November 15, 2012
In seeking to understand and explain the outcome of America's presidential election we should first recall what Alexis de Tocqueville wrote after visiting the US more than 170 years ago:
Democracy will 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 the most benefits.
De Tocqueville's insight is also relevant in understanding both the economic plight of millions in Europe and the political landscape developing in Australia. The populations of Western democracies have seen millions of pages of commentary, along with thousands of hours of TV and the internet’s presumptions to knowledge, regarding the US election and Europe’s ills, but what have we learned?
I suspect that after 12 months of being very nearly force fed this commentary most of us are either mentally bloated or famished, but always unsatisfied. Obfuscation has bloated us and sensational falsehoods have left us famished for basic truth and understanding of the course of history. We have watched Barack Obama win a second term in the White House, not because of good governance, but by appealing to the growing entitlement brigade, which believes its comfortable future can be assured by big government.
The mendicants include not just the genuine poor but I-have-a-grievance minority groups and members of quasi-science collectives who have learnt that the sure road to the further grants on which their conference-attending lifestyle depends is marked by ever more preposterous milestones, each marking another implausible danger arising from man's activities. Also aboard the gravy train are new industries and alleged businesses, all demanding their own pubic funding to save us from those sensationalised predictions.
Given that Obama does not control Congress and will have to deal with the Republicans for most policy decisions, is his second term likely to change any of this? Not likely, because bad policy worked to give him a second term. Will Republicans espouse policy that will correct the unsustainable rise in debt and ongoing high unemployment? Also not likely, as re-gaining the White House in 2016 will be the GOP's prime objective, and pandering to the mendicants will be rated a necessary strategy. Any brave decision by a future US government to excise the cancer of momumental and mounting deficits would likely see a repeat of the riots that confront European Governments whenever austerity measures are implemented.
What does all this mean for Australia, or should we just get on with life and stop taking an interest in the problems of others?
Fact is, we have the same problems and should heed the lessons beyond our shores if we are to avoid blundering down the same road. Most Western democracies, whether governed by either right or left factions, have gained and stayed in office over at least the last decade by bribing voters and building a sense of entitlement.
Convincing voters that their needs, both vital and imagined, can be provided by “My Government” has led to unscrupulous borrowing, followed by debt that economies thus weakened simply cannot service. This policy has resulted in a huge growth of the taxpayer-funded bureaucracies and increasing tax burdens on a decreasing percentage of independently funded citizens.
The result: The huge debts accrued to fund this nirvana are unlikely ever be repaid, unless by runaway inflation. The present reining in of budgets in Greece, Spain, Italy and others are not yet even sufficient to balance those budgets, let alone start repaying their debts.
The "fiscal cliff", as it is being called in US and which has to be addressed by January, has the same promise-anything-to-be-elected cause. It will have similar consequences. The pain of merely balancing the US budget will be excruciating, and that ordeal’s repercussions will be felt around the world. But, as in Europe, that will not even begin to pay off the debt.
Remember, it is governments that borrow and run up debts, but it is the taxpayers who service them. The harsh reality is that any government's debt is borne by each and every of its citizen, and when the borrowed money is wasted, not used to develop income-producing infrastructure and make economies more competitive, the inevitable result is years of declining living standards. To put this prospect in some perspective, here is what every citizen of the following countries owes:
USA: $54,000. Italy: $42,000. Greece: $39,000. Spain: $27,000. Australia: $24,000. Yes that is right, every man, woman and child owes those sums to cover their government’s profligacy. In a very short space of time, Australia has moved from owing very little to a precarious fiscal state.Most of this debt has been accrued by Labor governments at state and federal levels, and the $24,000 figure does not include the growing burden of public sector superannuation, which in the states is totally unfunded.
