Thoughts from the Past, Lessons for Now (and other stuff)
Watching the gawking, obnoxious scene unfold as Madame Speaker brought the giant gavel down on the socialization of America, I was reminded of a lesson offered by the citizens of classical antiquity – Rome to be specific. Digressing a bit, I must comment that most Americans should be totally put off by the scene of these privileged, aristocratic “statesmen” laughing and patting each other on the back as they enacted legislation that the majority of their constituency isn’t just opposed to – they are actually afraid of. Let that sink in. In more normal times, there are lots of laws and regulations that are passed that many dislike. The majority of us may grumble under our collective breath and occasionally speak up at the water cooler. The black helicopter crowd is quick to recognize X-files style conspiracies in seat belt laws and suspicious birth certificates. Members of the former group are traditionally stoic and thus take things stride, while members of the latter remain small and marginalized.
These times are different. This bill was different. Tens of thousands of citizens – with DAY JOBS – marched on Washington, and raised the great hue and cry of “Kill the Bill,” sending reverberations echoing though the marble corridors of our Capitol Building and out into the television sets of millions of news consumers (maybe congressmen actually misunderstood them to be saying ‘kill the baby‘). Calls into Capitol Hill were coming by the hundreds of thousands per hour per congressman’s office. Fear was the motivation. The majority actually fears the legislation that their representatives are enacting into the law of the land. This fear was made all more potent knowing that its source – these indignant members of congress – were celebrating their greatest victory in the face of great public push back.
Constitutionally speaking, things are bad. However, we need not resign ourselves to the banana fields, not yet. We still have elections, and those elections matter (see 2006 and 2008). But don’t be lulled into false security. This nation rose on the idea that “taxation without representation” was wrong. In other words, to borrow a phrase from our brave young president, those who had “skin in the game” should have a representative say in how said skin would be used. We are now teetering dangerously close to coming 180-degrees of this ideal. In the very near future we very well may be facing “representation without taxation.” That simply meaning that those without “skin” are not only in the game, but calling the plays. This is dangerous, is the foreshadow of the death of rule of law, and the genesis of mob rule.
Back to the original point – lessons from classical Rome. American has been compared to Rome countless times by historians, anthropologists, pundits, and demagogues. Most of these analogies are either predicated on false pretenses or employed for simple fear mongering (yes, by both sides of the political spectrum). However, seeing our representatives celebrate on raised platform and later witnessing the “rally” that was Mr. Obama’s signing ceremony, my mind kept wandering back to one of the traditions of the Roman Republic that I had learned of in school.
Conquering generals were the rock stars back then. These men were given the ancient world’s version of ticker tape parades upon returning to the capital city from battle triumphant. They were the focus of long processions that wound through the city to the cheering adulation of the Roman populace. However, tradition held that just behind the glorious general in his victory chariot stood a slave gently whispering into his ear that all fame is fleeting – defeat could come as easily as victory, and not to forget that his glory was owed to Rome, not to his person (or something to that effect; I’m only an amateur historian). Apart from the whisperer being in human bondage, this would be a practice worthy of resurrection in 21st century America.
The relativism for this allusion is obvious – Democrats/liberals (same thing) won a “victory” with the passage of socialized healthcare. But in victory, who did they defeat? Not marauding Gauls or pesky Carthaginians. And not even Republicans. They never had to fight Republicans. The GOP never had the numbers to block or even slow anything. Claiming a victory over Republicans would be like the military claiming a victory over Orsen Wells’ Martians. That only leaves a single opponent – the popular will of the American people – as the vanquished.
Before getting back the Rome analogy, allow me to take another tangent here to head off the expected criticism we can all see coming a kilometer away (I’m using the metric system since we’re moving to European style socialism). George W. Bush. In the face of low poll numbers, conservatives (at least in terms of national security) stood by the president reiterating that he “didn’t always do what was popular, but did what he thought was right.” Indeed, wasn’t this Republicans’ biggest philosophical gripe with President Clinton? That he always governed with a moist index finger (or was it another finger?) shoved prominently in the air.
Yes – we did and do defend many of the actions of George W. Bush with that argument. No, it is not hypocritical, and if you believe so then as President Reagan said, so much of what you know is wrong. The Iraq War, or should we say the handling of the occupation of the country following the victory of the Iraq War, was unpopular in terms of counting raw numbers. And yes, at one point when a majority of Americans wanted to pack up and leave, President Bush remained steadfast, committing more troops (ultimately for success) and pronounced that what is right is not always popular. The difference is that President Bush was faced with what he, his administration, and many of us in the public, believed would be the rise of a hostile, belligerent Islamic state that could organize and fund acts of war on the American homeland and American interests. In short, doing what was immediately popular would likely have ultimately resulted in the horrific deaths of Americans at the hands of a foreign power. Forget the overused “general welfare” clause in the Constitution’s preambled from which liberals attempt to derive legality for their causes, what about the “common defense” statement? If taking action to prevent a foreign enemy from killing innocent American citizens isn’t inherent within that, then I need to see the updated version of Webster’s.
