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Monday, February 4, 2008

An Unseemly Caesarism

If you occasionally consult U.S.-based media for news and information, it's astonishing the extent to which the coverage is dominated by the eternal presidential campaign underway there. For more than a year, with more than nine months to go until the election, Topic A has been the horserace between this and that candidate, or dissecting the consequences of the innumerable “debates” organised by legacy media among contenders for the office.

What the heck is going on here? Karl Hess, in his Playboy interview in July 1976 (I'm paraphrasing from memory because I don't have the magazine and can't find a transcript online—should any of you folks who have one in the attic [I know, you only bought it for the fiction and articles about cars], please send me a scan so I can get this right), “If I were walking down Pennsylvania Avenue and suddenly wondered, ‘God damn! Should we go to war with Denmark?’ then I might want to talk to the president of the United States. Otherwise, why should the president have anything to do with my life?”

Indeed…. Why, in a civil society, where the myriad voluntary interactions among citizens form its foundation, should the choice of an executive charged solely with administering laws and commanding armed forces used only in external conflicts occupy such mind share among so large a population (or at least be assumed to, or promoted as such by the legacy media aimed at them)?

And this obsession doesn't stop at the porous borders of the United States. Here in Europe, we're constantly bombarded with news of the latest ups and downs in the race to select the next Leader of the Free World (which still, thankfully, elicits chuckles and the occasional guffaw among European audiences).

What explains this total obsession with the choice of a person to occupy an office which is constitutionally charged only with commanding the armed forces and executing laws enacted by the legislative branch of government? I'd call it Cæsarism, and it's unseemly and unworthy of a republic.

The Roman Republic prided itself, over more than four centuries of history, of having no need of kings—indeed, any magistrate who pretended to authority beyond his mandate was reproached for seeking powers unbefitting a Roman citizen. And yet, within a few Cæsars after Julius and Augustus, the entire focus of Rome was on “who shall be Cæsar” and what shall he do to or for us. Such are the wages of empire. Nobody seems to have asked, “Gee, we got along just fine for 450 years without any Cæsars at all (albeit the odd dictator). Why, exactly, does it matter now who we choose to pick our pockets and send us off to die in foreign wars?”

Now maybe I've been spending too much time with Gibbon and Suetonius, but it seems to me that this obsession with the person at the top of the pyramid is not just unseemly but dangerous—it's corrosive of republican virtue in favour of worship of authority, and that always ends badly. Does a country of nearly a third of a billion people confronted with a multitude of challenges seriously believe that the choice of a single person to “lead them” is the most important question they face, to the exclusion of a multitude of policy issues in trade, taxes, energy, immigration, culture, demographics, and others which, under their constitution, should be addressed by their elected legislative representatives at the local, state, and federal levels? If so, I pity them.

Perhaps if the American electorate really wishes to be ruled, they should vote for the one candidate who promises that without any ambiguity!

Posted at February 4, 2008 20:21