Bread, Circuses, and the Appearance of Good Will

The greatest threat to individual freedom is not the machinations of political parties –- noxious though those machinations may be -- but the attitude toward authority which pervades the populace itself.  When people no longer feel threatened by a centralization of power, demagogues can do as they like.

I had a brief exchange with a friend recently which perfectly illustrates my point.  We were discussing the president’s threat to suspend the deportation of additional categories of illegal aliens. My friend’s stance was all too typical: Obama only wants to do the right thing, and he has to do it because Congress won’t. The person speaking has no fear of living under an oppressive government. He lacks the conviction, universal among our Founders and common among many generations of immigrants, that the concentration of political power in too few hands is a moral evil and an obvious threat to civil liberties. Believing the president is justified in ruling by decree rejects two and a half centuries of American history with little more than a casual shrug. Moreover, such an attitude just assumes that what matters about a political system is that it produces immediate desirable effects – not that it preserves the rights of citizens. A belief in doing the right thing tends to be minimally concerned with repercussions and maximally concerned with feelings.  Obama, like any other demagogue, is savvy enough to understand this.  When he made his decree, he didn’t trot out any evidence that current and future immigrants would not displace American workers – which they probably will – he trotted out Astrid Silva, her family, and their expediently pitiable story.

The hard lesson of history is that life has been dangerous and unforgiving for the vast majority of people who have walked the earth.  For a variety of reasons, some of which involve the wisdom of our Founders and the diligence of our ancestors, Americans now live in remarkably comfortable times. Despite what some would have you believe, no one starves in the United States for want of cheap (or free) food. Many of our poor have automobiles, and almost all of them have televisions. Our middle class, though in decline, is still quite rich by world standards. We have lived under these conditions for generations, and most of us have lost all appreciation for both their historic peculiarity and for the policies and institutions which brought them about. Millions of Americans take their lifestyles as a given, almost as a bequest of nature -- so the idea of denying any number of foreigners access to those same conditions doesn’t seem like an act of self-preservation, but simply like an act of cruelty. A knee-jerk public policy of doing the right thing assumes the well of resources is bottomless, and that technology and sheer goodness will rescue us from hunger, labor, and poverty if we only let it. Believers in such a worldview can only see conservatives as pathologically backward, bigoted, or simply stupid. If a person is enthusiastically acclimated to the current pace of technological and social change, it is unlikely he will venerate a constitutional framework that is now more than two centuries old. Checks and balances are inefficient. Dictatorship, on the other hand, is efficient, simple, and attractive -- especially when it comes clothed in all the trappings of modernity and fairness. What could fit our celebrity culture better than a popular dictator?

The political elites can only get by with the continued centralization of their power because most of the public either tacitly approves or doesn’t care.  While the market crash of 2008 did damage to the economy, most people didn’t lose their jobs and have only felt a slight erosion of their standard of living. Likewise, though nearly 3000 Americans died in the 9/11 attacks, it is a plain fact that over 300 million didn’t. It takes brutal and sudden events, far reaching enough to impact almost everyone directly, to impress upon the public imagination that something isn’t just a media event -- a narrative they can weep about appropriately for a few minutes before switching channels and getting back to their still comparatively comfortable lives. Like it or not, however, there is no law of nature that ensures that the awful things that have happened to other great nations cannot happen to America. That kind of exceptionalism we do not have.

It is impossible to say with any certainty just what fraction of the public has to become outraged to overcome the dead weight of their complacent brethren. The power of any minority depends on many factors. Frankly, if the current political elites were as competent as they believe they are, our civil liberties would be doomed. Almost two millennia ago, the Romans figured out that bread and circuses were all that the average Roman wanted. The ancient elites kept up their end of that bargain successfully for hundreds of years. The average American is now little more concerned with political rights than his Roman counterpart was. Bread and circuses have simply taken on more modern forms. The only hope left to those of us who want to retain some meaningful degree of freedom is the fact that our political elites have grown so insulated from the rest of us that they now hold us in complete contempt. The political class think little better of American citizens than 19th century European elites thought of their African or Asian subjects. How else could one explain their attempts to replace even the bread and circuses with cheap and indigestible lies? It may not take much to keep the public happy -- but it does take something.