A Wealth of Examples

Comments comparing modern society and politics to the ancient Roman republic.

[AUC 001-01, part 1]: Checks and Balances vs. Personal Agenda

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[These remarks refer to Book 1 Chapter 1 of Livy’s history of Rome, Ab Urbe Condita.]

The Romans began their own history at the end of the Trojan War, asserting that some of their ancestors were refugees from the ruined Troy. So, since the purpose of this series of essays is to see whether anything can be learned about republican government by examining the successes and failures of the Romans (and, for the first few chapters, their predecessors), the Trojan War, as a political event, may be worth examining even though it is not technically part of Roman history.

In particular, that war was a massive misuse of public resources in pursuit of a private agenda. The separation of interests among the city-states, which normally might have acted as a minimal defacto set of checks and balances and which might have prevented the war, was disabled in attempting to deal with another problem. Could anything like this happen today?

A Modern View of the Trojan War

It was not necessary or even appropriate for Mr. Livy to describe the Trojan War; he could assume that his readers knew enough about it to understand the situation of the Trojans who sought refuge in Italy. But since I am discussing it I will give a very brief summary to provide a context for my remarks. Anyone who does not know the details can easily consult Wikipedia. Apparently the actual history of the actual war that destroyed the city that Homer and the other ancient Greek authors called Troy has been lost, obscured by fantastic, inconsistent, and contradictory mythological fables. This tradition (omitting many details) starts with the goddess Aphrodite promising Paris, a son of the king of Troy, that she would arrange for him to have the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, Queen Helen of Sparta, who was, inconveniently, already married to Menelaus. A digression is required to note that before this marriage, the kings and princes of most of the Achaean (southern Greek) city-states had been her suitors; her father was afraid to make a decision about which one would marry her, for fear of violence from the others, until it was suggested that he first make them all swear an oath to support and defend whatever marriage he decided on. Paris went to Sparta (when Menelaus was conveniently away on personal business), met Helen, and took her with him back to Troy (on the western shore of Asia Minor). Invoking the oath (although Paris had not been one of the earlier suitors), Menelaus mobilized the Achaean kings (and their armies) to go to Troy and take Helen back, by force if necessary. After ten years of indeterminate battle and siege, the Achaeans defeated the Trojans and their allies, not by straight-out military ability but by the trickery of the Trojan Horse. They slaughtered the populace and burned the city. Very few of the Achaeans who survived the battles actually returned home due to storms, shipwrecks, and other mishaps.

It is not fair to call this history and it is impossible to know how much fact may be reflected in the general outline of the story. But we have to suppose that it reflects some attitudes of the ancient Mediterranean peoples. Otherwise they would not have accepted this as (artfully embellished) history, but would have relegated it to some genre of fiction while maintaining some more factual record of the actual war. If we can untangle some of the themes, logic, ambiguities, and contradictions of the story, we may be able to identify some of those attitudes; and those attitudes will tell us something about the world the Romans inhabited and maybe highlight modern ideas from which they differ. Let us sift the “evidence”, treating the story as true, as much as possible, and see where it leads.

Apparently there was confusion among the storytellers regarding whether Helen went with Paris willingly or was kidnapped; some tell the story one way, some the other. But there is no ambiguity in the description of Aphrodite’s deal with Paris: she promised him the love of the most beautiful woman in the world, not assistance in kidnapping (and holding captive) the most beautiful woman in the world. So the only logical story line is that Helen went willingly. If so, she presumably assisted by misdirecting her servants and issuing such orders as would allow her and Paris to be long gone before anyone suspected anything unusual. And if so, her active participation would have been clear to the Spartans. Helen might well have been surprised by this sudden love for Paris and amazed that she was eloping, but if she had felt any kind of coercion or even ambivalence it would have been contrary to Aphrodite’s promise. Even if Paris were stupid enough to tell Helen that Aphrodite was messing with her mind on his behalf, she would have no way to confirm or refute it and would perhaps just attribute the comment to poetic hyperbole about her sudden change of mind.

But Paris knew. And it is rather creepy that he would contract with Aphrodite to acquire this kind of artificial relationship. Maybe this is why some authors treat the event as an abduction. Certainly if Aphrodite had been a mortal who conspired with Paris to deceive Helen in some way that led to the same result, we could call this fraud and regard it morally (and maybe even legally) as a kidnapping.

