Stephen Yates recently penned an article in which he claims that political philosophy is best broken down into a pair of basic stands from which specifics develop: centralization or decentralization of the State and its governmental powers. It long has seemed to me that such is indeed the essence of the study of governments. All of us in democratic societies seem to know that if a king holds all power, particularly if he administers directly rather than delegating administration to various governors in sundry provinces, he can be, and often will be, utterly tyrannical with impunity. What more of us need to recognize is that democracy tightly centralized can impose, through majority expression or the presumptions of lifetime judicial appointees, violent tyranny against both individuals and large segments of the population and by its very nature must make at least tax slaves of us all.
In terms of moral philosophy, what is the difference between the direct democratic Athenian (defeated) Empire executing Socrates and the antidemocratic, power consolidating Henry VIII executing Thomas More? Each governmental entity ordered death to protect itself from a man whose ideas might lead some to question the absolute authority of the government, to recognize that government usurpations and political (as opposed to punishments of murderers or rapists) executions, banishments, and property confiscations were indefensible morally and served no purpose but to expand the power of the governing. Each was successful in eliminating its moral nemesis because centralized government meant the only viable opposition to the execution could be full revolution.
Even when people oppose the specific policies of a centralized government and grasp the political philosophy stakes, the vast majority of people in most eras and nations, if their only options are to fight the tyranny or to accept silently and hope for better times, will take the latter course. Why risk near-certain death at the hands of Henry VIII's executioners or soldiers when you can avert your eyes and live after they have come for your indiscreet, perhaps perversely deviant, neighbor? That is the reason those who wish to use government for large ends (adding territory through conquering armies; expanding u2018rights;' u2018ending' certain social injustices; spreading the nation's culture around the globe; forcing other nations to trade with it u2018fairly;' using tariffs, taxes, quotas, and restrictions to benefit one or two regions, ethnicities, or religious groups at the expense of other regions, ethnicities, or religious groups; etc.) inevitably support tighter and growing government centralization. At some point in that process of centralizing government, they will know that they are untouchable, that regardless of ancient traditions or written laws, they cannot be stopped short of foreign invasion or economic collapse from within, for they ARE the STATE and they know the people have little or no stomach to resist, as did, say, those who fought the American Revolution: with their lives, properties, and honor at stake.
For at least twenty-five years, Americans generally have thought in terms of liberal and conservative in political analysis, with the former being seen as wanting more Federal government control and the latter desiring less Federal government control. Such is a gross oversimplification, one that guarantees the continuing centralization of the State. The differences between American liberals and most American conservatives are actually over the specifics of how and why to increase the scope and power of the Federal government.
Liberals desire a strong, activist Federal government to do u2018good' as defined by the political, and increasingly the moral, Left: fight racism, sexism, heterosexism, and Eurocentrism; uplift and advance dark-skinned peoples through government programs; make history and culture more inclusive; undo the imposition of traditional Christian concepts of morality onto secular society; expand bureaucratic education to inculcate the new values of the more tolerant and diverse nation; strongly encourage the rest of the world to follow suit.
Most leadership cadre conservatives, regardless of rhetoric, support most of this government centralization too; they just want the growth in those areas to be slower, less costly, and less harsh, perhaps to convince themselves that rather than constituting a true revolution it is a type of Burkean organic change and thus natural and conservative.
Many conservatives so act, I submit, primarily because of the matter of the military. Most conservative Americans of 50 years ago who were sincerely opposed to nascent attempts to expand the Federal government so it could mandate the kinds of changes noted above favored powerful, growing, centralized government in the area of u2018national defense.' Not being inclined to probe philosophical questions, including the consequences flowing inevitably from ideas, they failed to grasp that their desire to have a huge standing army administered by a swelling bureaucracy and tied to a series of major corporations providing goods for that military would lead naturally to alignments with those calling overtly for more Federal centralization precisely to impose Leftist visions on the states and the people. And thus was birthed recent American political-class consensus on the necessity of an all-powerful Washington D.C.: the Left for social reasons, the Right for alleged defense reasons.
