Wednesday, March 1, 2017

An Ironic Lesson of History

The historian J. Rufus Fears has said that one - ironic - lesson of history is that most people do not learn from history.  

To the Founders of the US Constitution, history was not just a collection of past facts to be memorized - history was a blueprint to learn how to live and how government should work.  The Founder’s application of lessons from history led to the world’s most successful democracy and most brilliant Constitution. 

If we choose to pay attention to them, these same lessons – some over 2000 years old – remain just as relevant to us today as they were to the Founders - because human nature does not change.

Tangible Lessons from History

As discussed further below, the following are some lessons from ancient Greek and Roman history that the Founders took into account when creating the Constitution:

1.  People are sometimes willing to trade away individual and political freedom for food, jobs, entertainment, and/or physical security.

2.  Freedom is NOT the dominant value of people throughout history; the dominant value of people throughout history is power

3.  As a result of 1 and 2 above, republican forms of government (those that are run "by the people and for the people") are rare and they may eventually degrade into tyranny (governments that are run by a "strong man” emperor for himself).

4.  A "strong man" leader may: 

(a) pit the masses of people who are poor and less educated against the political and economic elites (elected officials, and the wealthy and more educated); 

(b) use nationalism and/or war to focus the masses on external enemies;

(c) align with foreign powers against the traditional interests of the republic; and

(d) use propaganda, claim to have a monopoly on the truth, and claim to speak for "the people".

5.  Great leaders in history have both: (a) the ability to rally people around their vision/world view and (b) they have character, virtue and a moral compass (they follow The Golden Rule - do unto others as you would have others do unto you). 

6.  Tyrants in history have been able to rally people around their world view, but they lack character, they lack virtue and they lack a moral compass.  

Ancient Philosophers and Historians

Jefferson, Hamilton, Washington, Adams, Madison and other Founders studied the philosophers and historians of ancient Greece and Rome, including Plato, Socrates, Plutarch, Cicero, and others.

What they learned is that the Greek and Roman republics (from approximately 700 BC to 300 AD), rose and then fell when the freedoms of citizens were usurped by power hungry strong men, seeking to become tyrants.  The heros of the Founders were men of virtue who valued freedom and the interests of the whole republic above their own power and interests – such as Cata, Cassius, Brutus, and Cicero.  Their villains were power-hungry and immoral demagogues, such as Caesar, Nero, Caligula and Commodus. 

Plato and Socrates

Plato and Socrates are perhaps the world’s greatest philosophers - meaning that they have unique - and still relevant - insight and wisdom about human nature.   

Plato was born in 428 BC in Athens, and he writes both in his own voice, and in dialogues with his mentor, Socrates.  In The Republic, Plato discusses the importance of morality ("virtue") and how republican forms of government will eventually degrade into tyranny because of a lack of virtue.  

Virtue - critical to the success of individual leaders and of republican forms of government - required 4 things: (i) wisdom, (ii) courage, (iii) moderation, and (iv) justice.  Virtuous leaders, and human beings generally, could find true happiness from truth, order and putting the interests of others before one's own, but most people in fact live in a haze of darkness and shadows created by selfish excessive desire for money, pleasure, and honor/praise.  

In a successful society, virtuous leaders have expertise (wisdom); patriots risk their lives to defend the republic (courage); the political system has specialization and balance (moderation); and there is adherence to the law (justice) - all of which delivers the greatest happiness to the greatest number of people.

Plato observed that elites rule for a time with virtue and put the interests of the whole republic before their own, but eventually they begin to use political power to create advantages and increase their own wealth.  The poor and those who “work with their hands and take little part in politics” will increasingly lose faith in the elites, and the elites will increasingly be concerned that the poor are going to revolt.  

A strong man then emerges from the elite class (oligarchy), but he claims to speak for the poor.  Because the poor are desperate for change, they are willing to give up their freedom for food and security, and the strong man is able to play the masses off against the elites, eventually seizing absolute power, and eliminating his enemies. “He also needs to constantly make war to distract people from what he is doing.  He must pander to the worst segments of society…”  The Republic by Plato

Ancient Emperors and Politicians 

In Plutarch's history - Parallel Lives - he wrote about dozens of Greek and Roman leaders, with a focus on their personal relationships and the morality of their decision making.   Lives was like a bible to the Founders because the threats to liberty that Plutarch described were directly relevant to their own experiences.  

