An Eerie Consistency

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For the person
who wishes to transcend everyday life, the classics have always
been a welcome option. Unlike the fields associated with Bohemianism,
there is no requirement to be creative when studying the classics
— indeed, there are august prohibitions against coloring outside
of the lines. The student who finds the memorization of words and
the proper conjugation of verbs to be daunting finds solace in the
old custom of the cursus honorum, the "path of honor,"
where the young gentleman of Rome acquired the education and polish
needed to shine in society and to be the grateful recipient of official
favor. Once godfathered, the young man rose in political
society, and, if he had the fates on his side, he would emerge as
an important man, courted by others, and arrive in the most august
body of Rome, the Senate.

Dreams of Rome
are of course nice, but some assiduites go from dreams to "waking
dreams" with respect to the United States because they would
like to believe that the U.S. is a new Rome. A lot of political
sense has been passed on through comparing the United States to
Rome, but the belief that the U.S. and Rome are the same kind of
State is false to fact.

The crucial
difference between the Roman Republic and the Republic of the United
States of America can be found in the difference between these two
words: liberty and victory. Ordinary Americans are
taught to revere liberty, which means the right to do as you please,
provided that you do not initiate the use of force or fraud against
another human being, and the responsibility to suffer as well as
enjoy the consequences of your own actions, provided that no one
else violates the natural rights of you. Ordinary Romans were taught
to revere victory – Invictus! – instead.

This difference
makes for a profoundly different kind of people. The peace activists
which Americans either look up to or put up with were nowhere to
be found in Rome; if one surfaced, he or she would most probably
be killed or spat upon, if not drafted. There was no honor in being
Alvin C. York,
only shaming — if not death – in failing to be so, and a disciplinary
slap if any conscientious objection was raised at all. The typical
American would consider this kind of reverence to be war-crazed
lunacy. The typical Roman father would consider it to be his duty
to whip his son into shape for what was clearly his seed's patriotic
duty. The modern phrase “authoritarian personality,” one of common
currency in modern English, would be untranslatable into classical
Latin if what it connotes is included as well, except as part of
a legionary's joke.

Rome also differs
from America in another profound way: its origins as a Republic.
Americans threw out an absent King as the head of the Thirteen Colonies; Romans deposed a resident King, Tarquinnus Superbus,
who was King of the land from which he was exiled. This left a lot
of political powers to be taken over by the new Republic, unlike
in the United States in its formative years, which threw off a newly-imposed
yoke. If there were a modern State which is most similar to Rome
with regard to its founding, it would have to be the short-lived
Protectorate under Oliver Cromwell.

Another difference,
flowing from the refusal of Rome to recognize human rights, was
the restricted nature of the franchise in the early days of the
Republic. It took almost two centuries of adjustment until the common
Roman could reliably have a vote on a new law, through membership
in the Comitia, and all members eligible for membership were
clearly of the middle class. In America, the middle class was part
of the electorate from day one, and it took far less than two centuries
to extend the franchise to every adult citizen. Even in the days
when it was most democratic in character, there was always a voteless
mob in Rome.

How different
America is! Even when the franchise was restricted, such restrictions
were justified on merely pragmatic grounds: when public pressure
against them mounted, franchise restrictions were quick to fall.
Universal suffrage was actually a fairly easy sell in American politics,
in the sense that it was never “out of the question.” Another crucial
difference, one indicated above, is that there has always been a
pacifist faction in United States politics; those who think that
pacifism was virtually non-existent before long hair on men, strange
consumables and Bertrand
Russell
should delve into their history of the “classical” United
States a little more deeply: they'll find that pacifism is as “old
as Pennsylvania.” A good place to start would be Murray N. Rothbard's
Conceived
In Liberty
series.

