Two towers of Europe and America

Structures created to keep the worst of human nature in check are no longer working

Written by New York Times | Published: May 21, 2012 3:26 am

Structures created to keep the worst of human nature in check are no longer working

The people who pioneered democracy in Europe and the United States had a low but pretty accurate view of human nature. They knew that if we get the chance,most of us will try to get something for nothing. They knew that people generally prize short-term goodies over long-term prosperity. So,the democratic pioneers built a series of checks to make sure their nations wouldn’t be ruined by their own frailties.

The American founders did this by decentralising power. They built checks and balances to frustrate and detain the popular will. They dispersed power to encourage active citizenship,hoping that as people became involved in local government,they would develop a sense of restraint and responsibility.

In Europe,by contrast,authority was centralised. Power was held by small coteries of administrators and statesmen,many of whom had attended the same elite academies where they were supposed to learn the art and responsibilities of stewardship. Under the parliamentary system,voters didn’t even get to elect their leaders directly. They voted for parties,and party elders selected the ones who would actually form the government,often through secret means.

Though the forms were different,the democracies in Europe and the US were based on a similar carefully balanced view of human nature: People are naturally selfish and need watching. But democratic self-government is possible because we’re smart enough to design structures to police that selfishness.

But,over the years,this balanced wisdom was lost. Leaders today do not believe their job is to restrain popular will. Their job is to flatter and satisfy it. A gigantic polling apparatus has developed to help leaders anticipate and respond to popular whims. Democratic politicians adopt the mindset of marketing executives. Give the customer what he wants. The customer is always right. Having lost a sense of their own frailty,many voters have come to regard their desires as entitlements. They become incensed when their leaders are not responsive to their needs. They command their politicians to give them benefits without asking them to pay.

The consequences of this shift are now obvious. In Europe and America,governments have made promises they can’t afford to fulfil. At the same time,the decision-making machinery is breaking down. American and European capitals still have the structures inherited from the past,but without the self-restraining ethos that made them function.

The American decentralised system of checks and balances has transmogrified into a fragmented system that scatters responsibility. Congress is capable of passing laws that give people benefits with borrowed money,but it gridlocks when it tries to impose self-restraint. The European ruling classes once had their power checked through daily contact with the tumble of national politics. But now those ruling classes have built a technocratic apparatus,the European Union,operating above popular scrutiny. Decisions that reshape the destinies of families and nations are being made at some mysterious,transnational level.

Western democratic systems were based on a balance between self-doubt and self-confidence. They worked because there were structures that protected the voters from themselves and the rulers from themselves. Once people lost a sense of their own weakness,the self-doubt went away and the chastening structures were overwhelmed. This is one of the reasons why Europe and the US are facing debt crises and political dysfunction at the same time. People used to believe that human depravity was self-evident and democratic self-government was fragile. Now they think depravity is nonexistent and they take self-government for granted. Neither the US nor the European model will work again until we rediscover and acknowledge our own natural weaknesses and learn to police rather than lionise our impulses.

For all the latest Opinion News, download Indian Express App

    Live Cricket Scores & Results