An Eerie Consistency

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