289 BC: The legendary Greek general Pyrrhus of Epirus leads an army of over 20,000 warriors to defend his homeland against his brother-in-law Demetrius’s invasion. At the head of the invading forces is Demetrius’s foremost general Pantauchus, whose army numbers perhaps 11,000. As the armies clash, heavy fighting ensues and the outnumbered Pantauchus seeks Pyrrhus on the battlefield. Through the din of clashing spears and swords, Pantauchus manages to single out Pyrrhus and challenges him to individual combat. Pyrrhus accepts and the duel ensues:
“After hurling spears at each other they fought it out with swords. Pyrrhus was wounded, but in return wounded his opponent twice, in the thigh and in the neck. Pantauchus’ bodyguards had to carry him away. Emboldened by their king’s victory, the Epirotes resumed their attack and broke Pantauchus’ army, and took 5,000 prisoners. The army then honoured Pyrrhus by bestowing the surname of ‘Eagle’ upon him.”Source
The showdown between Pyrrhus and Pantauchus is just one of many examples in the ancient world when leaders put their lives in danger to earn their men’s respect and support. When one reads ancient history, it becomes clear that kings and rulers routinely put themselves in harm’s way, often making themselves even more vulnerable than the average soldier they commanded. Julius Caesar and Alexander the Great, two of history’s most prolific conqueror’s, were famous for their bravery in battle. Alexander was said to fight like a man possessed, showing no regard for his own physical safety. By the time of his death at a young 32 years of age, the warrior-king sported multiple battle wounds from his recklessness. Other examples include George Washington, King Leonidas of Sparta, and Napoleon Bonaparte.
RULES FOR THEE AND NOT FOR ME
In the past, when a ruler made the decision to go to war, it was often under the assumption that he would be personally leading the army and would be exposed to all the risks and consequences of his decision, just like his men. The ruler would ultimately bear the responsibility of the decisions he made. The way ancient leaders were willing to make themselves vulnerable to harsh conditions, injury, and even death shows a stark contrast to today’s delicate leaders, who bear little, if any, responsibility for decisions they make. Our modern leaders live in an insular bubble where they reap the benefits of authority without the boundaries of responsibility, never being affected or penalized for poor decision making. I’m not saying I expect our president or representatives to ride into battle at the head of an army; however, it would be refreshing to see some real accountability from government officials and bureaucrats, particularly when they are exercising more authority than ever with executive orders, emergency declarations, and vetoes.
For many, the recent pandemic lockdowns exposed many of our government officials as hypocrites. As governors and mayors issued lockdown orders and forced citizens to stay home, these same leaders went for vacations and partied with friends. Some high-profile examples of this were Governor of California Gavin Newsom, who hosted dinner parties after locking down his state, and Mayor of Austin, Texas Steve Adler, who vacationed in Mexico after issuing stay-at-home orders in his city.Though it’s possible these politicians will be voted out of their current offices, they’ll likely find new roles within politics and eventually re-emerge after being backed financially by other oligarchs within our political sphere. Their punishment for poor leadership will likely be a mere blip in their long, profitable political careers.
I have no delusions that our modern age is the first society to ever have hypocritical leaders or power-obsessed politicians who lack accountability – it’s been the state of things since the dawn of man. I do, however, believe that with specialization of skills brought about by capitalism, continual delegation of responsibilities by governments, and the vast scale of our societies, it’s becoming easier and easier for leaders to separate themselves from the unwashed masses that they have authority over. Even evil Roman emperors had to deal with the constant threat of rebellion or a murderous conspiracy to end their reign. Modern politicians merely worry about the latest opinion poll. Though the stakes for a politician’s decisions have never been higher since they affect more people than ever before, the potential repercussions are disproportionately smaller than they’ve been in the past. As mentioned above, our elected representatives have siphoned off much of their responsibilities to faceless bureaucratic agencies such as the CIA, FBI, NSA, FDA, EPA, and Federal Reserve. These agencies are run by heads who are appointed, not elected, making accountability even more difficult.
So, enough ranting, what’s the solution? I’m sure it’s no surprise I don’t have all the answers — I am, after all, just a guy on the internet. In an ideal world local authorities would have more sovereignty and federal authorities would have less. Local leaders would then be more visible and intimate with those they govern, and mistakes and triumphs could be more attributable to those local leaders. Perhaps as voters our goal should be to rein in federal authority and distribute that power to local officials.
Ultimately, none of our national or state-level leaders will ever be completely accountable for their decisions, and we’ll always be subject to rulers who are less than ideal. This is the state of the world, and usually our attempts at radical change to create more perfect systems fail and produce the worst kind of regimes. To mitigate the catastrophes of authoritarian rule, we can use discernment in selecting our local leaders while we still have a choice. We can attempt to live more independently, and in that way we’ll have more direct authority and responsibility over our own lives. Gone are the days when we could look to a just king to fight our battles for us like the ancient duel of Pyrrhus and Pantauchus. In order to find noble leaders who have a stake in the game, we need to think smaller. No popular internet figures who “speaks truth to power” or trendy politicians are going to risk their revenue stream or popularity to help solve our real-world problems. Finding great leaders will mean looking at our neighborhood, church, or office building and making sure we are holding those leaders accountable as well as helping them achieve small-scale, achievable goals.