EVANSVILLE – If we gauge a nation’s performance in terms of economic prosperity, peace, freedom, and lack of corruption, the single biggest determining factor in ensuring that performance is citizens’ respect for the rule of law. Few things, if any, matter more to a nation’s success and longevity. 

The rule of law depends on a citizenry collectively respecting those boundaries. We tell one another and ourselves that the words we ascribe to law – due process, equality, justice – carry force and meaning. Against cynicism, we believe we’re ruled not by raw power, but by these magical ideas underlying the rule of law.

We underestimate what happens when we set aside the rule of law and we underestimate the utter fragility of modernity. Many times in history, we’ve turned the clock back to a much tougher and rougher past. The events of the past week offer just a peek at what may be in store for us.

Although ancient Romans and Europeans could enjoy things like hot piped water, luxurious baths, and central heat, these were nothing more than dreams for centuries after Rome fell.

We think that our traditional normal is here to stay and that the “system” will deliver the goods. But the truth is that modern systems are like spiderwebs – break one part and the whole thing gets exponentially weaker. Romans who lived through the fall must have been shocked at how quickly things fell apart.

When we blithely mock our own systems, when we knock down institutions, when we take political pleasure in zero-sum fights, when we take war and pandemics less than seriously, brutality, starvation, and violence are never too far away from modern life.

Even the most cynical, jaded, and corrupt Romans of Nero’s era must have been horrified at what they had unleashed once it was clear they were going way back in time. And once they went back, the only way forward was centuries of deprivation and painfully slow invention.
Ancient Rome saw itself and its progress as eternal, as did pre-war Europe. Have we lulled ourselves into similar complacency?

Modernity is one of God’s greatest gifts to us. Cherish it, cultivate it, protect it. Don’t let systems get vandalized or institutions get wrecked.

Protecting modernity means protecting systems, institutions, and norms of civilization. This is not some idle musing: these things stand between you and your family and chaos. Without truth, systems, and objective laws, you don’t get science. Without science, you don’t get clean water, antibiotics, and vaccines.

As Rome fell, it’s interesting to note that truth and facts became subordinated to pleasure, corruption, luxury, and belief in magic. We must take note of prior mistakes and not let them repeat. Modernity, technology, and civilization are all very fragile things.

Which side will you choose? 

Claybourn is an Evansville attorney.