What a People Are Ready For, Research Time, 16/05/2017

Here's another troubling parallel from Machiavelli’s writings to our own time. Late in Book III of the Discourses on Livy, he talks about what kinds of government are best for different cultural characters.

It’s a pretty common refrain in his writing, generally. But I’m thinking of one of his returns to this question produced a very disturbing answer. He asks what kind of leadership is suited to free people, and what’s suited for a subject, beaten-down people.

Free people make up a population who chafe against any authoritarian attempt to control them. Such people live by norms of free expression, free association, mutual respect, and dedication to the public good.

They need a government that respects them. A free people won’t want to be ordered around by authorities – at least not without good reason.

I never want to live in a society where I have to act as though
someone like Bashar Assad would be my potential boss. Worse
even than that is something even more horrible – a mind-set
that takes such a possibility as something utterly ordinary.
Free people won’t revolt against paying any taxes at all, for example. At least not free people who have the robust dedication to the public good that Machiavelli described as the popular attitude of Republican Rome. It’s a very current example today, because there’s such a powerful American movement for a flavour of libertarian philosophy that seeks to shrink the entire state to almost nothing in the name of freedom.

That's not what I mean. I mean that a free people in this sense will gladly go along with the orders of their government if the government is explicitly answerable to them and shares the same zeal for the public good.

So far so wonderful. Naturally, it all teeters on the edge of collapse.

Remember that Machiavelli conceives of human societies as having a life cycle. Societies with the best starting and development conditions for the best human life will be fantastic places. For a while anyway. But all societies grow corrupt – small inequalities interact to magnify each other until we live in an oligarchy.

Machiavelli argues that a subject people are best suited to a tyrannical government. They have no devotion to the public good, to the betterment of their community. They’re power-hungry would-be killers – a subject people are a society of thieves.

Those thieves don’t need a government that answers to them. If the government answered to a society like that, it would turn into a kleptocracy. The seats of government would be occupied by people dedicated to raiding the treasury and enriching themselves through backroom deals with powerful businessmen.

That doesn’t sound familiar to anyone today, does it?

And as far as Machiavelli knows, a society at that point of degradation won’t be able to heal itself from a state like that without a complete renewal. It would be a wholly new society, having transformed itself so radically to change from a corrupt oligarchy to a society of free people. So what’s the hope for us?

There’s a curious comment in that chapter. Machiavelli writes that such oligarchies – dens of hundreds of thousands or even millions and billions of thieves – are prone to revolution as the public grows disgusted with their tyrants.

In that revolution, maybe renewal can be found. You can make a whole new society.

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