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Bankruptcy & hypocrisy of American ideals & democracy

The fall of Rome is one of the most important and world-shaping events in history. Is history repeating itself.

April 15

0:00
2017

London , United Kingdom of Great Britain & Northern Ireland - 15 Apr 2017 - Huffington Post

The spectacle of the US elections, followed by the eratic behaviour by the leader of the free world including the complete abondenment of diplomacy, justice, rule of law and culminating in the antagonism of 2 nuclear super powers, not to mention the dropping of the Mother of all Bombs, are ominous signs of things to come.

American diplomacy is motivated by race, money, power and violence. Such guiding principles I have known since I began studying the history of this country. However, only since the end of the Cold War, and the U.S. refusal to use this epic event to advance the cause of international peace and stability has the world finally grasped the bankruptcy and hypocrisy of American ideals and democracy.

Donald Trump does not have the firmest grasp of history. A man who confesses that he has “never” had time to read a book cannot be wholly cognisant of his heritage. The US may be relatively young but its foundations are rooted in the ancient past. The Senate, Capitol Hill and the ubiquitous eagles would perhaps be less bewildering to the president had he at least a passing knowledge of the interests of the founding fathers.

It may be too much to ask that Trump takes Edward Gibbon’s The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire aboard Air Force One. A glance at the trajectory of Roman power would be sufficient to show him why people fear the decline and fall of the American republic under his leadership.

Trump’s hot-headedness and unorthodoxy, his seemingly off-the-cuff threats, promises and tweets, only exacerbate popular fears that he is incapable of being checked. The year 59 BC went down in Roman history as the consulship of “Julius and Caesar”, after the great populist quelled his colleagues’ attempts to rein him in. Trump’s early appointments have done little to instil confidence in the neutralising abilities of his advisers. Eliot Cohen, a former counsellor of the Department of State, may not be entirely accurate in describing “unquestioning loyalty” as the sole criterion for a place in Trump’s administration, but developments so far have had a distinctly Roman flavour.

For all its troubles, the US has reached a height from which many fear it can only fall. Like Rome after the rapid expansion of the republic, America’s influence has plateaued.

Even 2,000 years later, the greatness of ancient Rome fires people's imaginations. The Roman Empire's impressive ruins dot the landscape of Europe and the Mediterranean with roads, aqueducts and amphitheaters. By around A.D. 180, the city of Rome likely became the first city of a million people.

In a few centuries this would come to an end. The official date for Rome's fall is A.D. 476, when the Germanic Chief Odoacer made himself king after deposing the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus. For centuries historians have analyzed Rome's past to explain why such an enormous empire of such civilization and wealth collapsed into primitive barbarism.

The story of Rome's fall isn't just a history lesson. It is far more relevant today than at any time since that epic moment in history. The same forces that turned Rome into ruins are being exerted on America the world's leading military and economic power and the United Kingdom, which not long ago ruled a fourth of the world.

If American and British citizens think they're invincible, they're in as bad a place as the Romans were when their empire reached its peak. Today, the same forces that helped to destroy Rome are undermining America and Britain. Can they learn from the past so they don't repeat it?

One factor that America and Britain have in common with ancient Rome is the way government expands its role to expand its control over the lives of citizens. During the centuries after the first Roman emperor Augustus (who reigned from 27 B.C. to A.D. 14), the empire became more heavily regulated. Emperor Diocletian (A.D. 284-305) supported using coercion to finance legions, pay the civil bureaucrats and support a large, imposing palace court.

In A.D. 332, Emperor Constantine helped to lay the foundation for medieval serfdom by binding farmers to the soil. Finishing the process that Diocletian began, Constantine ordered the sons of farmers to become farmers, the sons of soldiers to become soldiers, the sons of bakers to become bakers, and so on. The members of town councils couldn't quit their positions. Often they had to make up for shortfalls in the collections of local taxes out of their own pockets. Individuals couldn't change occupations or even leave their place of birth.

Over time, this expansion of government control and regulation turned the empire into a type of prison for tens of millions of its citizens. The already-high taxes roughly doubled in the 50 years after Diocletian.

Of course, lack of freedom in the English- speaking world today isn't that extreme, however it can be argued that the same levers of power are being exterted through debt enslavement and bad economic policies that are limiting if not restricting the choice for the populace.