Aphrodite’s alleged involvement, however, is of no consequence in considering this war as a government action. Menelaus and the other Achaeans were simply responding to the behavior of two mortals. If Helen had been removed by force, then the Achaeans were right in demanding her return and could consider a refusal as an act of war. We can only speculate whether they would have gone to the trouble for anyone other than Helen. If on the other hand Helen had gone with Paris willingly, then (at least by modern standards) the Achaeans had no right to demand that she return and the Trojans were right to deny any request to force her to do so. We can only speculate whether they would have gone to the trouble for someone with less status. But this is a modern analysis.

In contrast, the Achaeans, as the story is told, do not seem to have been interested in Helen’s opinion. Perhaps in part this reflects contemporary views of marriage and of gender roles generally. Also, in a monarchy with hereditary succession, there are valid political reasons to avoid any doubt about the paternity of royal offspring. In any case, the Achaeans treated Paris not as criminal but as rival; the voluntary nature of Helen’s departure made them no less hostile to him, nor any less determined to bring her back. Certainly there is nothing here about protecting the safety and liberty of citizens generally.

In summary then, an entire society went to war to force an individual woman to return home, at huge economic cost and loss of life, and in the process destroyed a city and killed or enslaved the entire population of that city; and did this because her husband would not accept that she had left him for another man: a soap opera in which over 100,000 people died because the personal business of a political leader was made the basis of government action.

We will see instances in the early, monarchical period of Roman history where the personal ambition or greed of a king led to war, but nothing on this scale.

Checks and Balances

It is time now to consider whether anything remotely like this could happen in the modern world, especially in a democracy. Fortunately, no spouse of a president or prime minister has run off recently with a foreign dignitary, a notion which seems absurd. And even more absurd is the idea that this might result in a war. That absurdity is based on our notion that in a well-organized republic no single person has sufficient power, alone, to commit the nation to any particular course of action, of either public or personal benefit: the famous “checks and balances”. This applies to any emotions that can cause rash behavior, lead to unwise decisions, or create a conflict of interest between personal goals and the duties of an office; e.g., greed, lust for personal power, desire for revenge, ideological zeal, and religious fervor. It applies to internal malfeasance as well as to misbehavior toward the nation’s neighbors. Checks and balances are supposed to prevent misappropriation of public resources for any reason. But there is no shortage of republics where the rule of law has failed at one time or another, where the checks and balances were overcome or disabled or evaded or not enforced or simply ineffective.

There was in fact a natural, de facto set of restraints in effect at the time of the Trojan War. The Achaean city-states were all independent nations each with its own king. Menelaus was king only of Sparta and had no authority to order the others to do anything, nor did they have any general obligation toward him. Stories tell of two prominent Achaeans trying to avoid joining the war; I think it likely that others were reluctant or at least unenthusiastic participants in it. So, personal and local political considerations may well have prevented the Trojan War under normal circumstances.

But they were united by that specific, ad hoc oath about Helen, which probably was never intended to cover an elopement. I think, whatever her charms, the possibility of violence (if any) was due not to a desire for her personally but to the fact that whoever married her would become king of Sparta after her father died. Her father was choosing not so much a husband for her as a successor for his kingdom. The oath was to remind them all that taking Sparta by force would be wrong and to bind them all to ensuring a peaceful transition. Nobody imagined that Helen would later take it into her head to skip town with a foreign prince. Thus the vague and very general wording of the oath that allowed it to be applied to an event for which it was never intended.

We generally talk about checks and balances in relation to the branches of government as a whole: legislative, executive, and judicial. But really, the concept is more general than that. It means that everyone in the country has a part to play in keeping the nation on course, every government official and government employee and also every citizen. We see this explicitly for legislators and officers in the Constitution, Article VI, third paragraph:

The Senators and Representatives before mentioned, and the members of the several State legislatures, and all executive and judicial officers, both of the United States and of the several States, shall be bound by oath or affirmation, to support this Constitution; …

Checks and Balances in Action

In our recent history, this principle was perhaps most dramatically illustrated during the 1973 investigation of President Nixon’s attempted cover-up of the Watergate burglary. The Attorney General and Deputy Attorney General resigned in protest when Mr. Nixon decided to dismiss the first special prosecutor appointed for this investigation. The ensuing public outrage forced Mr. Nixon to accept the appointment of another special prosecutor. Evidence of Mr. Nixon’s involvement in (at least) the cover-up eventually was discovered and Mr. Nixon resigned in order to avoid being removed from office via impeachment. He was thus held in check not only by the Legislative and Judicial Branches but also by other officials of the Executive Branch.

