The metamorphosis of a caterpillar into a butterfly is one of the most remarkable things in nature. The animal apparently digests itself, using enzymes triggered by hormones. Then, from the pupa, a whole new animal develops – one with wings.
Time and growth produce changes in institutions, too. Sometimes, they merely get bigger and older. Sometimes, they go through a metamorphosis and change into something very different.
We recently moved back to France for the summer. We lived here for nearly 20 years… and still have a house in the country, to which we retire every summer.
Here, we find our old friends and acquaintances… our old clothes and shoes… our tools and workshop… our tractor… and our favorite office.
And what a pleasure… there, on the table next to the bed, was a copy of Michel De Jaeghere’s great book, Les Derniers Jours: La Fin de l’Empire Romain d’Occident (The Last Days: The End of the Roman Empire in the West).
We picked it up and found where we left off a year ago… page 321.
Many of the founders of the American Republic were readers and scholars. “I can’t live without books,” said Jefferson.
He, Monroe, Madison, Adams, and others were much more aware of Roman history than our leaders today. Most had studied Latin and/or Greek.
They had read Plutarch, Seneca, Sallust, Suetonius, and Cicero.
Much was known about the Roman era… and much was discussed. People believed they could learn from it and do better.
In the same year that the Declaration of Independence was adopted, Edward Gibbon published the first volume of his masterpiece, The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.
The Founding Fathers were well aware of the transition – natural, and perhaps inevitable – from republic to empire. They had studied it in the Roman example. They had seen how it drew power into a few hands… and corrupted them.
They tried to prevent it from happening in the New World, putting in place limits… circuit breakers… and checks and balances… to keep the government from becoming too big, too ambitious, or too powerful.
Even then, they were doubtful that it would stick. “We give you a republic…” Franklin wrote to posterity, “if you can keep it.”
America did keep it… for nearly 100 years. Maybe a few more. Then, the metamorphosis occurred. And, like Rome, it was not very pretty.
When a man has a wife, he has a more or less agreeable situation, depending on the circumstances. But if he has two wives, he doesn’t simply have twice as much wife. Or twice as much marriage. Or twice as much satisfaction. Or twice as much misery, such as the case may be. It is something altogether different.
Likewise, going to a small airport is very different from going to a large one. And a small, modest country has little in common with a big, aggressive, worldwide empire.
The point we have been making in our Diary is that time and scale have changed the nature, not just the age and the size, of the United States of America. It has become something the Founding Fathers had tried to avoid… and almost certainly wouldn’t like.
It was a metamorphic change, not just more of the same thing. But unlike Jesus, who turned water into wine… or nature, which turns an ugly caterpillar into a beautiful butterfly… the change from modest republic to aggressive empire was not necessarily for the better.
The Constitution was twisted into a new shape; like when an alcoholic chaperones a school party after he has had a few drinks, the kids can get away with anything.
The Bill of Rights, too, was run through the wringer. Citizens still have the right to life, liberty, and property – but only to the extent that the feds allow.
They can keep their firearms, for example, but under the Obama Doctrine, the feds can label them terrorists… and kill American citizens.
They still have the right to express themselves under the protection of the First Amendment, unless their opinions are considered “hate speech,” or the feds – or their agents at Facebook and Google – just don’t like what they say.
Your property is still safe, too; but under the doctrine of civil forfeiture, the police can take your money, your cars, and your house… with no due process of law.
Thus, were Americans mugged, mangled, and manacled. And then, the feds hit them in the face with a shovel.
Beginning in 2008, they distributed nearly $4 trillion to America’s wealthy stock- and bond-owners. Trillions more were taken from savers (most of us) by reducing interest rates… and given to big borrowers (corporations, Wall Street, and the feds themselves).
Is it any wonder that ordinary Americans are feeling a little testy?
Almost everything seems to be subject to the law of declining marginal utility. Power is no exception. And like desserts, wives, and shots of whiskey, it doesn’t take too long before the returns to additional power diminish so much that they are no longer positive.
They fall below the zero line. There, another drink is not merely useless, it could be fatal… and more power turns you into a Hell-bound bully.
That is the insight we’ve struggled to bring to light. As America evolved into an aging empire, it left behind it the laws, rules, customs, and instincts of its youth, much like Rome did after the death of Crassus in 53 BC.
The U.S. empire is now more than 100 years old. It began in the late 1890s, with the annexation of the Philippines. (Some people put the start date much earlier… when the North brought the South into imperial submission.)
Empires are very different from republics. They are no longer by, for, and of the people. They’re too big… too complex… with too many fingers in too many pies for the people or their elected representatives to keep up with.
So power migrates to the center. There, where the CIA, NSA, Pentagon, NIH, FBI, IRS, and dozens of other agencies… along with the corporate headquarters of hundreds of big industries… and thousands of pressure groups, lobbyists, factotums, hacks, think tanks, NGOs, powerful families, and apparatchiks reside, is where the real power flows.
There, too, in Rome as in Washington, the power congeals.
De Jaeghere… along with hundreds of other historians, ancient and modern… brings the process to light.
After reading them, reading the news today is almost like watching an old movie. We’ve seen it before, but we may still laugh… or shed a tear.