Dredging the Web
Wednesday, 23 October 2002
There's nothing like a juicy quotation to add some much-needed gravitas to a web page. Take this cynical little gem from Alexander Tytler's Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic (1776):
"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship."
I must confess that before I found this quotation while browsing the more crepuscular reaches of the web, I had never heard of Alexander Tytler. A quick Google search turned up some biographical details - Tytler was a Scottish barrister, law professor and later judge advocate of Scotland. To learn more about this remarkable man's achievements in letters, the law and the spending of inherited wealth, check out Significant Scots.
Of course the web has its limitations, so I was unable to locate an on-line copy of the book - it's something to keep an eye out for next time I'm hanging around my local library or the remainder bins. On the other hand I did find quite a few sites that gave prominence to Tytler's observation. Like Carl ("War is diplomacy by other means.") von Clausewitz, Tytler appears to be one of history's one-quote wonders.
With Tytler's evident cynicism about democracy it's hardly surprising that this passage turns up, in part at least, at this site devoted to arguing the case for a monarchical USA through scripture and poor page design.
Tytler's comment on fiscal policy make him a shoe-in for web-play on pages devoted to the iniquity of the tax system - such as this one which conveniently ignores the possibility that the politician who wins your vote with promises of lower taxes may be just as guilty of plundering the public purse as the politician who promises his supporters higher export subsidies for farm produce.
Tytler's evident popularity with some American conservatives is frankly, a bit of an emigma. Why you would prefer an 18th century Scottish aristocrat's opinion of democracy over that of say, George Washington or Thomas Jefferson, is quite beyond me.