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Gridiron Honor

By Thomas B. Cotton

Since my thesis writing was less than prodigious this past fall, I spent last week at Harvard while my peers were skiing or recovering from Christmas. The week was not so bad. It was after all, Bowl Week for college football. I spent half of each day writing my thesis and half watching football on television. The last game of the week, the Orange Bowl, had an interesting pre-game feature story. It chronicled Peyton Manning, the All-American, record-setting quarterback from the University of Tennessee.

Last March, Manning made a most unusual decision: he returned for his senior year. In the past five years, it has become a matter of course for the most talented underclassmen to leave school and enter the NFL draft. Manning stayed at Tennessee for another shot at the national championship, the Southeastern Conference championship, and the Heisman Trophy, the award given to college football's most outstanding player. Manning succeeded only in earing the Conference title. The feature story asked Manning if he regretted his decision. Manning said absolutely not, that he would not change one thing about the past year.

To counter Manning, the feature story asked a sports agent the same question. He predictably disagreed with Manning. The agent noted that Manning would have been picked first in the draft last year, whereas this year he might fall as low as fourth or fifth. In the NFL draft, that means a loss of probably fifteen to twenty million dollars. The agent could not understand how could anyone be so stupid. But then again, the agent lacks the trait that distinguishes Manning from his brethren: honor.

Returning for his senior year gave Manning nothing more than one last chance to vindicate his honor. (He had earned his bachelors degree in three years.) It gave him a chance for vengeance against the teams that had beaten Tennessee. It gave him a chance to prove the claim that Tennessee was not only the best team in the Southeastern Conference, but also in the nation. It gave him a chance to prove his mettle to the Heisman voters from previous years. He failed at all but one. So what? He placed his honor over his pocketbook.

We dislike honor in this most democratic age; it smacks of royalty and nobility. It conjures images of deserved distinction, that inequality most hated by egalitarians. We agree with the sports agent: take the money and run-it's all that matters. But is it? Do we, and should we, place something like honor over physical safety and material luxury?

James Madison, arguing in favor of the Constitution, said "the accumulation of all powers, legislative, executive and judiciary, in the same hands may justly be pronounced the very definition of tyranny." Well, that is robust rhetoric, but it is not quite true. It so happens that every tyrant has possessed those three powers and that every person who has possessed them has ruled as a tyrant. That, however, is mere coincidence.

Aristotle gave us the true definition of tyranny: the absolute rule of one person, without law, for his or her private good. It complicates matters if we insert "public" for "private." In theory, the lawless rule of one person could be the best form of government, if that person loves justice and the public good.

Anyone can see that a beneficent tyrant could better protect us from foreign aggression. Without the constraints of a Congress, the tyrant could act more swiftly and effectively to prevent, or prosecute, foreign wars.

Likewise, a beneficent tyrant could better provide for domestic tranquillity. He could prevent crime much better than our courts, and he could punish it more justly since the generality of the law does not bind him. In addition, a beneficent tyrant probably could better manage our economy than does the current, fractured system of the Federal Reserve, the President and the Congress.

We reject tyranny in practice because no one possesses the wisdom and justice to exercise it beneficently. But why should we reject it in theory? If we care only about physical safety and material luxury, there is no reason to reject tyranny in theory. If we care about honor, however, we will reject even a beneficent tyranny.

A tyrant, regardless of his qualities, turns citizens into subjects. More to the point, a tyrant rules over subjects as a master rules slaves. To live life as a slave dishonors humans. Without self-government, physical safety and material luxury are nothing but the barn and the hay for human cattle. Some people would certainly accept that life if the barn is warm and the hay fresh, but honorable Americans disdain it. They truly believe in the motto "Live Free or Die."

In 1998, we fortunately do not face that choice. Tyranny does not threaten us. Our choice is more akin to "Live Free or Submit to Bureaucracy." Our expansive federal bureaucracy is inefficient, but worse than that, it is dishonorable and degrading. It tells Americans that they cannot govern themselves, that they must submit to the rule of others.

Alan Blinder, a professor of economics at Princeton, writes in the November-December 1997 edition of Foreign Affairs that government is too political. That is his way of saying that the people, through their elected representatives, are incapable of self-rule. In the name of greater efficiency and prosperity, Blinder would send complex and contentious political questions to unelected bureaucrats, further degrading Americans' honor when we should be reclaiming it.

Those like Blinder-most of them are academics--who would dishonor Americans should remember one obvious and telling fact. We revere individuals like Peyton Manning, but we despise leeches like the disbelieving sports agent.

Thomas B. Cotton's column will resume next semester.

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