Consider how government has grown progressively bigger and more powerful. One way to measure this is by looking at government expenditures as a percentage of gross domestic product (GDP). For the United States, in less than a century this ratio quadrupled from under 9 percent in 1913 to over 40 percent in 2015. The same is true for all Western democracies. Such numbers hold serious implications for the future of Western democracies. Freedom could be damaged by the fact that lawmakers are letting regulatory bodies make law with little or no oversight.

Note an example from 1932. A British Parliamentary committee found that Parliament delegated law-making authority because “many of the laws affect people's lives so closely that elasticity [i.e., arbitrary power] is essential” (quoted by F.A. Hayek, The Road to Serfdom, 2007, p. 107).

Arbitrary power is essentially unrestricted legislative authority. Think about the long-standing trend of more and more laws that are too complex for most to understand. In America, that can be measured in part by the number of pages of regulations issued in the Federal Register annually and the size of the IRS income tax code.

This year’s daily publication of the federal government’s rules, proposed rules and notices amounted to 81,611 pages as of Wednesday, higher than last year's 77,687 pages and higher than the all-time high of 81,405 pages in 2010. The IRS tax code includes some 3.4 million words and, according to its own documentation, forces American taxpayers and businesses to spend about 7.6 billion hours each year complying with its filing requirements—the equivalent of almost 4 million full-time jobs.

As any American who has traveled through an airport since the 9/11 terror attacks has seen, times of crisis can lead to vast expansion of government control over the lives of citizens.

Another striking similarity to the fall of Rome is the destruction of personal wealth through the debasement of currency. Inflation occurs when governments dilute the money supply by creating more money, typically to finance more government spending. With more dollars (or pounds, or euros) chasing the same amount of products, prices on those products naturally rise.

Like many modern politicians frustrated by inflation, Diocletian tried to prevent prices from rising. The Law of Maximum Prices (A.D. 310) threatened death penalties against people who charged too much for food.

However just as in the United States, the Roman government's own decisions had been the primary cause of rising prices. The empire systematically devalued silver coinage for decades, since government expenses chronically exceeded government income. From the time of Augustus to Diocletian, the denarius (Roman currency) fell from being 100 percent silver to only 5 percent silver. Emperor Marcus Aurelius (A.D. 161-180) alone knocked down its value by 25 percent.

We see that same pattern at work today when governments run huge and inflated budget deficits and “print money” to finance the added debt.

In recent years the Federal Reserve initiated three programs of “quantitative easing” (QE1, QE2 and QE3) designed to stimulate the U.S. economy. As a result, from 2008 to 2012 America's central bank hiked the money supply by 61 percent, and the “monetary base” by more than 200 percent. QE3, announced in September 2012, in effect creates out of thin air $40 billion a month to inject into the U.S. economy. The program is open-ended, meaning it will continue indefinitely.

These increases will lead to future inflation, meaning higher prices for everything. America's federal government has run up over $5 trillion of deficits (about 9 percent of its annual GDP) in its four most recent fiscal years—more than $4 billion per day. Its total debt passed $16 trillion in 2012 and now exceeds the nation's total GDP.

Great Britain's deficits are similarly ugly, despite the commitment of its ruling government coalition to austerity. Recently the country's deficit was the third highest in the European Union (at 10.4 percent in 2010), only slightly better than that of shell-shocked Greece. Excluding the bank bailouts (which more than double the final figure), Britain's public sector debt escalated from 37 percent in 2007 to 63 percent of its GDP in 2012.

Any government that recklessly follows such economic principles while unloading its debt on the international bond market should heed Proverbs 22:7: “The borrower is servant to the lender.” Greece is already learning the hard truth of this text. America and Britain will too, if they don't quickly change course.

Over the centuries, Rome also imposed an increasingly heavy tax burden on its citizens. This was to pay for growing cost and welfare measures, like entertaining the city-based population. Just as in the United States, the biggest governmental expense by far was paying for the army, which doubled in size from A.D. 96 to 180. Even long before in the closing years of the Republic, Julius Caesar found that 320,000 people were on the list to receive free grain every month. Augustus was able to get the number down to 200,000 during his rule. Yet this was still a huge drain on Rome for decades afterward.

It also wasn't cheap to supply games for the Roman mob. Just imagine the scale of the type of entertainment provided for citizens. For example, when Emperor Trajan in A.D. 107 celebrated conquering Dacia (mainly Romania today), 10,000 gladiators fought. About 11,000 animals died in the gory spectacle. When Marcus Aurelius ruled, enormous amounts of money were spent for both free games and for the daily allowance of pork, oil and bread given to the capital city's poor residents. His gifts would equal more than $1,000 per person today. He provided free spectacles 135 days a year.

