This is a warning from Scottish historian and professor Alexander Tytler circa 1787.
“A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largesse [generous gifts] 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, which is always followed by a dictatorship.
The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations has been two hundred years. These nations have progressed through this sequence:
Bondage to Spiritual Faith —-> Spiritual Faith to Great Courage —-> Courage to Liberty —-> Liberty to Abundance —-> Abundance to Complacency —-> Complacency to Apathy —-> Apathy to Dependence —-> and Dependence back into Bondage.”
When I first read this, it was bone-chilling, but is it a true statement? Initially, like so many things, if it fits your beliefs, you believe it instantly.
We are all human and every day we can fall for ideas that align with what our perception of reality is, whether they’re true or not. I purposely use the words “fall for ideas” because we are busy with our lives and can’t spend time on every subject deciding if it’s accurate. You usually just make a split-second decision and move on.
Maybe worst of all, if we are told something enough times, most people just come to the conclusion that it is true.
That is exactly what I would have done with this quote, except I wanted to know who Scottish historian and professor Alexander Tytler was since he was reportedly the author of such an important statement. That opened a whole can of worms. I discovered that he is a real person, but none of this warning can be attributed to him.
In fact, it appears that it came from multiple sources, and that over the years his name was attached to give it credibility. What? Now the whole quote’s accuracy is in question.
Then to add to all of this, someone recently told me that democracies have never existed for more than 200 years. That was the first time I had ever heard such a thing. I didn’t think there were even democracies like ours before.
So I asked my crack team of researchers to check it out. I wanted these questions answered:
Is there any history to prove the “Bondage to Spiritual Faith” etc. part of the quote? Has the world ever seen a form of government like we have in the U.S. before?
This is what our researchers found out:
The second part of the quote, “from bondage to spiritual faith,” etc. is allegedly spoken by Henning W. Prentiss Jr. in a 1934 speech. There’s no proof he said it first but that’s what’s generally accepted because there is a good amount of evidence backing it.
As for examples of this cycle, there are articles demonstrating how America is currently at the end of the cycle. In other words, we’re about to go back into “bondage.” But those are all opinions.
Other articles misattribute Tytler as the man who created the cycle (it’s even referred to as the “Tytler Cycle”). They also disagree on the current stage of the cycle for America. While there’s no proof it was Prentis who created it, it was most certainly not Tytler who said this part about the cycle. Without further evidence, it’s very difficult to sum this whole thing up as anything more than just someone’s opinion.
I was unable to find any information regarding other countries that have gone through this “cycle.” The only information relates undoubtedly back to America.
For the first part of the quote, which may have actually been Tytler — though no one can say for sure– I first want to make clear the distinction between democracy and capitalism.
- This is an economic system.
- The idea was not new and unique to us: origins dated back to the 13th century, and England employed many of its concepts in the 16-1700s. Parts of later feudalism incorporated some capitalistic ideas (basically a competitive market and private ownership of property).
- It is true that America was the first country to really fit the bill of a capitalistic system, but it wasn’t completely unheard of in other parts of the world.
- Today there are dozens of countries that model from America’s system – so we are certainly not the only country with this structure. It is also worthy to note that because we lean increasingly more towards a form of socialism every year, our system is gradually becoming like those of other countries, while they’re also adjusting to us. We were probably most unique at our birth.
- This is a form of government.
- Put simply: it’s a government by the people, where all individuals can have an impact on the government.
- Throughout history, elements of democracy are ancient. The Athenians attempted a democratic system as early as 500 B.C. Now that’s old. Greeks experimented with democracy, and places like Rome, even with an emperor, practiced democracy in one way or another. Some officials were elected through the people. Later, Scandinavia, Italy, Switzerland, England and other places had governments with at least partial democracy.
- Obviously, it’s all over the world today. Most socialist countries are democracies. Pretty much every major country in Europe is. Its only true rival is communism.
So, America is a capitalistic democracy. The reason I brought this whole thing up is that Tytler only mentions democracy in his quote. Yes, we have seen America’s form of government many times before. The difference is we combined it with capitalism. Looking at our system as a whole, no other country is run like ours.
That said, I believe we are more democratic than any other country in existence, I believe. The only major non-elected officials in our government system are the supreme court justices – and we have a valid reason for that. The president also personally appoints a good amount of people. But we keep this non-democratic appointment and selection process to a minimum compared to other countries.
Final Note from Greg:
We found out that this quote is broadly incorrectly attributed to Tytler — especially the second part. It also appears that there’s no evidence that this exact “cycle” has existed anywhere else. It is, however, arguable that America is going through something like this now. Just take the statement above: “We were probably most unique at our birth.” At the time, we were united enough to overthrow the King of England’s form of government and certainly were not in the complacency or apathy stage.
We have past and current examples of democracy — particularly England — that may not be “true” democracies like America, but that have done well for over 200 years. That makes the statement about longevity absolutely false.
Nevertheless, all this research on the accuracy of who said what and proof of the cycle has been interesting, and it definitely shows us we can’t believe everything we read. We can, however, agree that countries evolve over time.
Without a doubt, the spoils go to the winners in any type of government system and even if it takes over 200 years, democracy allows people to vote specifically for their interests. If boundaries aren’t set, this could topple an economy.
I hope that the “cycle” is wrong and that our great country can overcome the complacency and the apathy, as well as our current widespread entitlement culture. Nobody except those in power wins if we don’t overcome that. History has proven it.
Source for Tytler not being the person to have first said the quote: http://www.lorencollins.net/tytler.html