THE WANDERER; May 29, 2003


Ideas, Old And New

     I recently saw a cartoon of a king telling his 
counselors: "Gentlemen, these are medieval times, and 
they call for medieval ideas."

     That king had the right idea. We could do with some 
medieval ideas in our own times.

     "Medieval," of course, remains a popular word of 
denigration and even abuse. Since the Enlightenment it 
has come to mean backward, reactionary, inhumane, and 
superstitious. But no scholar now uses the word this way. 
In recent decades even the best thinkers of the secular 
world have come to recognize the great intellectual 
achievements of the Middle Ages.

     Those achievements were founded in common sense, 
which has been one of the casualties of modernity. Today 
we are told that common sense has been superseded by 
modern science; hence the quasi-gnostic cult of the 
expert and the specialist, to whom common sense must 

     One of the basic ideas of medieval political 
philosophy was that positive law must conform to the 
natural law. An unjust law was no law at all. The decay 
of this simple principle has opened the way to the most 
frightful tyrannies, and also to abuses which, though 
less alarming at first sight, are no longer recognized as 

     In the Middle Ages the debasement of money was a 
serious crime. "Clipping" coins was a common offense 
because it devalued the king's currency, cheating not 
only the king himself, in principle, but everyone else 
who used his money as a medium of exchange and measure of 
value. It was the medieval version of counterfeiting.

     Today, in the age of paper money, it's the 
government that does the counterfeiting. When I was a 
small boy, my father bought TIME magazine every week for 
a dime. Today it costs nearly four dollars -- not because 
the publisher is greedy, but because the value of a 
dollar (and a dime) has gradually plummeted.

     The U.S. Constitution assigns to Congress the power 
to "coin" money and to "regulate" its value. This has 
been perverted into an arbitrary power to print money and 
to manipulate its value, via the Federal Reserve System. 
We no longer expect the government to meet its 
traditional responsibility to stabilize the value of 
money. A key element of good faith between the rulers and 
the ruled has been lost. We are all cheated, and 
gradually impoverished, by the state.

     Many people have learned to profit by this in the 
short run, and we all have to cope with our long-term 
losses; but the result is a system of theft. It has come 
to seem natural for money to lose its value over time, 
but it remains highly unnatural. Nearly all states now 
practice a complex form of what the Middle Ages would 
have called usury, all the worse because we have no 
choice about being victimized by it. We are robbed even 
when we save. Hide your money under the mattress, and 
there will be less of it when you take it out again. Put 
it into a savings account, and you'll also pay taxes on 
the interest!

The Moral Question Is Ignored

     Speaking of taxes, the state now has a limitless 
power to take our earnings. The first income tax, imposed 
by the Lincoln administration, had a top rate of 
5 percent, applicable only to the very wealthy. At the 
same time, the depreciating greenback was also declared 
"legal tender" -- you couldn't refuse to accept it. The 
U.S. Supreme Court soon declared both the tax and the 
legal tender law unconstitutional -- not only 
unauthorized by the Constitution, but contrary to the 
principles of liberty and honest government.

     The Sixteenth Amendment restored the income tax, 
with no upper limit. At first only people with high 
incomes paid any income tax at all; a single man had to 
make about $50,000 a year (in today's money) before he 
paid. The top rate was 7 percent. You had to be a tycoon 
to reach that rate.

     Today -- well, it's hardly necessary to spell it 
out. We accept as normal and legitimate practices that 
would have outraged our ancestors. We even congratulate 
ourselves on our freedom! But those ancestors understood 
that a debauched currency and high taxes were not only 
subversions but outright violations of liberty.

     "Men can always be blind to a thing," said 
Chesterton, "as long as it is big enough." Or, he might 
have added, slow enough. If the old limits on government 
had been torn down overnight, everyone would have noticed 
-- and revolted. But because tyranny has proceeded so 
gradually, most people are unaware that it has come over 
us at all.

     Now, when President Bush proposes a slight cut in 
our overall tax rates, the debate rages over whether the 
government can "afford" such extravagance. The argument 
is framed in terms of whether the state can spare the 
money, not whether the citizen deserves to keep a little 
more of his own wealth. Everything is presumed to belong 
to the state.

     On top of everything else, the U.S. government has 
run up a stupendous debt -- by one reckoning, about 
$7 trillion. Given its power to confiscate and 
counterfeit, you might think it had ample resources to 
keep the books balanced. On the contrary, its spending 
outstrips even its depredations. And again, the moral 
question is ignored: whether one generation may justly 
impose debts on its posterity. Again, our ancestors would 
have found no question at all. Habitual deficit spending 
is one more form of tyranny.

     This is not to idealize monarchy. The old kings had 
their own ways of practicing tyranny. But as a practical 
matter, their means were limited. Coins made from 
precious metals were hard to counterfeit. Taxation was a 
cumbersome process. And kings had no way of plunging 
future generations into a bottomless abyss of debt. 
Unlike modern democratic rulers, they found it awkward to 
evade personal responsibilities. They might have said, 
more truly than any modern ruler, "The buck stops here."

     In our time, the language of law, politics, and 
political economy has been divorced from the commonsense 
language of morality. Instead of "duties," our rulers now 
face "options" and "policies," even as they impose 
crushing obligations on us, their subjects. The word 
"justice" hardly applies to them.

Deep Bias

     We hear a great deal about "media bias" these days, 
and the mass media do have a deep bias in favor of the 
expanding state. But in this they are merely in harmony 
with the modern political culture, which acknowledges few 
limits on state power. We are all taught, virtually from 
the cradle, that the state is responsible for the 
(undefined) "general welfare" of society, and that we 
must all cooperate with it -- that is, obey its every 
whim. It may simultaneously subsidize tobacco and forbid 
us to smoke it; or promote "family values" while 
subverting family life. It needn't make sense; we merely 
shrug, "Whatever."

     The power, scope, irrationality, and sheer anonymity 
of the modern state would have terrified our ancestors. 
There is no standard by which it may be judged; it 
continually invents, and changes, its own standards. And 
it even educates us to resign ourselves to whatever it 
demands of us.

     Yes, the times call for medieval ideas.


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