Imagine you could time-travel to the past but under this one condition: For each destination you choose, you could speak for just five minutes before departing. Who would you want to speak to and what would you tell them?
The list of those with whom I would love to have five minutes is legion. This is such a fascinating thought experiment that I expect to return to it in future articles.
For my first choice, I would want to appear in the Roman Forum around 100 B.C. I would relish the opportunity to lecture there to as many ancient Romans as the old Republic could muster. Here is what I would tell them in my five minutes:
Audite! (Latin for “Listen up!”). Your Republic, now several centuries old, is in mortal danger. To know the enemy, look no further than yourselves. I come from the future so I can tell you where the present path leads. I do not know if my doing so will alter history or not. At the very least, know this: If you do succumb to this mortal danger, you will not be able to say you were not warned.
For many generations, you enjoyed a measure of liberty previously unknown in the world. You understood that the concentration of earthly power in the State was toxic to all that you hold dear, including that liberty. Your forebears created, and you inherited from them, a system built upon limitations on government, separation of powers, legislative assemblies, due process, private property, entrepreneurship, freedom of speech, and a high degree of respect for individual rights in general. As a result, your wealth and influence are unparalleled. But in the last half century, you began to ignore or reject the principles on which that wealth and influence are premised.
The very State that your great grandparents expected to protect rights and property, you now empower to plunder some to benefit others. Many of you demand regular subsidies in the form of grain, land or money. You look the other way when your officials flout longstanding constitutional norms, so long as those officials will pay you for your silence and complicity. Truth and justice were once your loftiest objectives but now you sacrifice them every day for power or handouts or the mob’s approval.
Your great grandparents were thinking of you when they kept the State in its place. Now, you give it license to do what they would never countenance. You seem unable to consider what you are inflicting on just one or two generations hence. Your republic is fading away as it drowns itself in conflict, intolerance, legalized plunder, fiscal insanity, and foreign adventures. Your leaders take your money, waste much of it, buy votes with it, then call it “stimulus” and you thank them for it.
As your “educators” indoctrinate your children in falsehoods, and even disparage your heritage, you continue to give them your money and your children. Your sons and daughters hate the history that made Rome great. They will pay dearly for your present mistakes when they inherit the debt you leave them, and for that they will hate Rome all the more.
Here is the fate that awaits you, the fate your thoughts and deeds have set in motion. The process of robbing Peter to pay Paul will not stop until the last bone of the last Roman taxpayer is picked bare. The promises of the politicians you trusted—promises to give you things at the expense of each other—will come to nothing. You will rue the day you gave them power, assuming stupidly that you would get security in return. Your freedoms will crumble before the onslaught of the very corrupt demagogues for whom you voted.
The Roman Republic will descend into a deadly despotism. The long run you believed you could ignore will arrive more quickly than you ever expected. What you thought was “free” will exact a terrible price. History will judge you guilty of the sins of depravity and cowardice; of compromising your character for ephemeral benefits; of embracing the tyranny of the short run. You blinded yourselves to the bleak future your myopia created.
You think that morality is a joke, that truth is relative, that honesty and responsibility are old-fashioned. You’re in for a rude awakening. You should pray it doesn’t come too late.
You will be studied for centuries, long after you fall like a ripe plum into the hands of barbarians. Future historians will write about how power corrupts, and you will be their prime example. Millions will wonder why you could throw away in a few generations what first put you on the map. Your suicide will be full of valuable lessons for my generation, but it will mean nothing but dishonor and extinction for you.
Now that I have told you what awaits—of what the long-run consequences of your poor choices will yield—do you still want to journey down the perilous path you are on?
Do you think the Romans would applaud or boo? Would my short but pointed speech change anyone’s behavior?
Those are interesting questions to ponder but of course, they are purely rhetorical. We can never know. We can only imagine.
A more relevant question for our time, because we have more control over the future than we do the past, is this: Can you think of anybody right now who needs to hear the same message?
For additional information, see:
Seven Fallacies of Economics by Lawrence W. Reed
Seven Principles of Sound Policy by Lawrence W. Reed
Are We Rome? By Lawrence W. Reed