As fond as Americans are of referencing the founding fathers, we should also keep in mind that those men drew much of their philosophy and ideas on liberty and governance from classical thinkers whose writings are just as relevant today as when they were first written.
One passage from Quintus Curtius’ translation of Cicero’s Duties: A Guide To Conduct, Obligations, And Decision-Making offers a philosophical argument for decentralized power and warnings against overreach by political leaders. Although Cicero’s counsel was directed to individuals rather than politicians, it is still worth noting.
Of all possible things, nothing is more felicitous in gaining and guarding the hopes of men than to be held in high esteem. And nothing is more alienating from those hopes than to be feared. Fear is a poor sentry of long reliability. But devoted good will on the other hand can stand guard in perpetuity.
He writes further (bold emphasis added):
But for those rulers who command their populations with an iron fist, cruelty must certainly be used, just as one might do against a domestic servant if no other means is available. Yet nothing is more insane than the actions of those who in a free society create conditions such that they must be feared. Whenever the laws has been submerged under the force of some unjust chicanery, and whenever liberty hides her face in fear, inevitably at some point silent courts emerge or secret voting on some public office takes place. Restored liberty bites more fiercely than liberty continuously retained. We must therefore adopt that most widely-appreciated policy not only safety sake, but for the value it brings to the wealth and opportunities of the many that we banish fear and hold tightly to mutual affection. Those rulers who wish to be feared must necessarily fear those same people who they seek to rule.
While Cicero wrote these words in the days of the dying Roman Republic that would eventually turn into an empire under Julius Caesar’s dictatorship, they are nevertheless applicable to so many current federal government programs such as the War on Drugs, welfare, gun control, and the surveillance state – programs that not only require expensive bureaucracies but actions against innocent people that can only be described as cruel.
It is no wonder we have gone from a society in which anyone who wished could visit the White House and meet the president, to needing expansive security measures wherever the chief executive goes. No doubt, much of that is due to the enormous power modern presidents possess over far more people than in the past. However, one can safely conclude that leaders who either desire or feel compelled to use cruel methods to perpetuate unjust and unconstitutional agendas have just reason to be feared.
Such a policy yields results, for a time. Yet, at some point, liberty will be restored, and as Cicero observed, its return will be much harsher than if it had been preserved in the first place.
Something America’s rulers should consider carefully.