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On the level: The Tytler Cycle is not one I can ride

A quote that keeps popping up in right-wing circles blames the inevitable downfall of democracy on the greed of the average voter, but does that really make any sense?
260421_Alexander_Fraser_Tytler,_Lord_Woodhouselee
Portrait of Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, picture by H. Raeburn, A.R.A., drawn by J. Jackson, engraved by C. Picart, May 10, 1813.

A friend of mine recently shared a quote about the inevitable downfall of democracy. Given the intrusion of government into our private lives over the past year, frustration concerning our political system isn’t all that surprising.

The quote is from Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee, an 18th century Scottish lawyer, judge and academic who was a professor of history and Greek and Roman antiquities at the University of Edinburgh. He died in 1813.

Here’s the long quote in its entirety:

“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can 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 from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's greatest civilizations has been 200 years. These nations have progressed through this sequence: From bondage to spiritual faith; From spiritual faith to great courage; From courage to liberty; From liberty to abundance; From abundance to selfishness; From selfishness to apathy; From apathy to dependence; From dependence back into bondage.”

As you can see, Tytler basically argues that all democracies are doomed to fail because as soon as the electorate realizes that they can vote for the politician who promises them the most largess from the public purse, they will inevitably vote for the person promising, in essence, the biggest bribe.

Out of this was born what has been called the ‘Tytler Cycle,’ which appears at the end of the quote. This argues that democracies are created out of faith and courage, which brings about widespread abundance. This abundance, the cycle argues, leads to selfishness and then complacency and apathy.

An apathetic populace, which has lost the faith and courage of its early days, becomes dependent upon the state and through this dependence, the population descends into bondage, becoming slaves to the system they built.

Tytler didn’t like democracy, calling it utopian and a chimera, considering it a sort of dressed-up monarchy. He also seems to have been possessed of a condescending opinion of the common person as weak-willed and venal. Charming fellow.

The quote as attributed to him certainly sounds like something someone from the upper crust would write.

One of the interesting aspects of the quote is the question of its origin. Since I hadn’t heard of it or Tytler before, I started poking around to learn what I could about it.

Thankfully, there are smarter people than I did the heavy lifting for me. While I looked at several sources, a 2003-2004 article by Loren Collins on his blog was particularly helpful. With help from other researchers, Collins was able to show the quote is a mishmash of a couple of different quotes, which can be traced back as far as the mid-20th century.

Various politicians from the right side of the aisle have quoted from it over the years, including Ronald Reagan long before he was president. You should give Collins’ article on the origin of the quote a read; it’s quite thorough.

So while the quote probably didn’t come from Tytler, it’s contents have struck a chord with right-wing politicians for decades, so it keeps popping up every ten years it seems.

Frankly, it doesn’t surprise me that politicians of a certain bent are attracted to the quote. I mean, the cycle itself touches on right-wing talking points that have really solidified over the past 30 years or so.

It states democracies find their strength in spiritual faith. Check. That spiritual faith leads to abundance, which sounds a lot like the ‘prosperity doctrine’ preached by conservative U.S. televangelists and embraced by many prominent U.S. Republicans since they hitched the party’s wagon to the Moral Majority in the 1980s.

This abundance leads to selfishness on the part of voters, who continually demand more services from the public purse, leading to complacency on their part and a loss of faith, and eventually subservience to the state, which results in the democracy failing. Government services make people not want to work very hard anymore, the argument goes.

Politicians who use the quote seem to have a clear message for voters: If you expect too much from government, you will become a slave to government. And, if this democracy fails, it is because of the weakness of voters, not the weakness of politicians or the political system.

You are to blame. So every tax credit, government service, every ‘gift’ from government is a mark of your weakness and a symptom of the downfall you, the average person, will bring about by your opposition to hard work.

You should give to government, not take from government.

Correct me if I’m wrong, but to me, government is there to serve the people, not the other way around. Government is a contract entered into by all of us, for the benefit of all of us. We all support the government according to our means, and we are all to benefit equitably from that contribution (sweat and taxes).

Leaving aside that modern democracy was in its infancy when Tytler supposedly wrote the quote and that he, allegedly, based the cycle on his understanding of Athenian democracy in particular (which really wasn’t much like democracy as it is practiced today), Tytler didn’t have enough evidence to support the argument in the quote attributed to him.

But I can see why the message contained in the quote is so attractive to certain types of politicians. 

It tells voters to ignore the billions upon billions corporations are allowed to avoid in taxes. It tells voters to ignore the fact that the richest members of our society often pay the lowest taxes, while most of that burden is borne by a shrinking (and increasingly less wealthy) middle-class. It tells voters spiritual faith is more important than physical comfort.

It tells voters that the state is made strong by their suffering, and only through their pain does the state prosper.

Is that government as you understand it?

That this quote keeps bubbling only out of the mouths of right-wing politicians is instructive. Put simply: it is telling you, you should work to benefit the government, the government shouldn't work to benefit you.

Government has been more present in our daily lives this year than at any other time in recent memory. The continued restrictions we live under as we try to beat back COVID-19 are an enormous source of frustration for all of us. No one is enjoying the pandemic.

But if you’ve come across this quote and are tempted to share it, or if someone you know has shared it with you, I encourage you to really think about what that quote is saying. 

It’s telling you to give up your power. That’s where real bondage begins.

Mark Gentili is the community editor of Sudbury.com.