This is the twenty-first in a series on The Harvard Classics; the rest of the posts are available here. Volume XXI: I Promessi Sposi, Manzoni
Positions in civil government, from national presidency to homeowners’ association board seats, can be magnets for those who would take advantage of their neighbors. An excellent example of this corruption can be found in I Promessi Sposi, (most often translated as The Betrothed,) by Alessandro Manzoni. When the plague struck Milan in 1629, vicious and rapacious men saw an opportunity. The tumult caused by the plague made it easy for these bad actors to operate without consequence. Indeed, many of them found it expedient to take official government posts, the better to steal and blackmail. “The villains, whom the pestilence spared and did not terrify, found in the common confusion, and in the relaxation of all public authority, a new opportunity of activity, together with new assurances of impunity; nay, the administration of public authority itself came, in a great measure, to be lodged in the hands of the worst among them. Generally speaking, none devoted themselves to the offices of monatti and apparitori but men over whom the attractions of rapine and license had more influence than the terror of contagion, or any natural object of horror.” And once it was clear how much profit was to be made as a government-employed extortionist and robber, these men worked to perpetuate the plague, and thereby perpetuate their power. They would “purposely let fall from their carts infected clothes, in order to propagate and keep up the pestilence, which had become to them a means of living, a kingdom, a festival.” It is remarkable what those in power are capable of doing to maintain their position.
But, as rare as they may be, there actually are examples of political leaders who come into power for noble reasons and maintain their virtue despite that power. Manzoni relates the story of Father Felice Casati, a Capuchin friar who became a sort of minor autocrat during the plague. As the pestilence spread through Milan and the surrounding area, the population of the Lazaretto of Milan swelled. The Lazaretto was a huge quarantine building that became a city unto itself. Although people were dying at a prodigious rate, the population of the Lazaretto exploded as more and more people contracted the plague. At one point, as many as 16,000 people filled the Lazaretto. With so many sick and desperate people, good governance was needed to keep the Lazaretto from becoming pandemonium. The Board of Health decided to install Father Felice as governor of the Lazaretto. Although not a glamorous appointment, the governor was granted “primary and ultimate authority” within the Lazaretto. With this power Father Felice “animated and regulated every duty, pacified tumults, settled disputes, threatened, punished, reproved, comforted, dried and shed tears.” He was absolute dictator within the confines of his quarantine kingdom, but neither that power nor the plague corrupted him.
In at least this once instance, there was an exception to Lord Acton’s axiom that “power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But to rely on every (or virtually any) politician being another Father Felice is probably a mistake. To paraphrase H. L. Mencken: cleaning up politics by electing righteous people makes no more sense than cleaning up a brothel by filling it with virgins; they either lose their virtue or jump out the window.
Beer of the week: 98 Problems IPA – This hazy orange India Pale Ale is a product of Michigan’s Perrin Brewing Company. The aroma is dominated by pineappley and floral hops. The hops also dominate the flavor, with crisp bitterness both up front and lingering in the aftertaste. Despite the name, there’s not much wrong with 98 Problems.
Reading of the week: I Promessi Sposi by Alessandro Manzoni – Although I Promessi Sposi is a work of fiction, the author tells us that his account of the plague is historically accurate. This excerpt tells how members of the Milanese public attacked doctors, accusing them of fabricating the claims about the plague for personal gain. It is an excellent study in how people will reject the truth and accuse its bearers of evil motivations if the truth is adverse enough to their interests.
Question for the week: What is the best mechanism for curbing political corruption?
This is the last post in a series on Franklin’s moral improvement plan, the rest of the posts are available here.
HUMILITY: Imitate Jesus and Socrates.
When I first read Plutarch’s Life of Cato the Younger, it was paired with his Life of Julius Caesar. This juxtaposition seemed very favorable to Cato. Caesar, a second-rate Alexander and enemy of the Republic vs. Cato, virtue personified and defender of Rome. But a close look at Plutarch’s treatment of Cato makes it clear that the great biographer did not mean for Cato to be taken as the paragon of virtue.
The most pronounced inconsistency of virtue in Cato is his supposed humility. Plutarch shows that below this professed humility was a profound vanity. Cato repudiated his fellow senators for their ostentatious dress. But rather than wearing very plain and modest clothing, Cato wore a black toga that was calculated to stand out more than the even the most luxurious dress of his colleagues. He also made a point of not wearing underwear and sitting with his legs spread apart as if he did not already draw enough attention to himself.
