Rulers and Doing What's Right

When I posted that the classical-Christian tradition of political science was that rulers ought to do what is right, not whatever the "people" want, some people complained "Rulers are always out for themselves!"

Well, theory and practice often diverge! But furthermore, while there may be no reason to think that rulers are generally less self-seeking than the common man, there is also little reason to think that they are more self-seeking. (Hayek's "Why the Worst Get on Top" was very specifically talking about totalitarian political systems.)

So consider Lorenzo de Medici:
In the aftermath of the Pazzi Conspiracy and the punishment of Pope Sixtus IV’s supporters, the Medici and Florence suffered the wrath of the Vatican. The Papacy seized all the Medici assets Sixtus IV could find, ex-communicated Lorenzo and the entire government of Florence, and ultimately put the entire Florentine city-state under interdict. When these measures had little effect, Sixtus IV formed a military alliance with King Ferdinand I of Naples, whose son Alfonso, Duke of Calabria, led an invasion of the Florentine Republic still ruled by Lorenzo.
Lorenzo rallied the citizens of Florence, yet with little support from the traditional Medici allies in Bologna and Milan, the war dragged on – only diplomacy by Lorenzo ultimately resolved the crisis.
In 1479, Lorenzo took a bold step and traveled secretly with a small party to Naples, placing himself recklessly at the hands of King Ferdinand I. Lorenzo argued to the king that warfare between Italian powers would increase the likelihood of a French invasion. Fearing an impending attack, Ferdinand agreed to sign a peace treaty with Lorenzo.
Apparently, as he was undertaking the journey, Lorenzo said (I quote from memory), "Either by my life, or by my death, I hope to secure the safety of my people."

So rulers sometimes do put aside their purely selfish interests and act in the interest of their people.


  1. I still don't understand why you think Enlightenment liberalism was about "base preferences" instead of simply being about freedom? The whole notion of natural rights and consent of the governed seems to be pretty non materialistic to me.

    1. 'I still don't understand why you think Enlightenment liberalism was about "base preferences"'

      Did I say that?

  2. Indeed. But most of the complaining comments were about the advantage of decision structures over hoping for a benevolent single ruler. There are, as you yourself insist, collective decisions. Some mechanisms are better at making those than others. So, is a good mechanism of that sort better than the crapshoot of letting one man decide? That was the real issued debated on the other thread.
    (Florence btw did tolerably well with a real crap shoot: they elected councils by lot for much of the city's glory years!)

    1. Indeed I prefer sortition as a democratic mechanism to elections.

  3. Ambiguous. Ld’M did something risky which turned out to be a good gamble, and, as a result, he was able to neutralise an enemy, forestall outside invasion, and consolidate his own power as ruler. It would out very well for him and his family. That hardly proves that he was conscientiously looking out for the good of his subjects. (And of course, the fact that he claimed he was looking out for the good of his subjects does little to distinguish him from anyone ever). Now, of course, it’s fairly rare to find anybody, monarch or no, acting dramatically against their own interests in order to help somebody else, but this supports the surmise that rulers participate in the general venality.

    I’m much more impressed by George Washington’s “if he does that, he will be the greatest man in the world” moment.

    1. The conclusion of historians looking at this is that he was genuinely interested in his subjects' welfare.

      Of course, this is not a logical proof, and new historical evidence may prove them wrong. But without becoming experts on Italian politics circa 1479, neither you nor I are in a better place to judge this than are they.


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