Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Great Thinker Confusion

The Dictator's Handbook, pg 33

[P]olitics is not terribly complicated. But by the same measure, history’s most revered political philosophers haven’t explained it very well. The fact is, people like Niccolò Machiavelli, Thomas Hobbes, James Madison, and Charles-Louis de Secondat (that is, Montesquieu), not to forget Plato and Aristotle, thought about government mostly in the narrow context of their times.

Hobbes sought the best form of government. His search, however, was blinded by his experience of the English civil war, the rise of Cromwell, and his fear of rule by the masses. Fearing the masses, Hobbes saw monarchy as the natural path to order and good governance. Believing in the necessary benevolence of an absolute leader, the Leviathan, he also concluded that, “no king can be rich, nor glorious, nor secure, whose subjects are either poor, or contemptible, or too weak through want, or dissension, to maintain a war against their enemies." Taking a bit of liberty with Hobbes’s more nuanced philosophy, we must wonder how R. Rizzo [a corrupt small charter charter town -Bell- politician who, affirming BBM's theory of small winning coalition, stole bunch of money], by Hobbesian lights, could grow so rich when his subjects, the citizens of Bell, were so demonstrably poor.

Machiavelli, an unemployed politician/civil servant who hoped to become a hired hand of the Medici family—that is, perhaps the Rizzo of his day—wrote The Prince to demonstrate his value as an adviser. It seems the Medicis were not overly impressed—he didn’t land the job. He had, we believe, a better grasp than Hobbes on how politics can create self-aggrandizing practices such as were experienced in Bell half a millennium later. Writing in The Discourses, Machiavelli observes that anyone seeking to establish a government of liberty and equality will fail, “unless he withdraws from that general equality a number of the boldest and most ambitious spirits, and makes gentlemen of them, not merely in name but in fact, by giving them castles and possessions, as well as money and subjects; so that surrounded by these he may be able to maintain his power, and that by his support they may satisfy their ambition. . . .”. Rizzo might have done well to study Machiavelli as the best source of his defense against public opprobrium. He maintained his power for long years by satisfying the ambition for wealth and position of those loyal to him on Bell’s city council, and they really were the only people whose support he had to have.

James Madison, a revolutionary trying to bring his brand of politics into power, was, like Hobbes, looking revolution in the face. Unlike Hobbes, however, Madison actually liked what he saw. In Federalist 10, Madison contemplated the problem that was to bedevil the citizens of Bell a quarter of a millennium later, “whether small or extensive Republics are most favorable to the election of proper guardians of the public weal: and it is clearly decided in favor of the latter.” His conclusion, not easily reached as he was fearful about tyranny of the majority, is close to what we argue is correct although, as always, the devil is in the details and Madison, we believe, fell a bit short on the details of good governance. In describing a republic as large or small, he failed to distinguish between how many had a say in choosing leaders and how many were essential to keeping a leader in place. The two, as we will see, can be radically different.

Madison’s view was at odds with that of Montesquieu, who maintained that, “In a large republic the public good is sacrificed to a thousand views; it is subordinate to exceptions; and depends on accidents. In a small one, the interest of the public is easier perceived, better understood, and more within the reach of every citizen; abuses have a lesser extent, and of course are less protected.”. Not so in Bell—and in Bell we trust.

For Montesquieu, the Enlightenment, the new Cartesian thinking, and the emerging constitutional monarchy of Britain all combined to stimulate his insightful ideas of political checks and balances. Through these checks and balances he hoped to prevent exactly the corruption of public welfare that the charter city election in Bell foisted on its citizens.

Of course, the option of forming a charter city was motivated, in theory, exactly by a quest for checks and balances on the authority of California’s state legislature. But the electoral public in the charter city special election was a meager 390 souls, and even in Bell’s contested elections before the scandal, fewer than a quarter of registered voters, themselves only a quarter of the city’s population, bothered to vote. That’s not enough to prevent the very corruption Montesquieu hoped to avoid [this doesn't mean checks and balances through other institutions are not good of course].

Now there is no doubt that Montesquieu, Madison, Hobbes, and Machiavelli were very clever and insightful thinkers (and surely brighter than us). However, they got an awful lot of politics wrong simply because they were coping with momentary circumstances. They were looking at but a small sample of data, the goings-on surrounding them, and bits and pieces of ancient history. They also lacked modern tools of analysis (which we, luckily, have at our disposal). Consequently, they leapt to partially right, but often deeply wrong, conclusions. In all fairness to these past luminaries, their shortcomings often have to do with the fact that, besides being bound by their then-present contexts, these thinkers were also caught up in “the big questions”—what the highest nature of man ought to be, or what the “right” state of government really is, or what “justice” truly means in political terms. This shortsightedness extends not only to history’s legends in political thought, but also to contemporary thinkers like Jürgen Habermas, Michel Foucault, and John Rawls—thinkers who someday may be viewed in the same light.

The big questions of how the world ought to be are indeed important. But they are not our focus. Questions of philosophical values and metaphorical abstractions—these simply don’t apply to the view of politics that we’ll present in the pages ahead. We do not start with a desire to say what we think ought to be. It is hard to imagine that anyone, including ourselves, cares much about what we think ought to be. Neither do we exhort others to be better than they are. Not that we do not hope to find ways to improve the world according to our lights. But then, we believe that the world can only be improved if first we understand how it works and why. Working out what makes people do what they do in the realm of politics is fundamental to working out how to make it in their interest to do better things.

The modern vernacular of politics and international relations, from balances of power and hegemony to partisanship and national interest, is the stuff of high school civics and nightly news punditry. It has little to do with real politics. And so, you may be delighted—or disappointed—to hear that this particular book of politics is not concerned with any of this. Our account of politics is primarily about what is, and why what is, is. In this book, we hope to explain the most fundamental and puzzling questions about politics, and in the process give all of us a better way to think about why the worlds of rulers and subjects, of authorities and rights, of war and peace, and, in no small way, of life and death all work in the ways that they do. And maybe, just maybe, from time to time we will see paths to betterment.