Popular support for Rome fell as taxes rose. Between the third and fifth centuries peasants fought back against tax collectors and judges in areas that are now France and Spain.

Some of them even found that being ruled by barbarians or leaving the empire was better than living with Rome's harsh tax collectors.

The biggest material reason that Rome fell was that its economy was too weak. It was a low-income agricultural economy, and it couldn't support the armies needed to keep out the barbarians. Compare Rome's disastrous economic experience with America's federal government spending. The Pentagon's budget more than doubled in only 10 years. It went from under $305 billion in 2001 to over $693 billion in 2010 while the nation fought two major wars against Islamic extremists in Iraq and Afghanistan. At the same time, the cost of Social Security, Medicare, Medicaid and other income support programs almost doubled from $1.07 trillion to $2.11 trillion.

Donald trumps decision to cut funding on education, diplomacy, environment protection and to funnel the savings to an already overbloated, corrupt and unaccountable military goes much further than what Rome did. America has been at war for 222 out of the 239 years in exitence, and has become essentially a war economy, requiring enemies to feed its vast military industrial complex; the same one that Dwight Eisenhower warned against when he said that "this conjunction of an immense military establishment and a large arms industry is new in the American experience. The total influence -- economic, political, even spiritual -- is felt in every city, every State house, every office of the Federal government. We recognize the imperative need for this development. Yet we must not fail to comprehend its grave implications. Our toil, resources and livelihood are all involved; so is the very structure of our society."

In the councils of government, we must guard against the acquisition of unwarranted influence, whether sought or unsought, by the militaryindustrial complex. The potential for the disastrous rise of misplaced power exists and will persist.

As America's population gets older and the Baby Boom generation retires, these big expenses will only grow larger. The federal government's unfunded liabilities (unpaid promises of future benefits) were estimated at $61.6 trillion in 2011, which is about four times the annual GDP. That's $528,000 per household! And some figure the liabilities to be much higher. Think about what this means for your future. Can you really expect to receive everything you were promised?

Let's look at another way that the United States and Britain are like ancient Rome. From the mid-200s A.D. onward, Rome's population began to drop. Disease, barbarian invasions, wars and economic decline in the second, third and later centuries all contributed to the fall of the empire. Even worse, the fact that slavery was institutionalized meant that the slaves didn't want to have children. After all, why bring children into a world where they'll know only harsh slavery? As Roman laws and taxes turned many free people into bitter, apathetic slaves to their state, the birthrate among the common people went down as well. As Rome's educated upper class stopped having many children, the empire's high culture decayed.

Historian W.H. McNeil, in The Rise of the West, explained that “the biological suicide of the Roman upper classes” weakened “the traditions of classical civilization” (1991, p. 328). Unlike their Germanic neighbors outside the empire, the Romans limited family size (resulting in the practice of infanticide). Instead they invested more in educating and raising their surviving children. The illiterate Germans chose to have many children. Even in rich families, though, they treated them with benign neglect. This difference helped the Germanic peoples to overwhelm Rome by sheer numbers.

Europe, and the United States to a lesser extent, is facing a similar problem today. High birthrates and less desire to assimilate into European cultures by immigrants signal an ominous trend. Secular people, no matter what background, have fewer children than religious people. So if the trend continues, the future belongs to the staunchly religious.

One cause of the low birthrate for Rome's elite, which worried the first emperor Augustus, was their high divorce rate. All a husband needed to do to legally divorce his wife was to say three times, “Go home.” By 55 B.C., a Roman wife could divorce her husband almost as easily.

In the first century, the philosopher and playwright Seneca described how Roman upper-class women regarded their marriages: “They divorce in order to re-marry. They marry in order to divorce.” The satirist Martial fired one of his pointed short poems at a woman who married for the 10th time. He accurately labeled it legalized adultery.

Homosexual behavior was so widespread that many Roman writers, like “the arbiter of elegance” Petronius, the gossipy historian Suetonius, and Martial, assumed all Roman men were bisexual. The fact that they often engaged in such behavior reduced the birthrate even more. It's obvious that high divorce rates, lower birth rates and gay subcultures aren't new social innovations. It's just picking up where pagan Rome left off.

