Everybody wants to be the King

I decided to brush up on my Machiavelli, which I hadn’t read for more than a decade, so I picked up a translation of his On Principalities, which we now recognize as The Prince. Good Ol’ Nick was much as I remembered him, but a few things leapt out at me, presumably because of my changed perspective.

One which caught my eye involved the balance of power between nobles and common folk (and how a prince should minuet through the particular minefield of their interactions) in which he argues essentially that the nobility desired to oppress and control the commoners and they wanted primarily to be free of oppression.

Except this isn’t really true. I immediately thought of the Puritans, who as the comic put it, “left for America in search of greater religious repression than was available in Europe at the time”. The humor is underlined by the quip’s being literally true: they wanted various governments to enforce their religious precepts on their community and were incensed when they refused.

In Machiavelli’s time, there were relatively few factions people could belong to within a political entity. Things have changed. To what degree can the success or failure of a society be linked to the number of factions the ‘common people’ divide themselves into?

4 Responses to “Everybody wants to be the King”

  1. Nobility was based on expropriating rents from commoners. Commoners would rather not have their rents expropriated. Cue James Scott.

    • Yes, but I think there was more to the relationship. People tend to desire power, and then desire to prove to themselves and others that they have power, which usually requires exercising power in arbitrary and even harmful ways and then watching the subjects of the violence be helpless.

      I might prefer not to have to pay my landlady, but I’m not interested in having her killed, and I don’t want to try to make it impossible for her to collect rent. My feelings regarding our political masters are rather different.

      • I suppose I was using “rent” in the confusing sense that public choice scholars (following Ricardo, who was familiar with a more aristocratic world) do. Landlords today typically improve the value of the land (by putting buildings on it) and act more as price-takers.

        From Razib: Pre-modern elites were thieves.

      • Aren’t a lot of political factions based on taking money by force to pay for their favorite ideological programs?

        So things haven’t really changed all that much.

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