Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

09 September 2003

Cicero, McCain and Feingold

What do an ancient Roman orator, a Vietnam War hero become Senator, and a progressive Senator from Wisconsin have in common? All three tried to save their democratic republics from the corrosive power of corruption and consequent degeneration into empire. As a recent biography by Anthony Everitt explains, Cicero was unsuccessful. In the end, his failed effort only got himself and most of his family killed. Whether McCain’s and Feingold’s efforts will bear sweeter fruit is now in the Supreme Court’s hands.

Those who think that the case of campaign finance reform is just another obscure legal matter should read Everitt’s excellent biography of Cicero. At the time Cicero came to prominence as a lawyer, orator, and senator, Rome was not only unchallenged master of the Western world. It was also a secure representative democracy with a strong, albeit largely unwritten, constitution and a long tradition of the rule of law. Yet within a few decades, a civil war among contending tyrants wracked that healthy democracy. Like over one hundred families that found themselves on the losing side in the civil war, Cicero’s was “proscribed,” meaning murdered by imperial decree, their property confiscated. Although the Roman Empire survived for several hundred additional years, the democracy that Cicero had known in his prime, and for which he had struggled his whole life, was gone forever.

Could it happen here? Everitt’s powerful biography makes clear the causes of Roman democracy’s decay. Rich and powerful leaders like Crassus and the Caesars bought voters with money and calculated mob violence. Citizens in outlying parts of Italy were effectively denied the vote by distance, and consequently they lost power and property rights. The Roman Senate grew less representative and more focused on its own short-term interests, including cancelling aristocrats’ and businesses’ enormous debts—perhaps the first instance of corporate welfare. It refused to share land with veterans returning from successful foreign wars.

Those who later became emperors gained power not just by leading armies. They also provided returning veterans with land and sustenance that the Senate refused to provide. They fought the self-interested acts of the Senate, most of whose members were wealthy aristocrats. In short, they gained power both by the liberal application of money and coercion and by understanding and meeting the real needs of common people. Eventually the Roman Senate lost its power base and could only chose sides in the battle of competing tyrants. When most of it chose the wrong side, it withered and became a mere appendage to their rule.

Does some of this sound familiar? Sure, it’s the twenty-first century, not the first before Christ. The idea of Roman “proscription” sounds primitive and quaint, until one remembers the desaparecidos of Argentina, Colombia, Peru and San Salvador. They disappeared not in Roman times, but in ours, and in our own hemisphere. And our domestic politics—divided between increasingly restless have nots, increasingly dominant haves, and the “wild card” of religious intolerants—threatens to break into irreconcilable factions more than at any time since our own Civil War. Perhaps all that the recipe for empire requires is a popular impetus to follow a strong man—maybe a couple of nukes in our cities, maybe a deliberate or “natural” plague in our land. Neither seems entirely impossible in these perilous times.

As he hears oral argument in the case, Justice Scalia worries about the free-speech rights of corporations. Corporations, of course, are legal abstractions. Their speech and their money come from those at the top, like the several hundred families who provided some 80% of campaign finance money in the 2000 election.

Interestingly, the Roman Senate, just before its fall, drew its members and its wealth from about the same number of families. Yet all their wealth and power could not save them from the consequences of their own self-interested shortsightedness. Many of them, entire families, perished in the wars and proscription that followed. Meanwhile, in our time, the voices of our people—and those in our Senate who still have the public spirit to care—are lost in an enormous avalanche of money and mindless advertisements, much of them directed incessantly to the short-term self interest of corporations and the rich. Increasingly, the public tunes in and turns off, voting, if at all, for unlikely saviors like Ross Perot and Howard Dean.

Our democracy has lasted less than 230 years. England’s has lasted nearly 800, but England was never like Rome or like us. Besides ours, only one great empire in world history was both democratic and of comparable power and scope, relative to the rest of the world. That empire was Rome. The history of its Senate, done in by its own short-sighted self interest, does not portend an inevitably happy ending for our democracy.

Before they decide on campaign finance reform, I hope that every member of our Supreme Court reads Everitt’s biography of Cicero. Then I hope he or she thinks long and hard about the relative strength of words, money, and steel. No matter how much clever lawyers may twist words, money is not speech. As Roman history shows, money is often stronger and quicker to get results. Giving those at the top more leeway to spend their millions to secure a louder voice and more power to broadcast it will neither solve society’s problems nor provide social stability. The rich already are heard—and often—at the highest levels of government; what’s needed are voices of a loyal and less well-heeled opposition.

Maybe our fate is pre-ordained. Maybe great empires cannot long be democratic. Statistics certainly support that conclusion, for the world has seen several great empires, but only two were democratic, and then only for brief moments of world history. Despite justifiable pride in our Constitution, we Americans are still a long way from proving our immunity from the sad truths of human history. Maybe decay into empire is our destiny no matter how the Supreme Court rules.

Two things are certain. History does not favor short-sighted self interest on the part of an aristocracy; nor do corrupt democracies long survive. We need not resort to Roman history to prove the latter proposition: there are numerous examples from Africa, Asia, and Latin America, many in the last century. Perhaps the most poignant is Chiang Kai-Shek’s corrupt democracy, which, with the aid of Mao, mutated into the empire now known as the People’s Republic of China.

These sad examples suggest the need for constant vigilance against corruption if democracy is to survive. Surrender in our generation’s most critical battle against that evil will surely take us at least one step down the Appian Way towards losing our Republic.

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