Continued from last post . . . Before you can know if an institution’s structure and rules will lead people to make the best decisions, you have to know what kinds of decisions would be the best.
It sounds like I’m moving in circles. I’m not. I’m looking for presuppositions. The questions that need an answer if you’re going to develop a clear answer to the question you asked in the first place. So what makes a decision good for a community?
This is a question of the common good of a community. Well, what constitutes that common good depends on how we understand good. Are we thinking like a typical utilitarian? Not when we read Machiavelli. Nowhere in the Discourses on Livy does he perform the callous mathematics of a too-simple utilitarian.
His examples of noble behaviour discuss plenty of sacrifices. He praises, in multiple places, the decision of a Roman republican ruler executing his own sons when their actions and personal ambitions put the republic at risk of invasion or tyranny. Machiavelli is no stranger to cruelty to save the common good.
But this isn’t an everyday cruelty. The libertarian right is today’s most popularly powerful philosophy of freedom thanks to modern think tank networks. Think of how they and their founder philosophers think of cruelty in the name of the common good.
This isn’t the kind of common good Machiavelli talks about when he describes the cruelty of necessary sacrifices. The sacrifices of Roman and Italian republicans are rare – they occur only at times of domestic instability, coups, wars, invasions from imperial war machines.
The common or public good, as Machiavelli describes it throughout the Discourses, is for everyone in society to stand before each other in equal dignity. Now, this does require some financial levelling. He describes the corrosive effect on society of too large a class of the idle rich.
These are people whose riches are so great that they encourage laziness and self-absorption. The super-rich are isolated from any association with anyone other than those they employ to serve them. Their money even isolates them from the need to be kind to others. Even the smallest altruism required for minimal participation in civic life disgusts them.
Such people are socially cancerous – their personalities degrade and insult the dignity of everyone around them. The only goods that matter to the idle rich are private goods, that which makes the rich richer. “It is not the private good but the common good that makes cities great.” That’s in Book Two, Chapter 2.
Contrast the private, egomaniacal goods that the idle rich seek with the public goods that democratic citizens seek – You see more clearly what the public good is.
Whatever the situation of your community, whatever problems you face in your economy, society, infrastructure, whatever – If you think with altruism and work together with your neighbours and compatriots, you’ll understand the public good and work toward it.
That altruism is the expression of the best patriotism. As long as altruism is at the heart of community action, you’ll fend off corruption and corrosion.
If you think only of your own personal good and see others only as means to your advancement, enrichment, prestige, and pleasure . . . The word you’re looking for is ‘tyrant.’
Now, this is fine for a clearly defined community. But at the borders, who is and isn't your compatriot gets slippery.