Rome and America: The Ideology of Decline

By Jones, Harold B., Jr. | Freeman, May 2004 | Go to article overview

Rome and America: The Ideology of Decline


Jones, Harold B., Jr., Freeman


Writing in 1835, Alexis de Tocqueville attributed the United States' commercial success to American merchants' willingness to face uncertainty and danger. Europeans, he said, wait for good weather and return to port if the ship is damaged; the American "departs while the tempest still roars . . . while on the go, he repairs his ship, worn down by the storm."1 The American settler, Tocqueville said, was "a very civilized man . . . who plunges into the wilderness of the New World with his Bible, a hatchet, and newspapers."2 When Anthony Trollope traveled down the Mississippi in 1860, he found people living in sod huts and laboring from dawn to dusk. There was no prospect for an immediate improvement in their condition, yet they were optimistic about the future and felt not the slightest desire to return to civilization.3

These pictures contrast sharply with that of Americans being expected to take comfort from Secretary Tom Ridge's "message of reassurance and confidence" about the Department of Homeland security's vigilance over a holiday weekend. They contrast also with the picture of people standing in lines at the airport, removing their shoes, and waiting meekly for an approving nod from a dull federal employee. The old attitude of self-reliant independence has died. It is not simply that the world has changed, but that Americans have. It is not simply that our government has become intrusive, but that we do not resist its intrusions. Like every other people at every other time in history, we are getting the government we deserve.

My article "Homeland Security Circa AD 285" described the bureaucratic expansion that left an empire helpless before its enemies.4 But there is more to the story than that. By the end of the third century, Roman character was a thing of the past. The courageous ingenuity of the farmers who put on sword and shield to resist first invading Gauls and later the armies of Hannibal had disappeared. If it is true that Rome fell less to the barbarians than to its own stifling bureaucracy, it is true also that the bureaucracy took its power from citizens' inability to see the challenges of their time as a call to personal creativity and effort. Rome's fate was the result of a change in the way the Romans thought about themselves and their world.

The most important result of government controls, said F. A. Hayek, is "a change in the character of the people."5 While this may be true, it is only half the truth. The other half is that extensive government controls give expression to the ideas of the people among whom they appear. They can arise only among a people who are psychologically prepared to submit to them. The similarities between the ancient and the modern experiences are worth considering.

Among the proper functions of government, Adam Smith listed military defense. The desperate condition in which the Empire found itself late in the third century was not entirely unrelated to the fact that after the death of Trajan and again after the death of Marcus Aurelius, Rome's armies were withdrawn from their positions along the northern frontiers. As soon as the pressure on the borders eased, barbarian hoards began to sweep across them.

Viewed in this light, President Bush's aggressive "war on terror" is an act of genius. Terrorism is like every other human endeavor in that it labors under the constraint of limited resources. These resources can be deployed more conveniently in assaulting soldiers in Iraq and Afghanistan than in attacks on Western targets. The recent bombing of Spanish train stations, while frightening, is probably less dreadful than what would be happening if the battle had not been moved into Islam's own backyard. Like Rome at its height, the United States is protecting itself by means of relentless pressure on those who threaten it.

But there is more to the story than that. The Empire's invaders were driven by economic rather than ideological interests.

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