Thursday, April 16, 2009

Why the Roman Republic Failed and What It Means to Us - Part V (last in the series)

We have talked about the fall of the Republic and the reasons for it, but have not analyzed what it means to us. To find meaning, we have to consider the problems of Rome and see if they apply today.

As we have said in previous posts, the central revolutionary drivers in the Republic were poor governance leading to a power vacuum, class instability, and the army as a kingmaker. Which of these issues, if any, could destroy the American Political System? To answer this question, we have to squint into the future. The United States has only existed half as long as the Roman Republic so it could be stable for a long time yet. The fact that there are no serious problems now should not lead one to believe the coast is clear for the future, however. In another century or two the American Political System could die from fatigue like so many others have done in the past.

In the meantime, let us consider Rome’s problems directly. I see poor governance as an issue today; particularly if paired with class instability. I don’t see the military as a factor. The American Armed Forces have no tradition of opposition to our political system and the fact that they report to the President makes for a strong link to the national government.

Bureaucracy is a risk factor. Max Weber considered bureaucracy as one of the great evils of the modern capitalist society. He saw its dangers as the de-personalization of humanity and the rise of a structure designed to serve its own interests rather than those of policy makers. The more socialist the society, the more bureaucratic it must become -- interesting in light of the current debate over the role of government put forward by the Obama administration. Because bureaucracy can’t be undone, it threatens to use up dollars that should go to recipients of the programs the bureaucracy was created to help.

There is greater danger to our political system than bureaucracy – the power of corporations. As corporations consolidate and grow more international, their power widens. Inside the United States, they use lobbyists to influence legislation in ways that do not serve the public. Many corporations control vital industries which could be used as leverage points for power. Imagine, for example, the extortion possible by oil companies or electric utilities.

A corporation is a selfish thing; dedicated to its own survival and the survival of those who run it. Unchecked, corporations could gain so much influence over government they would be essentially controlling it. What would happen if we reached a point where corporations saw the government as The enemy rather than an ally? Look at our current economic situation. As the mortgage crisis unfolded, the U.S. government forced banks to take bailout money and live with government control, but the subsequent behavior by the banks was unanticipated by politicians who do not understand business. Rather than using security of government funding to relax their apprehension over loaning money, the banks did nothing. Most want to pay the government back quickly because they don’t want to burden of being told how to operate their businesses, and Congress is powerless to do anything about it. Is this a microcosm of a bigger corporate conspiracy? Only time will tell.

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