Polybius and the Modern State

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In the VIth Book of his Histories, written to explain Rome’s rise to what today’s geopolitical inarticulates would term "hyperpowerdom"’ or "full spectrum dominance," the Greek statesman and historian, Polybius, outlined his theory of the cycle of political revolution.

In his schema, there successively arose three "good" forms of government — kingship, aristocracy, and democracy — only for each to succumb to corruption and for its ensuing realization in its perverted form — respectively tyranny, oligarchy (Rockerfellerdom?), and ochlocracy, or mob rule — to be overthrown by the benign phase of the next.

In his progression, successively more people shared power as a safeguard against abuse until the degeneracy of democracy again led to conditions auspicious for the acceptance of the "Fuehrerpinzip."

Readers of Hoppe’s Democracy: The God that Failed would recognise Polybius’s description of the demise of the republic of the free:

Thus the only hope still surviving unimpaired is in themselves, and to this they resort, making the state a democracy instead of an oligarchy and assuming the responsibility for the conduct of affairs.

Then as long as some of those survive who experienced the evils of oligarchical dominion, they are well pleased with the present form of government, and set a high value on equality and freedom of speech.

But when a new generation arises and the democracy falls into the hands of the grandchildren of its founders, they have become so accustomed to freedom and equality that they no longer value them, and begin to aim at pre-eminence; and it is chiefly those of ample fortune who fall into this error.

So when they begin to lust for power and cannot attain it through themselves or their own good qualities, they ruin their estates, tempting and corrupting the people in every possible way. And hence when by their foolish thirst for reputation they have created among the masses an appetite for gifts and the habit of receiving them, democracy in its turn is abolished and changes into a rule of force and violence.

For the people, having grown accustomed to feed at the expense of others and to depend for their livelihood on the property of others, as soon as they find a leader who is enterprising but is excluded from office by his penury, institute the rule of violence; and now uniting their forces massacre, banish, and plunder, until they degenerate again into perfect savages and find once more a master and monarch.

What is also revealing is the way Polybius’s own life has resonances with modern times.

In 168 BC, as a military commander and diplomat, he was one of those Greek statesmen denounced as part of the "Axis of Evil" by the pro-Roman Callicrates after the defeat of the Greek king Perseus at the decisive battle of Pydna.

In those days, too, it seems, smaller states were either "with us or against us" — and, in the words of F.W. Walbank’s introduction to the Penguin Classics edition of his work, he was among "a thousand Achaeans summoned to Italy for examination, and kept there for sixteen years without either examination or trial."

However, it is to our good fortune that, rather than languishing in some Etrurian Guantanemo Bay, he became the mentor of one of the leading young knights of Rome, Publius Scipio — the son of a man adopted by the conqueror of Hannibal himself — Scipio Africanus.

Given access, then, to the highest in the land, indeed, being given a place in their councils, and yet an outsider, Polybius was well placed to pronounce on what he saw as Rome’s peculiar aptitude for conquest and hegemony.

Specifically, he saw it as Rome’s especial virtue that she had broken the anacyclosis of revolution by happening upon a separation of powers between all three elements — the monarchical consulate, the aristocratic senate, and the democratic tribunate.

Listen to what he had to say of the structure of the State:

The three kinds of government that I spoke of above all shared in the control of the Roman state. And such fairness and propriety in all respects was shown in the use of these three elements for drawing up the constitution and in its subsequent administration that it was impossible even for a native to pronounce with certainty whether the whole system was aristocratic, democratic, or monarchical.

This was indeed only natural. For if one fixed one’s eyes on the power of the consuls, the constitution seemed completely monarchical and royal; if on that of the senate it seemed again to be aristocratic; and when one looked at the power of the masses, it seemed clearly to be a democracy.

The parts of the state falling under the control of each element were and with a few modifications still are as follows.

The consuls, previous to leading out their legions, exercise authority in Rome over all public affairs, since all the other magistrates except the tribunes are under them and bound to obey them, and it is they who introduce embassies to the senate. Besides this it is they who consult the senate on matters of urgency, they who carry out in detail the provisions of its decrees.

