"Austerians don’t get off on other people’s suffering. They, for the most part, honestly believe that theirs is the quickest way through the suffering. They may be right or they may be wrong. When Krugman says he’s only worried about ‘premature’ fiscal discipline, it becomes largely a question of emphasis anyway. But the austerians deserve credit: They at least are talking about the spinach, while the Krugmanites are only talking about dessert."
Paul Krugman’s Misguided Moral Crusade Against Austerity by Michael Kinsley (via thenewrepublic)
But here’s a historical analogy that I remember from an ancient civilizations class so many years ago. The anecdote was so radically counter-intuitive to anything I had ever been taught, that it blew my mind. I’ve been thinking about citizenship and democracy in different ways ever since. It’s a story about the Roman Republic.
As a republic, Rome relied on citizen-armies to fight its wars. When Rome was setting off for war, the male citizens would gather in the Field of Mars (the god of war). Military needs would dictate the number of troops that needed to be raised for a campaign. Then, the citizens would be drafted, one by one, until they made up the requisite number.
But here’s the counter-intuitive part: Because Rome’s was a citizen-army, the citizen-soldiers had to provide their own military equipment. So the wealthiest citizens were always drafted first. (According to my professor, in the history of the Roman Republic the poorest class of citizens were never drafted.) Even when they fought, the wealthier (better armed) citizens always took the front ranks.
This seemed to me remarkable. The wealthiest Roman citizens held the most power in the republic. Only they could enter the Senate or hope to serve as consuls or tribunes. And yet they were the most exposed to the risks of war. Because those who exercised the most power also bore the greatest responsibility—and put their own skin in the game.
Today, America’s military is predominantly manned by the lower social classes. Few members of the social elite ever enter military service. Not surprisingly, austerity politics has followed suit. We’re more likely to cut services for the poor than subsidies for the wealthy or middle class.
I wonder. Would an average ancient Roman citizen even recognize our system as a “republic”?
BTW, it’s perhaps not immaterial to point out that the Roman Republic lasted nearly 500 years (that’s almost three centuries longer than the US has existed). By around 50 BC or so, the citizen-army model gave way to “professional” militaries, often recruited from among the poor. These private armies served under individual (wealthy) generals—like Julius Caesar, who gave us the Roman Empire.
Meadowslark’s Comment: Off Topic for this blog but an important observation. My knowledge of the Republic is negligible so I’ll accept this as fact based on the credibility of the source, Pol102. Like many of my peers I protested the use of the draft in the late ’60s - early ’70s; unlike most of them who conflated the draft with an unpopular war, I separated the two public policy issues and favored compulsory ‘national’ service over a draft that increasingly skewed toward the poor, the rural, or the South and West, and often all of the above. My civic concern has grown over the past 25 years as our all volunteer military and naval forces have drawn on an increasingly self-limited pool of recruits - a pool from which the elites have excluded themselves. Full disclosure: My enlisted son who grew up listening to me rail against the Bush II administration’s actions in Iraq will commission next month. Proud as we are of him, I remain very worried about the role of the military in the larger polity.