Governments Rot When Their Citizens Let Them (Part I)

April 30th, 2011

By Dan Miller

Liberty Weeping

We get the worst government we’re prepared to tolerate.

Not long ago I suggested that we might as well elect a real clown, Grumpy, to serve as president of the United States. When he ran (very successfully) for the Brazilian Chamber of Deputies in 2010, Grumpy promised that, with him in office, things wouldn’t get worse. Though he didn’t have a clue what deputados actually did, the voters would find out, he claimed, if they elected him. Thus far at least, few of the candidates popular enough to win the 2012 beauty contest against President Obama seem to be much better than Grumpy — leaving the field, such as it is, still wide open. With conditions worsening and the country’s mood tanking, Obama’s second term — said to be a mythical creation of David Axelrod — could be worse than the Grumpy administration. But to whom should we turn?

Barack Obama currently has the worst approval ratings of his presidency. According to a new survey from Rasmussen Reports, only 22 percent of Americans think the country is heading in the right direction. Three years into his term of office, only 25 percent of voters “strongly approve” of the job he’s doing. Having numbers so low should make it difficult to win four more years. Unfortunately, just because Mr. Obama is vulnerable doesn’t mean Republicans will take advantage of the political opportunity. …

The damage four more years of Mr. Obama would do to the economy and US global prestige should be enough to motivate Republicans to rally behind the leader who seems to have the best chance of knocking off the Democrat, but who is it? There’s lots of talent out there, but finding Mr. or Mrs. Right isn’t easy in a congested field with no frontrunner unifying the elephant herd.

Fortunately, the United States is not at the point where revolution is necessary. Our votes remain effective if cast wisely for someone worth having. However, if they are cast frivolously, things will get worse. Remember the Declaration of Independence? Here’s one little part:

Prudence … will dictate that governments long established should not be changed for light and transient causes; and accordingly all experience hath shown that mankind are more disposed to suffer, while evils are sufferable, than to right themselves by abolishing the forms to which they are accustomed. But when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such government, and to provide new guards for their future security. — Such has been the patient sufferance of these colonies; and such is now the necessity which constrains them to alter their former systems of government. The history of the present King of Great Britain is a history of repeated injuries and usurpations, all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states.

Throughout the world, there are many disastrous, corrupt, and inept governments, but far fewer good ones. The government of the United States is still better than most. Even when honest people enter government, however, as some still do, there is often a downward spiral as they adapt to and adopt the culture of governance. They rarely improve but often worsen it.

Is this because some leaders are inherently self-serving, self-indulgent, hypocritical, lying jerks, routinely given to platitudinous remarks? People often accept them as their supporters glowingly portray them. That’s part of the problem, but there is more to it. In most of the countries with which I have a passing familiarity, being in “government service” has long had a predominately self-service aspect, coupled with a you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours mentality. From the lowest to the highest positions, government service is commonly seen as the way to self-promotion and self-aggrandizement, all at the expense of the ignorant schmucks conveniently available to be milked and governed.

I recall a petty postal official in Venezuela, when I was there about a decade ago, who routinely sold all of her supply of Venezuela’s many official stamps as soon as she had received them. She pocketed the nice premium that she charged to a vendor staked out at a stand just outside the post office. The vendor, in turn, sold them at a second mark-up — because none were available inside. Yes, that’s just the way it had always been and always would be, so nothing could be done — until el Presidente Chávez came to power and everything got far worse. Crony capitalism, crony socialism, crony communism — crony whateverism; in this regard, at least, they’re all the same.

So why are the governments of many countries worse than that of the United States? Because the United States has a history and retains a vestigial culture, albeit increasingly diluted and diminished, of individuality, independence, and public service as a burden to be accepted, only temporarily, for the common good. To us, the concept may seem rather naive, funny, and old-fashioned. It shouldn’t. Cincinnatus (519 – 438 B.C.), who returned to plow his fields in Rome when he had finished his job as supreme military commander, is fading as a role model and even a memory.

He gained fame as a model of Roman virtue. He was a farmer above all, but when called to serve his country he did so well, efficiently, and without question, even though a prolonged stay away from his farm could mean starvation for his family. When he served his country, he made his stint as dictator as brief as possible. He was also admired for his lack of ambition.

Much of that culture, although diminished in Rome, spread slowly to parts of what was then the wider world, including Britain. Centuries later, Britain gradually transitioned from an absolute monarchy to a constitutional monarchy, with many of the individual freedoms and restraints on government set forth in the United States Constitution. It took a very long time. Nor was it, as the French ruling class understood, automatic. M. Guillotine’s clever and comparatively humane device, celebrated as the people’s avenger, was much in use as the French Revolution proceeded. Far less humane “rebels” in Libya are hardly proving themselves historically unique by exacting their vengeance without much sensitivity.

But not to worry. There are easy solutions. Well, maybe.

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3 Responses to “Governments Rot When Their Citizens Let Them (Part I)”

  1. Brian |


  2. Tom Carter |

    I agree; great article. America is still what it always was, although there’s been significant cultural erosion that has led to political and economic erosion. That’s all fixable, but it’s going to take a different set of political leaders to get it done. Whether the people will be smart enough to do what’s necessary in Nov 2012 is the big question.

  3. Governments Rot When Their Citizens Let Them (Part II) | Geo436 |

    […] Just a few reasons we get the worst governments we are ready to tolerate. (Read part one here.) […]

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