Life is not a dream but much of it is built on illusion. Our thoughts like to run in safe, accustomed grooves, without crossing the chasms of paradox and subtlety necessary to understand the real world. For example, although wealth accumulation is not necessarily a zero-sum game it’s still true that the prosperity of one generation often stands on the injustices of earlier generations. In England the success of the mill owners in pioneering large scale factory production was only made possible by the dispossession of yeoman land through enclosures, creating a landless wage-earning class willing to accept a subsistence livelihood. Similarly the rapid economic development of the late 19th and early 20th century in the U.S. was only made possible by the genocide of most Native American tribes through warfare, starvation and/or enslavement.
Adam Smith famously said: “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer, or the baker that we expect our dinner, but from their regard to their own interest.” In other words all the benefits of prosperity that we owe to a liberal society flow from selfish interest or greed, one of Christianity’s seven deadly sins.
Machiavelli (1469-1527), is considered to be the first modern political thinker. Even after five centuries his thoughts and teaching are still being read as the last word on political realism:
“The fact is that a man who wants to act virtuously in every way necessarily comes to grief among so many who are not virtuous. Therefore if a prince wants to maintain his rule he must be prepared not to be virtuous and to make use of this or not according to need”
In The Prince Machiavelli describes how princes should lie to get things done, a precept that virtually all politicians instinctively follow:
“Princes who have achieved great things have been those who have given their word lightly, who have known how to trick men with their cunning and who in the end have overcome those abiding by honest principles.”
There is no realistic alternative to markets for providing our needs and wants but markets are so successful at this that material progress takes place in acceleration mode, forcing both welcome and unwelcome changes. Progress undermines tradition and belief, but it is tradition and belief that are the foundations for the illusions that keep us going.
The delicate sensibilities and exquisite manners of the courtier, as described in the The Book of the Courtier, one of the most widely distributed and influential books in 16th century Europe, were only made possible because of the exploitation of a huge underclass paying for the existence of a pampered elite relying on monopolies, special privileges, land grants and influence peddling.
True virtues are not meant to clash but they often do. Justice is a virtue because a society lacking in justice is a corrupt and inefficient one. At the same time mercy is also an important virtue because a society lacking in mercy is a stifling and restrictive one lacking the basic quality of kindness. But mercy entails that something less than justice be done. If a convicted criminal asks for mercy, he is asking to receive a punishment less than his due.
We like to think of the Founding Fathers as defending the personal freedom of citizens against the English king, but they were just as much or even more concerned with stifling social disorder and the libertine behaviors of the rabble. It is not often remembered that John Adams was the lawyer who defended the British soldiers after the Boston Massacre. During the trial, Adams correctly described the victims as “a motley rabble of saucy boys, Negroes and molattoes, Irish teagues, and outlandish Jack tars.” According to Thaddeus Russell’s ground breaking work, A Renegade History of the United States:
“The Founding Fathers were part of a transatlantic movement in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries to replace the external controls over subjects in absolutist regimes with the internal restraints of citizens in republics.”
The fathers believed that the only thing that could make men forsake their own freedom and still believe they were free was democracy. A government of the people, John Adams argued, would make the people disciplined, stern, hard-working, and joyless – the qualities he most admired. The Founding Fathers understood what we now choose to ignore, that democracy is the enemy of personal freedom.
” A wise man, recognizing that the world is but an illusion, does not act as if it is real, so he escapes the suffering.” Buddha