Familiar indications of decline and fall

The United States Supreme Court in Washington, June 15, 2015. David King, the plaintiff in a case before the Supreme Court on subsidies provided by the Affordable Care Act, said recently that he was reasonably confident he would prevail in his challenge. (Zach Gibson/The New York Times)


‘Here are the questions to which I would have every reader give his close attention — what life and morals were like; through what men and what policies, in peace and in war, empire was established and enlarged; then let him note how, with the gradual relaxation of discipline, morals first gave way, as it were, then sank lower and lower, and finally began the downward plunge which has brought us to the present time, when we can endure neither our vices nor their cure.

“What chiefly makes the study of history wholesome and profitable is this, that you behold the lessons of every kind of experience set forth as on a conspicuous monument; from these you may choose for yourself and for your own state what to imitate, from these mark for avoidance what is shameful in the conception and shameful in the result. ...”

— Titus Livius (59 B.C.-A.D. 17), “Founding of the City”

At its height, the Roman Empire bestrode the known world like a colossus. If we date it from the traditional founding of the City of Rome in 753 B.C. to the fall of Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Empire, in 1453 A.D., its history spans an astonishing 22 centuries. No empire and no civilization endured a more prolonged period of decline. The last vestiges of Rome as a republic, however, may be said to have fallen when Julius Caesar and his legions crossed the Rubicon in 49 B.C. to rule Rome as a dictator. It was this lack of morality Titus Livius no doubt was writing about.

It’s become fashionable in academic and political circles to compare the decline of Rome with a perceived decline of the United States over the last 50 years or so. We are a republic still, though executive power, increasingly enhanced at the expense of the legislative branch, is threatening our traditional form of self-limited government. This did not begin with the current administration, though it most certainly has accelerated during President Obama’s watch. It will be a major part of his unerasable legacy.

One need look no further than the executive orders issued to annul or modify legislation dealing with immigration. How often did he himself declare, on the record, that he lacked the authority to do what ultimately he did? Twenty times? Thirty? It would be laughable if it were not so disrespectful of the Constitution and the rule of law. Congress has the sole constitutional authority to write federal law. Once adopted, it is the president’s sole duty to enforce it.

And then there is Obamacare. By the time you read this, the Supreme Court may have handed down its ruling in King vs Burwell. This is the case that will determine whether federal subsidies given millions of Americans who purchased health insurance through a federal exchange were and are entitled to subsidy. The plain language of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act says that they are not, that only insurance purchased through state exchanges may lawfully be subsidized. (Twenty-seven states, including South Carolina, have declined to create their own exchange. These states comprise some 60 percent of the U.S. population.)

The monstrously written and hugely unpopular legislation that established Obamacare is surprisingly clear on the subject of federal subsidies. The law’s intent was to coerce states to fall in line and embrace the federal takeover of the health care system in America.

Well, don’t say you weren’t warned. Nancy Pelosi: We have to pass the bill so you can find out what is in it, away from the fog of the controversy. As if any normal person would have the mental discipline and the time to pore over the thousands of pages of legal gibberish spelling it out.

The significance of the Supreme Court’s ruling likely will be more far reaching than many might imagine. If you cannot put your trust in what the written law is, can tyranny be far behind? Lewis Carroll’s Humpty Dumpty, before his great fall, had this to say about words and their meaning:

“When I use a word,” Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, “it means just what I choose it to mean — nothing more nor less.”

“The question is,” said Alice, “whether you can make words mean so many different things.”

“The question is,” said Humpty Dumpty, “which is to be master — that’s all.”

After the fall of the Roman Republic, the power to govern the empire passed into the hands of a long succession of emperors, some good (e.g. Augustus, Marcus Aurelius), some horrible (e.g. Nero, Caligula), some able and many more not able at all.

Is this the future we want for America? Is this what’s best for the world we live in, a world increasingly corrupted by moral decay, a world drowning in innocent blood?

Stop the train. I want to get off.

R.L. Schreadley is a former Post and Courier executive editor.