Saturday, January 14, 2017

The Habit of Slavery

The British Civil Service is perhaps the world's most
efficient organization for maintaining bureaucratic inertia.

Why Cultural, Religious and Political Inertia Shackles Us to the Mistakes of the Past

Habits are hard to break, especially when those habits are the habits of a nation or a culture.
Railroad companies the world over lay their tracks so that the rails are four feet, eight and a half inches apart because that’s the width of a standard Roman oxcart. The standard was, of course, carried forward through several iterations including mine carts, streets and railroads – all using the standard grooves in old Roman roads. Caesar set the standard, probably based on something the Greeks were using or for some practical reason based on how far apart people put cart wheels a thousand years before.

It goes to show you the power of habit in determining the way things go. That’s how, for instance, Christmas became “Jesus’ birthday”. The church fathers, concerned because the people who, according to the emperor were all supposed to become Christian had this big party around the winter solstice where everyone would overeat and drink and party. By this time the church had become a ginormous bureaucracy and, thinking like bureaucrats, they decided that if the people had the habit of drinking, eating, and partying at winter solstice already, why not just make use of it for “holy” purposes. So the church proclaimed December the 25th Christ’s Mass, thus appropriating a holiday that goes all the way back to the Babylonians and used it as an excuse to take up a collection as protection from God’s wrath for all that drinking, overeating and partying. We still do it to this day, with, of course, the vestiges of the old pagan practices - Yule logs, Christmas trees, angels stuck up on trees (that one’s from a particularly grisly practice no on wants to think about) and boozing.

A lot of the inertia in our culture is, of course, for the convenience of government. Radical change is always bad for corrupt old governments. Should it sense a profound cultural shift among it's subjects, governments tend to suppress any new and disturbing ideas. Lots of folk get banished or financially ruined or imprisoned at this stage of any revolution.

The tax-collecting habit is also pretty well ingrained in the government bureaucrat segment of any nation's population. The old proverb about "If all you have is a hammer, everything looks like a nail" reminds us that those with limited tools tend to respond in the same way to any situation. The bureaucrat mind is so fixated on what it's always done that it sees everything in terms of how it can be profitable to the bureaucracy. The more bureaucrats, the worse bureaucratic inertia becomes. Soon, anything that is fun or obligatory is fair game for them to take a piece of. Taxing becomes their reason for existing. The Romans were wonderful bureaucrats. They made tax-collecting (or as I call it – demanding protection money) into a fine art. I’m not surprised that modern organized crime has its roots in Italy.

Another example of how governments use cultural inertia occurred when Roman emperor Constantine had a nightmare and woke up with the novel thought that if he made his whole army Christian they might win the upcoming battle. So he marched his troops through a nearby river, proclaimed them “baptized” and went forth to kick his enemy’s collective butts. After that, the church quickly became a quasi-government bureaucracy and started busily searching for ways to tax its members. Of course, after all the persecutions, membership was kind of down, so they all met to decide how best to recruit new members.  The Councils of Nicaea and Laodicea eventually established that the official Christian day of worship would henceforth be Sunday.

This took advantage of cultural inertia in a couple of way.

(1)  The Church fathers switched the traditional day of worship. Some Christians had already begun worshiping on Sunday to avoid trouble with the pagans. Romans by and large were used to going to temple on Sunday (called the venerable day of the sun” by Catholic bishops). There were much fewer Christians than there were pagans at the time, so it was easier to change the habits of the smaller group, especially if you rewarded them by making them popular and therefore less susceptible to being thrown to the lions or crucified. So folk still went to temple on Sunday, the theology was just altered a little.
(2)  The Romans didn’t like Jews and because both Christians and Jews worshiped on Saturday instead of Sunday the two groups were associated in the minds of Romans. The Jews, having been scattered, did what they do – went into business. They were already doing well by this time, which really made people resentful. So to make Christianity more palatable, the church fathers removed a major impediment to a move from paganism to Christianity and shared the weekly day of worship with the pagans rather than the Jews.
(3)  They also removed another impediment to pagan conversion by quietly removing the second commandment (the one about graven images) from the Ten Commandments. After all, they had done pretty well by revising the fourth one, why not remove one altogether. Then the enterprising folk working for the Bishop of Rome went around swapping out the plaques on statues of Roman gods and making them saints. An edict calling for the veneration of the saints and pretty soon out of use idols all over town became apostles. When they ran out of apostles, the Bishop just made other folk into saints. A couple of my own ancestors were made saints for various reasons including genocide of Muslims and Jews and for the miracle of the bottomless beer mug. Just like that the statue of Jupiter in the main square became St. Peter. Venus became the Virgin Mary. And it worked so well that every few decades the Vatican has to replace St. Peter’s foot from where all the pilgrims kissing said foot have worn it away to a nub.

Public inertia is a truly powerful thing; bureaucratic inertia is worse. George W. Bush once said that once you become president and start receiving the security briefings, the economic briefings and all, that there really is very little you can do that’s a major innovation. He knew from experience. Bush started out with the intention of trimming the fat from the budget. I remember the horror with which the federal bureaucracies reacted. The weeping and wailing and gnashing of teeth by federal life-long bureaucrats was epic .

Bush even had the audacity to demand that the CIA actually give him all the facts and not their interpretation of the facts or just what they thought he wanted to see. A relative who works for the CIA was beside himself that the President didn’t want his briefings filtered. Before Bush could rein the intelligence services in and get the straight poop, however, 9/11 happened. People talk about how Bush benefited from 9/11. The terrorist attack's benefits accrued primarily to Congress rather than the president. With Bush forced to mobilize the military, suddenly budget cutting was forced off the table by Congress. Terrorist fighting funds were held hostage to everybody's favorite pork. By the end of the Bush administration Congress was spending like a drunken sailor and the economy went bust. Sadly, you can't take away Congress's credit cards.

A lot of the inertia in our culture exists for the convenience of government, of course. Habits are encouraged. Change is suppressed - the real kind, not the feel-good kind that is no change at all.  Every president faces such bureaucratic inertia. It's why, thankfully, none of them accomplish much in the way of change, whatever their campaign slogans. People don’t like to change. They prefer the appearance of change. Bureaucracies have learned to use cultural inertia to their advantage. To bureaucrats, change is like sunshine to a vampire. It’s why every time some Latin American country overthrows its corrupt government, it replaces it with one that’s just as, if not more corrupt than the one before it. The revolutionaries always forget on thing. When they take over a government, they fail to replace the bureaucrats.

© 2017 by Tom King

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