Dead Romans and Live Americans

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Libero Ingresso” says the little sign on the doors of an Italian shop.  English speakers who know enough Italian to translate the words, Free Entrance, sometimes wonder if there was a time when Italian shopkeepers charged customers an admission fee, to be refunded, perhaps, if a purchase was made.  It is just the sort of thing you might expect of Old Europe.  We Anglo-Saxons, after all, revealed the truths of free-market economics at a time when the rest of the world was groaning in the darkness of mercantilism and protectionism, when honest farmers and merchants paid taxes on their windows and might be forced to labor on their lord’s land or the king’s highway.

Alas, these speculations, so comforting to our Anglo-Saxon vanity, are dashed on the hard rock of linguistic reality.  Libero (from the Latin liber) means “free” in the sense of unrestricted or open, not “free” in the sense of no payment required (for which the Italians still use the Latin gratis).  French preserves the distinction between liber (French libre) and gratuitus (gratuity).  In Spanish, de gastos (“of charge”) is added to libre for things that cost no money; otherwise one might try to walk out of a bar without paying for a Cuba libre.

Romance languages have inherited something of Latin’s precision.  It is in English (and German) where the notions of liberty and costlessness are confused.  I wonder how many of us, when we hear the terms free market and free trade, think initially of cost-free access to markets?  When, as I have frequently done, I make the joke that there is no such thing as a free market, because there are always fees to be paid, I hardly ever get a response—neither a flicker of recognition nor a snicker of contempt.  In fact, a free market is a market into which anyone can enter, and free trade is a trade between nations that cannot be forbidden or limited by national governments.  The latter phrase is somewhat ambiguous, since governments often limit international trade by imposing tariffs.  However, this ambiguity does not alter the fundamental fact that free markets and free trade are not, by definition, free of cost but (supposedly) free from coercion.

“Well, what difference does it make?  This quibbling over the meaning of words is not going to help us out of the current economic crisis.”

Possibly not, but it is hard to see that any useful set of solutions can be proposed if we deceive ourselves, and, in the world we live in, there is hardly a more pernicious form of deception than the misuse—deliberate or unintentional—of language.  We have lived so long on the bad ideas that lie behind bad words that our minds have been poisoned and our very wills corrupted to the marrow of our being.  Freedom for us is no longer viewed as a positive good, a moral and spiritual way of living that has been shaped by centuries of experience; it is now only the right to be perverse—to take drugs that make us stupid, to read nasty books that make us crazy, and to molest other people’s children and kill our own.  Kris Kristofferson probably intended no harm by his oft-quoted line, “Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose,” but he did succeed in encapsulating the servility of modern men and women for whom freedom means dependency, whether on a drug, a guru, or a social worker.

In every economic crisis, two sets of explanations—and solutions—are proposed.  Republican “conservatives” (who used to be known as liberals) say that rogues in and out of government have distorted the market and robbed the nation, while Democratic “liberals” (who are basically Marxists) blame the Republican conservatives (who are really liberals) for refusing to regulate the marketplace, by which they mean the state should control and probably own the major industries and business sectors.  For the liberals who are really Marxists, the answer is a second FDR—more regulation and a Newer Deal—while, for the conservatives who are really liberals, the solution is a second Reagan (lower taxes and deregulation).  Unfortunately, too few of them are willing to balance tax cuts with budget cuts, without which our children and our children’s children will be crippled by the debts run up by the Bush and Obama administrations.

The debate, in other words, is the same debate Americans have been having for nearly 150 years, an acrimonious dialogue between two sets of radicals: on the one hand, the philosophes and classical liberals who undermined society in the 18th and 19th centuries; on the other, the Marxists who used government to fill the void left by the liberal demolition of the traditional social institutions of family, class, and religion.  Anyone who stands outside of the charmed circle of the Revolution is excluded from the conversation.

