There is always the danger, as I said last time, that reliance on an institution for your survival will turn against you. By this, I’m talking about the government.
In my own era, government officials in the United States kill and arrest black Americans at disproportionately high rates. Many of these deaths are needless, brutal, and grotesque. We don’t talk about the names of murdered black people as often anymore because apparently the only newsworthy events on Earth today involve Donald Trump.
|Not only does the state have the power to kill you horribly, the|
institution itself is capable of laughing at you while you die. That
is the power of human cruelty.
I started this post with a deliberate reference to Auschwitz because it is a real example of what can happen when evil people turn all the machinery of the state against its own population.
Mass state violence in the democratic West is a genuine danger of our time. But it’s no reason to turn against the institution of government. It’s a more profound reason to lament this political turn toward mass imprisonment and deportation.
Because our government institutions normally bring us incredible benefits. Real material foundations of our basic standards of living.
Governments build our roads and transit systems, maintain our public services like hospitals, welfare and public insurance systems, the mail. They’ve built or helped build all our telecommunications infrastructure. Governments fund massive amounts of scientific research, and use numerous ways to finance every industry in a country.
If all these services and infrastructures were to disappear, our civilization would collapse. Hell, if they were privatized, our economy would collapse from the weight of unrestrained profit-maximizing user fees on every step we take.
More than these immediately material goods, governments are responsible for the constitution of our culture. By building all these systems, they bring their users in contact with each other. By providing a common source for all these systems, they encourage communication and alliances across the country.
Yet he also knows how dangerous a corrupted institution can be. So here’s the problem of politics* – How do you prevent an inevitably corruptible creature like people from corrupting the institutions that we need to live, but which are so dangerous?
* I feel comfortable making a stab at a universal definition for the first time in my writing career. I’ve only been working on the research and thinking for this book for four years.
One provisional definition he makes in the Discourses on Livy is that you can set up an institution that completely removes incentive from ambition. An institution where the most ambitious are stymied and blocked at every turn. Where everyone will always find someone to block their ego and desire.
For Machiavelli, the institutions of the Roman Republic achieved that. The balance of powers in government between the Senate, the Consuls, Magistrates, and Tribunes all prevented any one man, clan, or faction dominating the whole government.
The framers of America’s constitution in 1788 applied the same principle to their government, with the opposition of legislatures, the White House, and the judiciary.
Rome itself fell. An alliance of ambitious military officers carried out a coup, and the most ruthless of them arranged dictatorial powers for himself within a few years. Julius Caesar neutered the power of the democratic institutions of Rome.
His assassination didn’t stop the long coup because his family and military partisans defeated and killed the democratic aristocrats who wanted to restore power to the institutions. But power came to rest with men instead.
Can you counteract humanity’s tyrannical gravity forever? . . . To be continued
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