The crucial
difference between America and Rome, though, which makes an attempt
to turn America into a "New Rome" feasible, is America's
much greater respect for freedom of opinion, a consequence of America
being founded on the principle of respecting human rights, with
the increasingly obvious (as to why) inclusion of property rights.
This respect — one which a garrison state would scorn — provides
an entry point for those who wish to adapt an old Roman technique
of governance into an American political philosophy, one which Jerome
Tuccille called "Ivy League Hegelianism," whose chief
exponent is the eminent William F. Buckley, Jr.:

The Hegelian
dichotomy in Buckley's mentality presented itself in the following
manner: simultaneously, he held two irreconcilable premises to
be absolute truths. The first stated that the individual had the
right to remain free from all outside intervention in his life
so long as he conducted his affairs in a nonaggressive manner.
This was libertarian philosophy, pure and simple. The second premise
stated that the existence of atheistic Communism [or "of
extremist Islam" nowadays] was the single greatest evil mankind
faced on earth, and that a powerful American nation-state was
the only effective means of protecting our Western heritage from
destruction by this insidious Red [or terroristic] menace. This,
of course, was the conservative anti-Communist side to the Buckley
mentality which was to become increasingly dominant throughout
the balance of the fifties and the decade to follow.

He attempted
to maintain this precarious balancing act between a call for unobtrusive
government, and a strong nation-state with a large, powerful and
aggressive government existing only to combat [the foreign foe]
in the international arena, while maintaining at the same time
a hands-off policy in domestic affairs…. [From It
Usually Begins With Ayn Rand
by Jerome Tuccille (New York:
Stein and Day, 1971), pp. 46–7.]

Contradictory
it seems, but there is a definite, and long living, precedent for
this kind of Ivy League mishmash: it is found in the statecraft
which was Rome.

Anyone who
knows their economics must find Rome a little confounding at first:
how can a State which was built upon brute conquest give rise to
a prosperous citizenry? How could Rome have built a mighty, long-lasting
civilization upon the legionary's jackboot and normalized slavery?
Force and enslavement, because they both take away people's economic
initiative and also require continual reimpositions because the
crushed initiative does resurface in a desire to escape and/or quietly
scofflaw, are not consistent with a flowering of prosperity.

The conventional
explanation of this dichotomy takes two forms: first of all, it
is assumed that the source of Rome's wealth is booty from conquest
and resultant monopolization of trade; and secondly, the possibility
of a slave buying his or her way out of slavery after accumulating
the means to do so — which was possible in Rome, as slaves were
permitted to own property which they acquired — is posited to explain
why a Republic of renowned, or notorious, ferocity could also give
birth to a real prosperity which made the Roman world quite rich
compared to barbarian lands. The first explanation does have some
historical backing behind it — Hadrian is on record as giving up
on the conquest of Caledonia, that part of the British isle above
Hadrian's Wall, because
it was not worth conquering and holding
— but such historical
“validations” always have an element of doubt because they're torn
from their context. For all we know, Hadrian did so because the
Roman treasury was running low when he reigned, or because the administrative
costs of conquering and keeping Caledonia would be prohibitive,
or because the “costs” which counted for him were measured in legionaries,
not gold. Without a thorough study of the period while using the
faculty which Ludwig von Mises called “the understanding,” there
is no way we can ever hope to know what standard Hadrian used to
measure “cost,” let alone what calculation he used.

As far as the
second reason given, it does have a certain plausibility about it,
but such plausibility is based upon the slave who wished to do so
being able to accumulate wealth in a marketplace which was free
of arbitrary government depredations except for occasional ones.
If depredations were frequent and recurrent, then the slaves who
wished to seek political freedom through wealth accumulation (another
Romanism, which is not transferable to America) would have seen
such a promise as a crock, and would have thus descended into lassitude,
secret scofflawing, etc. The extent to which the enterprising slave,
as well as the would-be parvenu, could achieve freedom or status
through accumulation of wealth is the extent to which the Roman
subject enjoyed limited government at home: unobtrusive government
(except for pomp) domestically and aggressive government internationally.

