Blogs > Liberty and Power > Can A Democratic State Be Curbed?

Mar 5, 2005 9:17 pm

Can A Democratic State Be Curbed?

The Spectator (6 March 2005) asks, ‘Is it now democratically possible to reduce state spending?’ The question is apposite - & the answer is chilling. Something like 25-33% of voters in the UK now consist of state employees, contractors, consultants, _their_ employees, & all their voting-age family members. A similar solid voting bloc has operated in Sweden for decades. The government sector there constitutes the bulk of ‘the economy’. J. S Mill did say that those who received ‘parish relief’ - government payments - should be automatically disqualified from voting.

The Crown was ‘painfully brought under the law’ (Prof. J. H. Baker); now it is the democratic despots in Parliament who need to be removed.

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Geoffrey Allan Plauche - 3/7/2005

It's not working.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/7/2005

I suspect that you're right about the citation of Plato, and I think that it overlooks the degree to which monarchy/aristocracy is about fattening oneself on the labors of other at "public" expense: it's quite hypocritical, of course, for a monarchist to attack democracy on the grounds that taxes are used for sometimes unproductive purposes.

However, I also think that the history of democracies in the 19th and 20th centuries hinges a great deal more on these kinds of "special interests" than we are normally willing to credit.

Roderick T. Long - 3/6/2005

Often quoted, but I wonder whether it's true. The most famous historical case of democracy, Athens, had its share of problems, but it didn't fall over loose fiscal policy, it fell because it was conquered by the Macedonian empire. I'm no fan of democracy; as Herbert Spencer said, the divine right of parliaments is no improvement over the divine right of kings. But I wonder whether the claim that democracy always collapses into dictatorship is actually based on history or is just borrowed from Plato's assertion in the Republic. The other model people point to is the Roman Republic succumbing to Caesarism, but I don't think the Roman Republic was really a democracy -- even in whatever broad sense of "democracy" includes both ancient Athens and the contemporary U.S.

Roderick T. Long - 3/6/2005

L&P continues to mess up links, but this one should work:;id=5758

Sudha Shenoy - 3/6/2005

Sorry - my technical expertise is of the smallest.;id=5758.
Hope that's OK.

Jonathan Dresner - 3/6/2005

"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government; it can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising them the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship." -- Sir Alex Fraser Tytler (1747-1813; Prof. History, Edinburgh U.) (written pre 1776)

Sheldon Richman - 3/6/2005

Sudha--Do you have a link for the article?

William Marina - 3/6/2005

I can't think of any democracies in history, or urban, mass society empires, that have cut back to avoid decline.

Chris Westley - 3/5/2005

Sudha - The situation in the US is not that different. The Brookings Institution's Paul Light wrote a couple of years ago (in "The New True Size of Government", cf.

"The true size of government is neither good nor bad in an objective sense—it merely is the total workforce required to deliver the promises the federal government has made. According to a 1999 public opinion survey conducted by Princeton Survey Research Associates on behalf of the Center for Public Service, roughly two in five U.S. households contain someone who works either directly for the federal government, or indirectly through contracts, grants, or mandates."