THE LIBERTARIAN ENTERPRISE
Number 396, December 3, 2006
"A Future that's worth looking forward to."
Special to The Libertarian Enterprise
If you're a college football fan, you were doubtless delighted with the contest held between the first place Ohio State University Buckeyes and the number two ranked Michigan Wolverines. I have a friend who happens to be a big Ohio State fan, and I couldn't have missed hearing about the game even if it weren't under constant discussion on ESPN and mentioned in virtually every sportscast on every local station in every town in America.
I like football well enough, but this struck me as being just a little over the top. To compensate, I made a point of looking especially innocent when I needled my friend by asking him, "What's the big deal? It's just a game!" He nearly jumped out of his chair before he stared at me in disbelief and said, "You did not just say that. . .!"
Of course, even before what he calls "the big game," I'd been seeing commercials on television referencing the Super Bowl. It may still be a couple of months away, but it's apparently never too early to start the hype! What's even worse, though, is that the commercial had nothing to do with the game itself and everything to do with the commercials that will air during the game. After all, we all know that the Super Bowl audience is second only to the numbers that watch television that same afternoon solely to see the commercials!
Regardless of the reason for watching, the audience is sizeable. Last year's Super Bowl was watched at some point by more than 141 million viewers. According to Wikipedia, these numbers translate into something like 60% of all residences with televisions are tuned in at some point to the Super Bowl.
You know what else is a big deal? The marriage of Tom Cruise and Katie Holmes, more commonly known in the tabloids as TomKat. You'd expect Entertainment Tonight to report on the engagement and marriage, and it did. Heavily. (Entertainment Tonight had a special wedding segment in its broadcast every night during the week leading up to the ceremony, and a search on the ET web site for "tom cruise wedding" yielded 116 results to date.) But the wedding also made "above the fold" headlines at news networks like CNN. In fact, TomKat's doings have been big news in almost every spectrum of media literally from the moment Tom jumped onto Oprah's couch.
All it took to take the recent mid-term elections off our minds was a football game and a celebrity wedding. But while it lasted, there were some entertaining stories to be had from that source, too. John Kerry once again suffered a serious case of foot-in-mouth disease. We learned that the almost always classy and sophisticated Barbra Streisand wasn't necessarily either of those things.
One shrilly socialist female Democrat was re-elected and stood to become the first woman Speaker of the House (in a particularly delightful turn of events, her selection was followed almost immediately by a wholesale rejection of her recommendation for the majority leadership); another shrilly socialist female Democrat (who also offered up evidence on a regular basis that she might be shrilly socialist and psychotic to boot) didn't even manage her party's nomination this year. A third (also a Democrat, oddly enough) who is presently pretending to be neither shrill nor socialist was re-elected to the Senate from which most believe she'll launch a presidential campaign.
But entertainment value wasn't what won and lost elections for most this year. The major issues on the plate were the War in Iraq and questionable ethics. With sex scandals, accusations of ethics violations, and some of the filthiest mud-slinging campaigns in memory, it seemed that almost everybody was sick of somebody or something. In the end, anger made most decisions, and Democrat after Democrat beat Republican after Republican in an orgy of "We'll show them!" And after all that, we're already off and running into the next election cycleat least one presidential candidate has already announced himself, and another said that he's forming a committee to see if he ought to announce his candidacy.
With the college "Big Game" over for this year, the Super Bowl yet to come, and politics back to politicsand politiciansas usual, we can all go back to talking about fixing the education system in this country. Academics in general continue to slide; programs like the President's much vaunted "No Child Left Behind" are failing to show significant improvement in test scores even as they anger teachers.
I suppose we ought to find it refreshing that in the midst of such a genuine crisis, some mother somewhere still has the energy to complain that Harry Potter books promote devil worship. (I'd personally find it more refreshing if she'd use her apparently ample free time to learn something about either Harry Potter or witchcraft so that she can cease her ignorant demands for censorship, but that's just me.) And then there are those who are so concerned with education that they lobby school boards and sue school districts to force them to teach creationism (they call it intelligent design, but there's little if any difference) which, though they claim the opposite intent, actually serves to undermine real education even further.
All of the worries over the qualityor lack thereofin public education makes me wonder if students learn anything about the Roman Empire. American kids ought to be learning something about that, especially since the country that they live in is often called the greatest empire since the days of Rome's glory. I'd hope they're also learning about the fall of the Roman Empire too, particularly since that seems to have an even greater bearing on the country they live in.
