Sunday, September 21, 2008

Hank Paulson, George Washington and Benito Mussolini Walk Into a Bar: Part I

UPDATE: I am not going to get to part II today, reality keeps intruding. Let's see what tomorrow brings.
Original post:
Back in high school, it was in either a civics or history class, we had a two week module on Machiavelli's The Prince. I asked the teacher if I could spend the time reading Niccolò 's Discourses on the first Ten Books of Titus Livy instead. I did this for a couple reasons:
a) I knew where I could buy a paperback copy for a quarter.
b) I had to do something about the 'D' I was achieving to that point in the class.
The downsides were:
a) It was written at a level above my head.
b) It is a much longer book than The Prince.
(ask any teenager how important this consideration is)

This long introduction is the result of a cartoon I saw yesterday at The Economic Populist:

Congratulations! You now own the mortgage industry!

First thought "Clever". Second thought "He didn't have a panel for Fascism". So I had Mussolini wafting up from the reptile brain when I read, in the New York Times:
Sec. 8. Review
Decisions by the Secretary pursuant to the authority of this Act are non-reviewable and committed to agency discretion, and may not be reviewed by any court of law or any administrative agency.
-Text of Draft Proposal for Bailout Plan, NYT 20Sep08
I had a very negative first reaction to this hand over of so much power to an unelected administrator. Basically a Dictator. Then I remembered The Discourses, specifically Book I, ch. 34.
(I really did remember the exact chapter. Psychologists tell us that a memory imprints most strongly when it has an emotional context, whether positive or negative. I got an A+ for that module, a B+ for the class and went on to fame, fortune and blogging)*
From Machiavelli's Discourses...:



Those Romans who introduced into that City the method of creating a Dictator have been condemned by some writers, as something that was in time the cause of tyranny in Rome; alleging that the first tyrant who existed in that City commanded her under this title of Dictator, saying if it had not been for this, Caesar could not under any public (title) have imposed his tyranny.

Which thing was not well examined by those who held this opinion and was believed beyond all reason. For it was not the name or the rank of Dictator that placed Rome in servitude, but it was the authority taken by the Citizens to perpetuate themselves in the Empire (government): and if the title of Dictator did not exist in Rome, they would have taken another; for it is power that easily acquires a name, not a name power. And it is seen that the Dictatorship while it was given according to public orders and not by individual authority, always did good to the City. For it is the Magistrates who are made and the authority that is given by irregular means that do injury to Republics, not those that come in the regular way.

As is seen ensued in Rome where in so much passage of time no Dictator did anything that was not good for the Republic. For which there are very evident reasons: First, because if a Citizen would want to (offend and ) take up authority in an irregular manner, it must happen that he have many qualities which he can never have in an uncorrupted Republic, for he needs to be very rich and to have many adherents and partisans, which he cannot have where the laws are observed: and even if he should have them, such men are so formidable that free suffrage would not support them. In addition to this, a Dictator was made for a (limited) time and not in perpetuity, and only to remove the cause for which he was created; and his authority extended only in being able to decide by himself the ways of meeting that urgent peril, (and) to do things without consultation, and to punish anyone without appeal; but he could do nothing to diminish (the power) of the State, such as would have been the taking away of authority from the Senate or the people, to destroy the ancient institutions of the City and the making of new ones. So that taking together the short time of the Dictatorship and the limited authority that he had, and the Roman People uncorrupted, it was impossible that he should exceed his limits and harm the City: but from experience it is seen that it (City) always benefited by him.

And truly, among the other Roman institutions, this is one that merits to be considered and counted among those which were the cause of the greatness of so great an Empire: For without a similar institution, the Cities would have avoided such extraordinary hazards only with difficulty; for the customary orders of the Republic move to slowly ((no council or Magistrate being able by himself to do anything, but in many cases having to act together)) that the assembling together of opinions takes so much time; and remedies are most dangerous when they have to apply to some situation which cannot await time. And therefore Republics ought to have a similar method among their institutions. And the Venetian Republic ((which among modern Republics is excellent)) has reserved authority to a small group (few) of citizens so that in urgent necessities they can decide on all matters without wider consultation.

For when a similar method is lacking in a Republic, either observing the institutions (strictly) will ruin her, or in order not to ruin her, it will be necessary to break them. And in a Republic, it should never happen that it be governed by extraordinary methods. For although the extraordinary method would do well at that time, none the less the example does evil, for if a usage is established of breaking institutions for good objectives, then under that pretext they will be broken for evil ones.

So that no Republic will be perfect, unless it has provided for everything with laws, and provided a remedy for every incident, and fixed the method of governing it. And therefore concluding I say, that those Republics which in urgent perils do not have resort either to a Dictatorship or a similar authority, will always be ruined in grave incidents.

And it is to be noted in this new institution how the method of electing him was wisely provided by the Romans. For the creation of a Dictator being of some discredit to the Consuls, as the Chiefs of the City had to come to the same obedience as others, (and) wanting that the authority for such election should remain in the consuls, believing that if an incident should arise that Rome would have need of this Regal power, by doing this voluntarily by themselves (Consuls), it would reflect on them less. For the wounds and every other evil that men inflict on themselves spontaneously and by choice, pain less in the long run than do those that are inflicted by others. In later times, however, the Romans, in place of a Dictator, used to give such authority to the Consul, in these words: Let the Consuls see that the Republic suffers no detriment. But to return to our subject, I conclude, that the neighbors of Rome seeking to oppress her, caused her to institute methods not only enabling her to defend herself, but enabling her with more strength, better counsels, and greater authority to attack them.

Here's the 1772 translation I copied here.
Here's a more recent (1996 ) translation via Google books (ch. 34 is on page 73)
Part II in a bit.
*One lesson from this is, if you are being graded on a curve and realize you won't end up on the right-hand side , get on a different curve.
Another lesson might be to go against the herd if you want to stand out.