Rome and Us
When everything seems to be flowing toward yougrain, taxes, diplomats, journalistsit's hard not to think of yourself, even if subliminally, as the center of the world. You forget, almost inevitably, that the rest of the world has an enormous impact on everything you do. Washington has had this mindset for a long time, but it seems to be accelerating. Washington doesn't really have an official umbilicus, the way Rome did, but it has plenty of navel-gazers. And how many times do you hear the president referred to as "The most important man in the most important city in the world"? The tendency inside Washington is for policy makers and the news media to think that decisions being made in these few square miles are the instrumental forces in the world.But they're not, which we will find out eventually, probably to our regret.
Privatizationthe deflection of public purpose by private interestis, you say, another common affliction.
This insight, as it applies to antiquity, comes from the great scholar Ramsay McMullen in his classic book, Corruption and the Decline of Rome. The American governmentis of course much larger than Rome's was, and has many more dimensions, so any kind of one-to-one comparison quickly becomes unworkable. But over time what happened in Rometo simplify radicallyis that government functions and government jobs in essence fell into private hands, and were performed because money changed hands. And in time there was a great disconnect between the wishes of the people at the center and performance at the extremities: the levers of government didn't work any longer. Something like this is happening in America. More and more of our government is being farmed out, outsourced, privatizedprisons, roads, water systems, parks, border security, national intelligence, military operations. There's a story in the papers virtually every day about some government service or function that has been transferred or sold off to the private sector. And maybe case by case it makes sense. But the Roman example tells us to watch out: there will come a point when those trying to move the levers of government find that they're no longer connected to anything.
Is privatization something that can be easily reversed?
Just the opposite. It's easy to privatizeto spin off some task that's being paid for by tax dollars into the "more efficient" hands of some private entity. It's very hard to go the other directionto persuade people to start ponying up again for what now looks like a "new" government program. The history of the West since the fall of Rome offers a kind of natural experiment in this. The medieval world was one where almost everything was essentially in private handspower, justice, administration. Taxes were a form of private revenue. It took more than a millennium before the West gradually worked its way into the system we have now, where power is in public hands and is accountable to public wishes. It was a long, hard slog. But going the other direction takes only a snap of the fingers.