The process did not begin with either World War, nor with the Cold War, though it was boosted by naïve patriotism during each. Rather, it was established during the War Between the States. The winning Unionist side had been successful not merely because of a large population and better industrialization but because the Federal government interred many of those opposed to its war and shut down newspapers that disagreed with Federal policies and sanctioned a total and terrible war designed to cower and punish civilians. Joseph Stromberg provides a quote from the National Review that reveals the continuing hold of that Unionist position of destroying part of the constitution in an attempt to save the rest of it, as Lincoln expounded so honestly, on so much American conservative thought. In attempting to deflect charges of American military war crimes against Vietnamese civilians, the National Review affirms:
"During the American Civil War atrocity was not an aberration, the act of bewildered or temporarily unbalanced men, but a matter of settled military policy. u2018Until we can repopulate Georgia,' said General Sherman, u2018it is useless for us to occupy it; but the utter destruction of its roads, houses and people will cripple their military resources.' Does Time conclude that the Union, therefore, should have been permitted to disintegrate?"
The editorial query is essential. It asserts the ends-justifying-means philosophy that every defender of centralized-Statist oppression has maintained. It is this belief system of American defense conservatives that in the past led many good people to support liberal politicians in the hope of maintaining a nation with some semblance of freedom from tyrannical centralized military rule. The problem for those non-hawks is exactly that of decentralized government, traditional values conservatives who have allied themselves uneasily with centralizing hawks: their political bedfellows are bound and determined to drag them where they don't want to go.
My purpose in noting these things is to draw attention to what I believe to be the most important fact of contemporary American political life: that the process of centralization has become a runaway train that if not stopped soon will inevitably, if only after another century of creeping progress, drag this nation into absolute despotism. There is no hope in drawing away from the liberal camp those who are opposed primarily to the military centralization associated most easily with conservatives. Not only have most such persons now bought into the postmodernist redirecting of Marxist thought that universal peace will break out only when non-Europeans and women rule the world (which requires government centralization to effect — thus they will never support de-centralizers), but many are coming around to seeing that their more liberal social views can be established worldwide only with a powerful, interventionist military at their disposal; they are increasingly hawkish for practical reasons.
That means the sole hope to reverse speeding government centralization is to convince traditional values, anti-centralizing conservatives to withdraw their support for politicians and parties that place their emphasis on the military in the hope that the conservative leadership cadre rights itself. The difficulty is that the militarists have been most successful in persuading the majority of Americans that to fail to support their efforts to expand and utilize the military is to be either LIBERAL or downright unpatriotic.
Well, some may ask, just how bad can it be to have a strong military that defends the nation from foreign attack and protects national interests?
There is no obvious answer. No traditional values, anti-centralizing conservative with a brain will risk being conquered, but that does not mean the nation requires or even needs a military that jumps around the world u2018doing good' through force of arms. National self-defense does not include playing babysitter and pacifier for other parts of the world, nor for forcing other nations to install governments, leaders, and economic and social systems approved in Washington, D.C. More important, it is impossible to have that kind of military without having a centralized government. Thus, the conservative proponent of a large, activist military is, in terms of basic governmental philosophy, actually an ally of the very Leftists he claims to oppose on virtually every specific social issue. When you grasp that, you will understand why so many conservatives have compromised away local freedoms in making deals with liberals to maintain, even expand, various liberal social programs that are administered from Washington D.C. and require a powerful, complex IRS to operate.
