25 January 2021   Leave a comment

Andreas Kluth has written a provocative essay for Bloomberg entitled “The U.S. Mustn’t Follow Weimar Germany and Ancient Rome”. The argument is a familiar one: there are patterns to the decline of once-prosperous societies into corrupted ones”

“History, according to a famous aphorism, may not repeat itself, but it rhymes. Here, then, is my own personal musing on two republics that failed, with consequences for the whole world: pre-Imperial Rome between 133 BCE and 27 BCE, and Weimar Germany between 1919 and 1933….

“Once broken, taboos are hard to unbreak. And their damage is cumulative. Lies go unpunished, violence leaches from words into deeds, loyalties shift from country to parties or individuals. Gradually, the republic — its constitution, precedents and norms — becomes hollow. Citizens stop believing in it.

“When that happens, as in Weimar and Rome, republics tend to expire quietly, sometimes even discreetly. Hitler never bothered to formally repeal the Weimar constitution of 1919, he just ignored it. Octavian, later known as Augustus, made a big show of keeping all the iconography of the Roman republic, including the senate, assemblies and magistrates. He didn’t call himself king but princeps, or ‘first.’ But everybody knew that Roman liberty had ended.”

The declines are almost always associated with concentrations of economic power that allow political institutions to pass laws that facilitate further concentrations of wealth. Chrystia Freeland offers another example of this process, using the example of Venice:

“IN the early 14th century, Venice was one of the richest cities in Europe. At the heart of its economy was the colleganza, a basic form of joint-stock company created to finance a single trade expedition. The brilliance of the colleganza was that it opened the economy to new entrants, allowing risk-taking entrepreneurs to share in the financial upside with the established businessmen who financed their merchant voyages.

“Venice’s elites were the chief beneficiaries. Like all open economies, theirs was turbulent. Today, we think of social mobility as a good thing. But if you are on top, mobility also means competition. In 1315, when the Venetian city-state was at the height of its economic powers, the upper class acted to lock in its privileges, putting a formal stop to social mobility with the publication of the Libro d’Oro, or Book of Gold, an official register of the nobility. If you weren’t on it, you couldn’t join the ruling oligarchy.

“The political shift, which had begun nearly two decades earlier, was so striking a change that the Venetians gave it a name: La Serrata, or the closure. It wasn’t long before the political Serrata became an economic one, too. Under the control of the oligarchs, Venice gradually cut off commercial opportunities for new entrants. Eventually, the colleganza was banned. The reigning elites were acting in their immediate self-interest, but in the longer term, La Serrata was the beginning of the end for them, and for Venetian prosperity more generally. By 1500, Venice’s population was smaller than it had been in 1330. In the 17th and 18th centuries, as the rest of Europe grew, the city continued to shrink.

The process can occur quickly or it can take years. But it appears as if Adam Smith was prescient in terms of his expectations of how the rich would protect their interests at the expense of the public good. In his book, The Theory of Moral Sentiments (a much better book than his more-often cited, The Wealth of Nations):

“This disposition to admire, and almost to worship, the rich and the powerful, and to despise, or, at least, to neglect persons of poor and mean condition, though necessary both to establish and to maintain the distinction of ranks and the order of society, is, at the same time, the great and most universal cause of the corruption of our moral sentiments. That wealth and greatness are often regarded with the respect and admiration which are due only to wisdom and virtue; and that the contempt, of which vice and folly are the only proper objects, is often most unjustly bestowed upon poverty and weakness, has been the complaint of moralists in all ages.” (Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, (London: A. Millar, 1790), 6th edition, I.III.28.)

F. Scott Fitzgerald summarized the mentality of the rich in his short story, “The Rich Boy”:

“They are different from you and me. They possess and enjoy early, and it does something to them, makes them soft where we are hard, and cynical where we are trustful, in a way that, unless you were born rich, it is very difficult to understand. They think, deep in their hearts, that they are better than we are because we had to discover the compensations and refuges of life for ourselves. Even when they enter deep into our world or sink below us, they still think that they are better than we are. They are different.”

All the economic evidence suggests that this concentration of wealth in the US has exceeded that level experienced by Fitzgerald. Nothing is pre-determined in human affairs and history is an imperfect guide to the future. But history does give us a great deal to think about.

 

Posted January 25, 2021 by vferraro1971 in World Politics

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