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Works and Days

Why Does the Good Life End?

September 25th, 2011 - 12:00 pm

A look Back

People just don’t disappear. Look at Germany in 1946 or Athenians in 339 B.C. They continue, but their governments and cultures end. Aside from the dramatic military implosions of authoritarian or tribal societies — the destruction of Tenochtitlan, the end of Nazism, the collapse of the Soviet Union, the annexation of tribal Gaul — what brings consensual states to an end, or at least an end to the good life?

The city-states could not stop 30,000 Macedonians in a way — when far poorer and 150 year earlier — they had stopped 300,000 Persians descending on many of the same routes. The French Republic of 1939 had more tanks and troops on the Rhine than the Third Reich that was busy overrunning Poland. A poorer Britain fought differently at el-Alamein than it does now over Libya. A British battleship was once a sign of national pride; today a destroyer represents a billion pounds stolen from social services.

Give me

Redistribution of wealth rather than emphasis on its creation is surely a symptom of aging societies. Whether at Byzantium during the Nika Riots or in bread and circuses Rome, when the public expects government to provide security rather than the individual to become autonomous through a growing economy, then there grows a collective lethargy. I think that is the message of Juvenal’s savage satires about both mobs and the idle rich. Fourth-century Athenian literature is characterized by forensic law suits, as citizens sought to sue each other, or to sue the state for sustenance, or to fight over inheritances.

The subtext of Petronius’s Satyricon is an affluent, childless, often underemployed citizenry seeking inheritances and lampooning the productive classes that produce enough excess for the wily to get by just fine without working. Somewhere around 1985 in California I noticed that my students were hoping for a state job first, a federal job second, a municipal job third — and a private one last. Around 1990, suddenly two sorts of commercials were aired everywhere: how to join a law suit by calling a law firm’s 1-800 number or how to get a free power chair, scooter, or some other device by calling the 1-800 number of
a health care company that would do the paper work for Social Security on your behalf.

Regulate, not create

Why is it more moral for a federal bureaucrat in a state-supplied SUV to shut down an offshore oil rig on grounds that it is too dangerous for the environment than for a private individual to risk his own capital to find some sort of new fuel to power his government’s SUV fleet? All affluent societies believe that they are just too rich not to be able to afford another regulation, just one more moralizing indulgence, yet again an added entitlement. But as we see now in postmodern America, idle 250,000 acres of farmland for a tiny fish, shut down an entire oilfield, put off a new natural gas find in worry over possible environmental alteration, add a cent to the sales tax, mandate yet another prescription drug entitlement not funded, or offer yet another in-state tuition discount to an illegal alien — and the costs finally equate to an implosion as we see in Greece or California. And as we know from past collapses, a new entitlement in a matter of minutes becomes an institutionalized right whose withdrawal causes far more anguish than its prior nonexistence. Justinian learned that when he sought to cut the civil service and almost lost his throne.

Them

Not that the elite are exempt. Western moral literature, from Horace to Thackeray, focuses on the vanity of the rich who think that a greedy heir won’t really inherit their hard-won or suspect riches, or that their always aging hips and knees will always so briskly power them up the monumental stairs of their colossal homes, or that a fifth sailboat or another 1000 acres will at last end the boredom. But the rub is not whether they are rich but whether they are idle, whether they send a message that affluence can make life better, rather than affluence is inevitably corrupting. In Suetonius’s Twelve Caesars, the theme is not just imperial decadence and cruelty, but also the blind passions of the mob that the elite so cynically manipulate for their own useless privilege and nonsensical indulgence.

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