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How to Lose a Republic at the Pinnacle of Power

¿Cómo se pierde una república en la cima del poder?

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The generation of the Founding Fathers of the United States created a new nation, not because they wished to break with England, but because the British government was bent on imposing on the colonies unconsulted decisions of Parliament that violated the rights of the colonists and bypassed their own elected legislatures. They tried to solve it within the British institutions, but they were forced to declare their independence and go to war, and, against all odds, they ratified their independence on the battlefields. They then had to found a republic based on their institutions and traditions as autonomous colonies. For inspiration, they looked to the republics of antiquity and were inspired more by Rome than by Athens.

It was the right decision because Roman institutions evolved to distribute and balance real powers with checks and balances, which worked well for centuries. After the overthrow of Tarquin, the Romans created the elective consulship by appointing two Consuls for one year who would have the powers and functions of the monarch. The main instances of the government of the republic (the senate, courts, magistracies, the comitia, and tribes) already existed in the monarchy, but they also added some very novel ones, such as the temporary republican dictatorship in case of emergencies.

The Roman Republic gave civil and peaceful channels, most of the time, to the conflicts of interests between patricians, equites, plebeian owners, and the urban pleb without property, and extended the right to vote and access to the offices of the patricians to the people. But Roman political clientelism surpassed the institutional framework, as concentrated interest groups do today. The republic entered into crisis when it violated its laws and traditions with the successive reelections to the Consulate of Marius and the prolonged dictatorship of Cornelius Sulla. After the assassination of Julius Caesar, they could only stabilize the institutions by placing an emperor for life with unlimited powers at the head.

The Roman Republic came to an end, but republican law continued its unchanged evolution between the republic and the imperial principality, and only towards the late empire would it end up developing positivist legislation unrelated to tradition. The final drift to absolutism came after the fall of Rome, and it was in the eastern empire of Byzantium. Rome achieved the political and cultural unity of its empire for centuries by integrating its colonies into its culture and citizenship. Roman law still placed limits on the most powerful military emperor of the late decadent empire, unimaginable to other rulers of his time in most parts of the world.

But Rome could not be a republic and empire at the same time because it didn’t know the principle of representation. The republic was ultimately the government of the city of Rome, while the empire was the greatest power in the classical world and an attractive cultural and economic force for other peoples and their elites. The great Jewish historian Flavius Josephus and the great disseminator of Christianity in the ancient world, the Apostle Paul of Tarsus, were both Roman citizens, as were the bulk of the provincial elites and a good part of the landowners, merchants, and even artisans throughout the empire.

Long before that, the historian Sallust, at the time of the political crisis that elevated the emperors, was able to understand and anticipate how and why the republic would be lost.

Sallust explained that it was “because both the nobility and the people made the former serve their elevation, the latter their freedom, for their whims, stealing one from the other and appropriating as much as they could. In this way, everything was divided into two camps, and the Republic, caught in the middle of them, was torn to pieces.”

In the current crisis in the United States, Sallust’s warnings resound. Today, there is an elite of pseudo-entrepreneurs with privileges guaranteed by a privileged elite of corrupt political intellectuals, who deeply despise the traditions and values on which the United States of America was founded. Principles and traditions for which a republican people are fighting today. Sallust warns us that the republic will be lost if the republican people are seduced by the political and cultural vices of the democrats.

Guillermo Rodríguez is a professor of Political Economy in the extension area of the Faculty of Economic and Administrative Sciences at Universidad Monteávila, in Caracas. A researcher at the Juan de Mariana Center and author of several books // Guillermo es profesor de Economía Política en el área de extensión de la Facultad de Ciencias Económicas y Administrativas de la Universidad Monteávila, en Caracas, investigador en el Centro Juan de Mariana y autor de varios libros

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