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
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has been superseded by modern science; hence the quasi-gnostic cult of the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 defer.
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 tyrannical.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
times call for medieval ideas.