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Dear Brutus …

Dear Brutus

Every month on or about the Ides, the Adams Institute for the Preservation of the Democratic-Republican Model of Government sends a letter to two different Americans who have said or done something relevant to the idea of authentic and legitimate self-government.

These letters are written by long-time Blind Spot collaborator Tim Ferguson. For the Ides of March this year, a special edition has been prepared: A letter addressed to Marcus Junius Brutus, a leader of the conspiracy to assassinate Julius Caesar. This letter, reproduced below, considers the question: how does one save a Republic? It is at least conceivable that as regards the United States of America, this question may one day move from the realm of interesting thought experiment to national emergency.

Note: The purpose of this post is to enable readers to engage in an interesting thought experiment. No policy concept considered below has been formally introduced into any legislative body, and The Blind Spot does not engage in lobbying or legislative advocacy or present these essays for such purposes. This is all merely an exercise in the interest of stimulating debate.


Dear Brutus:

The wisest founder of our American Republic, John Adams, once wrote that the best-understood period of history encapsulated that leading to your death.[1] Writing to you a hundred generations later, I fear that if we do not soon grasp the basic parallels in the causes which brought down Rome’s commonwealth and which now threaten ours, we may have little hope of avoiding a similar fate.

Many patriots tried to preserve the Roman Republic according to their understanding of fealty. The names of Gracchus and Brutus loom largest in my mind. No tragedy more than their failure could better teach us the fact that all glory that can be gained by virtue of wealth, status, power, and office is fleeting, to be quickly stolen by competitors, successors, senility, obscurity, or death. And if the bloody end of mankind’s first great experiments in popular government teaches us anything, it’s that while the greatest men of the day rise to the height of the prevailing regime, the greatest men in history cast off bad regimes as you endeavored, or else improve existing ones for the benefit of the people.

In the end, Rome’s leading men preferred their own glory to that of the commonwealth. And even though we have the knowledge and power to avoid it, our Republic already finds itself circling the same ant-mill that led yours to oblivion and for the same reason: the plutocracy has been given no compelling incentive to preserve the common wealth.[2]

Yet your Republic’s death will not be in vain if it can be instrumental in saving another. Surely, after considering the words of your own historians and the ocean of time that would be crossed before popular government again found safe harbour,[3] you would counsel us that the fate of Republican government is not decided by one man’s life or death. Nor does it depend upon any artful arrangement of political power. You would tell us that the salvation of the form of a Republic depends upon the preservation of the substance of a Republic.

By the substance of a Republic, we mean the marrow, center, or core of the body politic. You may have called it the adsidui. We call it the middle class. Whatever label is given, it is the mass of ordinary people, too busy for demagogues, too optimistic for faction, too traditional for radical ideas, too independent for patronage, and too moderate for extremism.[4]

The political constitution – the organization of the powers, procedures, and offices of state – may furnish the scaffolding of popular government. But it’s the weight of the middle class alone which secures it to its foundation. When the middling virtues dissolve, it doesn’t finally matter whether the executive is President or Prime Minister, whether the popular assemblies can introduce laws, the legislature is bicameral, a Tribune can be deposed, whether there are term limits, a Consul attains to legal age, or judges are elected or appointed: A Marius or a Sulla or a Caesar will sooner or later brush the constitution aside or appropriate it for their purpose. Stab all the dictators you will, but there aren’t enough daggers in the world to sustain true, moderate, and legitimate self-government without a predominant middle class.

The proximate causes which ruin the middle class vary according to circumstance. They are in all events marked by extreme wealth concentration at the expense of the middling share, the result of an inexorable march toward inequality which has never been serenely reduced or structurally corrected.[5] Insofar as mankind’s chief preoccupation is to improve its status, and in a wealthy society this is best achieved through the accumulation of surplus,[6] the root causes of middle-class neglect ultimately reside in the insatiable pursuit of gain undisciplined by any countervailing consideration. In other words, elites are simply obeying the command prompt inherent in our species’ source code: Get more. Get more. Get more.

