Culture,” which boasts of creating “opportunities for building positive relationships, learning, and personal growth” (what civil society used to do). Gratitude for government replaces gratitude for fellow citizens. Score: 1 for government, 0 for private initiative.
This baleful trend is found at all levels of government in every modern democracy, and it spurs the growth of massive and permanent public debts that cannot be paid off because they are too large. But all gross government debt (in which must be included all unfunded liabilities) is a form of deferred taxation. So instead of “paying it forward” by leaving an inheritance of good works and surpluses as a gift for the next generation, we are asking them to “pay it backward.” We are legally forcing millions of unborn future citizens to pay for trillions of dollars of current consumption. It’s a form of selfishness against which future citizens cannot protect themselves — a shameful truth not lost on today’s youth, who nevertheless learn very quickly that it is normal for them, too, to rip off the next generation. Ironically, it’s become the 21st century version of taxation without representation.
All of this lands us in what may be a final and inescapable political trap: all the major western democracies are, or soon will be, “tripartite states” — polities in which one-third of working-age adults produce jobs and wealth, another third works for government at some level (if we include all municipal, state, and federal employees as well as all having full-time government contracts), and one-third receive significant benefits from government. Anyone can see that, in the voting booth, the last two segments will always gang up on the first, like two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner.
These are serious difficulties coloring the current political climate. Unfortunately, America seems more interested in the symptom — gridlock in Washington, D.C., where conflicting ideologies clash — than its underlying cause. As potential 2016 candidates begin to air their visions and policies for the country, the real question is whether they realize they’re up against not merely another party, but a rapidly mutating notion of democracy.