What does this
combination sound like? It wouldn't be "Ivy League Hegelianism,"
would it?

Like all Ivy
League ideas, whether they be spawned by the Yale tongue or by the
Harvard finger (whether the index or the middle one), the hope that
Roman governance can be transferred whole cloth to a nation which
the typical Roman senator would consider ripe for the plucking (like
a new Carthage) has a few hidden unrealistic assumptions behind
it which make for subtle flaws, the kind which bring long-term failure
for others who must abide with the consequences. The flaw behind
"Ivy League Hegelianism" is found in the fact that there
is no institution in the United States which is comparable to the
Roman Senate, nor will there ever be. The present-day institution
which most resembles the Senate of Rome as of now is the British
House of Lords, and the United States couldn't put together a merely
consultative House of Lords even if it tried.

It truly was
the Senate which was the linchpin keeping Roman looting expeditions
confined to those imposed upon foreign foes, as a matter of habit.
The fact that Diocletian had to resort to inflation — the stealth
tax — even at a period right after the height of the Empire's power
shows that open government predation upon its citizens, and/or subjects,
was not feasible. What held consul, general and even Emperor back?

The prestige
of the Senate. As Peter Heather notes, the tie of privilege to rigorous
education had a profound effect upon Rome, making it, even at the
height of Empire, much easier to govern than an administrative bureaucracy
ever could, through this system of social incentive:

Latin language
and literature spread across the Roman world because people who
had originally been conquered by Caesar's legions came to buy
into the Roman ethos and adopt it as their own. This was far more
than learning a little Latin for pragmatic reasons, like selling
the odd cow or pig to a conquering Roman soldier (though this
certainly almost happened). Accepting the grammarian and
the kind of education he offered meant accepting the whole value
system which, as we have seen, reckoned that only this kind of
education would create properly developed — and therefore superior
— human beings.

It was that
same process of buying into Roman values that created Roman towns
and villas in those parts of the Empire where such phenomena had
been completely unknown before the arrival of the legions….
[From The
Fall Of The Roman Empire: A New History
by Peter Heather
(London: Macmillan, 2005), p. 107–8.]

Incentives
where rewards are yanked away are easily seen through by the people
whom they are dangled in front of. The only way in which a system
such as Rome's could work long-term is if the Roman government was
chained — and, only by cultivating the kind of purity of character,
exact knowledge of both Latin and the most important texts in it,
and a true respect for perfection in epigonery, could the Senate
hold up the standard from the top of the Roman social heap. This
system of restraint was the prime political factor which kept the
Roman government limited domestically, and would have been impossible
had the Senate not been able to call off the dogs of militarism
when the latter were tempted to prey upon Rome's citizens or subjects.
The need for pomp and circumstance actually restrained government
officials and kept day-to-day governance largely at the local level.

Yes, this set-up
does sound a lot like the vision of "Ivy League Hegelianism."
There being no comparable body in the United States to the Roman
Senate, though, means that the domestic restraint upon a strong
United States government vis-à-vis American citizens
is missing. Thus, the empirical evidence that the U.S. government
becomes increasingly unrestrained, domestically, as a result of
war, as shown in Crisis
and Leviathan
by Robert Higgs (New York: Oxford University
Press USA, 1987), does have a sound logical basis behind it — note
that the link still holds up as of now. It's a pity that the studious
Ivy League Hegelian, sweating over his or her books while using
the glory of Rome as a kind of psychological fuel to get through
the laborious chore of learning the lessons, did not take the time
to comb through the President's Oath of Office and consider the
implications of the clause "all enemies, foreign and domestic"
customarily associated with it. And how this clause ties in with
the prestigious doctrine of the "Living Constitution."

April
3, 2006

Daniel
M. Ryan [send him mail]
is a Canadian with a well-known habit of blundering into fields
for which he is inadequately prepared. Visit his
website
.

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