Cato was a Roman lawmaker born about 95 B.C. He was a hard working, honest, thoughtful Senator, with a strong sense of justice.  He was hated by Caesar for his integrity and for his refusal to help Caesar to usurp power.  At one point, Caesar had Cato imprisoned, but was forced to release him when the public opposed. 

Cato recognized Caesar for what he was, a great general who had an expansionist vision for the Roman Empire, but also an immoral person - a drunk, a womanizer, and a power-hungry politician who sought to take away freedom from the people so that he could seize absolute power for himself.  In 48 BC, there was a civil war in Rome involving Caesar and Pompey – Cato sided with Pompey.  After Caesar’s army defeated Pompey’s army, Caesar became emperor.  The people of Rome had a choice - they could have sided with Cato, but they chose to side with Caesar, walking away from 100s of years of freedom and self rule, largely because they wanted the food and protection.  Caesar offered Cato, Brutus and Cassius roles in his government.  Cato refused and was eventually put to death.  Brutus and Cassius joined Caesar, but later murdered him. 

To the Founders, Cato was a principled martyr who stood up to a tyrant, and lost.  Cato was George Washington’s greatest hero and he patterned his own behaviors after those of Cato.   

Brutus and Cassius were also admired because, despite joining Caesar's government, they eventually overthrew Caesar, and they were seen to have done so in an effort to restore the freedoms of the people of Rome and not for person gain.  

Cicero was a brilliant philosopher, orator, and an ethical politician.  He, like Cato, stood up to the emperor in an effort to protect the freedom of the people of Rome.  For doing so, he was eventually put to death by Mark Antony - who had Cicero's hands cut off and his tongue cut out.  Plutarch's Parallel Lives

Other failed Roman Emperors from the first and second centuries AD, included Caligula, Commodus and Nero.  All 3 were generally uninterested in the details of the day-to-day operation of government which they left to others.  They were ruthless (executing many around them - for example, Nero put his own mother to death) and they were immoral (putting their own interests, sexual perversions, and pleasures before all other concerns).  They used entertainment, including gladiator events, to distract the people from their loss of freedom.  They also had unrealistic views of their own abilities.  Commodus for example would publicly appear as a gladiator, but he lacked talent and surrounded himself with people who would nonetheless complement him and tell him how good he was.   Ancient Emperors

Application of the Lessons of History by the Founders 

From their careful study of history, the Founders concluded that immoral wealthy powerful elites are a threat to liberty, and that the people can be misled into giving up on freedom.  They had the examples of tyrants in history in mind as they constructed the checks and balances contained in the Constitution.   

Founders wrote about the ancient philosophers and emperors as if they knew them.  As an example, Jefferson wrote to Adams the following:  "... [with Rome] steeped in corruption, vice and venality, ... what could even Cicero, Cato, Brutus have done, had it been referred to them to establish a good government for their country?... No government can continue good but under the control of the people; and their people were so demoralized and depraved as to be incapable of exercising a wholesome control. ... Their minds [needed] to be informed by education what is right and what wrong; to be encouraged in habits of virtue and deterred from those of vice by the dread of punishments proportioned, indeed, but irremissible; in all cases, to follow truth as the only safe guide..."    In another letter to Adams, Jefferson wrote that democracy in America encourages “the hope that the human mind will some day get back to the freedom it enjoyed two thousand years ago."  Jefferson Quotes on Politics and Government

In Federalist 1, Hamilton began his justification for ratification of the Constitution, starting that "...of those men who have overturned the liberties of republics, the greatest number have begun their career by paying an obsequious court to the people; commencing demagogues, and ending tyrants."   Federalist 1

Application of the Lessons of History to the Present Day

People Want Jobs and Security and They Distrust the Political Elites

The US is the richest and most powerful country in the world, but the distribution of wealth has become more unfair over time.  The country is more politically, racially and economically divided than perhaps it has been since the Civil War, and the federal government in Washington has been gridlocked and ineffective for almost 2 decades.  

Some of the people who are core supporters of Trump have felt so left out, and so desperate that they just want change.  They also view the political elite class as incompetent, conflicted by international interests  or just corrupt.  

What Plato and others teach us about this is that people are willing to abandon their freedoms for improved economic opportunity and security.   Moreover, the friction between elites and people who are less well off can be exploited.  That does not mean that is what will happen in America today, but the lessons of history are relevant to the risk of what can happen. 