Some scholars blame the fall of the Roman Empire on lead poisoning. The Romans used lead in their pipes and in their pottery. They used lead in their cooking pots and their utensils. As a result, their water, food, and drink was contaminated with lead causing most to have some level of lead poisoning. Lead poisoning has any number of symptoms, but in simplistic terms what it does is this: It makes you stupid.
With few exceptions, Americans don't typically have lead poisoning at any level. And yet there's a comparison to be drawn here, and I'm far from the first to have drawn it. Whether you blame lead or fluoride, or irresponsibility or bad schools, the fact remains that American students have (in general) dumbed down over the decades. And even if lead poisoning wasn't the only reason the Roman Empire fell, it's hard to argue that stupidity didn't contribute.
Some who have studied the Roman Empire also blame the fall on an overextension of the military and the accompanying drain on the public treasury. When the Empire could no longer afford to have troops stationed everywhere, it had no choice but to begin to pull them out. And when it did that, yet another contributor to the fall of the empire reared its ugly head: illegal immigration. Oh, they didn't call it illegal immigration then. They called it being overrun by barbarian hordes. But it was effectively illegal immigration.
When these barbarian hordesor illegal immigrants, if you insistcame into the areas formerly held by the empire, the first thing that happened was the undermining of Roman society including such niceties as philosophy, art, education, the economy, and the common language necessary to ensure that all of those things flourished. Shortly thereafter, the infrastructure decayed when the upkeep of roads and the like was stopped. Not very long after that, the Republican form of government and the relative freedom Romans enjoyed was a distant memory.
I can't imagine that many can argue whether or not the American military is overextended. There's little question that that's the case. Certainly the reductions of the Clinton era didn't help with that, but wars in Afghanistan and Iraq combined with an ongoing American presence in other places around the world are compounding the problem. We should likely be in some of these places and not in others, but that's not the point. The overextension is.
In part because of the military overextension and in even larger part thanks to entitlement programs, the federal budget is entirely out of control. The tax-and-spend Democrats just elected to control of Congress are likely to escalate the programs of the tax-and-spend Republicans we just kicked out of office, and little will change except the names of the people we're blaming. And still I'd be willing to bet that more people will watch the Super Bowl than will vote (in 2004, a presidential election year which enjoyed what was considered a high voter turn-out, only 55% of eligible voters bothered).
But those 55%and the lesser numbers who voted in a Democratic majority this yearare representative of the most significant (at least in my mind) factor in the fall of the Roman Empire: sloth and greed.
John Locke, who is much revered as a libertarian philosopher, said, "The people cannot delegate to government the power to do anything which would be unlawful for them to do themselves." Yet they do just that each and every time they tell the government to steal from the rest of us for their benefitand that's precisely what entitlement programs and Congressional pork projects do.
The people keep voting for those politicians who get the most for them via those entitlement programs and pork projects, and then they wonder how it is that the politicians they elect do a poor job of representing, or why some are unethical in their lives and in their jobs. They apparently don't realize that, as Alexis de Tocqueville put it, "The American Republic will endure, until politicians realize they can bribe the people with their own money." When such jobs can be boughtand when those who get those jobs can be bought in turnyou can bet that corruption will follow.
Call it the result of immorality (also a common accusation of American society from some corners today as well as another reason some suggest the Roman Empire declined), or point to the "bread and circuses" mentality of ancient Romans (most of us have little room to talk in the wake of obsessions with football games or entertainment personalities). But the real and most direct comparison remains those cited above: sloth and greed.
"A democracy cannot exist as a permanent form of government. It can only exist until the voters discover that they can vote themselves money from the Public Treasury. From that moment on, the majority always votes for the candidate promising the most benefits from the Public Treasury with the result that a democracy always collapses over loose fiscal policy always followed by dictatorship." Alexander Fraser Tyler in The Decline and Fall of the Athenian Republic.
We've been a democratic republic now for 230 years. We've been effectively voting ourselves money from the public treasury for the last 100 or so years. We can compound that with loose borders, overextended military forces, porous borders and the accompanying invasion, a lack of education, and a determination to pay more attention to our modern versions of bread and circuses than to the writing on the wall telling of our own pending downfall. We can add to all that our readily apparent inability to learn from history. In fact, at this point, the only question we can possibly have left to ask is this: How imminent is the collapse, and how benevolent (or not) will be the dictator?