Green Room

Whom Despots Fear

posted at 5:58 pm on October 14, 2009 by

“Greece would not have fallen had it obeyed Polybius in everything, and when Greece did meet disaster, its only help came from him” Pausanias, 8.37.2, Inscription on the Temple of Despoina near Arakesion.

In Book VI of his Histories, the ancient Greek historian Polybius described three basic forms of government, each categorized by the number of those in power. He listed monarchy (rule by the one); aristocracy (rule by the few); and democracy (rule by the many). Polybius described, over time, how each type of government would gradually decline into their various corrupted forms of tyranny, oligarchy and mob rule, respectively.

Polybius believed that Republican Rome had designed a new form of government that could help check this inevitable decline. Rome combined all three forms of government — monarchy (its elected executives, called consuls); aristocracy (the Senate); and democracy (the popular assemblies). In this mixed form of goverment, each branch would check the corrupting ambitions and power of the others.

Plato, Aristotle and Cicero all praised the construction of a “mixed constitution” and the requirement of a separation of powers within government.

The French nobleman and legal expert Charles-Louis de Secondat, the Baron de Montesquieu, studied the rise and fall of the Roman Republic. He believed that a properly designed government, in order to prevent tyranny, would require three branches of government. He wrote, “If it is to provide its citizens with the greatest possible liberty, a government must have certain features. First, since ‘constant experience shows us that every man invested with power is apt to abuse it … it is necessary from the very nature of things that power should be a check to power’ . This is achieved through the separation of the executive, legislative, and judicial powers of government… [to prevent any one] from acting tyrannically.”

The British philosopher John Locke was also keenly interested in a design for government that would prevent it from descending into tyranny. In the late 17th century, Locke argued that monarchs had no “divine right” to rule; instead, he asserted that the source of power lay in the people. Furthermore, he stated that humans were born into this world with certain natural and “inalienable” rights including to “life, liberty and property”. Locke believed that government could not grant these rights because they were God-given; therefore, no government could take them away or withhold them from the people.

Thomas Jefferson used Locke’s concepts as central tenets when he wrote the Declaration of Independence. He proclaimed the government’s duty to protect the sacred attributes of the individual: “…to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, — That whenever any Form of Government becomes destructive of these ends, it is the Right of the People to alter or to abolish it, and to institute new Government, laying its foundation on such principles and organizing its powers in such form…”

“…when a long train of abuses and usurpations, pursuing invariably the same Object evinces a design to reduce them under absolute Despotism, it is their right, it is their duty, to throw off such Government, and to provide new Guards for their future security.”

As well, America’s Founding Fathers repeatedly cited Baron de Montesquieu’s seminal Spirit of the Laws and its emphasis on checks and balances within government. As James Madison wrote, “the oracle who is always consulted and cited on this subject is the celebrated Montesquieu.”

We conservatives are originalists: If the Constitution’s meaning is not interpreted as the framers intended, if it can be altered at will, then what protects any law from arbitrary interpretation, from the capricious whims of the ill-intentioned?

If the Constitution is “living and breathing”, an amorphous guidebook of suggestions that may freely be interpreted based upon current events, trends, whims or biases, what then are the limits on government? And if the Constitution doesn’t mean what it says, what protects the individuals from the encroachment of government intrusion into every aspect of individuals’ lives?

The Tenth Amendment of the Constitution strictly limits the power of the Federal Government. It states, The powers not delegated to the United States by the Constitution, nor prohibited by it to the states, are reserved to the states respectively, or to the people. In the Founders’ view, state and local governments were free to experiment — to serve as “laboratories” in the words of Justice Louis Brandeis — in areas prohibited to the federal government. In the 1980′s, for example, Oregon’s successful welfare reform efforts became the models for subsequent actions by other states and even the federal government.

When the federal government ignores and breeches the Tenth Amendment, it represents an illegal diminution of representative government at the state and local levels.

The once-powerful states, which created the federal government by ratifying the Constitution, have become — in the words of Mark Levin — “administrative appendages of the federal government.” The states are subject to ever-increasing federal regulation, strangled by dictates from agencies old and new, and held hostage through billions in federal tax dollars. Levin asks, “Does anyone believe that the states would have originally ratified the Constitution had they known this would be their fate?”

The path the modern federal government is on today was accurately described by Stuart Chase in 1942. He wrote that the agenda of the Fabian Socialists — who had launched a counter-revolution against America’s founding — was to create an authoritarian, centralized government. The agenda of the Fabian Socialists include:

• Strong, centralized government
• Government-controlled banking, credit and securities exchange (TARP, etc.)
• Government control over employment (the “Employee Free Choice Act” to speed unionization of the workplace)
• Unemployment insurance, old age pensions (lengthy unemployment benefits, Social Security)
• Universal medical care, food and housing programs (socialized medicine, food stamps, HUD)
• Access to unlimited government borrowing (massive deficits)
• A managed monetary system (an opaque Federal Reserve)
• Government control over foreign trade (China tire tariffs)
• Government control over natural energy sources, transportation and agricultural production (drilling prohibitions, Cap-and-Trade)
• Government regulation of labor (the Wagner Act, monopolistic power of trade unions)
• Heavy progressive taxation.

This indeed describes “the road we are traveling”; the direction accelerated by the branches of government controlled by modern Democrats. While it may no longer be called socialism directly, nonetheless socialism it is. The Fabian Socialist counter-revolution began in earnest in the U.S. in 1933 with the imposition of the “Welfare State” and has been steadily progressing since. It confiscates ever more taxes, consolidates ever more power, while bankrupting program after program. And always — always — the federal government proclaims its need for more money and more power, promising that if only it can levy one more tax, enforce one more regulation, it will be able to solve all of man’s woes.

The Greek historian Thucydides observed that “The secret of happiness is freedom. The secret of freedom is courage.” And in writing about the calamitous Peloponnesian War that engulfed and ultimately destroyed his society, he added that, “Few things are brought to a successful issue by impetuous desire, but most by calm and prudent forethought.”

History teaches us that the decline of a society and the demise of a government comes with the institutionalization of corruption and a wanton disregard for the written law. Such is our situation today, wherein the states have become puppets of an all-powerful federal government that confiscates more and more private property while exerting increasing control over every aspect of our lives.

If we are to protect our society from despotism and decline, whose counsel should we then cherish? Should we abide by thousands of years of experience and the wisdom of history’s greatest philosophers — Polybius, Plato, Aristotle, Montesquieu, Locke, Jefferson, Adams and Madison among them? Men who understood the nature of a government’s despotic decline and sought to construct a system to counter it?

Or should we disregard their guidance and follow instead the Fabian Socialists? Should we heed Cass Sunstein, Nancy Pelosi, Harry Reid and Barack Obama?

The greatest bulwark against tyranny in America has always been the Constitution, which instantiates our carefully designed system of private property, God-given individual liberties and free enterprise.

If we are to protect our society from despotism and Fabian decline, whose counsel should we then cherish? I contend that we must fight the socialist counter-revolution using every political tool possible. We must return our country to the rule of law as defined by our founders and codified in the Constitution. Anything less condemns our descendants to the fate that Thucydides described.

Cross-posted at: Doug Ross @ Journal.

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Hear, Hear !!

Robert17 on October 14, 2009 at 6:18 PM

Now can we make this required reading for Congress and the president?

Daggett on October 14, 2009 at 9:43 PM

Nicely crafted, directorblue. Thanks.

J.E. Dyer on October 14, 2009 at 11:18 PM

I felt a tingle go up my leg reading this.

GnuBreed on October 15, 2009 at 4:42 AM

Plato was a believer in “mixed government?” I don’t think so. Plato’s Republic envisions an elite corps of Guardians to whom all political power is ceded in exchange for guarantees of security. These Guardians own no property and hold everything in common, including wives and children. Wives are selected by committee and parceled out a the yearly festival for breeding purposes. We see themes like these resurface from time to time in thinkers like Thomas More, Thomas Hobbes and Karl Marx.

As for democracy…Plato had no love of democracy. It was a democracy, after all, that had forced his teacher, Socrates, to drink the hemlock.

It’s true that Polybius had a favorable view of the Roman Republic but don’t forget, he was a Greek hostage whose high birth allowed him to serve out his incarceration with the Scipio family. I would argue that Polybius’ looking backwards to the days of Publius Cornelius Scipio Africanus is not quite as informative about the Roman Republic as looking forward from his time to the Gracchi Brothers, the ensuing civil wars and the rise of the Caesars. In fact I would venture to say that most people, if asked to state a fact the knew about Rome, would cite some event that took place between Julius Caesar in 44BC and the fall of the Capitol of the Eastern half part of the Empire, Byzantium, in 1453AD, the millennium when Rome was ruled by military government.

Yes John Locke exercised a profound influence on the thinking of the Founding Fathers with his idea of a moderate government by the middle class. But his talk of “rights” has no equivalent term in either Latin or Greek. Any talk of “Rights” is a product of the Age of Enlightenment and has no conceptual root in antiquity. Moreover, Locke envisioned a government by Middle-Class Males whose ownership of property was their main qualification for governing. Locke, together with the Founding Fathers would be aghast at how we’ve made universal suffrage the touchstone of republican government.

It may be that the Tenth Amendment points the way back to what the Founding Fathers saw as a federation of sovereign states but I submit we may have done serious, perhaps fatal, damage to this idea by enacting the 17th Amendment which took the election of Senators away from the state legislatures and vested it in the hands of the mob.

So far this week I have heard Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Michael Savage, Newt Gingrich, John McCain and Lindsay Graham declare themselves as “Conservatives.” That cuts a pretty wide swathe through the fields of political philosophy; wide enough so as to render any proclamation “I Am a Conservative” virtually meaningless.

I say all of this not to engage in mere pedantry but to say that if you want to get off the road to serfdom you must first abandon the comforting, romantic myths of a past that never was. The Founding Fathers were hard-headed and realistic about human nature and so should we be. Sadly, if history teaches us one lesson it is that we never seem to learn the lessons of history correctly.

potkas7 on October 15, 2009 at 9:54 AM