The recent constrictions on all business activity that have been legislated both at state and federal levels in Australia have been mirrored in USA. As in Australia, the further tightening of the economic straightjacket has been demanded by environmentalists and unionists, supported by social science groups and championed by a media that is at best incompetent but, just as often, blatantly partisan and increasingly corrupt. While all this continues the problems will escalate. Count on US bonds seeing another downgrade or two and Uncle Sam finding himself unable to pay his debts.
Here in Australia we are well down the same road. Sadly, there is considerable truth in de Tocqueville's observation, and the result of America’s presidential election is the proof. Increasingly, it is happening here. There are two basic reasons for this:
First, the Fourth Estate, so vital to democracy, has come to be dominated by left wing orthodoxies and ideologues given to predicting and defining the news, rather than adhering to truth and reporting events with a more-or-less straight bat. One need only watch the ABC or read the Fairfax press -- especially if the topic is, say, climate change or same-sex marriage – to witness the deference accorded one side’s arguments and what often seems a barely concealed contempt for the other.
The second reason is that this movement to policy propagation by media, rather than elected representatives, happened because the rest of us lost interest in defending the truth. While diligently holding a job, raising a family and being good citizens, we ignored democracy’s very foundation: thou shall not bear false witness, even if only by omission. We allowed the sensationalism and false claims championed by the media to go unchallenged.
The consequence saw politicians more fearful of offending the media than the voters who put them in office. It is no exaggeration to note that a journalist or advocate will always find it easier to get a politician's ear than will a constituent. The untruths that we have allowed to rampage without reasoned rebuttal are numerous, but some Australian examples are:
1. Governments can legislate working conditions and wages irrespective of market forces and productivity outcomes.
2. Mankind is destroying the earth and its environment. This “unsustainability” is seeing increasing extinctions of both flora and fauna.
3. Future power generation must come from renewable sources, as present fuels are finite and using them is bad for the environment.
4. We prevent both failure and accident by virtue of legislation alone.
5. We can grow our population, but do not need to increase water storage capacity or base-power generation.
6. We can embrace and adopt green policies and still remain competitive with the rest of the world.
7. We must have the Commonwealth take over management of the Murray-Darling Basin because only politicians bureaucracies know what is best
8. Water is a precious resource but we must not build dams and destroy wild rivers.
9. We must continue to subsidise capital city public transport to the tune of over $10 billion per year while spending only $9 billion on all other transport in our vast country.
10. Growing the public service increases national employment.
Detailing and refuting the numerous fallacies in the claims above can wait for another time, but with Remembrance Day a recent memory, perhaps we should contemplate the likely answers if we were to put this question to school students, the man in the street, or captains of industry: What were we fighting for when we sent so many of our best and bravest to the trenches of World War One, to the Kokoda Track, the Korean and Vietnam wars and, most recently, to Iraq and Afghanistan? The short and most common response would be, “to defend freedom” -- not only our own but those of others threatened and beset by Fascism, Totalitarianism, Communism and radical Islam. Freedom was, and will always remain, a noble cause.
The great and perhaps tragic irony is that we are now losing the war at home. Because we have failed to protect freedom by always demanding and upholding truth, it is being stripped away, very often by legislation or the innovative edicts of activist judges. To enjoy the freedom to succeed and prosper, the freedom to speak freely, we also must have the freedom to fail, the freedom to offend, the freedom to learn from failure and start again, the freedom to take offence and question the received wisdom.
It will only be when voters demand the restoration of truth in public discourse that we can hope to see the rise of leaders with the gifts, oratory and commitment to stem the steady erosion of traditional liberties. If we see such as movement – if we encourage, nurture and advocate it -- de Tocqueville's dire prediction may not yet come to pass. If not, then confiscatory taxes, stifling regulation and the suppression of ideas will shape a future darker even than the far-sighted De Tocqueville's worst visions.
As a water consultant and third-generation irrigation farmer, Ron Pike has seen the consequences of red tape, green tape and arrogant bureacracy firsthand.
The Quadrant Book of Poetry: 2001 - 2010
edited by Les Murray