Cato’s vanity is most visible in his visit to Antioch. He arrived to find “a great multitude of people outside the gates, ranged in order on either side the way; here the young men with long cloaks, there the children decently dressed; others wore garlands and white garments, who were the priests and magistrates.” Cato was incensed that the people should have such a grand ceremony in honor of his arrival. Of course, the extravagant greeting was not for him at all; the people were arranged to welcome a dignitary from Pompey. Cato himself, it seems, is the only person who had even thought of holding a parade in his honor. And this accidental admission gave the lie to his professed humility.
And finally, make sure that the audience sees what a hypocrite and poseur Cato was, Plutarch presents his suicide as a farce. Before the deed, Cato reads Phaedo twice. In that dialogue by Plato, Socrates calmly (some Roman philosophers would have argued “stoically”) accepted his fate and drank his poison. After reading this edifying tract on how to die with dignity, what did Cato do? He lost his temper and punched a slave in the mouth, badly injuring his own hand. When the time came to pull the proverbial trigger, Cato was unable to dispatch himself cleanly because he had trouble stabbing himself with his broken hand. He was forced, ultimately, to dig out his bowels with his bare hands. So much for imitating Socrates in his stoic and dignified death.
Beer of the week: Černá Hora Sklepní – This is Černá Hora’s “Cellar style” lager. It is an unfiltered, and therefore slightly cloudy, golden beer. The aroma is bready and the flavor follows closely. Because it is unfiltered, the beer has a bit more flavor than many Czech beers. There is a hint of spice and of apricot and there is just enough hops in the finish to round it out. Overall, this is a pretty good beer.
Reading for the week: The Life of Cato the Younger by Plutarch – A fitting reading would be the section about how Cato loved to drink wine all night and discourse about philosophy. But the suicide scene, presented here, is more on point.
Question for the week: It is probable that this post overstates Plutarch’s intent to show up Cato. For one thing, Plutarch explicitly states that the wearing of black was not out of vainglory. And he also says that Cato afterwards would laugh often at his misunderstanding at Antioch. But can the suicide scene be read any other way than as a farce?
Everybody ought to be familiar with Thoreau’s motto: “That government is best which governs least.” But does assessment not depend on what government is and where it comes from?
One understanding of the origin of government is the banding together of individuals for their common defense. “If every man has the right of defending, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property,” writes Frédéric Bastiat, “a number of men have the right to combine together, to extend, to organize a common force, to provide regularly for this defense.” A government so organized may only do what each individual could legitimately do himself. And if the action of government is properly limited to the common defense, it is surely the best government that needs to act the least.
Such a government could not take from one group of citizens to line the pockets of another group any more than an individual could steal from his neighbor. Neither could such a government subsidize a given industry any more than an industrialist could demand that his neighbors fund the building of his new factory. When these things are done by individuals, they are called theft and extortion, so why should they be permitted on a larger scale?
But the idea that government sprang from the collective right of self defense is not universally accepted. John Stuart Mill identifies the origin of government (or at least most governments) as separate from “the people”. In many instances, government did not derive from organized self defense of the governed but from conquest of the strong over the weak. Such governments were “in a necessarily antagonistic position to the people whom they ruled.”
Again, is it not clear that Thoreau’s maxim holds true? At least for those who are subjugated by the hostile ruling class, the government is best which governs (or, if you prefer, subjugates) least.
The twist is that when the people take control of the government, either from the beginning as Bastiat suggests or after popular uprisings occur as identified by Mill, they almost invariably go beyond the scope of simple defense. The tyranny of the majority is every bit as dangerous as the outside forces that Bastiat’s society banded together to defend against. The majority is also every bit as dangerous as the conquering rulers that subjugated Mill’s society.
It seems that however the government comes to be, Thoreau hit the nail on the head.
Beer of the week: Berghoff Granola Shambler – It is still technically summer, and it is still warm out, so pumpkin beers can wait. A radler (also known as a shandy) is usually beer mixed with a soft drink such as pop or lemonade. Traditionally, the base beer is a cheap pale lager. Berghoff has attempted to make their radler a bit more fancy. First, they brew the beer with wheat, oats, rye, and barley malt to get a full, rich base. Then they add grape juice and citrus fruits for a refreshing tang. Personally, I think that the amount of fruit they use is over the top. But I do like the idea of trying to make a high-end shandy.