Such unbridled avarice in Rome after the Third Punic War produced decidedly zero-sum results: the exhaustion of the smallholders and influx of slave labor united to destroy the middle class, concentrating land within a few top households and driving the dispossessed into the urban center.[7] This precipitated the law of Gracchus that sought to rebuild the middling farmer class through the subdivisions of lands.[8]

After the Gracchan movement was finally halted,[9] Marius detached the Roman army and thus the great power in the state from its smallholder foundation, thereby placing the Republic’s fate in the hands of the generals. Sulla, the first to achieve power by force, tried to return that power to the Senate after an episode of bloody reprisals. For this resignation he was later mocked by Caesar, who briefly attained to the de-facto monarchy that naturally devolves upon the benefactor-in-chief: As you saw first-hand, whoever is first in patronage is first in power. But the mistake you made, and which Cato and Cicero perhaps never truly appreciated, is that you cannot defeat patronage by eliminating the patron. You must instead remove the causes which make clients of the people in the first instance. For from Caesar’s assassination sprung but a brief contest for power ending in the Principate of Augustus.

America’s Republic was likewise summoned by an independent middling farmer class of citizen-soldiers.[10] And given enough time and too little land, America may have aged in a similar fashion, encountered similar crises, and died a similar death as Rome’s Republic. But land never became a deciding factor before the progress of technology and the improvement of capitalism detached modern society from its agrarian roots, and the challenges of representation over an extended territory were early solved by the Founders.[11]

Moreover, the Pax Americana was not as immediately disastrous for our middle class as Roman hegemony was for yours. Good economic fortune combined with affirmative legislative choices favored post-war American middle-class formation.[12] It was only after those advantages eroded through decades of rational but self-serving economic practice and various policies of capital appeasement that middle-class stagnation was first registered, much less became the dominant narrative. And this says nothing of the realities of hard power, which make modern plutocrats unable to rival the lethal violence that only nation-states can today unleash. Today’s billionaires do not yet quite convey the immense gravitas of Augustus and his fifty legions.

The most salient parallels between Republican Rome and the United States are thus not in the specific causes of their distress or in the specific methods by which their elites may seize power. They are in the similarities of political faction and authoritarian drift arising from the common experience of superpower Republic middling decline.

The Father of our Constitution wrote: “The most common and durable source of factions has been the various and unequal distribution of property.” He’s right, but the optimistic pursuit of gain in an environment of shared prosperity sedates the latent causes of faction, whatever they may be. Unequal fortunes are not only tolerated but celebrated as an index of prosperity and innovation. But when the sedative is removed, when the middling share is encroached and insecurity enters the middling households, pessimism takes hold and inequality is increasingly ascribed to parasitism and predation. In the bewildered search for whom to blame for the public distress – rich, poor, foreigners, or some other adversary – all differences of opinion, religion, race, and other circumstance are irritated and inflamed by demagogues and propagandists. And popular faction rages, until, as the Father of our Country warned:

The disorders and miseries which result gradually incline the minds of men to seek security and repose in the absolute power of an individual; and sooner or later the chief of some prevailing faction, more able or more fortunate than his competitors, turns this disposition to the purposes of his own elevation, on the ruins of public liberty.

These lessons teach that middling confidence and security are no less important to life, liberty, and happiness than any Enlightenment precept bestowed by our Founders. Though it may be true that no corruption of the public morals ever proceeded from the class of sturdy yeoman farmers, it is also true that economic practices will not always remain agrarian. The predominance of an upright and independent middle class is nevertheless as essential to genuine self-government as all the liberties and guarantees embodied within our Declaration of Independence and our Constitution. The great task of modern legislation is therefore cultivating the middling substance in which the virtue, optimism, and independence essential to democratic-republican government and incidental to smallholding status can take root as can most fairly be simulated beyond the agrarian mode of economy.

This requires an appropriate prioritization and balancing of the competing rights and interests of society. While property rights are essential, they cannot be unlimited. No sensible or sustainable understanding of the liberty to accumulate wealth – especially fortunes deriving from public support[13] – can tolerate any encroachment into the middling share so far as to destroy the confidence and virtues of the people, transforming them into the bewildered and squabbling instruments of demagogues and patrons.

Despite modern anti-interventionist rhetoric, America’s Founders would urge us to induce wealth de-concentration sufficient to reverse this death-sequence of popular government.[14] But we must be clear in the aims of such policy: If it were merely to sedate revolutions and alleviate insecurity, little ingenuity is required to conceive of a palliative or a sedative. Indeed, we already have several tools to accomplish those ends, with no shortage of variations of the same theme proposed.[15] Rome had already implemented the Cura Annonae to achieve both objects long before you were even born.

But palliatives and sedatives are not correctives. Bread, circuses, safety nets, and transfer payments are no substitute for shared, dignified, and earned prosperity. And, not only can none of them actually reverse the extreme wealth concentration that created them, they come with costs: dependency, idleness, entitlement, taxation, inflation, animosity, and worst of all, patronage. At best, palliatives and sedatives will only ever sustain a precarious middle class or dependent underclass. At worst, they condition good men to seek Caesar, and ambitious men to emulate him.

