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The Politics of Bread and Circuses

By: José Azel - Sep 13, 2013, 4:31 pm

“Bread and circuses” is a pejorative metaphor for political strategies calculated to appease a population and divert attention from controversial or failed policies with populist welfare programs and low quality entertainment and distractions. Public support is thus created not through exceptional public service and effective public policy, but through diversion, and patronage.

bread-and-circus

The phrase originates with the Roman practice of retaining political power by providing free wheat and circus gladiatorial games to Roman citizens. In modern usage, the expression also implies a perverse trivializing erosion of civic values in the citizenry.

As a political strategy, bread and circuses transcend time and space. In Spain the saying takes the form of “pan y toros” (bread and bullfights), elsewhere as “pan y fútbol” (soccer), and in Russia as “bread and spectacle.” In contemporary Latin America, “pan y circo” politics have become institutionalized, reaching maximum expression in the failed economies of Cuba and Venezuela.

In Cuba, the Castro brothers have perfected the strategy with food ration cards, and other patronage mechanisms, as well as with innumerable distractions ranging from marathon speeches and rallies, to fashioning circus-like fight-to-death causes. In Venezuela, Hugo Chavez, used “Pan y Circo” politics with gusto.

Charlatan protagonism of the Castro-Chavez genre is a distinguishing characteristic of the Latin-American brand of “Pan y Circo” politics where the emphasis is on the circus. The American variety focuses more on the bread.

Regardless of whether the accent is on the bread or the circuses, this style of politics enfeebles the formulation of effective public policy, debilitates civil society, discredits public life, undermines statesmanship, and leads to incompetent, ineffectual governments.

Recently, columnist and author Andres Oppenheimer cited “ineptocracy” (in-ep-toc’-ra-cy) as a new definition for bad governments. In an ineptocracy, the least capable to lead are elected by the least capable to succeed, and government patronage is used to reward the least capable to succeed for electing the least capable to lead. In this US election season, ineptocracy has become a T-Shirt slogan evocative of Ayn Rand’s premise in Atlas Shrugged.

In the competing arguments, some view market solutions to social problems with skepticism. To them, assigning a humanitarian task to government, say healthcare, automatically imbues the entire process with inherent morality and effectiveness. These government tasks are supposed to correct market inefficiencies. In this view, the quality of a state should be measured by the amount of “social expenditures” that it incurs. The more the state spends on social subsides, the more compassionate the state is believed to be.

Critics view increases in the largesse of government programs as pandering politics undermining personal responsibility. To them, it is perverse logic to champion social expenditures as a fundamental “reason for being” of government. Social expenditures rely on contributions from other sectors of society via taxation and other mechanisms. Wealth is not being created, just redistributed. The goal of the state should be to promote socioeconomic systems where most citizens are able to provide adequately for their own needs so that most social expenditures become unnecessary. Thus the quality of a state should be measured in reverse proportion to the social expenditures that are required to assist the citizenry.

My grandchildren tell me that in the final book of The Hunger Games trilogy (I confess I have not read the books) it is revealed that “Panem,” the country’s name in that dystopian world, was taken from the Latin Panem et Circenses. The term was coined in a work by first century Roman writer Juvenal. In his satire, Juvenal laments that the people have become addicted to the doling out of political favors and have abdicated their citizenship duties. He expresses disdain that they no longer participate in politics and long eagerly for just two things — bread and circuses.

Considering the low levels of citizen participation in American politics, and our affinity for jejune entertainment, it appears the politics of bread and circuses have aged well since the fall of the Roman Empire. The Hunger Games takes place in a post-apocalyptic world located where the countries of North America once existed. Let’s hope the plot stays in the realm of fiction.

This article first appeared in the Miami Herald.

José Azel José Azel

Senior scholar at the Institute for Cuban and Cuban-American Studies at the University of Miami. Azel was a political exile from Cuba at the age of 13 in 1961 and is the author of Mañana in Cuba. Follow @JoseAzel.