James Kwak | Democracy in America

It appears that Simon [Johnson] beat me to commenting on Third World America, Arianna Huffington’s bleak portrait of many of the things that are wrong with America (crumbling infrastructure, failing schools, extreme inequality, low social mobility, political system captured by special interests, etc.), so I’ll confine myself to a couple of thoughts I had while reading it.*

First, there are these great quotations from Alexis de Tocqueville’s Democracy in America (p. 45 of Huffington’s book):

“Amongst the novel objects that attracted my attention during my stay in the United States, nothing struck me more forcibly than the general equality of condition among the people. . . .

“Democratic laws generally tend to promote the welfare of the greatest possible number; for they emanate from the majority of the citizens, who are subject to error, but who cannot have an interest opposed to their own advantage.”

Now, Tocqueville was no naïve idealist. I read a big chunk of Democracy in America in college (the “cube,” we called it, because it was so thick) and read The Old Regime and the Revolution in graduate school, and Tocqueville is one of the two conservatives I most respect, along with Edmund Burke. He knew the importance of institutions and the dangers of trying to overthrow them all at once, and hence his distaste for the ideological zealots of the French Revolution. America, he thought, was different, because of its strong institutions and public sphere.

But today, Tocqueville’s observations no longer ring true. America is no longer a land of equality, and it’s largely because our democratic system no longer promotes “the welfare of the greatest possible number.” And that’s because many citizens are only too eager to support policies that are “opposed to their own advantage,” like the then-popular (and apparently still-popular) Bush tax cuts, which shifted the relative tax burden from the rich onto the middle class.** What Tocqueville underestimated was the power of money in modern politics and the marketing genius of modern politicians, which have freed democratic politics from the constraints of the actual interests of the majority.

Second . . . I think I’ll hold off on second until another post.

* I got a free copy from the publisher.

** Yes, income taxes on the middle class went down a bit. But if we assume that government spending must eventually be paid for, it’s the relative distribution of the tax burden that matters. If we assume instead that government spending will be reduced, those reductions will affect the middle class (Social Security, Medicare, etc.) much more than the rich.