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So Paul Ryan's Budget Is 'Draconian.' Who Was Draco?

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Until last Saturday, "draconian" was most frequently applied to certain drug laws, the government of South Korea and China's Olympic training program.

Now that adjective is in every piece about Paul Ryan and his slash-and-burn plan for the federal budget --- and it's not only Democrats who are using it.

Thomas Edsall, in the New York Times:

When Priorities USA tested reactions to specific provisions of the budget in focus groups, according to Burton, the participants thought the cuts were so draconian that "they couldn't believe a politician would support those policies.

David Gregory: "NBC's Gregory Sees 'Draconian' Cuts in Paul Ryan Budget"

Andrew Sullivan, on vacation, summoned a blast on Twitter:

Paul Ryan's draconian cuts for poor & goodies for rich, and its delay of balanced budget for 30 yrs, make easy target.

But... who was Draco?

Go back millenia, to ancient Athens, where a well-intentioned man created only misery.

Like this: In ancient Athens, there were no written laws. Nobles handled out harsh and arbitrary punishments, with the poor getting the least justice. Eventually, the citizens of Athens rebelled.

In 621 BC, the nobles chose Draco (born about 650 BC), a man who seemed to embody reason, to codify the laws.

He did -- but with a strictness that stunned Athens.

Especially when the verdict was announced and it was time to deal out punishment.

Draco ruled that the death penalty was appropriate for stealing even so much as a cabbage.

When he was asked why he made death the penalty for so many offenses, he replied that the lesser criminals deserved it --- and as for those who committed serious offenses, it was unfortunate that no harsher penalty was available. (Naturally, the lower your class, the nastier the punishment.)

Aristotle commented that Draco's laws were so harsh they were "written in blood" instead of ink.

Thus: draconian.

The Athenians had promised to obey Draco's laws, and they endured them -- for almost 25 years. Then rich and poor forced Draco to leave Athens. He retreated to the island of Ægina, where he spent the rest of his life. [He is said to have died at the theater, where his well-wishers, in the custom of the times, buried him in coats. He suffocated.]

Between approximately 594 to 614 B.C. -- a quarter of a century after Draco wrote out the criminal code -- the magistrate began repealing Draco's penalties for trivial crimes. The biggest difference: The death penalty was reserved solely for homicides.

Paul Ryan's budget? It is reported to slash the safety net: Medicaid, Medicare, Social Security. It would eliminate the mortgage tax exemption that is one reason Americans prefer to own their homes. Ryan would make abortion illegal. He would de-fund Planned Parenthood. And cut taxes for the rich and business. He'd cut investment in transportation by 25%, slash spending on science, and reduce spending on education and other social services by 33%. Draconian? No doubt.

All this may fly over the heads of those who aren't paying attention. But there's a shortcut to understanding the concept. When J.K. Rowling was writing her Harry Potter books, she needed a name for a character who was a bully. Thus: Draco Malfoy.

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