Saturday, August 22, 2009

Romans and Barbarians in American History

The qualities of the Roman Empire fulfilled the expectations of the ancient western mindset. First of all, slavery was the basis for economic profit, and military expansion, imperialism, was the method by which economic growth was achieved. Roman society was based on hierarchy, with the elite senatorial class followed by the equestrian class, citizens, freemen and then slaves. Centralization was viewed as necessary because the economy depended on military conquest and exploitation. The Romans were catholic because their Empire encompassed multitudinous ethnic groups, nationalities and religions.

The qualities of the barbarians, the Franks, Picts, Jutes, Goths, Vandals, etc. was also warlike. However, they were tribally focused and more decentralized than the Romans. They did not choose decentralization over centralization for strategic or economic reasons. Rather, tribal or ethnic prejudice was at the root. When they occupied the various parts of the Empire they wanted to emulate the Romans and to enjoy the economic benefits of Romanism, but they were not interested in a catholic worldview. Charlemagne's conquest of Germany and Italy was in the name of Frankish or Carolingian power, not in the name of re-establishing a catholic empire.

Thus, there were two important effects of the barbarian conquest of western Europe. First, the Empire became decentralized. This led to 15 centuries of economic progress. Secondly, tribalism became instituted in European culture. The European ruling classes continued to see themselves as Frankish or Norman until the 19th century, when aristocratic tribalism was transformed into nationalism.

In American history the two impulses of Romanism and tribalism followed a similar pattern. The Romans were the Federalists, Whigs, Progressives and social democrats, who were anti-racist and less nationalistic than the decentralizers, at least until the twentieth century when the Progressives adopted some of the racism, nationalism and imperialism that was characteristic of the Democrats in the 19th century.

The decentralizers in American history were the Anti-Federalists and Democrats in the 19th century. The southern Democrats were most famously for states' rights. As well, Andrew Jackson was responsible for the Trail of Tears; hated Indians; and was a racist. In contrast, the abolitionists were Whigs. The racists in 19th century America were characteristically working class Democrats. For instance, the draft riots in New York City were an anti-African American protest by working class Democrats who lynched a number of African Americans, including a number of children.

However, like the Barbarians of Europe, the working class Democrats in America were responsible for innovation and economic growth. Their pattern was similar to the Barbarians. They favored decentralization, aggressive expansion (the Mexican American War and the Indian Wars were very much Jacksonian).

The Barbarians were the innovators. The Romans the advocates of scale economies. Both principles are useful, and there is always a danger that one will proceed too far. Flexibility in the creation and destruction of economic institutions is therefore important to re-balance excessive centralization or excessive competition.
But this is best accomplished through capitalist, private institutions that are flexible and can be allowed to go bankrupt. Government, the Romanizing power in America, refuses to terminate any of its programs. Therefore, America, once the product of Barbarian thinking, especially of Montesquieu, the Physiocrats and Adam Smith, has become increasingly elitist and Romanized as the New Deal Democrats have instituted Roman philosophies.

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