Trump's World View Does Not Appear Tyrannical 

Great leaders in history have the ability to rally people around their own world view.

Trump's world view is essentially to put "America First" by applying the "art of the deal".  By this he means that he can negotiate more financial value to America at the expense of other countries and non-citizens.  This message - together with promises of tax cuts and fewer regulations - has gotten Trump support of the majority of Republicans, and a little less than half the overall population.  

History suggests nothing especially or inherently tyrannical about this world view.  Indeed, tyrants like Hitler or Stalin had world views that were inherently evil and involved the adherence to doctrine requiring the death or domination of millions of people.  Trump has signaled intolerance of people from other cultures (see discussion below), but he has not articulated or done anything close to these tyrants.  

Trump seems far less motivated by his world view and far more motivated by wanting to be politically popular and to be praised and complemented.  For example, Trump doesn't seem to oppose NATO because of a desire to advance a plan to dominate Europe - rather, he just seems to think that the US pays too much to NATO and that he could get a better deal.  

In addition, many of his policy positions are not firmly held - he changes his mind a lot.  Trump seems more reckless and unprepared than motivated by a firmly held doctrine and world view.  (In contrast, Steve Bannon seems to have a more zealous and deeply held world view, in part based on his admiration for the Russian leader, Vladimir Lenin.)  

Trump does have the ability to rally people around himself.  He's a good marketer - "TRUMP"is literally his brand - and he's an expert at reality tv, tweeting and simple - non-elite - communications.  He can be interesting and funny - he is (as he might say) good for ratings.  When it comes to his world view, he seems to be more of a Nero than a Caesar.

Trump's Tactics Do Appear Tyrannical and He Lacks a Moral Compass

Great leaders have both a vision that people rally behind and a moral compass.  President Trump puts his own interests first and he lacks a moral compass.  History teaches us that this creates the risk that his current leadership could devolve into something worse.  

He has engaged in acts that mirror the behaviors of tyrants in history, including his:

(i) mischaracterizations, lies and outright attacks on the truth (such as claiming that millions of people committed voter fraud), 
(ii) failure to disclose his tax form and address potential conflicts of interest, 
(iii) suggestion that certain ethnic or religious groups are inherently dangerous, and promotion of immigration policies that appear more focused on fear of outsiders than legitimate security concerns, 
(iv) lack of regard for discrimination and hate crimes that can be promoted by his rhetoric, 
(v) support of Putin - a corrupt murder and hater of freedom - such as by inviting Russia to hack the US elections, and suggesting that Putin's Russia is American's moral equivalent, and 
(vi) lack of respect for US democratic institutions, and attacks on the independent judiciary ("so called judges") and content based attacks on independent media outlets when they don't agree with him (including false and cynical claims of "fake news").

At his recent Press Conference, Trump stated that the people should listen to him as the source of the truth rather than assessing the truth for themselves.  "You know what it is? Here’s the thing. The public isn’t — you know, they read newspapers, they see television, they watch. They don’t know if it’s true or false because they’re not involved. I’m involved. I’ve been involved with this stuff all my life. But I’m involved. So I know when you’re telling the truth or when you’re not. I just see many, many untruthful things."  Press Conference Transcript  Those statements are profoundly at odds with the underpinnings of the US system of government.  In Putin's system, what Putin says is taken as the truth.  In America, to maintain a government by the people and for the people, it is up to every citizen to seek the truth, and be knowledgable and engaged with government policy.  

Perhaps Trump has no plan to be a tyrant, but when he warms up to a tyrant like Putin, when he pits poor people against the elites (despite being a billionaire himself), when he claims to speak for "the people" and to be the sole source of the truth, when he attacks the independent media as the "enemy of the people", when he suggests that people should be feared or treated badly for being different, we know from history that he is acting like one of the oligarchs straight out of Plutarch's Parallel Lives or Plato's The Republic - and that those stories don't end well for the people.  

The Founders believed that self interest, pride, greed and excessive overconfidence (what the Greeks called "hubris") cannot be the core characteristics of our leaders, or we will devolve into tyranny.  To avoid tyranny, our leaders and our system of government must strive for virtue.  Trump may not be a tyrant, but he does lack wisdom, courage, justice and moderation.

Supporters and opponents tend to view President Trump as either uniquely good or uniquely bad, but in certain respects, history has seen leaders like Trump  before and we can learn from that history - if we choose to pay attention to its lessons.