The fact is, President Bush acquiesced to popular sentiment more often than not (to the chagrin of many conservatives). Remember medical savings accounts (which if passed would have totally made the need for the current monstrosity obsolete, not that they wouldn’t have tried anyway)? Or Social Security reform (another good program)? Or immigration reform (thankfully)? And let’s not forget that Mr. Bush enjoyed Republican majorities in the House and Senate for six of his eight years in office. The administration didn’t demand that Majority Leader Frist push the nuclear button, or that Speaker Hastert implement “deem and pass” for such major pieces of policy legislation. Mr. Bush did utilization reconcilation for his package of tax cuts (thank goodness), but that’s about it. And let’s not forget that those tax cuts weren’t against the popular will, Democrats (and Senator McCain) were dragged kicking and screaming to the popular will to enact those cuts.
That argument clearly exploded, let’s return to the glory that was Rome. As stated, I’m not usually one to draw parallels between the United States and the Roman system, but there is something there that is food for thought. Rome was once a republic – not like ours, but as close as the ancient world got – complete with representatives from the lower classes and the aristocracy. Legislative authority rested with a representative legislature, and executive power rested with popularly elected consuls. In the late republic, I believe one consul was chosen from the aristocracy, one from the gentry. Without getting into an (amateur) lesson on Roman civics, the point was that the Roman republic, for the better part of 200+ years, represented all free classes of citizens and split power among legislative, executive, and proto-judicial branches. The divisions of government weren’t co-equal, but they existed nonetheless.
At the time, Rome was prosperous, comparitavely speaking. The economy was expanding, the standard of living was rising, and even those born to heirarchical low positions could rise to become wealthy, military leaders, or politicans. We all know what eventually happened to the Republic. Despotism, tyranny, corruption, multiple civil wars, and ultimately de facto dictatorship. Admittedly, the resulting empire prosperted for another 300 years and hung on as a political entity for a half century. But the individual liberty and spirit of self reliance that built the great civilization was institutionally lost. To give a populace their illusions of heritage, emperors maintained the facade of republicanism through titles and empty government structures until the very end of the Western empire. Some prospered under the imperial system and lived lives of luxury. Some from poorer classes rose to make a better life for their families. But the fact remained that after the disentigration of the republic, if the Emperor – the state – wanted to take away your property, your liberty, or your life – there was no controlling legal authority to stand in the way.
But the result of Rome’s descent into despotism is not the lesson here. The lesson is the catalyst, that which caused the liberty of the day to die. Rome’s transition from republic to autocratic state was initiated by liberal social reforms, enacted in the late republic and hailed at the time as merciful and “the right thing to do,” but ultimately resulting in the suffering of millions of people, the transformation of free citizens into subjects, and the exposure of the populace to the whim of often tyrannical dictators.
In the late republic period Rome suffered from a prolonged economic recession, possibly depression. Today we recognize this as growing pains – territorial expansion had stretched resources and centuries of general prosperity had swelled the Mediterrean region’s population. Roman infrastructure, political and physical, was outpaced by this expansion. Modern day back-seat Romanists understand that this could have been relieved by a slowing of expanist policies, a re-ordering of taxation, and an extension of citizenship rights. Oh well, a day late and a denarius short, I suppose.
What did happen was a group of well meaning and privileged noblemen gained controlling influence in the Senate and championed grain reforms. And by grain reforms, I mean handing out free food – the foundation of any progressive welfare program. Well intentioned, but disaterous in its effects. The program didn’t just address the destitute or severely poor. As the Roman world was expanding, new opportunities – military, agricultural, and for engineering labor – were abundant across the territories. But, what may I ask, would be the motivation for a down-on-his-luck-but-generally-abled-bodied Roman to pick up and move to greener pastures elsewhere when his government was handing out loaves across the street? This was all well and good until the government ran out of money for loaves for the masses. Then came the expected. The “entitlements” were no longer available. Public outrage. Riots. Insurrection. Flocking to demagouges. Civil war. Caesar, August, Nero, Diocletian and popular suppression.
I leave it to you make your own judgements. Is is overreach or reality hitting too close to home. Something repeats itself. Is your fear warranted?
Keeper – Your Liberty Tree Tavern