I fully expect economic, if not military/diplomatic disaster to ensue from the Democrats’ current follies. I would not be surprised if the GOP won back both the House and Senate next year, as people tumble to the decline in our fortunes. But then what? Biden will still be President, so they can’t roll back the expenditures and programs without overriding his veto. But more than that: they may decide that this constitutes the New Normal, and fear taking away benefits from those upon whom they have been showered; rather, they will seek to be “responsible” benefactors. So it has mostly been over my lifetime. The government ratchet of power and money only goes one way, and too often Republicans have in the end decided to be slow-motion Democrats. Only if the disaster coming (and it is coming) threatens to engulf the nation – something on the order of the crises of the Civil War or the Depression/WW II – will the threats we face allow us to reset from the stance we are in -- if we have the will to do it. And that disaster will constitute its own existential crisis for the nation.
In 2012, Mitt Romney noted that 47% of the country received some sort of direct benefits from the federal government. Now, we’ve gotten used to sending aid directly to every taxpayer and household – depositing cash directly into their bank accounts, even. We are awash in so much cash that people are refusing to work. Dollar General(!) stores in my area have cut back their hours to 8-6 because they can’t attract enough workers at the prices they can afford to pay to keep their stores open their usual hours. People are staying at home, waiting for the next handout. In the runoff elections in Georgia at the start of the year, Joe Biden explicitly promised money to those voting for the Democrat candidates: he said if you wanted $2000 apiece in covid relief (on top of two payments of $600 and $1200 apiece already given and not yet fully spent), then you should vote for the Democrats. In former years, that would constitute a bribe. It hardly garnered comment in our current environment.
To a student of history, this is all dismally familiar. The politics of the late Roman Republic featured lots of political violence – gangs sponsored by various factions (and we’ve seen that recently). It also featured “reform” programs that provided reduced-price (and finally, free) grain for every Roman citizen. Now, there is no doubt that the poverty of the Head Count citizens in ancient Rome was very great. It is also true that the more prosperous citizens didn’t always claim their tax-supported grain (they certainly didn’t need to). But providing cheap grain – then free grain – for everybody warped the entire fabric of government. It meant that Sicily, then North Africa, and finally Egypt became important to the government precisely because the grain from these breadbasket areas was essential to keeping domestic peace. No government could survive the grain shipments’ being late. No government dared allow the opposition to control these provinces, either, so they were ruled with an iron fist. And no crisis, however great, could trump the need to keep providing cheap/free grain to the masses.
Once Rome became an empire – a totalitarian one – it still feared the populace. But now, it had to pay off the army and/or the Praetorians, too. Each new emperor gave a bonus to the Army or the Guard. And as emperor succeeded emperor, revolving door fashion, the soldiers expected bonuses each time, and each time higher than before. Again, no crisis of public finance or danger of losing territory could be allowed to infringe upon the expectation of payola.
Eventually, to stabilize the empire’s finances, Diocletian instituted serfdom: rural people were forbidden to move away from their agrarian occupations. And later emperors cracked down on the decurial class (the middling landowners who paid the lion’s share of taxes), forbidding them from leaving their estates or selling out in order to escape the crushing taxation required to keep the empire afloat. And yet, the inability of the empire to continue to finance itself on a base of subsistence agriculture doomed it. In the end, the fall of the empire in the West was not due to the Goths or the Franks – least of all, to the Huns – but to its own sclerotic tax system. The famed Roman legions were much reduced by the 4th and 5th Centuries, mostly “home militia” and auxiliary/mercenary types. Most Roman soldiers spent their time growing their own food rather than fighting the empire’s battles. Rome could no longer afford the army it needed to defend its territorial integrity.
When you start buying votes, the price always goes up. And it always ends the same way. Some crisis comes along that calls for radically re-orienting the priorities of the government in order to survive, but the government dare not do anything that angers those who think the most important thing the government does is pay out benefits to them. A crisis is coming our way – perhaps insolvency, perhaps a war with China, who knows? – but no matter how dire the need, it may now be impossible to reclaim the resources of the nation to address that crisis, for the majority of the people have become used to being given free stuff in return for their support. Their appetite is whetted, and they will not be denied.