In the 6th century BC, many Greek city-states were succumbing to one man rule, which they called tyrants. Today the word conjures images of a ruthless and cruel autocrat, but in that time is simply meant a dictator. The reason for this would be familiar to anyone living today. The elite gained an economic stranglehold on society and used it to subvert the political system. The great inequality in Athenian life meant that the bulk of the citizens were becoming victims of a predatory elite.
In order to avoid what was happening in other city-states, the Athenians decided they had to reform their society, but could not trust the existing elites to do it. Instead, they turned to the wisest man of their age, a man named Solon, who is remembered today as one of the Seven Sages of Greece. He was given temporary dictatorial powers in order to push through economic, political and moral reforms. The goal of these reforms was to address economic equality and restore political stability, in order to avoid tyranny.
If we look around at America today, the similarities are obvious. Instead of rich landowners preying on the populace, it is a handful of megalomaniacs, who rule from atop global corporations and hedge funds. The normal democratic system of governance has broken down, so that the desires of the people are ignored, while the small donor class wields the state as a weapon against the people. Another weapon against the people is a vulgar popular culture, aimed at undermining public dignity and self-respect.
Clearly, reform is needed. Increasingly, people are coming around to the idea that what is needed is a Pinochet, who will fumigate the political class and deal harshly with the moral and economic predators currently atop the system. It’s why calling Trump a dictator has only helped his cause. The people who voted for him are not so sure it would be a bad idea if he assumed dictatorial power. In the spirit of Solon, are there reforms that could be implemented to arrest the decline into tyranny?
The first thing to acknowledge is that “get back to our constitutional roots” is the sort of thing a moron mutters to himself while watching the news. The people saying this really should be rounded up and shipped off the Africa, where they could be eaten by the natives. Similarly, rolling back the laws and legal rulings of the last 150 years is not happening either. Reform is not revolution. The way to prevent a violent end is to push through changes that could be accepted, maybe grudgingly, by the elites.
The first reform would have to be an amendment to the Constitution enshrining free association and private discrimination as a sacred right. The core idea of America was always the idea that it was a big country and people could self-segregate. If it was not working for you in the town in which you were born, you could head off to another town to find a better situation. You can’t have a mobile, self-segregating population when they need permission from the state to associate or disassociate with one another.
The trouble with mobility in a democracy is people can move to a new place and then organize to vote for things against the wishes of the locals. New Hampshire, for example, has been ruined by people from Massachusetts moving there to escape taxes, but then voting for drunken Hibernians as soon as they get a ballot. An amendment to tie voting to your place of birth not only solves this problem, it makes immigration useless as a political weapon. You cannot import new voters. This amendment would be retroactive.
A third amendment would alter who votes in Federal elections. Universal suffrage is every bit as a crazy as open borders. It lowers the intelligence of the electorate and encourages the worst habits of the political class. An amendment fixing the voting age at 35 and assigning one vote per family household solves this problem. That’s right, only the married can vote. Maybe some allowance for homeowners could be considered, but the family is the future and voting is about the future, so you have to be future oriented to vote.
Those are big reforms that would face a lot of resistance from the billionaire predators that prosper from the current corruption. That would necessitate a pruning of the billionaire class. Bluntly, no one is going to care if Tim Cook is stripped of his wealth and thrown in a dungeon. The world will not change if Jeff Bezos drops dead tomorrow. The cemeteries are full of indispensable rich people. Therefore, the advice of Thrasybulus is warranted, which means an orderly trimming of the financial elite will be required.
Some lesser reforms to the political system would also be required. Restoring the Senate as the house of the states, by repealing the 17th Amendment is one reform. Another would be the elimination of tax breaks for charitable giving. Charities have become money laundering operations for political activity. That would also get rid of the vast sea of not-for-profit think tanks that saturate Washington. Some would survive, but only those that do legitimate work on public policy. This would restore some transparency too.
The whole point of democracy is for the elected officials to work a hedge against the rich and powerful exerting control of society. Addressing the money problem in politics is another small reform. In Federal elections, all money must go to candidates and be reported to the public, Further, no candidate could accept money from outside his state or district. The use of front men to evade this rule would come with a draconian punishment, like the stripping of all assets and permanent banishment from the continent.
There are plenty of other small reforms that would go a long way toward restoring stability and trust in public institutions. Presumably, if the big items are passed, the new political class that would emerge could address those smaller items. That is, of course, is why these sorts of reforms could never pass. Political reform in a democracy is about altering the political class. The only alteration they could tolerate is that which entrenches their position as front men for the cosmopolitan global elite.
I’ll just note that Solon was able to get his reforms implemented and once they were in place he gave up power and left the country. The Athenians swore to abide by them for ten years. Within four years, the old social rifts re-appeared, along with new ones created by Solon’s reforms. It quickly became clear that the reforms could only last as long as Solon was around to lend his moral authority to them, as well as work out the new problems he created. The Greeks were right back where they started.
Eventually, someone named Peisistratos, a relative of Solon, rose up to become the tyrant and impose order on the Greeks. Solon accused the Athenians of stupidity and cowardice for allowing this to happen. He was right about the first part, but completely wrong about the second. The Greeks were being practical in the face of an impossible problem. In time, democracy returned, drawing from the reforms of Solon and the lessons from the period of reform and tyranny, suggesting democracy is a result, not a process.