This is the third post in a series about demonstrating adulthood as a society. In part 1 I discussed the new long-term revenue realities that state governments must face and that the federal government will eventually face. In part 2 I took exception to Indiana Governor Mitch Daniels’ contention that this situation “is a test of our adulthood as a democracy.” After gnashing on the problems with pure democracies, I will now discuss what Daniels probably really meant.
Like most people of the past few generations, I assume that Daniels is conflating the terms democracy and republic. The average American that uses the word democracy to refer to our system of government does not usually intend to deny the fact that we actually have a republic with some democratic features. Sometimes people use the term “representative democracy.” But usually, all of these things mean roughly the same thing in the minds of most Americans.
I think it’s clear that I believe that there is and should be a marked distinction between the idiom ‘democracy’ and our system of government. A democracy has been described as two wolves and a sheep voting on what to have for dinner. Democracies are not capable of demonstrating “adulthood.” Our Founders designed a republican form of government that is supposed to temper the excesses inherent in democracies.
That being said, I will assume the best of the statement made by Governor Daniels and accept the notion that what he really meant is that the current and coming revenue crisis that faces and will face our state and federal governments is a test of the capability of our political system to exhibit adult levels of responsibility and accountability.
If that’s what Daniels meant, then I agree with him. In that case, will we pass the test? It’s difficult to know. If I could tell the future, I would already be a billionaire. But I think we have some cues.
American public policy is often myopic and short sighted. It is often driven by pandering to both big business and the dependent class. The chief concern of a significant portion of society is how others are going to take care of them. The size of the dependent class is growing and many politicians are happy with that. We currently run our monetary system like a banana republic and pretend that there is no limit to what we can spend.
But historically, when the chips are really down and when matters are really critical, America tends to make the right decision. It is when we are actually up against a wall that we seem to do what’s best, at least from a big picture perspective. (There have always been individuals and groups that have been less than helpful during such times.)
The fact that our state and federal governments are acting like adolescents rather than adults right now tells me that the average American doesn’t currently perceive conditions to be critical. When that perception eventually gels, no amount of greed and ineptitude in government (or in its business and organizational supporters) will be able to withstand the call to do what must be done.
In other words, I’m suggesting that it will get worse before it gets better. But when we hit bottom, we will pull up our bootstraps and move in the right direction. We are, after all, Americans.
Of course, like every other foreteller of the future, I have nothing but history and hunches to upon which to base this theory. Others imagine different scenarios, some darker and some rosier. And it is impossible to say at this point that any of these are wrong. But I suspect that a period of more responsible policy will eventually arrive when there are few credible alternatives left.