Interesting Quote

This post is more than 2 years old.

A good friend of mine shared this quote with me today.

Scottish jurist and historian, Sir Alex Fraser Tytler (1742-1813) summed up the natural progression of self-governance thusly:

A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess of the public treasury. From that time on the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury, with the results that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy, always followed by a dictatorship. The average age of the world's great 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 complacency; from complacency to apathy; from apathy to dependency; from dependency back again to bondage.

I wonder if anyone knows of historical examples to back this up?

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Archived Comments

Comment 1 by Mike posted on 2/17/2004 at 6:06 AM

Emperor George?

Comment 2 by JesterXL posted on 2/17/2004 at 6:44 AM


I felt I was repressed as a kid. I found a lot about myself working in a metal fabrication shop doing manual labor for squat dough... but a flexible schedule. From having faith that computers were my future, and not a metal press, I forged through computers in school, wanting to be a programmer, but becoming an artist instead. Through school, and wanting to be the best, I was recognized by a cool design firm full of cool people. I was hired, and freed from making crap money. I was paid to create cool stuff in Director and Flash and Sound Forge. Suddenly, I was swath in cool company amenities, co-workers as friends, and enough dough to go clubbin'... so happy I even got my own apartment, quit smoking, and bought a convertible. Suddenly, though, I felt my efforsts weren't enough. I was working hard, but seeing no progress, and constantly taking teh fall and feeling horrible. I wanted success at any cost, regardless of all of my friends elsewhere in the industry losing their jobs everyday. It wasn't fair, I worked so hard. It was bs, I was treated like bs, the situation was bs. Still, nothing changed. I figured I'd just survive. 9/11. No one seemed to care but me. I wasn't doing anything... I was just sitting idly by, doing nothing to further myself, nor humanity. I had to do SOMETHING... but things sucked... what could I do? I was dependant on that damn company; they somehow had money in this shoddy economy. ...or did they? Pay cut, office closure and merging with the sister software company, we became dependant on their success. Screw this, I'm outta here.

Unemployed, lost my savings and apartment after 5 months of no work, and moved back in with parents.

...then, Flash MX came out, got enough contract to build a portfolio from scratch, even if the contract didn't pay anything, got a job at IBM on code alone, could wore a thong for all they cared about persona, and finally where I am at today, once again liberated.

Shall the process repeat itself? Who knows. Let's hope it takes a whacked turn.

...oops, I don't think that has anything to do with democracy.

Comment 3 by Mike Brunt posted on 2/17/2004 at 9:16 AM

Well (as in water) what a contrast of posts there one short one long but both profound in some way or another. There are many paradoxes in our world of course. Singapore is; I don't know what in terms of government but people seem happy there, I think. I have believed in democracy all my life but am I wrong-misguided? Perhaps netocracy will emerge one day. Good heavens what happened to the 60's ideals so reviled by blue-nosed wombles (sorry Wimbledon). Great piece though Ray or perhaps peace.

Comment 4 by Calvin Ward posted on 2/17/2004 at 6:48 PM

Roman Empire perhaps?

Comment 5 by Rob Brooks-Bilson posted on 2/17/2004 at 7:35 PM


The framers of the constitution were well aware of these ideas when they drafted the document. Tytler's quote was made well before the constitution of the United States was written, that's why they included such things as the electoral college over popular vote, the checks and balances inherent in our three branches of goverment, and other controls in the constitution such as the ratification rocess for constitutional ammendments.

This isn't to say that the things Tytler wrote about couldn't happen, it's just that our system of government takes into account how easily they could happen, and tries to address the issues.

Comment 6 by Mike posted on 2/17/2004 at 7:45 PM

Actually, things like the electoral college were created to protect the ruling elite from the "rousing rabble." Remember, the framers were wealthy, landed aristocrats. They were not interested in seeing you and I participate in government in any meaningful way.

Anyone looking closely at our government today sees nothing like what you and I were taught about our government in high school. What we see today is the triumph of corporate power over democracy. Two factions of the same party, the corporate party, serving slightly different interests, none of them yours and mine.

What's left of "democracy" will be undone in this country when geological circumstances dictate. This will be much sooner than we think. Read a bit on Peak Oil for the full synopsis.

Comment 7 by Rob Brooks-Bilson posted on 2/17/2004 at 8:09 PM

I'd argue that our participation in government is indeed meaningful, and that the controls put into the constitution are designed to protect both the government and the citizens from mob rule and the tyrany of the majority (and believe me, with the way a lot of people think these days, I'm glad we don't have majority rule).

This isn't to say that we can't have a more participatory democracy here in the U.S.. The question, though, is how do we go about it and bring about the change?

As for the Peak Oil argument, that's another discussion entirely. Let's just say that while I agree that dependance on fossil fuels (notice I didn't say "foreign oil") is undesirable, I think their doomsday predictions are a little off the mark.

Comment 8 by JesterXL posted on 2/17/2004 at 8:13 PM

I know nothing about the Peak Oil jazz, but with the way computers are going, who the heck needs cars except to see your relatives and go clubbin'?

Comment 9 by PaulH posted on 2/17/2004 at 9:48 PM

Sir Alex Fraser Tytler is full of crap. first off he says civilizations croak after 200 years. maybe, but the Uk & US have already gone past 200 and still seem to be standing. there have also been plenty of civilizations that lasted way longer then 200 years, thousands of years in fact. next, what does that have to do w/democracies? civilizations die for any number of reasons, environmental, warfare, etc. finally where on earth did he get his historical data to predict democracies behavior? historically there have been hardly any, probably the largest number in the last couple of hundred years. hardly a proper sample set.

sounds like a bunch of commie crap to me ;-)

Comment 10 by Ken Wilson posted on 2/18/2004 at 12:47 AM

I've got an old scrap of paper stashed away at home with that same quote on it. It was a newsletter from the Chaplain of the US Senate a couple of decades ago and I believe it has references to a couple of historical examples. I held onto it since it struck me as so similar to where we're headed. Of course, I first stashed it away 20 or so years ago and we're still here kickin along. :)

I'll see if I can dig it up tonight...

Comment 11 by Ken Wilson posted on 2/18/2004 at 3:17 AM

Didn't find my scrap of paper but it didn't take long to Google a copy of it's text as well as a slew of other web resources repeating that quote.

They all referred to that quote as being from a book by Tytler entitled "The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic". No other resources that I saw noted any specific historical resources...most were using it to validate their own particular beliefs.

Whether the quote is real or the gist of what it is suggesting is real I have no clue. But you might find this Urban Legends page interesting:

Seems some have used it together with the Bush/Gore election results as proof of something. :)


Comment 12 by R.Baker posted on 3/4/2004 at 12:05 AM

A better explanation is in "The Road to Serfdom" by Friedrich Hayek. For a snippet, see: