The sight of newly installed Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi of California on the news recently, surrounded by a gaggle of grinning politicians and slavering reporters, prompted me to dip into the latest edition of the Oxford Dictionary of Political Quotations for an antidote. What prompted me was not anything she said then, but rather the red serape that enveloped her from shoulder to shoulder. It evoked in my mind pictures of Roman emperors draped in the imperial purple or scarlet robes of absolute power. It caused me to recall Tacitus.
“Mom” Pelosi sought power – competing in power-lust with Senators Hilary Clinton, Barack Oboma and others who wish to “manage” the nation and render it “kindlier and gentler”- and attained it. (Does anyone still think the Democrats are so politically far apart from either of the Presidents Bush? The difference between the parties is one of mere velocity. The Democrats want it now; the Republicans will follow in the next bus.) She sought power over the government purse, over the purses and wallets and futures of private citizens, power exercised by force of legislation and by punitive law for disobedience of that legislation. Power to strong arm the House into moving a few steps away from America’s current status as an expiring republic and closer to a full-fledged socialist “democracy.”
Women dress carefully for public occasions, so I don’t think the shimmering red serape was a coincidental choice of garb for this auspicious event. It was probably the closest thing to a royal symbol of authority she had in her wardrobe with which to telegraph to all that she means to rule the House roost in true hen-house fashion, just as she apparently governs her family. Watching her in the news, she clutched and hefted the Speaker’s gavel as greedily as she might have an emperor’s scepter. Or a club. Possibly she would have even preferred one or the other to the gavel. The avarice in her eyes was too telling.
But, back to Tacitus. His Annals and Histories record the decline of Rome in the first century A.D. Alternating between dispassionate and lively (and often lurid) reporting on the lives and careers of some of the first emperors, these histories are compelling reading. (I have three of the five Heinemann/Harvard Histories volumes on my bookshelf, and have read them.) He observed in the Annals that, “The more corrupt the republic, the more numerous the laws.”
Count the laws recorded in any edition of the Federal Register – never mind state, county and municipal laws – and ask yourself: Are the republic’s days numbered, because of these innumerable, endless laws?
In Agricola, a biography of his father-in-law, Tacitus wrote of one emperor, “He has united things long incompatible, the principate (or reign) and liberty.” Political corruption could not arise if a government’s purpose was strictly defined to preserve the liberty that Romans once valued. And, an emperor’s or executive’s reign or “principate” could not be so characterized if executive powers were similarly limited. Power and liberty are fundamentally incompatible; if there is a honeymoon between them, as Tacitus notes under Emperor Nerva’s reign, it must necessarily be temporary, and would depend on the emperor’s ambition or lack of it.
Lord Acton’s dictum that “Power tends to corrupt and absolute power corrupts absolutely” remains true. However, William Pitt the Elder’s observation to the House of Lords more than a century before delves a little deeper into the phenomenon: “Unlimited power is apt to corrupt the minds of those who possess it.”
Here I volunteer my own observation about it, that, given the nature of today’s politics, one must already be corrupted to seek political office. Look at the range of candidates for the office of president in both parties. Is there a single aspirant who advocates laissez-faire capitalism, or individual rights?
The next apropos quotations come from H.L. Mencken, the American journalist and critic. He observed, as early as the 1920’s (when this was a much freer country) in his In Defence of Women, that “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by menacing it with an endless series of hobgoblins, all of them imaginary.” Were he alive today, he would cite just a few of those hobgoblins: the environment, trans fats, the “epidemic” of obesity, global warming (or cooling), smoking, cyclamates, and so on.
Henry Brooks Adams, author of The Education of Henry Adams, would have agreed with Mencken: “Practical politics consists of ignoring facts.”
Had the government little power to enact legislation that pleased the purveyors of hobgoblins, we would hear very little from them. But, since the government has such power, they sense that their causes have half a chance to be heeded and acted on by Congress. Consequently, they feel free to make a lot of noise, concurring with Joseph Goebbels, who said, “Making noise is an effective means of opposition.”
In past commentary, I advocated that, instead of elected and appointed politicians choosing to take an oath of office on a Bible, they ought to be compelled to take that oath on a copy of the Ten Amendments to the Constitution. One wonders how many office-seekers would be willing to submit to such a condition. If they behaved as they have in the past and continue to behave in the present, which is violating those Amendments in thought and deed by regularly haranguing the public on the dangers of the latest hobgoblin and what ought to be done about it, they could be charged with lying under oath or perjury.
The prospect of impeachment would scuttle the political ambitions of ninety-nine percent of them. What has attracted them and swelled the ranks of candidacies, because there is very little any more in the way of serious recrimination and accountability, is the prospect of power and privilege and a comfortable living at no cost to themselves, except, perhaps, the bother of having to make noise for the benefit of their constituents to justify their holding office.
In Chrestomathy, Mencken offers a definition of Puritanism worthy of Samuel Johnson: “The haunting fear that someone, somewhere, may be happy.” Republican or Democrat, no politician wishes anyone to be happy, unless he is a dupe of volunteerism and “community spirit,” and didn’t smoke, consume trans fats, wink at pretty girls, and drink more than two cups of coffee a day, preferably decaffeinated. A happy man doesn’t need government guidance or anyone telling him what he should or shouldn’t do.
Speaking of lies with which politicians and hobgoblins regularly subject the American public, Adolf Hitler in Mein Kampf knew the formula well: “The broad mass of a nation…will more easily fall victim to a big lie than to a small one.”
Among the big lies that comprise the American political mantra today and that have congealed in the American psyche as unassailable truisms:
- The fiscal soundness and necessity of Social Security;
- The moral responsibility of the government to provide “free” health care, or any health care at all, in addition to subsidized housing and welfare;
- A central banking system;
- The regulation and policing of the stock market and the airwaves;
- The “fairness” of the propertyless voting franchise;
- Federal aid to states declared “disaster areas,” together with federally funded disaster insurance;
- The power to establish “livable” or “minimum” wages;
- Anti-discrimination laws of any kind to advance “social justice”;
- The necessity of income taxes and a galaxy of surtaxes, sales, excise and import taxes, hidden and pass-along taxes,
- The imperatives of maintaining the public health and the purity of the environment;
- The absolutely essential necessity of directing the education of the public, the better to produce an informed, responsible and responsive citizenry.
George Orwell weighed in on the subject of truth vs. lies: “Political language…is designed to make lies sound truthful and murder respectable, and to give an appearance of solidity to pure wind.”
And, the grandest lie of all is the one that America is, and always has been, a “democracy.” What cannot be forgiven is the sloppiness of past political writers to whom the term “republic” was a synonym for “democracy” and who didn’t trouble themselves to make a distinction between the terms.
John Adams, second President, wrote John Taylor in 1814: “Democracy never lasts long. It soon wastes, exhausts, and murders itself. There never was a democracy that did not commit suicide.” And the sure successor of a failed democracy is tyranny. Which is why Adams and the Founders labored to establish a republic. And why Benjamin Franklin was skeptical enough about its longevity when he replied, in 1787, to a question about what kind of government the Constitutional Convention had created: “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Try any of these quotations on any random politician, presidential aspirant, or bureaucrat, and one is likely to elicit a response: “Yeah? And what’s that in relation to?” or “Don’t bother me with irrelevancies. Changing reality has changed the rules. Forget the Founders.”
Then you will appreciate the irony of your being the “public servant,” not he. He is the master, sporting the cloak of imperial power.