Commentary Magazine


America’s Civic Test

The budget that Representative Paul Ryan will unveil tomorrow will be unprecedented in its scope, its reach, and its structural reforms. He, along with his House colleagues, will have passed the test for political courage. Rather than avoiding entitlements, House Republicans take them on directly–including the main cause of our fiscal crisis, Medicare. All told, Ryan will propose cuts greater than $4 trillion from federal spending over the next decade.

Now comes a civic test of sorts. What will be the American public’s reaction to the plan that Ryan presents? Will they rally behind it, or rebel against it?

It’s hard to know. Perhaps we find ourselves in a new political moment, in which reforms and cuts that were once unthinkable can now be advocated without danger of self-immolation. On the other hand, it may be that what Ryan will propose goes beyond what the public is willing to accept. What is reasonable to conclude, I think, is that if the public continues to resist reforms to entitlements—either because of ignorance, demagoguery, or selfishness—we will experience, sooner than we think, the kind of “domestic convulsion” the founders warned about (and which Europeans are now experiencing). Demography and mathematics make that inevitable.

The greatest political thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries were quite realistic about human nature. They based self-government on modest rather than heroic virtues. They understood that people acted most often not out of altruism but self-interest. But it was self-interest “properly understood,” in the words of Tocqueville–meaning self-interest that was, especially at key moments, enlightened and public-spirited rather than narrow and selfish.

“That which is new in the history of societies is to see a great people, warned by its lawgivers that the wheels of government are stopping, turn its attention on itself without haste or fear, sound the depth of the ill . . . and then finally, when the remedy has been indicated, submit to it voluntarily without its costing humanity a single tear or drop of blood”—that’s how Tocqueville put it in Democracy in America.

A great people has been warned by its lawgivers–at least the responsible ones–that the wheels of government are stopping. Will the people embrace what they never have before (entitlement reform)? Will they act with sobriety now in order to forestall enormous damage later?

Those questions should begin to answer themselves very soon.