Thinking of the Gracchi Brothers Today

It is with mixed emotions that I greet this day.  Frequent readers will know that I long for a system of much more open immigration.  I don't think that the US Government should be limiting who can and cannot seek work or live within the US borders (setting rules for citizenship and receipt of benefits are different matters).  So I would like to see many long-time immigrants legalized today (and in fact I likely have friends and acquaintances who will benefit, though it's always been a bit awkward to ask them about immigration status).

However, I would MUCH rather see a rational process implemented than these once a decade amnesties we seem to go in for instead.

I also worry that Obama is taking these actions for all the wrong reasons, seeking to add 5 million Democratic voters rather than trying to help 5 million people who are seeking prosperity.  The reason I suspect this is that he is also seeking higher minimum wages that will likely make it harder for these folks to find work, likely something he has promised to his union allies so they won't freak out.  I have always said that Republicans want immigrants to work but not vote and Democrats want immigrants to vote but not work.

But I am much more worried about the un-Constitutional process that is going to be followed.  Of course, this is not the only Executive power grab over the last two presidencies, but it is a big one and one of the first where the President has admitted he doesn't have the power but is going to do it anyway.

Around 133BC, Tiberius Gracchus was ticked off that the Roman Republic would not consider necessary land reform.  I am going to oversimplify here, but in their conquests the Romans had grabbed a lot of new territory and by law that land was supposed to be parceled in small sections to lots of individual land holders.  Instead, powerful men (many of whom were in the Senate) grabbed the lion's share of this land for themselves in huge estates.   Gracchus rightly saw this as unfair and a violation of law, but it was also a threat to the security of the nation, as independent landowners who bought their own weapons were the backbone of the Roman army.  The shift of agriculture to huge estates staffed with slaves was not only forcing a shift in the makeup of the army (one which would by the way contribute to the rise of despotic generals like Sulla and Caeser), but also was creating social problems by throwing mobs of unlanded poor on the cities, particularly Rome.

Anyway, the short version is that Tiberius Gracchus had good reason to think these reforms were important.  But traditionally they would have to be considered by the Senate first, and he was too impatient to wait that process out, and besides (probably rightly) feared the Senate would find a way to kill them.   He was so passionate about them that he violated the (unwritten) Roman Constitution by ignoring the Senate and setting new precedents for using his position as Tribune to pass the new laws.  It was absolutely the prototype for a well-intentioned bypassing of the Constitution.  I won't go into detail, but Tiberius was killed at the behest of some Senators, but his brother picked up his mantle 10 years later and did some similar things.  Which is why we talk of the Gracchi brothers.

In the near term, the results were some partial successes with land reform.  However, in the long-term, their actions really got the ball rolling on what is called the Roman Revolution.  A hundred years later, the Republic would be gone, replaced with a dictatorship.  Step by step, the precedents often set initially with only the best intentions, were snatched up and used by demagogues to cement their own power.  In later years, what gave emperors their authority was a package of powers granted to them.  One of the most important was "tribunition" power.  In essence, the tribunition power included many of the powers first exercised aggresively by the Gracchi brothers.  More than just starting the ball rolling on the Revolution, they pioneered the use of powers that were to be the core of future emperors' authority.


  1. Nehemiah:

    Although the brothers Gracchi certainly set a precedent for bad behavior relative to the Mos Maiorum, unwritten constitution, I believe the actions of another tribune of the plebs, Lucius Saturninus was a bigger threat to the powers of the patricians in Rome itself. He recognized the untapped power of the Headcount (non-propertied citizens of Rome). He tailored laws that would benefit the Headcount to the detriment of the Senate. He may have been the most prominent panderer in the history of Rome. He and his cohorts were rounded up and killed by a young posse of patricians led by a young Cornelius Sulla who was a Protégé of Gaius Marius who was serving his first term as Consul. He ultimately served as Consul 7 times which was a violation of the Mos Maiorum. By then the Republic was on its way to rebellion and Empire.

  2. mesocyclone:

    I don't think the Libertarian idea of free travel for work makes any sense in the era of the welfare state.

  3. LoneSnark:

    Doing nothing is nearly always acceptable. Ignoring the law to do nothing is similarly, nearly always acceptable. The problem is ignoring the law to do something. The purpose of law is to restrain the government, not force it to move.

    In your example, the Gracchi brothers ignored a law which would have restrained them from sending their officers to the countryside and forcibly rebuilding parts of society. Today, Obama is going to ignore a law which would have forced him to send his officers to the countryside and forcibly rebuild part of our society (deporting part of the population). It seems to my mind that, for once, Obama is on the side of the angels.

  4. bigmaq1980:

    To be succinct...the world is asymmetric and an "open labor market" in the US (which is inextricably tied to immigration) will not work, as a result.

    Too many risks/issues coming from that asymmetry. Welfare is one issue. Can we even manage the inevitable surge? Would birth on our soil mean their children are granted citizenship? Security is another significant issue (one example: what stops ISIS, China, Russia, Iran, etc. from sending thousand to "work" here, becoming "sleeper cells" or spies?).

