Rhyming History

It’s hard to draw conclusive lessons from history, because the sample size is limited, and the evidence is surprisingly scanty. Estimates of historical GDP are basically guesses. No-one really understands why crucial events took place. Even on simple matters, there’s no clear answer. Was Cleopatra beautiful? Dio says she was stunning. Plutarch says she was nothing special, but extremely charming. Neither met her, and there’s not much else to go on. Naturally, Hollywood’s take is the convenient one.

Despite this, history is the best guide we have. So when AMcGuinn praises absolute monarchy, I tend to look at the historical record. I’ve just finished a biography of Edward I, who was about as absolute a ruler as you could wish for, and half the book was about politics. If Edward didn’t placate the country’s important stakeholders, he wasn’t going to be king for long. Edward I is one of our archetypal “good kings” not because he was immune from politics (every ruler governs through a system, no individual has total power) but because he was strong and wise enough to placate his stakeholders, unlike his grandfather, father and son.

That’s why I side with Aretae: our nominal systems of rule are fictions. There are always stakeholders, even if you pretend that one man is completely in charge, and some matter more than others, even if you pretend we’re all equal. As Aretae points out, the economic realities are unavoidable, and I would merely add that, contra AMcGuinn, a system of stable laws, binding on the rulers as well as the ruled, are to the benefit of both. Look what happens to the rate of interest on English government debt between 1680 and 1700.

Aretae is of course right that what we would all like is a stable, disinterested, all-powerful entity that would set up and enforce a minimal form of government, and otherwise leave us alone. But I don’t see how such a thing is realistic. Here in second-best land, I think constitutional democracy is still the best thing going, but it needs a different set of checks and balances. As an initial measure, I would like to see the vote taken away from all government employees and anyone receiving benefits. Further measures can then be taken as appropriate – evolution, not revolution. To counter any charge of self-interest, I would of course be happy to give up my own vote in perpetuity as part of the reform. The aim is not to make my own vote more powerful, but to change the incentives facing voters.

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2 responses to this post.

  1. Edward I was very far from an absolute monarch; he had to raise both taxes and armies through independent hereditary nobles. The government technology at that time simply did not allow for management of a national civil service. Because of that, absolute monarchy is quite a modern idea — it didn’t begin to exist as a concept until the 17th century.

    But democracies too are subject to limitations: for instance, I can think of no instances in history of a democracy significantly reducing the franchise, such as you recommend. From 89BC to 1928, that ratchet moves in only one direction.

    Reply

  2. Posted by I am not... on March 29, 2011 at 7:53 am

    It depends what you mean by absolute. He was legally absolute – you are quite right that his absolutism was a fiction, that in fact he needed the consent of the barons (and indeed important churchmen). These are the people I refer to as the stakeholders. But a modern government with a national civil service equally has stakeholders. Edward’s feudal barons have been replaced by civil servants, generals, oligarchs, etc, but the principle remains the same. Edward was probably more absolute than a monarch with a national civil service, because he was more able to rely on personal strength and charisma. An absolute ruler with a large bureaucracy must do as his bureaucrats tell him.

    The Test and Corporation Acts are a counter-example to your second point.

    Reply

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