Reading for the week: On Liberty by John Stuart Mill – Language is always equivocal, so it is important to start any serious work with definitions. On Liberty starts with the definition of liberty, not as freedom of will, but freedom from tyranny.
Question for the week: Is the organization of government for the common defense, like “Rousseau’s noble savage in smock and jerkin”, merely a fanciful tale to explain the creation of government?
One of the most common criticisms one sees of politicians is that they “flip-flop”. A politician who changes his position on issues is regarded as untrustworthy. What faith can be put in a man who contradicts himself. But, in the words of Walt Whitman, “Do I contradict myself? Very well then I contradict myself, (I am large, I contain multitudes.)”
In the case of the elected politician, he not only contains multitudes, he represents multitudes. Should not a democratically elected representative be willing to change his stance on an issue if he finds that his constituency has changed its stance? Some might argue that the politician’s primary duty is to reflect the current opinion of the electorate. If he flip-flops, that is only because the people vacillate.
And even if the politician does think for himself rather than repeat to the crowd whatever it wants to hear, individuals change their ideas and opinions all the time. Hopefully, they do not bounce back and forth between belief systems or ideologies willy-nilly, but even the most important beliefs and ideas are subject to change. As William Harvey wrote, good and true men do not “think it unworthy of them to change their opinion if truth and undoubted demonstration require them to do so.” It is much more admirable and sound to change one’s opinion than to stubbornly hold onto an opinion that has been proved to be wrong.
But still, the flip-flopper is reviled. And often, rightly so. The idea that a politician should simply mirror the opinion of his constituency is very problematic. In that case, the best politician has no virtue or integrity of his own. This precludes any man of principle from being elected. And as far as being willing to be convinced of the truth and to abandon old opinions in the light of new information, that is so rarely the case that such a person would not even be called a flip-flopper; he would be called something much worse.
Beer of the week: Kinroo Blue – Kinroo Blue is basically a store-brand Blue Moon, so I did not expect much. On one hand, this Belgian white ale has the edge on Blue Moon simply because it is actually from Belgium. On the other hand, I have had other beers from Brouwerij Martens NV, some of which were not particularly good. But we must judge the beer on it’s own merits, regardless of its origins. This cloudy, straw colored ale has lots of orange peel and clove on the nose. It is also quite fizzy, with lots of white foam. The flavor is sweet and citrusy, and fairly good for what it is. This is certainly not a great beer, but it is refreshing and reasonably priced.
Reading of the week: On the Motion of the Heart and Blood in Animals by William Harvey – In the Dedication to this ground-breaking work on the circulation of blood, Harvey really lays into those who cling to the natural philosophy of the ancients despite mounting scientific evidence.
Question of the week: Does the elected politician have a duty to his constituency to vote against his own conscience if the majority is large enough?
In his Notes on Democracy, H. L. Mencken applies his outrageous wit to the idea that gentlemen ought to go into politics to drive out the mountebanks (and for good measure, he describes the 19th Amendment prohibition on alcohol as a barrier to good men ever being elected):
Thus the ideal of democracy is reached at last: it has become a psychic impossibility for a gentleman to hold office under the Federal Union, save by a combination of miracles that must tax the resourcefulness even of God. The fact has been rammed home by a constitutional amendment: every office-holder, when he takes oath to support the Constitution, must swear on his honour that, summoned to the death-bed of his grandmother, he will not take the old lady a bottle of wine. He may say so and do it, which makes him a liar, or he may say so and not do it, which makes him a pig. But despite that grim dilemma there are still idealists, chiefly professional Liberals, who argue that it is the duty of a gentleman to go into politics—that there is a way out of the quagmire in that direction. The remedy, it seems to me, is quite as absurd as all the other sure cures that Liberals advocate. When they argue for it, they simply argue, in words but little changed, that the remedy for prostitution is to fill the bawdyhouses with virgins. My impression is that this last device would accomplish very little: either the virgins would leap out of the windows, or they would cease to virgins.
Read it again; I’ll wait.