    At some distant future, maybe the world will be more "balanced" and this can be viable, but there is tremendous risk in the present.

    "Open labor market" between "Western" nations might be something we can work towards enroute to that future, particularly for the higher value skills. Alas, all that would be politically incorrect, and would be a major focus adjustment for our current policy weighted to non-Western nations.

  5. bigmaq1980:

    There will be unintended consequences from this action.

    Following a rebuke from the voters, Obama and his supporters act with disdain for the people they are supposed to represent.

    Dems are celebrating now, but this opens the door for future GOP led governments to invoke similarly provocative, and equally without concern, "orders" and we will surely hear the Dems howl. (Yet, previous over-reach continued by GOP leaders have already built up the precedent that a sitting President can now fathom that this is feasible).

    From here forward, the rate of change in the shift of power, away from the people towards the singular person as head of state, will accelerate.

    We have all lost today.

  6. mesocyclone:

    Very well put. The asymmetry is at the heart of the problems. Also the fact that workers don't just magically teleport between their home and their job - they reside in the US, and bring family along. That means lots of externalities unless one is in Libertopia, which we are far from.

  7. bigmaq1980:

    This and foreign policy are where strict Libertarian philosophy falls short. The ultimate goals and ideas are laudable, but in practice it seems to be missing something (i.e. how we move from here to there, and what to do in the meantime that may be less optimally libertarian, but more fitting the circumstances).

  8. mesocyclone:

    I think Libertarian support for gay marriage is another one. The right for people to claim to be married and live together - sure. But for Libertarians to support government providing benefits to gay "marriage" as if it was normal marriage is just plain wrong. Also, even worse from a liberty standpoint, one of the benefits is to oppress anyone who doesn't want to provide services to that "marriage" as has been aptly demonstrated. Libertarians show that they are not for liberty by their behavior on this issue. But... if they say it is because we don't live in Libertopia so we should grant "equality," the since we don't live in Libertopia, they shouldn't also support free immigration.

  9. Harry:

    Many support legal immigration, and many think, for example increasing the number of green cards. Far fewer people favor letting people into the country to have a anchor baby, and then go on welfare and get food stamps, free medical care, and subsidized housing.

    The gridlock has not been caused by a lack of proposals from the House of Representatives. For example, on C-Span a Republican from Idaho asked the DHS Secretary about the possibility of expediting the legalizing of certain immigrants who had jobs in the US for years. The DHS Secretary refused to answer the question, saying the administration's position was Obama's way or the highway, and that there was zero interest in compromise.

    Now I am not shocked, shocked, by the Secretary's answer. He did as he was told, to enunciate the administration's message, which has been consistently no compromise, including the part about letting people in to go on welfare and then vote their pocketbooks.

    Nor am I shocked that when the Democrats controlled both houses of Congress and the executive they did not legitimize people coming from any foreign country and going on welfare, which is about as likely to pass as legitimizing partial-birth abortion.

    Obama does not care about this as a moral issue to be debated and discussed. He wants a political result -- namely, the votes of dependent illegals, who already vote because they get voting privileges when they get a driver's license, as do 60,000 Somalis in Minnesota. Obama wants more immigrants to come and not work. I wonder whether he wants to make the country bankrupt (or more bankrupt).

    In doing so he undermines our written constitution, and endangers, as Coyote rightly points out, our freedom. It is hard for me to have mixed feelings.

  10. bigmaq1980:

    At the end of the day, within our borders, how many laws do we want to have in place to manage what two people voluntarily choose to do that does not infringe on others' existence and property?

    Liberty vs tyranny is a much bigger issue than gay marriage will ever be, but it becomes a tool for those seeking power to restrict liberty.

    In today's PC world, the left is rather adept at playing victim and turning it into a huge
    affair, resulting in ever more rules / regulations (often misguided,
    with unintended consequences, and subject to expansion and abuse) that
    take away everyone's liberty.

    It seems there is a witch hunt attitude in favor of claims of (overplayed) victimhood of one party/group or another. It is now beginning to look like an end-zone victory dance, stomping on the backs of their opponents. It is not enough to win, but to crushingly dominate to all aspects of their world view.

  11. mesocyclone:

    Yes, of course lIberty over all is a much bigger issue than gay marriage. The infringements on liberty from gay marriage are real, however, to my co-religionists. In Libertopia, the government wouldn't grant favors to any kind of marriage, and it wouldn't coerce people to provide services to others for that or any other reason. Libertopia is a very long ways off, and given human nature, I believe it always will be. Libertarianism, like Marxism, ignores human nature, and the result are utopian ideas that never seem to work out in practice.

    That being said, attention to liberty is more important now than ever before in the US, since the left has shown that the only kind of liberty they care about is freedom from all sexual taboos (except the ones they approve of - see the current campus rape hysteria), and any other liberty will be crushed as they see fit. I see the most important role of libertarians in our society is being a nagging reminder to conservatives when they go too far from liberty.