America's no-fault divorce laws, a product of the 1960s' “Sexual Revolution,” caused the nation's divorce rate to explode. It became one of the worst for any major country (3.2 per 1,000 in population per year). Britain's rate isn't far behind (2.9 per 1,000). What socially liberal people regard as “forward-looking social legislation” often just resembles a failed ancient pre-Christian past.

What happened when Rome's population declined? In North Africa, one estimate found that a third of the land was no longer cultivated. As farmland was abandoned, tax receipts fell. To recruit enough soldiers for its armies and to till its empty fields, the imperial government resorted to immigration.

That's the same solution Europe has resorted to in more recent decades. Barbarian allies of Rome along the empire's northern frontier and elsewhere were enticed into military service through land grants and offers of citizenship. Even by A.D. 180, according to historian W.G. Hardy, a major part of the Roman army was made up of foreigners and semi-civilized tribesmen.

The legions were increasingly filled with non-Romans. As a result, when the barbarian Vandals invaded North Africa, the Roman governor protected the city of Hippo there with Gothic mercenaries. The local Roman population provided little help. Since many thought the barbarians were better or no worse than the Roman tax collectors and officials, in a lot of cases they didn't even want to preserve the empire.

Let's consider deeper spiritual, religious and philosophical reasons for Rome's decline and then ask ourselves if America and Britain are experiencing the same things today.

The satirist Juvenal famously painted the average Roman as only caring about bread and circuses (i.e., athletic contests). Today, how many Americans, Britons, Australians, Canadians and New Zealanders are just as content to sit and be entertained, heedless of the world's gathering storm so long as they have their chips, beer and TV? Empty desire for material things dulls our spiritual senses. Petronius mocked the rich people of ancient Rome for obsessing over luxuries and wealth.

Especially throughout the empire's first two centuries, the worship of material things and overemphasis on enjoying luxuries characterized the lifestyle of the rich. During huge, extended banquets, the rich Romans would vomit so they could keep gorging themselves. Seneca described them by saying, “They vomit so that they may eat, and eat so that they may vomit.”

It's not that different in the United States and Britain today. Millions give themselves up to sexually lawless and materialistic lives. This has ominous implications for the survival of Western culture. It goes even deeper than its economic, social and demographic problems. According to famed sociologist Daniel Bell of Harvard University, “The lack of a rooted moral belief system is the cultural contradiction of [a post-industrial] society, the deepest challenge to its survival” (quoted by Francis Schaeffer, How Should We Then Live? 2005, p. 225).

America and Britain share in a culture based mostly on ancient Greco-Roman culture and the Judeo-Christian religion. But like falling Rome's scholars didn't believe in their gods anymore, many of today's highly educated people have lost faith in their traditional faiths of Judaism and Christianity.

Few academics believe in the true God or take religion seriously anymore. Many are secular humanists who think man is the measure of all things. But significant numbers have also grown more apathetic, skeptical, uncertain and pessimistic. They doubt that human reason can provide an integrated unified worldview of existence or can offer any real meaning to life.

Over the past two and a half centuries since the rough mid-point of the Enlightenment (ca. 1745), their faith in human reason's effectiveness declined nearly as quickly as their faith in God's existence. It's no coincidence that they have rejected both reason and faith in God. Catholic theologian Thomas Aquinas (1224-1274) reconciled the two so the West could have both in the High Middle Ages. As Emile Cammaerts summarized the thinking of English author G.K. Chesterton,

“The first effect of not believing in God is to believe in anything.”

As so many Western intellectuals and others, who “professing to be wise became fools” 

The huge upswing in the West's interest in eastern religions, the occult, reincarnation and “New Age” ideas is proof that empty, atheistic modern thought just doesn't meet most people's needs. The ideology of multiculturalism, which ultimately stands for no values other than accepting all ideas as equally valid, reflects Western intellectuals' philosophical bankruptcy. Such self-contradictory clichés as “All is relative” and “There are no absolutes” ultimately prove to be empty and meaningless.

By contrast, many of the Muslim immigrants who are flooding Europe uphold a dogmatic certainty about their faith. They see no need to apologize for their imperialist, jihadist past. Like their medieval ancestors, many of today's Islamists believe they are obligated to force their beliefs and values on others.

There's a serious ideological battle between skeptical, uncertain secularists and devout, dogmatic Islamists. History inevitably favors the latter over the former. When people lose confidence in their own civilization's values and virtues, it's been seen that they won't fight strongly to prevent their own collapse. It happened with Rome, and it's happening today to the West, and to the United States and Britain in particular.

 

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