Then none was for a party;

    Then all were for the state;

    Then the great man helped the poor;

    And the poor man loved the great;

    Then lands were fairly portioned;

    Then spoils were fairly sold:

    The Romans were like brothers

    In the brave days of old.

    –Thomas Macaulay, “Lays of Ancient Rome”

Wherever there is freedom of speech together with low standards, there are demagogues.

One can always recognize such troublemakers. They are the ones whose popularity is built on public prejudice and indignation. A demagogue plays upon the passions of his listeners to malign public servants whose only crime has been to perform their duties according to law.

People are attracted to demagogues because a demagogue offers
entertainment. The entertainment provided is akin to the slaughter which
takes place in a Roman coliseum, where an innocent victim is torn to pieces
by wild animals. One thinks of the roar of a crowd as Christians are fed to
lions. Looking back at ancient times we find that Christians often fell
victim to demagogues. If famine or economic depression hit the Roman Empire,
the Christians were blamed. It was said that their impiety, their refusal to
worship pagan gods, had brought divine chastisement.

As we make the transition from economic optimism to economic
pessimism, as the markets plummet, as investments and jobs are lost,
demagogues will move in like jackals after a sick animal. They will blame
the central banking system, they will blame the rich, or they will blame
large corporations (all of which have contributed to many decades of
unprecedented national prosperity). This blame game is especially dangerous
because it threatens the very mechanisms of economic growth.

In 1857 Lord Macaulay, an English statesman and historian, wrote to an
American correspondent that the United States was especially vulnerable to
demagogues. Macaulay took a dim view of characters like Thomas Jefferson,
who advocated the so-called popular cause. “You are surprised to learn that
I have not a high opinion of Mr. Jefferson,” wrote Macaulay, “and I am
surprised at your surprise.”

Macaulay wrote that it was folly to lodge the supreme authority of the
state in “the poorest and most ignorant part of society.” The poor and
ignorant should not be allowed to vote, he explained, and American notions to
the contrary were (and yet are) dangerous. Macaulay stated, “I have long
been convinced that institutions purely democratic must, sooner or later,
destroy liberty or civilization, or both.”

The process of this destruction, according to Macaulay, was bound up
with the business cycle. As every student of economics knows, periods of
prosperity are always punctuated by periods of recession or worse. “Your
fate I believe to be certain,” wrote Macaulay. Once America filled up with
people, once a large urban population came into existence, “hundreds of
thousands of artisans will assuredly be sometimes out of work. Then your
institutions will be fairly brought to a test.”

A severe depression will come to America, Macaulay predicted. It will
come at a time when America is urban and not rural. “It is plain that your
Government will never be able to restrain a distressed and discontented
majority,” he wrote. “For with you the majority is the Government, and has
the rich, who are always a minority, absolutely at its mercy.”

America’s homegrown demagogues, quite predictably, would make capital
out of the social discontent caused by a severe economic downturn. Sound
statesmanship could not withstand efforts to incite the public. “On one side
is a statesman preaching patience,” wrote Macaulay. “On the other is a
demagogue ranting about the tyranny of capitalists and usurers. …”

Another word for usurer is banker. In times of economic crisis the
demagogue is the one who attacks the bankers, who vilifies the capitalists
and the financiers. As it happens, these same bankers and financiers were
shortly before the praiseworthy authors of prosperity. Nobody complained
then. Everyone, as history shows, was then equally debauched by the spirit
of economic optimism. Yet when the business cycle at last hits bottom, when
summer gives way to winter, the bankers and the capitalist are targeted as if
they were public enemies engaged in a conspiracy to pauperize the country.

“I seriously apprehend,” wrote Macaulay to his American correspondent,
“that you will, in some such season of adversity as I have described, do
things which will prevent prosperity from returning. …”

Macaulay predicted that the poor would plunder the country’s wealth.
This would produce further distress, and further calls for plunder. “There
is nothing to stop you,” wrote Macaulay, “Your Constitution is all sail and
no anchor. As I said before, when a society has entered on this downward
progress, either civilization or liberty must perish.”

In this regard let us consider the words of Fisher Ames, that champion
of federalism and enemy of the popular party. He lamented the inability of
the federalists to oppose the demagogues of the time. “Any great exertion
not only tires, but disgusts the federalists,” he complained, “but the
Jacobins, like salamanders, can breathe only fire. Like toads, they suck no
aliment from the earth but its poisons. When they rest in their
lurking-places … it is, like serpents in winter, the better to concoct
their venom.”

Ames suggested that demagogues rely on an “envy that sickens at the
fame of superiors.” He also wrote of “the sour, malignant and suspicious
cast of their temperament.”

Let us heed the words of English and American statesmen. Beware the
demagogues and the party of envy. Such a party may arise on the right as
well as the left. Anyone who publicly makes an issue of the income of a
public figure, who shows distress that this figure is sipping champagne while
others are losing their life savings, is to be shunned. His words may sound
good, but they import evil.

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