As for preparation for war and the general conduct of operations in the field, here their power is almost uncontrolled; for they are empowered to make what demands they choose on the allies, to appoint military tribunes, to levy soldiers and select those who are fittest for service.

They also have the right of inflicting, when on active service, punishment on anyone under their command; and they are authorized to spend any sum they decide upon from the public funds, being accompanied by a quaestor who faithfully executes their instructions.

So here we have FEMA, the Office of Homeland Security, the Department of Defense, and the CINCs combined. The power of life and death over all in times of "urgency," unchecked by any wartime appeal to a higher authority, and subject to no fiscal or other budgetary constraint. No wonder the Carthaginian traders could never turn grand tactical success into lasting strategic gain — elephants or no.

Polybius then tells us that, for its part, the senate exerts its control largely because it holds the purse-strings, as well as having the power to conduct investigations of capital crimes and to offer ultimate arbitration in civil disputes.

To pass to the senate. In the first place it has the control of the treasury, all revenue and expenditure being regulated by it. For with the exception of payments made to the consuls, the quaestors are not allowed to disburse for any particular object without a decree of the senate.

And even the item of expenditure which is far heavier and more important than any other — the outlay every five years by the censors on public works, whether constructions or repairs — is under the control of the senate, which makes a grant to the censors for the purpose.

But what of the masses? Polybius struggles here a little to make his case. The people have the right:

To confer honours and inflict punishment, the only bonds by which kingdoms and states and in a word human society in general are held together.

They also try lesser cases and have to ratify legislation and the treaties proposed by the other branches of government. Again, all very modern, but the nub of the matter lies in that mention of the senate’s power over the public purse, for how is a man to be unknowingly enslaved unless the State confiscates a share of his labours and then directs its use the forging of his own bonds?

Through the whole of Italy a vast number of contracts, which it would not be easy to enumerate, are given out by the censors for the construction and repair of public buildings, and besides this there are many things which are farmed, such as navigable rivers, harbours, gardens, mines, lands, in fact everything that forms part of the Roman dominion.

Now all these matters are undertaken by the people, and one may almost say that everyone is interested in these contracts and the work they involved. For certain people are the actual purchasers from the censors of the contracts, others are the partners of these first, others stand surety for them, others pledge their own fortunes to the state for this purpose.

Now in all these matters the senate is supreme. It can grant extension of time; it can relieve the contractor if any accident occurs; and if the work proves to be absolutely impossible to carry out it can liberate him from his contract.

There are in fact many ways in which the senate can either benefit or indicate those who manage public property, as all these matters are referred to it. What is even most important is that the judges in most civil trials, whether public or private, are appointed from its members, where the action involves large interests.

So that all citizens being at the mercy of the senate, and looking forward with alarm to the uncertainty of litigation, are very shy of obstructing or resisting its decisions. Similarly everyone is reluctant to oppose the projects of the consuls as all are generally and individually under their authority when in the field.

Confiscatory taxation, arbitrary, often prejudicial, litigation, the opportunity of making a living as a government employee, or the need to curry favour with bureaucrats, the threat of the draft and the possibility of being subject to summary military justice — these are the very modern factors Polybius identifies as the means by which the freedom of the individual is curtailed.

Has so little changed in the past 22 centuries? Sadly, it appears so.

But, Polybius argued, this was a small price to pay, for, when "national security" was threatened, the Cheneys, Ashcrofts, Wolfowitzes, Blairs and Blunketts of the second century BC knew that:

For whenever the menace of some common danger from abroad compels them to act in concord and support each other, so great does the strength of the state become, that nothing which is requisite can be neglected, as all are zealously competing in devising means of meeting the need of the hour, nor can any decision arrived at fail to be executed promptly, as all are co-operating both in public and in private to the accomplishment of the task which they have set themselves; and consequently this peculiar form of constitution possesses an irresistible power of attaining every object upon which it is resolved.

How very reassuring for the rest of us.

Sean Corrigan [send him mail] writes from London on the financial markets, and edits the daily Capital Letter and the Website Capital Insight.

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