Since our goal is to reestablish an upright, optimistic, and independent middle class, we need a corrective. The form of corrective must naturally conform to the mode of economy. In an agrarian economy like Rome, the proper form of corrective is an agrarian law achieving a subdivision of lands concentrated within the plutocracy. Such was the plan of Gracchus, and such was invoked during the English Commonwealth, the Revolutionary War, and the Civil War.[16] In an advanced capitalist economy like America, however, the proper form of corrective must be a rule or technique of capitalism. And as we search the features of capitalism to that end, we find that the one best suited is that of the incentive plan.

Incentive plans vary by structure, but those that are well-designed reward participants for the achievement of some objective metric. Given America’s current constitutional, legal, financial, economic, and political circumstances, the simplest, most effective, and most elegant design for a national incentive plan is perhaps median-top household wealth tethering at an efficient mathematical ratio. Anchoring those households collectively wielding market power to the national median such that their outcomes rise and fall lockstep in mathematical proportion to the national median would require them to raise the national median in order to enjoy any future gains. This plan architecture accordingly adopts as its compensation philosophy no gains for the middle, no gains for the top.

Ratio enforcement would be achieved by taxing only those top households exceeding a multiple of the national median (M) – say 10,000M to start – whose aggregate holdings imply market power.[17] As the value of 10,000M floats upon 1M, taxes would be assessed only in proportion to market failure, imposing no absolute limit on elite prospects. Like a true incentive plan, this approach lets market actors determine how to raise the median. No mandates would be imposed upon enterprise. Howsoever they decide to raise it, the plutocracy must in any case open the gates of upward mobility and ensure the integrity of the commons, both of which must result in an infinity of positive feedback loops.

In this system, positive-sum outcomes, specifically median gains, are rewarded. On the other hand, elite gains derived through negative-sum behavior – including through rentierism – would be clawed back via ratio enforcement at the common expense of covered households. Once this wealth aspect ratio acquires the force of custom, future legislators would be able to adjust the algorithm within a prescribed range to back solve for a middle class of any prescribed target size. As to what that share should be: the genius of philosophers and the intuition of ordinary Americans agree that the middle class should own half the wealth.[18] Let that be our mission until it is proven folly only by superior genius, not by inferior will.

By harnessing human ambition and deploying it to preserve the middling Republican substance of political society, no system of market capitalism could be governed by principles more suited to democratic-republican government. And by enlisting both the supreme law and the supreme avarice of the land in defense of the middling share, the friends of popular government can live secure in the knowledge that the people would never again tolerate Caesar, let alone invite him. Where you failed with a dagger, may we succeed with a ratio.

Sincerely,

Tim Ferguson

CC

Gaius Julius Caesar

Tiberius Sempronius Gracchus


 

[1] See a letter from John Adams to Benjamin Rush, 4 December 1805: “The Period in the History of the World, the best understood, is that of Rome from the time of Marius to the Death of Cicero, and this distinction is entirely owing to Ciceros Letters and Orations. There We See the true Character of the times, and the Passions of all the Actors on the Stage. Cicero, Cato and Brutus were the only three, in whom I can discern any real Patriotism.”

[2] (i.e. Anacyclosis (ἀνακύκλωσις)) (See, e.g., Herodotus (III. 80), Thucydides (VIII. 97), Plato (Rep. VIII) (Laws, III. 676 A), Aristotle (Nic. Eth. 8.10; Pol. 1286b), Polybius (Hist.  Bk. VI), Dionysius, (Rom. Ant. VII, 54-56) Cicero, De Re Publica, I, XXIX, II, XXV), Sextus Pomponius, Justinian’s Digest, I Bk. I, Tit. 2., 2. 1-11), and possibly Panaetius, Dicaercus, Isocrates, Protagoras, and Hecateus). Machiavelli innovated upon Anacyclosis by clarifying that not all republics live long enough to complete the sequence, in Discourses on Livy, Ch. I. Bk. II. (Of the Different Kinds of Republics, and of What Kind the Roman Republic Was). See also, Francesco Sansovino, Propositioni, Overo Considerationi, dedicatory letter. In an unpublished essay, annotated in his retirement, John Adams described the Polybian sequence underlying the idea of Anacyclosis as “the Creed of my whole Life.” See John Adams, An Essay on Man’s Lust for Power, All Men would be Tyrants if they could, with the Author’s Comment in 1807. See also, David A. Teegarden, Death to Tyrants!: Ancient Greek Democracy and the Struggle against Tyranny, Princeton University Press, 2014. Figure A1 therein shows that some form of monarchy was the most frequent regime from the first half of the 7th century BC through the first half of the 5th; oligarchy through the first half of the 4th, then democracy. Roman expansion scaled this sequence to the level of nation-state in the republic’s final century.