If we could dig up some old reactionary or prerevolutionary—a Samuel Johnson, or Walter Scott, or even, reaching back still further, a Cicero—what would such a man, supposing he had a comprehensive knowledge of what we have done in the past two centuries, say to us?  Since we are dealing with practical affairs, let us summon the Roman statesman Cicero from his place in the pleasant suburb of Hell where he is forever chatting with Roman heroes and Greek philosophers.

After the initial “Salve, Marce TulliQuid agis?” I asked Cicero how he would have handled the U.S. economy.

“Economy?  That is the art of managing a household, and, as I understand, you people apply it to theories of buying and selling.  Your first mistake, it seems to me, lay in turning ideas into things.  A good Roman would not do this; his language would not permit it.  But you people are forever talking about history, as if it meant the events of the past (instead of the study of the past) or the geography of Europe as if it meant the actual places rather than a description of places.  You even, I am told, worship an almighty dollar made out of mere paper.  I wish we had thought of that one when we were raising money to fight against Mark Antony, but we knew even then that only a tyrant would degrade the currency.”

“Excuse me, Marcus Tullius, but could we return to the question?  I know you’d like to get back to your conversation with Scipio Africanus—”

“As I was saying, you people are always mistaking words and ideas for things and then, by treating what is unreal as if it were real, you cannot see the real.  I heard what you were saying earlier, and you are perfectly correct, if a bit shallow, in questioning the meaning of that misleading phrase, the ‘free market.’  You people seem to think that there is some ultimate principle or universal law of nature you call The Market, when in fact there is no such thing.  There is no Market, only markets.  Markets are not ideas or mechanisms of exchange: They are places where people buy and sell things, and it hardly makes any difference whether the market in question is the forum holitorium in Rome, where vegetables were sold (you can find the ruins in several nearly derelict churches), or something like your New York Stock Exchange, where most of the orders are now placed through these computers you seem so proud of, though to me they seem like nothing more interesting than a gigantic abacus that enslaves the very people who pretend to be masters.

“Now the first thing to know about any market is that buyers and sellers almost always try to cheat each other.  The sellers try to rig the weights and exaggerate the value of their product, while the buyers denigrate the product and spread ugly rumors in an effort to lower the price.  What is more, the sellers tend to form combinations to keep the prices high, while the buyers make every effort to buy on credit or with degraded coinage.  Cyrus the Persian despised the Greeks for their ‘free-market’ dishonesty, telling the Spartan herald, on the eve of the invasion, that he did not fear men who gathered together in a market to swear false oaths and cheat one another.  He was wrong not to fear them, but not wrong about the cheating.  If you people had read any history—as I know you have not—you would understand.

“The crooks you will always have with you.  In my day I argued against crooked merchants who took advantage of shortages, famine, or public ignorance and charged exorbitant prices.  You people, citing the proverb ‘A fool and his money are soon parted,’ celebrate the huckster who gets a corner on the market or exploits human suffering.  That these things happen is inevitable, and it would probably do more harm than good to try to eliminate them, but to make a virtue out of vice is the sign of a diseased character.

“You people, not so long ago, entrusted your currency to the care of someone named Alan Greenspan, a convinced amoralist who might have stood in for Plato’s Thrasymachus, if he were not so completely incoherent.  Here is a guardian of your money supply and a watchdog over your markets, and yet he says that those who had ‘looked to the self-interest of lending institutions to protect shareholder’s equity (myself especially) are in a state of shocked disbelief.’  I can only conclude the man is a liar or a fool.  What sort of ruler could ever have been unwise enough to trust such a man?  Does your country lack prisons and executioners for officials who cheat the republic and line the pockets of their friends and allies?

“If markets are neither ideas nor laws of nature, but playing fields on which every team is likely to cheat, they obviously need to be supervised.  One thing I learned from my many years of working with the Roman knights [editor’s note: The equites or knights were the business class], they always expected to take their biggest profits from cozy deals arranged by politicians: farming the taxes, mismanaging and looting the conquered provinces, taking contracts on building projects.  I do not say they were bad men or that Rome could have dispensed with their services, but if you assumed they were lying, cheating, and stealing, you would usually be correct.

