After the riots in Athens, the Greek authorities decided to enact new laws to deal with their obvious problems. The new laws, which treat rich and poor alike for the first time, have been seen has harsh. The name of the legislator who wrote the laws is a man called Draco. The date is believed to be 621 B.C. And more than 2,600 years later, the adjectival form of his name -- draconian -- is still tossed around here in Washington anytime someone proposes real budget cuts.
Of course, most of the Washington hands who hurl the "draconian" charge around probably do not know that Draco's laws were considered "just" according to Aristotle. For the first time in Athenian law, the codes were written down so that even poor people could know what was legal and what was illegal -- thus they could avoid inadvertently breaking the law.
Also, for the first time, the government took responsibility for enforcing punishment for crimes -- thus ending the need for vendettas.
The only "draconian" part of Draco's laws was the punishment for their violation, which he set as death for all violations, whether petty theft or murder. The reason for the "harsh" punishment, Plutarch explained in his "Life of Solon":
"It is said that Draco himself, when asked why he had fixed the punishment of death for most offenses, answered that he considered these lesser crimes to deserve it, and he had no greater punishment for more important ones." (Now, this was a man!) Hat tip to Shakespeare's Julius Caesar for that parenthetic phrase.
So, as we enter budget season in Washington this week, unless the Republican proposals include a death sentence for their violation, no one should get away with hurling the charge of "draconian cuts." The charge is both prefabricated and historically illiterate.
Actually, considering the unconscionable level of deficit-passing recidivism practiced in Washington for decades now, the "draconian" punishment has a certain appeal -- at least for those of us of the old school.
The Scots also have a fine tradition of firm enforcement of the law. According to a Scottish proverb (that would seem to have been inspired by the draconian spirit): "Hang a thief when he's young, and he'll not steal when he's old."
One certainly cannot argue with the logic of the proverb -- although given the level of theft at the time, so many hangings may have adversely affected population growth.
Lamentably, capital punishment is not on the table for discussion in our capitol -- only the technically non-criminal matter of spending less of the people's money, and borrowing less of the Chinese's money.
The only genuinely "draconian" policy in Washington is the multi-trillion-dollar annual deficits being run up that constitute a death sentence on our children's and grandchildren's prosperity and liberty.
The thing to be condemned should be "draconian deficits," not "draconian deficit cuts."
From the early reports of the White House's proposed 2012 budget, they will be more subject to the former than the latter charge.
According to the Washington Post, quoting the administration (don't take my word for it): "The White House proposal, outlined Friday by a senior administration official, would barely put a dent in deficits that congressional budget analysts say could approach $12 trillion through 2021. But the policies would stabilize borrowing, the administration official said, while reversing the trend of ramping up spending..."
When a ship is sinking, one might consider actually pumping out more water than is rushing in. But the White House is content to "stabilize" these draconian deficits, they increased in the past two years. (See how nicely the alliterative phrase "draconian deficits" sounds. Let's try it again and again: "draconian deficits, draconian deficits...")
Even worse, the administration's budget proposal -- which also includes tax increases and defense cuts -- justifies even further new spending (what they mislabel "investing") with the benign sounding presidential phrase: "It cuts what we can't afford, to pay for what we cannot do without."
Huh? It doesn't "cut what we can't afford," because the administration-proposed budget still spends more that a trillion dollars more than we take in.
So to actually "cut what we can't afford," they would have to deliver a balanced budget (or at the least, a deficit of less than 3 percent of GDP) -- neither of which they do.
Conversely, the new spending is not things "we cannot do without." In fact, we have done without these new spending programs for the entire two and a quarter centuries of our existence as a country.
Perhaps, by my attention to correct word usage, I can be accused of verbal prissiness. But if we can't gain sufficient precision in our words, we are unlikely to gain sufficient precision in our deficit reductions. And that is the alleged object of our government this season.