[3] See Appian, The Civil Wars, I.1, Sallust, Conspiracy of Catiline, 10, 33. I; 37.3, 38, 53, The Jugurthine War, 4, Livy, History of Rome, Preface, Tacitus, Annals, 3.27, Florus, Epitome, I, XLVII, Lucan, Pharsalia, 1.63. In 104 BC, Marcus Philippus announced that out of perhaps some 400,000 citizens, only around 2,000 held any significant wealth.

[4] See Euripides, Suppliants, Line 238 et seq., Plato, Laws 679b, Aristotle, Pol., 1291b, 1295b, and Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America.

[5] See Walter Scheidel, The Great Leveler: Violence and the History of Inequality from the Stone Age to the Twenty-First Century, Princeton 2018. Shows that structural inequality has only been reduced by the shocks of plague, revolution, mass-mobilization warfare, or state collapse.

[6] See Aristotle, Pol. 1302a: “Inferiors revolt in order that they may be equal, and equals that they may be greater,” Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, VII.1 and a letter from John Adams to Thomas Jefferson, 7 July 1813: “Birth and Wealth together have prevailed over Virtue and Talents in all ages.

[7] See Victor Duruy, Histoire des Romains, II, 46-47, 1879 (quoted by A. Stephenson, Public Lands and Agrarian Laws of the Roman Republic, 1891): “After having pillaged the world as praetors or consuls during time of war, the nobles again pillaged their subjects as governors in time of peace; and upon their return to Rome with immense riches they employed them in changing the modest heritage of their fathers into domains vast as provinces.”

[8] Land agitation is as old as the Republic, itself founded in 509 BC: Agitations are reported by Livy and Dionysius in the years 486, 484, 483, 482, 480, 477, 474, 472, 468, 454, 453, 440, 434, 422, 419, 418, 412, 411, 409, 407, 397, 384, 383, and 379. In 367 BC, the Lex Licinia-Sextia imposed a 500-iugera cap on household use of public lands, which was not vigorously enforced. The 133 BC Lex Sempronia Agraria of Tiberius Gracchus revised and revised the Lex Licinia-Sextia adding, among other things, robust enforcement mechanisms and, critically, restrains on alienation of granted parcels.

[9] Appian (The Civil Wars, 1.4.27) reports (we conjecture) that a law removed the Gracchan encumbrances on alienation, allowing the wealthy to swiftly reacquire lands; that a 118 BC Lex Thoria cancelled distributions under the Gracchan plan; and that a 111 BC Lex Agraria quieted title for many private holders. Despite the uncertainty, and attempts by Saturninus in 103, Drusus in 91 and Rullus in 59 BC, the issue was decided in plutocracy’s favor.

[10] See remarks from British Colonel Lord Adam Gordon in 1764: “The levelling principle here, everywhere operates strongly and takes the lead, and everybody has property here, and everybody knows it.” George Washington remarked on America’s middling origins: see a letter from George Washington to Richard Henderson, 1788: “America … will be the most favorable Country of any in the world for persons … possessed of a moderate capital, to inhabit. … it will not be less advantageous to the happiness of the lowest class of people because of the equal distribution of property the great plenty of unoccupied lands, and the facility of procuring the means of subsistence.” See also Peter H. Lindert and Jeffrey G. Williamson, American Incomes 1774-1860, National Bureau of Economic Research Working Paper 18396, 2012, showing that in 1774, New England and the Middle Colonies were the most egalitarian place in the measurable world.

[11] The Thirteen Colonies alone boasted well over three times the territory of Italy. In view of the Roman history, and the administrative challenges brought on by Roman territorial expansion, the intellectual achievement of The Federalist (Alexander Hamilton, James Madison, and John Jay, writing as Publius) becomes more impressive, though the Romans may have eventually solved the problem of distance were the Republic not first destroyed by the problem of patronage.

[12] Positive factors cited include relatively low capital mobility, labor offshoring, foreign manufacturing capacity, and currency manipulation. Policies favoring homeownership, education, and labor unions are also credited, but union power probably declines as capital mobility increases. Such benefits were frequently not available to Black Americans, whose median household net worth is only around one-tenth that of White Americans.

