Real Kings Are Not Common

We live in times of feeble leadership.  Those who occupy public offices often seem more willing to advance their own interests than those of the citizens they represent; they tremble at the thought of taking any action or initiative that might involve risk on their part.  And so the citizenry suffers to buttress the careerist ambitions of the few.

This type of cravenness has been a feature of governments from the inception of recorded history.  Institutions created by man will reflect his defects and corrupt impulses, and perhaps amplify them.  Yet there must always be an effort to restore a balance of justice, such that the high principles we say we believe will at least be attempted.  We know, for example, that the famed emperor Justinian was genuinely concerned with the welfare of his subjects.  His reform of the legal codes was an attempt to impose a uniform and predictable interpretation of law that might regulate public life.  One corruption problem that was common in his day was the sale of the provincial governor’s post in the provinces.  The practice encouraged abuses of the worst sort, and the emperor was resolved to correct them.

Those given these offices were required to pay a large monetary sum, called a suffragium, which was traditionally distributed to the emperor himself and the praetorian prefect.  Not all appointees had the money required to pay, and so would borrow it from third parties.  So it would happen that a provincial governor would often take office deeply in debt; and government salaries in those days were not lavish enough to alleviate the debt burden.  To meet his obligations, a government official would resort to corrupt practices himself.  There were many ways of doing this:  he might squeeze his people with excessive taxes, ask for bribes to accomplish routine tasks, or enrich himself through other means.

Obviously such a system eroded faith in government institutions.  Justice might be bought and sold to the highest bidder; tax collectors began to be seen as a corrupt and avaricious enemy; and faith in official institutions declined.  Justinian’s law, enacted in A.D. 535, abolished the suffragium.  Governors would have to live within their means on their own salaries.  Anyone caught receiving political bribes would face serious penalties, such as exile, forfeiture of property, or physical punishment.  For Justinian the issue was one of national security and public trust; he knew that he could not ask soldiers fighting Goths and Vandals to make the ultimate sacrifice if their families at home were being bled white by greedy, selfish officials.

Other reforms were added to the abolition of the suffragium:  one law (from 539) was that any governor leaving office was required to remain in his province for a minimum of fifty days, so that he might be available to answer any indictments brought against him while in office.  He also forced local citizens to participate in the administration of their municipalities.  In a very real way, he drafted men into positions of responsibility, whether they wanted to be there or not.  An office known as defensor civitatis (lit., “defender of the state”) was required to be filled by a local notable for a period of two years.  This office was basically a judgeship; the defensor would hear suits involving relatively small sums of money.  The idea of compelling people to participate in their communities may not be viewed with favor by us today, but the rule at least had the merit of giving ordinary citizens a stake in their own governance.

These kinds of lessons seem lost on many people whom we call “leaders” today.  But a careerist opportunist is not a leader; and sometimes one is left to wonder if many even know the difference.  It is as Petrarca said in a letter written to Dionigi de’ Roberti around 1340:

To be a king is something great; to be called one is something small.  Kings are more rare than the common crowd believes:  the title itself is uncommon.  Scepters would use a lot less jewels and ivory if only real kings carried them. [Minus gemmarum atque eboris sceptra consumerent, si soli reges illa portarent].

He goes on to say that true kings, true leaders, do not derive their moral power or authority from clothing, riches, or the symbols of office; they derive their authority from character, conduct, and righteous actions.  And this is what seems so lacking in the elected officials of today, at least in the United States; many of them see offices as stepping-stones to further “career ambitions,” or whatever phrase they like to use.  Many do not consider, or care about, the consequences of their dictates or rulings.  And this is why they have no problem subscribing to the old “do as I say, not as I do” style of leadership.

During the Covid crisis, how many of them were more than willing to order businesses and schools to close, knowing full well that such orders would have a paralytic effect on commerce and education?  And how many of them hid behind the word “science” when asked to justify their actions?  How many of them actually cared to look at the science that they professed to believe?  How many of them continued to receive their full salaries, and who suffered not the slightest economic hardships—or, more accurately, actually profited from their orders by avoiding commutes to work?  How many of them were more than willing to play games with the data in order to feed the public hysteria?  How many made a sport of data mining, cherry-picking  selected facts to create false impressions, and attempted to make the normal sound abnormal?  When the moment of crisis was reached—the moment of truth for any true leader—they showed themselves to be selfish, worthless, and deserving of contempt.

DPM = deaths per million

One of history’s greatest self-inflicted economic disasters was carried out, and yet no one is to blame; no one can be held accountable.  Justinian was correct, of course; he knew that public faith in institutions was matter of national security.  It seems as if we have forgotten this lesson, if we even cared to know it.  The Covid crisis must be seen as a moral crisis.  What is particularly contemptible is how, even at this late stage in the game, when the truths are so clearly obvious, many governors and local official refuse to relent.  All sorts of games are used to justify measures that by any standard are patently absurd:  the unrelenting effort to treat “cases” and “infections” as a meaningful metric; the effort to hide the absurdly high false positive rate of Covid tests; the real degree of harm caused by lockdowns to children and the elderly; the catastrophic effect lockdowns have had on businesses; the dubious utility of masks in most situations; and the constant misrepresenting of hospital occupancy rates.  And it goes on and on.

One wonders what Justinian himself would say, if he were alive to see the conduct of those we consider our leaders.



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