His acerbic, cynical, and supremely clever writing will never get old. Unfortunately, it is really easy to let his delivery overshadow the message. There is much more to Mencken’s writing than bons mots. It is, I think, no coincidence that this quotation comes from a section of the book entitled Utopia. That word, naturally, has entered the English language by way of Thomas More’s philosophical fiction of the same name. In Utopia, the main character, Raphael Hythloday, expresses an opinion very similar to Mencken’s (although his presentation is not quite as humorous):
[A philosopher who joins the advisers to the king] will find no occasions of doing any good—the ill company will sooner corrupt him than be the better for him; or if, notwithstanding all their ill company, he still remains steady and innocent, yet their follies and knavery will be imputed to him; and, by mixing counsels with them, he must bear his share of all the blame that belongs wholly to others.
Raphael does not give up on the philosopher having a positive effect on politics, however. He claims that many philosophers have done their part to improve governance by writing books, “if those that are in power would but hearken to their good advice.” It doesn’t take a whole lot of imagination to see More winking very emphatically at any ruler who happens to pick up Utopia.
To my knowledge, Mencken never made any similar statement. But if he didn’t believe something along those lines, why did he write on politics at all?
Beer of the Week: Long Trail IPA – The India Pale Ale was invented to survive the long sea voyage from Great Britain to India. Extra alcohol and extra hops both acted to preserve the beer on its voyage. Raphael was a few centuries too early (and a fictional character,) but he surely would have appreciated having a supply of IPA for his long journey two the distant island of Utopia. And this Vermontonian IPA is a really tasty example of the style. It is unfiltered, just as the original India Pale Ales would have been. The aroma is dominated by floral hops. The flavor has hints of citrus and even a bit of caramel malt can be tasted through the hops. Many American brewers get overexcited about making their IPAs as bitter and hoppy as possible, but Long Trail has crafted a beer with a very good balance of flavors.
Reading for the Week: Utopia by Thomas More – Before the quotation above, Raphael Hythloday presents just how ridiculous he would seem in the court of the king of France. Where other advisers would advocate war, deceit, conquest, and financial trickery, he would advise peace, reform, and justice. And he’d be laughed out of the capital.
Question for the Week: Would it make any difference if, rather than being an adviser to the king of France, Raphael spoke of being a member of the American president’s cabinet?
Many Americans just recently filed their federal income taxes. Some of them are eagerly awaiting refund checks, or even refund direct deposits since “who writes checks anymore?” There are two things that these people should remember:
1. This money is not a gift from the government. It is your money that you already earned. Think of it more as an interest free loan to the government that you are forced to make and you have to ask nicely before they will pay back.
2. Tax money (money that you worked for and that the government has appropriated) that gets spent on “stimulus” is false economy.* The problem with stimulus spending is that it only accounts for what is seen, not what is unseen.
Every dollar that the government spends is a dollar that some productive person could have spent himself.** We see the government spending the dollar and count it as stimulus. What remains unseen is what the taxpayer would have done with that dollar if he had been allowed to keep it. As it turns out, it is more than likely that he would have spent it. Not only would he have spent it, but he would have spent it on something that he wanted. That is to say, he would have gained something in exchange. Instead, the government gave it to somebody else to spend. The net effect on the economy looks like of $0 (since either way, one dollar gets spent.) However, the tax payer doesn’t get the benefit of his own dollar and the government doesn’t operate for free. So the taxpayer loses a dollar (or, what amounts to the same thing, whatever he would have spent that dollar on) and the economy loses the administrative cost of the government mechanism. So stimulus spending is a net loss.***
Beer of the Week: Bitburger Pilsner – Simple is good. This beer is very simple. It smells of soft malt and a bit of hops. The flavor and texture are both light and refreshing. It is not a great beer, but it is a very nice beer that is made for drinking.
Reading for the Week: The Broken Window by Fredrick Bastiat – In this short and amazingly clear and intelligible economic parable Bastiat explains why a broken window may be good for the window maker, but it is a net loss for the economy on the whole. It is all, as is evident from the title of the essay that contains this parable, all about That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Unseen.
Question for the week: Is there a fundamental difference between stimulus spending and breaking windows? (Hint: In an earlier reading on this site, Bastiat used physical obstructions as an allegory to tariffs.)