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The State, That's Me!

By       Message Carol V. Hamilton     Permalink
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Two years ago I sent a letter to The Nation, correcting a writer who referred to the current president as George II. If we follow the numbering practice of monarchist nations, I said, our George I was George Washington; then come the two George Bushes. George III was also amusing because of the negative reputation of that monarch in U.S. history. But George III was a constitutional monarch, relatively constrained in his ability to act. The events of 2006 have made it apparent that we have to go back to the 1600s to find a royal counterpart to George W. Bush.

In 17th-century England, the conservative royalists and their feckless Stuart kings, James I and Charles I, insisted upon absolute monarchy and rulership by divine right. Essential to the concept of absolutism was the notion of arbitrary rule. From the Latin root "arbiter," the word originally meant "deciding according to one's own discretion," but came to mean "whimsical" and even "despotic." The monarch's rule was arbitrary in the sense that he or she did not have to justify decisions to anyone else in the kingdom--neither the commoners nor the lords. Monarchs could raise armies and the taxes to pay for them, foist their troops upon the citizenry, and declare expensive and unnecessary wars. The king was "the Decider," and if you disagreed with him, you could fritter away the rest of your life in the Tower of London, die on the rack, or lose your head.

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Not only was the king the source of all laws, but he was also, according to this belief system, above the law. The people could not hold sovereigns accountable for their bad behavior, poor judgment, or foolish actions. Arbitrary or absolutist rule meant that James and Charles could ignore the wishes of Parliament and the English people. Both Stuart monarchs followed the bad advice of the Duke of Buckingham, who urged, among other follies, an expensive war on France.

The liberal alternative to absolute and arbitrary rule was the rule of law--ideally including due process, issuance of a warrant, habeas corpus, presentation of evidence, and trial by a jury of one's peers. Early liberals like John Locke, the Earl of Shaftsbury, and Algernon Sidney also argued that monarchs had a social compact with their subjects and could be deposed if they violated the terms of that compact. For presenting these arguments they risked imprisonment or death. Sidney was executed; Shaftsbury spent a year in the Tower; and Locke thought it wise to publish his political works anonymously. So-called Levellers (it wasn't their own description of themselves) wrote screeds from Newgate, where they were imprisoned for sedition and treason.

Arbitrary rule. The executive above the law. God speaking directly to that executive, in an endorsement of his rule and his superior insight. An expensive war. Absence of habeas corpus and other aspects of due process. The use of torture. Sound familiar?

It should. Because reforms that took centuries to institutionalize are now under successful attack by the current administration. But unlike the 17th-century Parliament, which, bravely attempting to defend the time-honored "rights of Englishmen," sent a number of formal protests to the Stuart monarchs, our Congress has notoriously rubber-stamped the Bush administration's every wish--failing to protect not only the time-honored rights of Americans, but also the integrity and power of the legislative branch.

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For it was the legislative branch, according to John Locke--surely the most important intellectual influence on all the American Founders--which is or should be the most important branch of government. The executive implemented the laws, the judiciary interpreted the laws and measured them against the Constitution, but the legislature made the laws.
This particular legislature, however, as is well-known, has busied itself with bills about flag-burning, gay marriage, and other button-pushing issues. It has done nothing substantial to improve the daily lives and future prospects of American citizens. Even Homeland Security is underfunded.

Meanwhile, the administration is spending astonishing amounts of money on the war in Iraq. According to the nonpartisan Congressional Budget Office (CBO), "the cost of 'prosecuting' a war against Iraq at up to $9 billion per month, on top of an initial outlay of up to $13 billion for the deployment of troops to the Persian Gulf region"(http://usgovinfo.about.com/library/weekly/aairaqwarcost.ht). In today's New York Times, Nicholas Kristof writes that "for every additional second we stay in Iraq, we taxpayers will end up paying an additional $6,300." On their website, the Democrats report that the war is costing $195 million dollars a day. And the National Priorities Project gives a second-by-second report of the amount of money we have spent on the war at its website (http://nationalpriorities.org/index.php?option=com_wrapper&Itemid=182).

Why don't these astronomical figures horrify everyone, even those hardcore Republicans who believe that the king, er, president is always right? "America First" has a bad historical ring, but wouldn't it be a good policy to spend the bulk of our tax money here rather than abroad? If all Americans lived in a paradise of beautiful, crime-free towns and cities, complete with excellent public schools, hospitals, libraries, and museums, and thoughtfully planned, convenient transportation, perhaps we could afford to help unseat the occasional foreign dictator. As it is, we often don't even pay our dues to the U.N., whose usefulness in the case of North Korea is suddenly apparent, even to John Bolton.

Spending too much money was one thing that was sure to get absolute monarchies into trouble. During the French Revolution, Marie Antoinette was the fall girl for royal extravagance, but it was Louis XIV ("The state, that's me" and "After me, the deluge") who did the real damage. Since, sadly, this Congress has no principles, no sense of its historical mission, it could at least consider that this administration, like the feckless Bourbons and Stuarts, is spending money that the country doesn't even have. It's the budget, stupid!--er, your Majesty. . .
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Carol V. Hamilton has a Ph.D. in English from Berkeley and teaches at the University of Pittsburgh. She also writes for History News Network (hnn.us) and CommonDreams.org.

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