"A democracy will continue to exist up until the time that voters discover that they can vote themselves generous gifts from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates who promise the most benefits from the public treasury, with the result that every democracy will finally collapse due to loose fiscal policy, which is always followed by a dictatorship….
"Great nations rise and fall. The people go from bondage to spiritual truth, 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 dependence, from dependence back again to bondage."
These words – the author is unknown – are particularly sobering today. In the past few months, Uncle Sam has bailed out Wall Street, Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac, home-owners, banks, and US automakers, while the incoming administration promises a massive infrastructure investment.
Is it any surprise that cities, counties, and states are jostling for space at the federal trough? Who's next? Big Media? Big Sports? Agribusiness?
With the bailout "mother of all precedents," it's become difficult for Washington politicians to say "no" to any special interest that's too massive, too economically important, or too well connected to fail.
Nor can politicians forget the poor. Or the crucial swing voters in the "struggling middle class." And they can't ignore seniors – AARP members are very vocal.
Virtually every group today is trying to meet with the Obama transition team to convey the urgency of its "crucial" spending requests. My local paper recently informed me that our area university is preparing its wish list for infrastructure dollars. Even the National Council for the Social Studies and the American Sportfishing Association have sent pitches to President-elect Obama.
Have we gone from "rugged individualism" to the complacency or even dependency of the national trajectory quoted above?
At the time of America's founding, the Federalist Papers discussed the dangers of democratic politicians being forced to count on the votes and support of citizens or organizations too self-involved or uneducated to realize that short-term individual or group gain often precludes long-term prosperity.
And Thomas Jefferson sought to deal with politicians' catering to their constituents' convenience by founding the University of Virginia (UVA). He wanted an informed, intelligent, and thoughtful population in hopes of helping democracy survive. Today, sadly, UVA is the area university I read about in the paper seeking funds for its infrastructure wish list.
A century after Jefferson turned UVA's first spade of earth, the 17th Amendment provided for the direct election of US senators, instead of them being beholden to state legislators, as prescribed by the Constitution. Facing John Q. Public every six years instead of legislators, senators began putting their hands out to special interests, and, at that moment, long-term thinking by American government took a massive step backward.
President Kennedy's book "Profiles in Courage" recorded only eight incidents in American history when senators stood fast amid the howls of their constituents or party. JFK asked for the best of us, saying pointedly in his inaugural address, "Ask not what your country can do for you – ask what you can do for your country."
Hopefully, we're not sliding toward "final collapse due to loose fiscal policy," but since many of us demand "instant gratification," it may take another inspiring wordsmith to stymie the "me, me, me" cacophony.
Mr. Obama, like Kennedy and Jefferson, is a man with a gilded tongue. Can he lead us to understand that when America races to raid the public treasury, it is, to use a phrase President Lincoln (our greatest leader) borrowed from the Bible, "a house divided against itself"?
Obama says he greatly admires Lincoln. Perhaps he can enjoin all Americans to do now what Lincoln urged during a very different crisis: "If all do not join now to save the good old ship of the Union this voyage, nobody will have a chance to pilot her on another voyage"?
• Randy Salzman is a freelance writer and former journalism professor.