[13] Fortunes exceeding some rational defined threshold acquired via public infrastructure, government subsidies, or legal rights of market exclusivity.

[14] See John Adams, Dissertation, 1765: “Property monopolized, or in the Possession of a Few is a Curse to Mankind. We should preserve not an Absolute Equality – this is unnecessary, but preserve all from extreme Poverty, and all others from extravagant Riches,Thomas Jefferson to James Madison, 1785: “Legislators cannot invent too many devices for subdividing property,” James Madison, Parties, 1792, advocating measures to “reduce extreme wealth towards a state of mediocrity, and raise extreme indigence towards a state of comfort” and Noah Webster, Miscellaneous Remarks, 1790: “The basis of a democratic and a republican form of government, is, a fundamental law, favoring … a general distribution of property.” See also Mercy Otis Warren, History of … the American Revolution, 1805 Vol. I. Ch. I.: “Democratic principles are the result of Equality of condition.”

[15] See Publilius Syrus, Sententiae, 247: “Poverty orders many an experiment.” America today has implemented various programs offering both in-kind and in-cash benefits to needy participants which go under the general heading of welfare and the safety net. No position is here taken concerning their desirability; only their proper classification. The appetite for more saccharine sedatives, such as unconditional cash stipends, are growing in frequency.

[16] For the Interregnum, see James Harrington, The Commonwealth of Oceana (the Preliminarys), advocating an agrarian law that would balance the nobility with the commoners, and cap landholdings at £2,000 annual revenues. For the Revolutionary War, see John Adams to Abigail Adams, 25 August 1776, on the Gracchi reviving “the old Project of an equal Division of the conquered Lands, (a genuine republican Measure, tho it had been too long neglected to be then practicable).” Noah Webster later remarked favorably upon the law of Gracchus. See also Thomas Jefferson’s first three drafts of the Virginia constitution (reviewed by James Madison), establishing a conditional viritim of 50 acres. See also John Adams to James Sullivan, 26 May 1776, affirming Harrington and advocating measures “to make the Acquisition of Land easy to every Member of Society: to make a Division of the Land into Small Quantities, So that the Multitude may be possessed of landed Estates.” These lessons would not have escaped Radical Republicans like Thaddeus Stevens. For the Civil War, see General William T. Sherman’s Special Field Order No. 15 (approved by Abraham Lincoln), establishing a viritim of 40 acres for freed slaves from confiscated lands along the coasts of South Carolina, Georgia, and Florida.

[17] A 10,000:1 median-top household wealth ratio implies a wealth cap of $1.43 billion – a limit surpassed by around 670 households whose aggregate wealth exceeds that cap by about $4.5 trillion. To lessen resistance and avert an expropriation of wealth, preexisting fortunes would be grandfathered to the extent located within American territory and provided their owners are not convicted of certain crimes, adding repatriation and good behavior incentives to the market incentive. In order to survive Apportionment Clause attack, conventional political attacks, and prohibit interstate arbitrage, the ratio must be uniform (federal) and constitutional (implemented via constitutional amendment). In order to induce an Article V convention and ratification, all revenues raised by ratio enforcement should be distributed equally to the States; Thomas Jefferson proposed a similar concept (for a luxury excise tax) in his Second Inaugural Address. International arbitrage would be mitigated through various measures including an appropriately robust doctrine of tax nexus (disregarding renunciation of citizenship, exile, or expatriation of wealth), penalties, reporting obligations, and the satisfaction of liabilities from domestic assets. Net worth must be annually determined by independent third-party appraisal. Median figures given reflect the average of 2019-2021 Census Bureau Data.

[18] See Aristotle, Pol., 1295b, and James Harrington, Id. That the intuition of ordinary Americans believes the middle should own half, see Michael I. Norton and Dan Ariely, Building a Better America – One Wealth Quintile at a Time, Perspectives on Psychological Science, Association for Psychological Science, 2011. Achieving this target would today require the movement of around $30 trillion into the middle class when defined as the middle three quintiles by income percentage or the middle forty percent (between the top ten and bottom fifty). The figure is higher when the middle class is defined by wealth percentile. Q2 2023 Federal Reserve data shows that total U.S. household wealth is ~$150 trillion and the middling share is: (a) 28.1%, when defined as middle three asset quintiles by income; and (b) 28.6% when defined as the “middle 40%” (between the top 10% and bottom 50%), averaging 28.35%

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