“Naturally, the knights had many senators in their pockets, though the worst of the lot was probably Marcus Crassus, a patrician senator who found every imaginable way of making money.  He formed a fire brigade, for example, and when a house was burning, he would buy it from the owner at a ridiculously low price and then call in his brigade to put the fire out.  Who would prosecute a Crassus, when he had the jurymen in his pocket?  But Crassus, at least, was a soldier and statesman descended from a line of orators and generals.  How could you people allow yourselves to be fleeced by such obvious hucksters as Bernie Madoff and Ben Bernanke?

“The market can only be free where it is subjected to strict discipline.  But how is that different from any other form of liberty?  You people seem to think that liberty is a given and accept Epicurus’ absurd argument—borrowed by your shallow imitators, Locke and Rousseau—that man once lived free in a state of nature.  Has any of you ever met a ‘natural’ man?  The more savage they are, the more they are enslaved to their appetites, to superstitious terror, and to the stronger men who lord it over them.  No primitive man is free in the sense that a Roman or Spartan was free.  My old friend Caesar, of course, said all men by nature are eager for freedom, but that was when he was conquering the poor barbarians and plotting to enslave Rome.  Liberty is something you have to be willing to die for.  No one can give it to you: It must be earned, day by day, by hard work and self-discipline.

“I have been reading over some of your liberal books and occasionally discuss the arguments with my old friend Cato and with some of the Greeks—though they are sometimes too clever for my poor head, made out of the hard oak of Arpinum.  A Roman who came after me—decent fellow named Pliny, who served his prince well, though he was a bit hard on you Christians—pointed out that the kind of liberty described by people like Lord Acton and the Mills and Fitzjames Stephen has much in common with the ideals of a Roman or Athenian gentleman.  It may be the worthiest idea you people—who have rejected your religion and your traditions—can entertain.  But what you do not seem to understand is that liberty is an ideal that has to be striven for.  It can never be taken for granted or given to the masses, because only the man who is morally free can ever enjoy political freedom.  And, unless he is a Christian saint or a true Stoic, no one can be morally free unless he is possessed of sufficient wealth that he fears not the loss of a job or a plunge in the value of his investments.  Yes, it is true, I am setting the bar a bit too high, but that is the only way I have of explaining to you barbarians—please forgive the slip—what we meant by liberty.

“You Americans, who boast so much of being free, what do you do the first time your pension funds take a tumble or your neighbor is thrown out of work?  You elect an inexperienced numbskull and put your faith in him as a god, much as the Roman rabble were to put their faith in Caesar, though small good it did them.  At least Caesar was a real Roman from ancient stock, a man of the highest intellect with a cultivated prose style, to say nothing of being a master politician and military genius, while your president . . . I will say no more.  You have your god-emperor, and you had all better be praying that he be an Augustus, though I fear he will turn out to be more a Romulus Augustulus, the pawn of ruthless and unscrupulous foreigners.

“Advice?  No, I have no advice for you, except perhaps this one thing.  Do not deceive yourselves, as many Roman conservatives were wont to do in my day and in the early empire.  You do not live in your old republic, and neither you nor your descendants ever will.  If you are hardheaded and pragmatic, like my old pupil—Caesar’s adopted son, Augustus—and his advisors, you may be able to preserve and even strengthen some of the institutions that shaped the republic.  You might even rebuild a decent public-spirited aristocracy of men who put their country’s interest almost on a level with their own—a type of man that has almost disappeared from your country.  But do not throw your lives away on futile crusades against the tyranny you and your fathers have long since accepted.  Helvidius Priscus came after my time, but what did he accomplish by attacking a decent emperor like Vespasian?  Nothing but his own destruction.  What I said of my friend Cato, I would also say of many of you conservatives.  He acted as if he lived in Plato’s Republic and not among the dregs of Romulus or should I say of Barry Obama.  Please do not take this the wrong way, but you people make me happy to be a dead Roman and not a live American.”

This article first appeared in the April 2009 issue of Chronicles: A Magazine of American Culture.

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