The Fleeting Nature of Democracy

Greek Democracy Cartoon Educartoon cartoon inA friend of mine just forwarded me an email about the nature of democracy which seems to have been circulating around the WebSphere for some time. Although the original author of this reflection remains uncertain, it does constitute a very compelling commentary about the fleeting nature of democracy:

A democracy is always temporary in nature; it simply cannot exist as a permanent form of government. 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.

The average age of the world’s greatest civilizations from the beginning of history has been about 200 years. During those 200 years, these nations always progressed through the following 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 dependence;
  • From dependence back into bondage.


This quote is generally attributed to Alexander Fraser Tytler, Lord Woodhouselee (1747 – 1813). Incorrectly named “Tyler” in widely circulated emails, Tytler was a Scottish advocate, judge, writer and historian who served as Professor of Universal History and Greek and Roman Antiquities at the University of Edinburgh.

Wikipedia notes that this quote has also been occasionally attributed to Alexis de Tocqueville. Apparently, it was popularized as part of a longer piece commenting on the 2000 U.S. presidential election, which began circulating on the Internet during or shortly after the election’s controversial conclusion. Snopes indicates that it reappeared briefly after the 2004 presidential election. It saw a strong resurgence in modified form after the 2008 presidential election, and it was circulated again after the 2012 election.

Both Wikipedia and Snopes indicate that there is no reliable record of Alexander Tytler’s having written any part of the text. Wikipedia adds that it actually comprises two parts which didn’t begin to appear together until the 1970s.

According to Wikipedia, the first paragraph’s earliest known appearance was in an op-ed piece written by Elmer T. Peterson and published in The Daily Oklahoman in December of 1951:

Two centuries ago, a somewhat obscure Scotsman named Tytler made this profound observation: “A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the majority discovers it can vote itself largess out of the public treasury. After that, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits with the result the democracy collapses because of the loose fiscal policy ensuing, always to be followed by a dictatorship, then a monarchy”.

The list beginning “From bondage to spiritual faith” is commonly known as the “Tytler Cycle” or the “Fatal Sequence”. Wikipedia notes its first known appearance in a speech by Henning W. Prentiss, Jr. – then president of the Armstrong Cork Company and former president of the National Association of Manufacturers – delivered at the February 1943 convocation of the General Alumni Society of the University of Pennsylvania. Apparently, it was subsequently published under the titles “The Cult of Competency” and “Industrial Management in a Republic”.

Henri Thibodeau, with content adapted from Wikipedia and

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