Friday, January 28, 2005

Optimates Novi

In 133 BC, Tiberius Graccus, tribune of the plebs, offered a bill for land reform. He wanted to parcel out the public lands to the poor and landless of Rome. Custom dictated that he put the motion before the Senate, who would then "advise" whether or not that bill should go through. The Senate, lead by the conservatives, the so-called "Optimates" (the "Best Men"), refused the bill offered by Graccus. So he did the unthinkable. He went over the head of the Senate to the People of Rome, and offered up this bill for their approval. Of course it would go through. To prevent the vote from being taken, the Optimates took a different political tack: they killed Graccus, right there in the Forum, right on the Rostra. Thus ended the land reform bill.

Or it would have, except in 122 BC, Tiberius's little brother, Gaius, offered a new land reform bill. The king of Pontus offered up his nation to Rome in his will, and with such largesse filling the public treasury, Gaius thought this was the perfect time to buy up land and install the indigent of Rome on their own small freeholdings. Thus the landowning classes of Rome would swell, and just as importantly, the Gracci family would increase the number of clients supporting them to the population of poor Romans. The Optimates opposed him as well, and when it appeared that the bill would pass, they fell back on an old tactic. They killed him, in the Forum, on the Rostra. The plebs at this point had grown tired of this sort of behavior, and to pay tribute to Gaius, they cremated his body, using the Senate meeting house as a funeral pyre.

It is funny to see that things don't change that much.

Only one thing has really changed: who the Optimates are. Once, they were the conservatives, the keepers of the traditions and customs of Rome, of all that made Rome great. The patrician class had held power in Rome for most of its existence, and they were desperate to hold onto it in the face of a new power: the power of the Tribune, expressing the will of the plebs. To keep their grip on power, they were willing to kill, and perhaps they dealt the Republic its first death blow. The Republic would reel on for another 90 years after the death of Tiberius, until Julius Caesar would administer the coup de grace. But it was the Optimates and their need for power that brought about the rise of Gaius Julius Caesar.

Today, we have our Optimates. They have held power for so long, they are now desperate in the face of the loss of power. And they are willing to do anything to hold on to it. The name itself "The Best Men", tells us something of their arrogance, their condescension, and the little regard they hold for their fellow citizens.

Of course, the Optimates are no longer conservatives. They are the liberal democrats roosting in seats of power in the House and the Senate. They want to preserve the status quo that they have established in over 40 years in power. They are motivated by a fundamental arrogance and distrust of the American people. Those who voted for the president are "red-state idiots", not nuanced or subtle enough to truly appreciate the mainstream democrat position. These are the people with two sets of rules: the plebes must send their children to public schools, when the Optimates send theirs to private schools.

And when confronted with a new idea that challenges the "traditions" and "customs" they hold so dear, they fight, tooth and claw. Educational vouchers represent opportunities for lower income parents to get their children out of poverty by giving them access to better private schools, but this is a threat to the clients of the Optimates, the educational unions, and thus must be stopped. Social security is falling apart, and will collapse soon, but to reform it, to give younger workers a chance to invest a percentage of their withholdings in mutual funds, or bonds, or a diversified portfolio, this terrifies the aging boomer population, another large group of Clientes Optimatum, and it must be stopped. Health care is threatened by trivial lawsuits, founded on questionable science, but tort reform is anathema to the Bar Association (not to mention the large number of shysters that have become politicians), more clients.

Really, of the "traditions" established by the Optimates over the past 40 years, which ones have worked? Isn't a fix justified? Even if the fixes proposed by the President aren't the right ones, wouldn't it make sense to figure out a different solution, besides holding our ears shut and claiming that nothing is wrong?

Instead of debating policy, the Optimates fall back on terror: character assassination, demagoguery, stirring up a maestrom of hatred and insults, until the arena for debate is choked with dust, and no sensible person wants any part of it.

The solution resorted to by the Optimates of the time of the Gracci was violent overthrow. I doubt very much that will be their method now. But I wonder if the Republic can long survive their efforts. The Roman Republic fell when individual men could no longer put aside personal ambition for the good of the state. Teddy Kennedy, John Kerry, Barbara Boxer, Harry Reid, et alia, are faced with the same choices, and are making the same mistakes.