There can be no quick fix, and that poses a grave crisis for this era of pill-popping hedonism, MTV attention spans, and unread businessmen certain that the modern corporate boardroom and its profit bottom line will provide all necessary knowledge and education. But we are obliged to strive. I think the starting point is exactly that of repairing the Jerusalem walls of failed education: focus on the classics of Western civilization, beginning with the ancients. It is no mistake that the Founding Fathers of these United States were collectively well versed in Greek and especially Roman writers, as well as in u2018modern' students of political thought such as Montesquieu who were likewise steeped in the Classics. The vantage these men earned from their studies allowed them to address political problems and situations not as short-sighted pragmatists who tend to create a new difficulty with each problem solved but as students of philosophy searching to fathom the consequences, positive and negative, emanating from ideas and thus settling not on what seems to work in the here and now, what gets the most bang for today's bucks or pacifies the most special interest groups, but on what is most likely to pose the greatest difficulty to the rise of despotism while fostering freedom. No better brief example of that exists than this anti- new Constitution, pro- Articles of Confederation quote from Patrick Henry: "Revolutions like this have happened in almost every country in Europe: Similar examples are to be found in ancient Greece and ancient Rome: Instances of the people losing their liberty by their own carelessness and the ambition of a few" (The Anti-Federalist Papers. Ed. Ralph Ketcham: 201).
Perhaps the best example of an ancient using his nation's history to dissect current decline is Augustine's The City of God Against the Pagans, written to answer pagan claims that the Visigoth sacking of Rome in 410 AD was attributable to the rejection of the ancient gods as the Empire became Christian. In a stroke of genius, Augustine attributes Rome's sacking to long-term decadence deriving from Rome's military successes in territorial expansion. A chief object of Augustine's scorn is the renowned Roman u2018patriotic' hero Cato the Elder (234-149 BC). Cato focused his political career on removing the Carthaginian threat by utterly decimating Carthage. He won the day in Roman politics, but Augustine declares that Cato's main rival Scipio was morally correct.
Scipio's opposition to exterminating Carthage was proven correct, Augustine says, u2018'For when Carthage was destroyed and the great terror of the Roman commonwealth thereby repulsed and extinguished, the prosperous condition of things immediately gave rise to great evils. Concord was corrupted and destroyed by fierce and cruel sedition; and then, by a series of evil causes, came the civil wars, which brought great slaughter, bloodshed, and a frenzy of cruel and greedy prescriptions and robberies" (Ed. R.W. Dyson: 45).
To build an empire for republican Rome, the army had to grow in both numbers and importance. It had to be more than a true defense force; it had to be a, if not the, major unit of Rome itself. As with Prussia from which the unification of the Germanies was borne, it had to be an army with a State attached rather than the army defending the nation. The result of that centralizing of power was a series of horrifying civil wars in which various morally lacking, or bereft, ambitious men obliterated any reality of republican rule in mad dashes for power and wealth. Civil order was restored only by the ultimate government centralizing actions of a pair of geniuses from that class of men: Julius Caesar and his heir Octavius. Thus stabilized, the Roman Empire expanded and became rich beyond imagination, but freedom was lost, and not merely during the reigns of such monsters as Caligula, Nero, Decius, and Elagabalus. All residents of the Empire, including citizens as many discovered, were little if anything more than slaves to and for the State.
Augustine notes as irrefutable proof of the total, generational reproducing corruption of the masses wrought by the Empire that a common pattern after the sacking was for Romans to party it up at the theater. Speaking of Scipio's warnings, Augustine declares, "he did not deem that commonwealth happy whose walls stand but whose morals have fallen. But you valued the seductions of demons more than the counsel of provident men…. You were depraved by the prosperity of your affairs, but you could not be corrected by adversity; and the security that you seek is not a peaceful commonwealth, but unpunished luxury" (47).
It seems to me that Augustine, a master of Scripture quotes and allusions, could have strengthened his case against the government-corrupting centralization of militarists like Cato with a kernel of eternal moral wisdom equally applicable to nations and individuals: Better is a little with justice, than great revenues with iniquity (Proverbs 16:8).
Once that central government is grown for any reason, it will, like any parasite, do whatever is required in order to continue growing. We are at a point in our history analogous to late Republican Rome. We will either lose our liberty by our own carelessness and the ambition of a few, or we will turn the tide. David Dieteman phrases it well in an article opposing US military occupation of the Balkans: "Lord Acton had it right: power corrupts, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. A nation which holds itself out as an empire around the globe cannot remain a republic at home."
May 24, 2001