June 27, 2000
In my last two columns on Murray Rothbard, I named a couple of books as important contributions to a Rothbardian analysis of the connections between statism and war. One is Martin Van Creveld's The Rise and Decline of the State (1999), around which the Ludwig von Mises Institute is organizing a scholarly conference to take place in October. I will take a serious look at the Van Creveld book and related literature soon. For now, I wish to make a few observations inspired by such reading. These have mainly to do with what you get once a series of wars has already strengthened the state especially its standing bureaucracies and executive authority.
In recent years, an ugly new acronym has crept into American English, namely, "POTUS." This, it seems, stands for "President of the United States," which is all right, I guess, if that world-girdling office was actually in need of a new look. But how it hits the ear and "grinds one's soul"! as an historian of my acquaintance would say. Of course, by a sort of happy linguistic accident – are there really any "accidents"? – it does manage to ape the Indo-European root-word *pot-, whose basic meaning is "power," as in all those Latin words borrowed into English, like "potent," "potentate," and "potential."
I can foresee "Potus" being used to frighten small children into doing their homework; not to mention providing a new punch-line for Brother Dave Gardner's haunted house story: "You gon' be here when Potus gets here?" Maybe not. Perhaps it isn't the fault of any particular White House recumbent that he can now be tagged with a word riming with "bloatus." Clearly, some subaltern clerk coined this fetching new nickname for humanity's great panarch. And that brings us to the "tour" mentioned above.
Van Creveld remarks the transition from mobile to "sedentary" government. The latter contrasts with older periods when the King or Emperor spent much of his reign in the field, looking over frontier posts and checking up on his feudal subordinates, who, he might well think, were keeping more loot for themselves than they were turning over. Charlemagne was famous for his road trips. This involved packing up the Court and a fair-sized mob of soldiers and retainers, throwing the lot into great lumbering wagons, and slogging around what is now France, the Low Countries, and a piece of Germany. It must have been very tiring. Think of the mileage costs.
The reason for being on tour in days of yore was the sheer incompleteness of medieval "states" – if we can even call them that. Lacking a standing cadre of loyal bureaucrats and professional soldiers, a monarch who wished to be in the know and make people do his bidding, had to inspect things himself. Nowadays, when standing bureaucracies, civil and military, bid fair to outnumber ordinary citizens, touring has come back in a big way – but for different reasons, I suppose.
Even in an administration marked by a comic-book level of historical understanding there are those worried about their "legacy." They imagine that going on tour contributes to the legacy and, besides, it's probably too much fun. And can't you imagine Potus singing just that song, while his Regent stays home, lost in the ozone again? But enough Commander Cody references….
This brings us to Orlando Sentinel columnist Charlie Reese's meditation on the Incumbent's recent Excellent Euro-Adventure. Visiting the outlying provinces and satrapies, His Potificence took along "[t]he ambassador to Russia, the secretary of state, the secretary of energy, his chief of staff, his deputy chief of staff, his national security adviser, the director of the economic council, two White House lawyers, his press secretary," and many others.1 I'd quote further, but so many factotums, flunkies, grooms, knights, squires, cup-bearers, franklins, gnofs, and other worthies went along as to put me in violation of "fair use" if I named them all. There was likely enough a canting bishop from the religious Left, but I can't prove it. Paraphrasing Mr. Reese, then, there were also protocol-wizards, deputies to the secretaries, deputies to the deputies, secretaries to the deputies, arms-controllers aspiring to control all arms not owned by Potus, defense and energy undersecretaries, hoardsmen from the Treasury, PR flacks, speechwriters, communicators, schedulers, doctors, soothsayers, the usual legion of "security" men, reeves, seneschals, constables, and further assistants, sub-assistants, and so on.
Not very "republican" in the old sense, although our current Republicans can't wait to get in there and do the same. I mean, George Washington had that big expense account and John Adams wanted to be called "His Excellency," but they would be profoundly shocked at what the office has become. Even the wine and book expenses of that Terrible Slaveholder, Thomas Jefferson, pale before such stylish Globe Trotting. Queen Victoria's sojourns in Scotland were a proper bargain compared to the lifestyles of the Potent and Famous, and Charlemagne could have paid his roadies to go without him at these rates.
I suppose if the Republicans squeak by and manage to put old Dubya in the high seat of power, there will be some minor changes in style and personnel. He would need to take along a few fellows who can drill for "oll" and know all about those geological "stratospheres" (as the late Jerry Clower called them). He'd need a special secretary for remembering the names of minor foreign despots so the press won't make fun of him. Advice to Dubya: Get an American foreign policy, which puts the American people and their freedoms first, and you won't need to know so many names.
Speaking of the gentlemen of the press who laugh at Dubbya for not knowing who Kartvelius Goobernadze is (if there is such a person), I should point out that according to Van Creveld, the rise of the state was parasitic on such things as technological progress, improved communications, greater literacy, etc. One result was that every important nation soon had at least one "national" newspaper, based in the capital and committed to the proposition that politics ought to matter to the average Joe. This was not necessarily good.
How about lobbying for a state-free news week? Imagine a week in the course of which no one not CNN, not Dan, not Tom, not even Jim (especially hard for Jim), not the New York Times, Wall Street Journal, etc., etc. said or wrote the first damned thing about the state, its doings, its satraps and functionaries, its various organs, its titular leaders, and the rest.
Imagine: no frenzied reporting from Outer Backwater, where our Elected Ruler is shaking hands, kissing babies, working up business deals for his pals, or apologizing for our history and civilization. No overwrought concern for his "safety." No suggestion that without his and his clerks' constant intervention and detailed oversight of our lives, the economy would quit, no one would ever learn to read and write, and happiness, generally, would flee the homeland. That such a week would be blissful is putting it mildly. I don't expect one, however.
The more I read up on Congress's abdication of its role in foreign affairs, the more I wonder if anyone should have the power to "declare war." I throw out for future consideration a proposed constitutional amendment, which, admittedly, goes a bit further than Senator Bricker's proposal some years ago. It reads: "On reliable witness that American persons and property, at home, have come under foreign attack, the President shall send a handwritten post-it note to Congress. Congress shall, on receipt of such note, send faxes thereof to the Governors of the several states, who, at their own discretion and convenience, shall mention it to their respective legislatures, the which legislatures shall, if not otherwise engaged, suggest to their militia commanders that something ought to be done. These commanders shall so inform their companies. On receipt of such suggestion, the members of the militia shall determine if they can be bothered to comply and the manner of their compliance. No treaty, 'executive agreement,' or presidential whim shall have any weight in their determinations."
That would be a start. It raises the stakes a little. With all this talk going around about reinventing government, I'm just trying to help. Admittedly, lodging the power to declare war in new places might not matter a great deal in an age when no one declares wars anyway. But we can take it a step further. Karl Hess once suggested that, instead of the people dying for the state, maybe the people should ask the state to die for them. Hess was an extremist, of course, and "die" is far too dramatic. How about "go on a strict diet," or "sit in the back of the room and shut up"?
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