Mr. Nixon shows us one way that abuses of power occur: the notion that a president is not restricted by law. In a later interview he said, “Well, when the president does it, that means that it is not illegal.” Apparently many of his staff and colleagues believed this also, or allowed themselves to be seduced by it, and were willing to commit crimes on his behalf. Military training includes the concept of an “illegal order”; a soldier is expected to know when an order is illegal and is expected not to obey an illegal order. This often requires more personal courage than following the illegal order. Surely some similar principle applies to civil servants. In any case, Mr. Nixon’s staff would have served him (and the nation) better if they had refused to participate in these activities.

Rather than supporting the Trojan War, someone in Menelaus’s social circle ought to have taken him aside for a little talk. “You need to face the facts. Helen never loved you. She only married you because Tyndareus chose you and in our culture a woman in her situation has no other choice. She ran off with Paris because she actually loves him. She is not coming back. Get a grip, settle down, and find someone else who really cares about you.” His brother Agamemnon would have been the ideal choice, and he could have brought with him his wife, Clytemnestra, Helen’s sister, who could have made it clear to Menelaus just how miserable his life might be if he made his wife suffer the unbearable. Agamemnon also could have learned something from this discussion. But, of course, this was never going to happen in ancient Achaea. Agamemnon and the other royals, and I suppose also the common people, all had the same view: even Odysseus and Achilles, who tried to avoid joining the war, are not quoted in opposition to the general principles that drove it.

President Nixon, too, had peers who could have saved him from his folly but did not. In particular, John N. Mitchell, director of the Committee to Re-elect the President, who was up to his eyebrows in the Watergate illegal activities and was later convicted of several felonies in connection therewith, ought to have known better: until recently he had been Attorney General of the United States of America. But he thought that something special about Richard Nixon and his reelection justified breaking the laws he had so recently been in charge of enforcing. It is useless to speculate how the Watergate investigations might have been hampered if he had still been at the head of the Justice Department.

Other Aspects of Checks and Balances

This look at the Trojan War only begins the discussion of political corruption by illustrating one aspect of it: the use of public resources to advance a personal agenda. Mr. Nixon illustrates part of the dynamic at the level of a head of state: thinking that a president is a kind of elected king with unlimited authority. There are glimpses here of other aspects of political corruption. They may be listed but will have to wait for another time to be treated in depth.

Mr. Nixon and his staff behaved as if their political party were organized and operated not for the purpose of achieving some public purpose or representing a view of public policy but to advance the personal interests of its members. More loyalty was expected to the party, or at least to Mr. Nixon, than to the country, even to the extent of committing crimes against other political parties and individual political opponents. Members of the party in public office were asked to give preference in the conduct of their official duties to other party members. One discovery of the Watergate investigation is that Mr. Nixon attempted to use Federal agencies (in particular the Internal Revenue Service) to harass individuals on his “enemies list”.

Mr. Nixon and his staff also exhibited the hubris of believing that their own opinions were so important to the welfare of the nation that the people should be prevented (by deceit, trickery, crime, and other means) from voting for anyone who represented another view.

The motivation for the Trojan War was explicitly and intimately personal. Political corruption also may be motivated in other ways; e.g., ideological zeal, religious fervor, and desire for revenge. Because corrupt motivations and goals cannot be openly discussed in public, they are often further exacerbated by bad logic, bad judgment, wishful thinking, and arrogance.

Finally, where a corrupt goal must be achieved by overt action, a corrupt official resorts to a variety of techniques to deflect public opposition; e.g., fear-mongering, misdirection, fabrication, distraction, and propaganda. An example is advocating that a desirable result (e.g., removal of a foreign despot) be achieved by improper means, or arguing that improper means is justified by desirable result (the usual argument advanced in favor torture).

If we believe the traditional stories about the Trojan War, all the inhabitants of ancient Achaea accepted the premises that led to that war (although perhaps Clytemnestra represents the dissent) and that disaster played itself out to the end. Mr. Nixon was supported in his illegal actions only by a small minority of his own party; once he was exposed, the nation moved with all deliberate speed to prevent further offenses and to remove him. Between those extremes, a leader with more popular support, with more opportunity for demagoguery, with more personal friends in official positions, at the head of a more ideological and personally loyal political party which also controls the legislature, and with the unexpected good luck of a terrified populace, might indeed be able to launch a war for private reasons even in a well-organized modern democracy.

Copyright 2009 Verbifex


Written by Verbifex

2009 February 26 at 07:29 UTC

Posted in Checks and Balances, Statecraft

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