Saturday, October 8, 2011

Fall of the American Republic?

In a previous post (June 6th, 2011) I wrote about the fall of the Roman Republic. The key milestones of the collapse were described with commentary describing the impact of each of them. The fall of the Republic can be seen as a connected string of events that snowballed into an unstable political system with no center of power. Once anarchy became the rule, the strongest man with the will to defy tradition was destined to take power.

The fall of the Republic began with the plight of the ex-soldier landowner whose loss of property produced a permanent underclass of poor in the city.

This is similar to the period of the turn of the twentieth century in the United States when poor immigrants flooded our cities and could not obtain work. And today we have a thinning out of the middle class as some move up the social-economic ladder and a greater number move down. America is currently experiencing a chronic state of high unemployment which may have broad social implications – dependency, crime, etc.

In the time of the Republic the brothers Gracchi (Tiberius and Gaius), tied to pass laws which would solve the problem of poverty and at the same time increase the number of men eligible for the army. This Agrarian Law would take land from the agar publicus (public land) and give it to the those who would agree to raise crops. Tiberius got his law through the assembly by very dubious means but then was assassinated by agents of the Senate who were not pleased with the loss of land they controlled and were not willing to share their wealth with the poor. Tiberius’ brother Gaius continued the distribution of land and pushed for increased power of the equestrian class at the expense of the Senate. He too was assassinated during a riot.

The deaths of the Gracchi drove a permanent wedge between the Senate and the people causing two political factions to appear: Optimates, who were the champions of the patrician class and Populares, who were the champions of the plebs. These factions were more divided than the political parties in America today because in Rome it was a case of human survival -- wealth versus poverty rather than a battle over ideology.

The other fallout of the deaths of the Gracchi was the public perception of the destruction of the rule of law. For any political system to be legitimate, it must be willing to stand behind a legal system that will protect those without power. By stooping to assassination, the Senate had proved themselves illegitimate – no better than the barbarians they felt superior to.

When the Jurguthine War broke out in 110 B.C. the Senate’s appointed commanders were repeatedly defeated to the embarrassment of the Roman people. Finally the people, through the assembly, picked their own commander, Marius, to win the war. Marius solved Rome’s recruitment problem in an eyelash by removing the property qualification for military service and at the same time shifted the soldier’s loyalty from Senate to commander. From that point on the supreme commander was the “emperor maker” of Rome.

How is this similar to what we see in America today? There is no question that the power dynamics in the United States are different than they were in the time of the late Roman Republic. Fortunately for us the military has always been more loyal to the president than its commanders. Loyalty is so ingrained in our soldiers DNA that it would be hard to image any deviation from that course. Commanders have occasionally defied presidents, most notably in the case of Douglas MacArthur during the Korean War, but these were the rarest of events in our country’s history.

The problem in the United States is the growing power of the central government as it increases in size. This trend is driven by the Progressive Movement’s belief that big government is necessary to achieve what it perceives is society’s social contract with its people. But progressive programs cost money and at some point, maybe now, we’ll run out. Conservatives resist this growth as wasteful and against the founding principles of the republic, because it robs us of fundamental freedoms.

Expanding the bureaucracy, extends the power of the executive branch by creating programs that the legislature can’t touch and won’t eliminate. When is the last time a failed program was defunded? Never, because the bureaucracy takes on a life of its own, driven by self-preservation. Funding an expanding executive branch requires that property (net worth) be taken from the people – not just from the top earners, but from all who pay any kind of tax.

This growth in the power of the federal government resembles the welfare experiments of Europe in the twentieth century, which failed. What is there in the progressive ideology that drives it to duplicate a failed system? Why don’t they understand the communism analogy?

Communism had many friends until the Soviet Union failed. Now, those friends are hard to find because they don’t want to embarrass themselves by supporting a philosophical system that is unworkable and idealistic. The problem was that Marx fitted the data to his system instead of the reverse. If he had done his analysis correctly, he would have seen the fundamental flaws in his point of view.

The danger to the American political system rests in the accumulation of power in the central government and the consequent loss of freedom that accompanies it. Rather than leveling the classes, this trend will divide them further. It’s up to the people to push for a balance between government and liberty. If we take the middle road, our republic can survive.