Alexis de Tocqueville was a Frenchman who spent two years in America 180 years ago, then went home and wrote a book so insightful that Americans have been quoting it ever since.
Although de Tocqueville was a "classical liberal," the word had a far different meaning in his era. Today he might have admired the anti-tax, small-government tea party movement.
His observations about American society and democracy are remarkably prescient, especially for a man who was ostensibly here on government assignment to examine U.S. prisons.
That subject must not have interested him much because he wrote a quick prison report and then spent the next three years working on his two-volume De la Démocratie en Amerique.
In the midst of the national train wreck now developing in Washington, some of his observations seem as if they could have been written today.
"The American Republic will endure until the day Congress discovers that it can bribe the public with the public's money," he wrote.
Even de Tocqueville probably didn't envision that we would borrow the money to do the bribing, nor that tens of millions of Americans would depend upon that borrowed money for everything from health care to old-age pensions.
But de Tocqueville didn't entirely blame politicians.
Democracy "can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves largess from the public treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidates promising the most benefits from the public treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy."
While we're not ready to throw in the towel on the American experiment, politicians have always found it easy to bestow new benefits on the people electing them, partly accounting for our current predicament.
de Tocqueville was silent on how the looting of the public treasury would occur. There are, of course, the billions paid to Americans in forms ranging from food stamps to black lung compensation to farm subsidies.
But he might not have anticipated the incestuous relationship between politicians and corporate lobbyists seeking tax loopholes and favorable treatment from Congress.
Millions are made on seemingly tiny changes to obscure federal tax laws.
de Tocqueville was wise about other matters as well: "There are two things which a democratic people will always find very difficult — to begin a war and to end it."
Half right there. We seem to have no trouble getting into wars, it's the clean departure we haven't mastered.
Finally, de Tocqueville was as unimpressed with the politicians of his day as Americans are today.
A July 19 Gallup Poll showed President Barack Obama with a 45 percent overall job performance rating, while Democrats in Congress scored 33 percent and congressional Republicans 28.
Even those numbers will drop fast if the U.S. Treasury goes into default and the stock market sheds a few hundred points.
"I do not know if the people of the United States would vote for superior men if they ran for office, but there can be no doubt that such men do not run."
Unfortunately, the idea that women might run escaped the great man entirely. But who could have seen that coming?
The opinions expressed in this column reflect the views of the ownership and editorial board.