The True Test of Democracy

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What is the true test of democracy?

Is it pulling together despite our differences to achieve existential goals like defeating Nazi Germany? The old Soviet Union passed that test. One could hardly confuse Stalin's repressive regime with a democracy.

Is it demonstrating national prowess through grand gestures like landing a man on the moon? Bravo, we did that 40 years ago. Who can forget the thrill of watching Neil Armstrong’s first steps? And who can explain why we are still paying for a manned space program despite so many other clamoring priorities?

Is it directly attending to the pressing needs of the people by making sure that none are permitted to have more until all are assured enough? Mao Zedong might score high on that test.

Woody Allen came closest when he quipped that eighty percent of success is showing up. Most Democracies throughout history invariably stopped doing that. Until we arrived on the scene, democracies had a tendency to degenerate into tyranny or dissolve in civil war, disappearing in the blink of an eye compared to the long-lived dynasties that ruled since Mesopotamians argued politics over clay mugs of beer.

Our founders were keenly aware of how badly history’s odds were stacked against them. They racked their brains to invent techniques that might forestall Democracy’s natural decay, seeking to avoid “trading one tyrant three thousand miles away for three thousand tyrants a mile away.”

They got something right and we got a couple of centuries to build a nation unlike any that had come before.

The pioneers who forged our country, aided by immigrants that flocked to join this bold experiment, received little help from the modest government they created. When our hearty ancestors stumbled, and they stumbled often, they picked themselves up and tried again. Through fits and starts they built the longest running Democracy humanity has ever achieved. So far.

Do you get the sense lately that we have lost our way? What transformed us into a nation predisposed to demand help from others when the going got tough, whether we are CEOs or factory workers or homeowners struggling with mortgage payments? Do we really believe that the universe owes us the highest standard of living simply because we are Americans?

Does it pass the sniff test of history to ask the Chinese to financially underwrite a wanton profligacy we refuse to address? Are we so eager to indenture ourselves to them, handing off the baton of world leadership passed to us a mere generation ago by the British?

The Chinese are an ancient people with an infant government still recovering from a horrible experiment gone awry. They have not yet decided whether to embrace our form of democracy or run from it in fear. What instructive example are we setting?

When the British relinquished their role as leaders of the free world, they had the excuse of exhaustion brought on by their struggle to defeat the Nazis. What's our excuse? We built too many McMansions?

We are the world leaders in diversity, incorporating a range of attitudes, values, and lifestyles into a culture as varied as the racial and ethnic stock that makes up our citizenry. The resulting tapestry enriches our lives as it refreshes our genes. But why is diversity a virtue when applied to, say, cultural practices or sexual preferences yet socially unacceptable when it comes to the attendant outcomes of fundamental economic behaviors?

The core freedoms our founders gave us rest on the power of choice. And choices have consequences. Take away the consequences and you inevitably erode the freedoms.

Some people prefer safe, steady jobs that pay modest incomes. Others take huge risks seeking outsized rewards. And some try not to work at all. While none begrudge caring for those unfortunate few who can’t provide for themselves through no fault of their own, is it Democracy's job to thwart the outcomes of economic choices made by the rest of us?

Some people prefer to sacrifice today to save for a better tomorrow. Many live like the lilies of the field, looking to Providence to meet their future needs. What happens when the machinery of Democracy gets hijacked by the spenders of today to grab the savings others made yesterday, and will be forced to make tomorrow, so our nation can continue consuming more than we produce?

If we go down this road, and it looks like we might, we have no one to blame for the inevitable outcome but ourselves.

The United States of America has been in existence a whopping one half of one percent of all the years since the first sovereigns set up shop to face the challenges of governing. It’s going to take a lot of perseverance and a thoughtful return to our founding principles to build a record that even deserves mention by the time the pyramids double in age.

That’s because the true test of democracy is avoiding self destruction.

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