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Is Democracy Viable?
Frivolity and short-sightedness threaten our ability to keep this republic.


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Thomas Sowell

 

The media have recently been so preoccupied with a congressman’s photograph of himself in his underwear that scant attention has been paid to the fact that Iran continues advancing toward creating a nuclear bomb, and nobody is doing anything that is likely to stop them.

Nuclear weapons in the hands of the world’s leading sponsor of international terrorism might seem to be something that would sober up even the most giddy members of the chattering class. But that chilling prospect cannot seem to compete for attention with cheap behavior by an immature congressman, infatuated with himself.

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A society that cannot or will not focus on matters of life and death is a society whose survival as a free nation is at least questionable. Hard as it may be to conceive how the kind of world that one has been used to, and taken for granted, can come to an end, it can happen in the lifetime of today’s generation.

Those who founded the United States of America were keenly aware that they were making a radical departure from the kinds of governments under which human beings had lived over the centuries — and that its success was by no means guaranteed. Monarchies in Europe had lasted for centuries and the Chinese dynasties for thousands of years. But a democratic republic was something else.

While the convention that was writing the Constitution of the United States was still in session, a lady asked Benjamin Franklin what the delegation was creating. “A republic, madam,” he said, “if you can keep it.”

In the middle of the next century, Abraham Lincoln still posed it as a question whether “government of the people, by the people and for the people shall not perish from the earth.” Years earlier, Lincoln had warned of the dangers to a free society from its own designing power-seekers — and how only the vigilance, wisdom, and dedication of the public could preserve their freedom.

But, today, few people seem to see such dangers, either internally or internationally.

A recent poll showed that nearly half the American public believes that the government should redistribute wealth. That so many people are so willing to blithely put such an enormous and dangerous arbitrary power in the hands of politicians — risking their own freedom, in hopes of getting what someone else has — is a painful sign of how far many citizens and voters fall short of what is needed to preserve a democratic republic.

The ease with which people with wealth can ship it overseas electronically, or put it in tax shelters at home, means that raising the tax rate on wealthy people is not going to bring in the kind of tax revenue that would enable wealth redistribution to provide the bonanza that some people are expecting.

In other words, people who are willing to give government more arbitrary power can give up their birthright of freedom without even getting the mess of pottage. Worse yet, they can give up their children’s and their grandchildren’s birthright of freedom.

Free and democratic societies have existed for a relatively short time, as history is measured — and their staying power has always been open to question. So much depends on the wisdom of the voters that the franchise was always limited, in one way or another, so that voting would be confined to those with a stake in the viability and progress of the country, and the knowledge to cast their votes intelligently.

In our own times, however, voting has been seen as just one of the many “rights” to which everyone is supposed to be entitled. The emphasis has been on the voter, rather than on the momentous consequences of elections for the nation today and for generations yet unborn.

For those who see voting as more or less a matter of self-expression, almost a recreational activity, there is no need to be informed about both sides of the issues before voting, much less sit down and think beyond the rhetoric to the realities that the rhetoric conceals.

Careless voters may be easily swayed by charisma and rhetoric, oblivious to the monumental disasters created around the world by 20th century leaders with charisma and rhetoric, such as Hitler.

Voters like this represent a danger of terminal frivolity for freedom and democracy.

Thomas Sowell is a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution. © 2011 Creators Syndicate, Inc.



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