When you spend most of your day reading and talking about fiscal cliffs, regulatory overreach, marginal tax rates, and other topics of immediate concern, it’s nice every so often to ponder political issues that have a longer-lasting impact — longer in the sense of thousands of years.
Book one of Alan Ryan’s On Politics has offered an excellent opportunity to consider the tensions and disputes that have vexed mankind since our ancestors first devoted significant attention to politics. Ryan, a longtime professor at Princeton and Oxford, devotes the first 400 pages of his “history of political thought” to the major thinkers influencing Western civilization from Herodotus to Machiavelli. Of the latter, Ryan offers this observation:
A successful republic will acquire more territory, incorporate more citizens, become prosperous. When it becomes prosperous, people will begin to turn in on themselves and think about their own wealth rather than the good of the republic. The martial virtues will decline, and taste for soft living will creep in. Mercenaries will be hire to replace citizen-soldiers. The very rich will think how they can turn their wealth into power, and so subvert the republic. The ordinary people will remain uncorrupted longer than their betters, but they, too, can be suborned and turned into willing accomplices of the men who offer them a share of the loot or an exemption from the demands of the republic. Then there will be the decline and fall that the Roman Republic went through. A strong man lives longer than an unhealthy one, but both die in the end; and so it is with states.
We should feel fortunate that Machiavelli’s concerns are no longer valid now, 500 years after he completed his work.