Ideas, Old and New(Reprinted from the issue of May 29, 2003)
I recently saw a cartoon of a king telling his counselors: Gentlemen, these are medieval times, and they call for medieval ideas.
That king had the right idea. We could do with some medieval ideas in our own times.
Medieval, of course, remains a popular word of denigration and even abuse. Since the Enlightenment it has come to mean backward, reactionary, inhumane, and superstitious. But no scholar now uses the word this way. In recent decades even the best thinkers of the secular world have come to recognize the great intellectual achievements of the Middle Ages.
Those achievements were founded in common sense, which has been one of the casualties of modernity. Today we are told that common sense has been superseded by modern science; hence the quasi-gnostic cult of the expert and the specialist, to whom common sense must defer.
One of the basic ideas of medieval political philosophy was that positive law must conform to the natural law. An unjust law was no law at all. The decay of this simple principle has opened the way to the most frightful tyrannies, and also to abuses which, though less alarming at first sight, are no longer recognized as tyrannical.
In the Middle Ages the debasement of money was a serious crime. Clipping coins was a common offense because it devalued the kings currency, cheating not only the king himself, in principle, but everyone else who used his money as a medium of exchange and measure of value. It was the medieval version of counterfeiting.
Today, in the age of paper money, its the government that does the counterfeiting. When I was a small boy, my father bought Time magazine every week for a dime. Today it costs nearly four dollars not because the publisher is greedy, but because the value of a dollar (and a dime) has gradually plummeted.
The U.S. Constitution assigns to Congress the power to coin money and to regulate its value. This has been perverted into an arbitrary power to print money and to manipulate its value, via the Federal Reserve System. We no longer expect the government to meet its traditional responsibility to stabilize the value of money. A key element of good faith between the rulers and the ruled has been lost. We are all cheated, and gradually impoverished, by the state.
Many people have learned to profit by this in the short run, and we all have to cope with our long-term losses; but the result is a system of theft. It has come to seem natural for money to lose its value over time, but it remains highly unnatural. Nearly all states now practice a complex form of what the Middle Ages would have called usury, all the worse because we have no choice about being victimized by it. We are robbed even when we save. Hide your money under the mattress, and there will be less of it when you take it out again. Put it into a savings account, and youll also pay taxes on the interest!
The Moral Question Is Ignored
Speaking of taxes, the state now has a limitless power to take our earnings. The first income tax, imposed by the Lincoln administration, had a top rate of 5 percent, applicable only to the very wealthy. At the same time, the depreciating greenback was also declared legal tender you couldnt refuse to accept it. The U.S. Supreme Court soon declared both the tax and the legal tender law unconstitutional not only unauthorized by the Constitution, but contrary to the principles of liberty and honest government.
The Sixteenth Amendment restored the income tax, with no upper limit. At first only people with high incomes paid any income tax at all; a single man had to make about $50,000 a year (in todays money) before he paid. The top rate was 7 percent. You had to be a tycoon to reach that rate.
Today well, its hardly necessary to spell it out. We accept as normal and legitimate practices that would have outraged our ancestors. We even congratulate ourselves on our freedom! But those ancestors understood that a debauched currency and high taxes were not only subversions but outright violations of liberty.
Men can always be blind to a thing, said Chesterton, as long as it is big enough. Or, he might have added, slow enough. If the old limits on government had been torn down overnight, everyone would have noticed and revolted. But because tyranny has proceeded so gradually, most people are unaware that it has come over us at all.
Now, when President Bush proposes a slight cut in our overall tax rates, the debate rages over whether the government can afford such extravagance. The argument is framed in terms of whether the state can spare the money, not whether the citizen deserves to keep a little more of his own wealth. Everything is presumed to belong to the state.
On top of everything else, the U.S. government has run up a stupendous debt by one reckoning, about $7 trillion. Given its power to confiscate and counterfeit, you might think it had ample resources to keep the books balanced. On the contrary, its spending outstrips even its depredations. And again, the moral question is ignored: whether one generation may justly impose debts on its posterity. Again, our ancestors would have found no question at all. Habitual deficit spending is one more form of tyranny.
This is not to idealize monarchy. The old kings had their own ways of practicing tyranny. But as a practical matter, their means were limited. Coins made from precious metals were hard to counterfeit. Taxation was a cumbersome process. And kings had no way of plunging future generations into a bottomless abyss of debt. Unlike modern democratic rulers, they found it awkward to evade personal responsibilities. They might have said, more truly than any modern ruler, The buck stops here.
In our time, the language of law, politics, and political economy has been divorced from the commonsense language of morality. Instead of duties, our rulers now face options and policies, even as they impose crushing obligations on us, their subjects. The word justice hardly applies to them.
We hear a great deal about media bias these days, and the mass media do have a deep bias in favor of the expanding state. But in this they are merely in harmony with the modern political culture, which acknowledges few limits on state power. We are all taught, virtually from the cradle, that the state is responsible for the (undefined) general welfare of society, and that we must all cooperate with it that is, obey its every whim. It may simultaneously subsidize tobacco and forbid us to smoke it; or promote family values while subverting family life. It neednt make sense; we merely shrug, Whatever.
The power, scope, irrationality, and sheer anonymity of the modern state would have terrified our ancestors. There is no standard by which it may be judged; it continually invents, and changes, its own standards. And it even educates us to resign ourselves to whatever it demands of us.
Yes, the times call for medieval ideas.
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Reprinted with permission.
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