In yesterday’s slightly rambling post, I commented on a couple of chapters from Book II of Machiavelli’s Discourses on Livy. It was about how the growth of oligarchy and the corruption of institutions wrecked the people’s faith in democracy.
Yet their freedoms to speak and organize still existed, allowing the faithless and resentful to organize a full overthrow of the democratic institutions they felt were worthless. That was disturbing enough because of how similar the political and social situation in the United States today is to that five century old description.
|This is Donald Trump with his friend and longtime business partner,|
Uzbek billionaire Lev Leviev, a diamond magnate who rose to the top
of the business class of an autocratic police state dominated by a single
ruthless man. Donald would be envious.
Machiavelli writes that a kind, virtuous person dedicated to the public good in their work and life can only thrive in particular circumstances. So what kind of society lets such a good, generous person rise to the top? Where do the nice folks finish first?
Your society has to be dominated by values of equality, respect for everyone, and the fair submission to the rule of law. Not only must we profess that, we actually have to live by those values.
The most successful businesses are the ones who never cheat or cut corners, and provide services and goods that are primarily benefiting society. We have to live diligently, frugal but with an aesthetic sense to appreciate fine things. No one is greedy and no one cheats.
Police and security forces are never out of line, never too rough, always serving and protecting all people equally. No racial biases (conscious or not), no systematic pressures on minorities, no corruption, no allowing solidarity among cops to defend the violent or greedy. Everyone answers to the law not because it’s powerful, but because it’s just.
As I describe this, I find it very hard to believe that such a society has existed for centuries. Machiavelli describes Republican Rome in those terms, but even there, I doubt such harmony was ever universal.
Such a society is utterly unrealistic, but that near-impossibility is the only kind of community where our ethics would actually be adequate to the world. Where doing the right thing always resulted in your benefit, fame, and wealth.
But even the money didn’t matter! Everyone considers more income than would make you and your family pleasantly comfortable utterly unfair and gauche. We would all actually be satisfied with enough to live a nice life, and spend our excess wealth and power on the public good. That would bring everyone happiness.
As a society corrupts itself, says Machiavelli, such virtuous people dedicated to public good find it more difficult to thrive. It’s a downward spiral from the first misstep to ruin. Virtuous, good people have more trouble in society the more greedy people surround them. The greedy’s name for the good is the sucker.
The more corrupt, monstrous men dominate and hold powerful positions in a society, the more public life will be a gift to the monstrous.