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Archive for May 2016

The European Age of Absolutism

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The Age of Absolutism is the period in Europe in which monarchs typically sought to wield unrestricted political power over the state and the people in the state. The period ranges from about 1550 to 1790.

The period is sometimes called the Age of Enlightened Despotism, but all of the states involved were too large to be controlled by a king and a small group of courtiers acting by themselves. They needed the assistance of large segments of the population to realize their plans. This would be an important limitation on what the monarchs could achieve.

The central fact in the 1500s is the arrival of cannon:

  • Feudal lords in castles are no longer safe from enemy armies. The cannon can batter down castle walls.
  • Cannon are a bleeding-edge technology and are frightfully expensive. The king must centralize government enough to pay for cannon if he wants to defend the nation.
  • The service-oriented economy of feudalism is no longer sufficient, because it cannot generate the funds to pay for this new military technology. However, the nobility is in no hurry to cede power to the king.

Different European nations experienced the age differently, leading to different outcomes. The age could be a formative period for a nation or the challenge that could not be overcome. With whom will the king make common cause to take the nation into the future? What will the crown’s relationship be to the nobility, the church and the developing middle class in the cities?


The Republic at the Zenith of Power. Golden Liberty. Election in 1573. by Jan Matejko.

The Republic at the Zenith of Power. Golden Liberty. Election in 1573. By Jan Matejko.

Poland is the example of how not to lead your nation forward. Poland fails to develop an effective monarchy with centralized power. The szlachta — the nobility — is able to keep the kings weak and even to control the succession through election. By 1700, Poland is in a state famously described as “anarchy tempered by civil war.” Powerful neighbors who have themselves resolved these issues, Prussia, Russia and Austria, can exploit the weakness of Polish politics and pick Poland apart. The neighbors conduct a series of partitions of Poland in 1772, 1793 and 1795. Poland attempts to reform the nation with the Constitution of May  3, 1791, but it is too late. The Third Partition of Poland eliminates her as an independent nation.


Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790)

Holy Roman Emperor Joseph II (1741-1790)

His highest title was Holy Roman Emperor, but that office did not convey real power. The Emperor was also an elected king. The Habsburgs won the elections because of their power as the dynastic rulers of Austria. Charles V (1530) was the last ruler to be bothered with an Imperial coronation.

By the mid-1700s, the Habsburgs were noticing that their state was economically and militarily backward. They noticed this the way most monarchs noticed: they were being beaten in wars. Frederick II (the Great) of Prussia had helped himself to Silesia in 1740; although Austria tried different diplomatic combinations, she had been unable to retrieve it.

Joseph II, who was sole ruler from 1780 to 1790, sought to impose changes to lead Austria to become a more idealized enlightened nation. These changes included religious toleration, rights under the law for serfs, reduction in restrictions on the press and centralization of power in the empire and its bureaucracy.

However, these changes threatened to deprive powerful and influential groups of power, such as the nobility and the church. They actively opposed Joseph’s reforms. For his part, Joseph seems to be under the misunderstanding that, since he was the Emperor, he could merely issue decrees and his will would be obeyed.

Convinced to my core of the integrity of my intentions, I have the strength to hope that after my death posterity will think of my deeds and examine my aims more favorably, more impartially and consequently more equitably than my contemporaries.
— Joseph II to State Chancellor Kaunitz

His aims were high, but he completely failed to understand power. He was a living example of the Impotent Potentate. He could decree all he wanted but, opposed by interest groups with political clout of their own, he was unlikely to realize his goals.

Joseph’s successor, Leopold II, was forced to rescind many of Joseph’s reforms. By the time Napoleon appeared as a force in Europe, he was describing Austria as “always one year, one army and one idea behind.”


King Louis XIV of France (1639-1715)

King Louis XIV of France (1639-1715)

The Bourbon kings of France would gain the reputation as the most stellar and powerful of the absolute monarchs of the age. However, like many aspects of France in the period, there was some degree of stagecraft and illusion masking what was really going on at the time.

Louis XIV, often called “the Sun King”, was believed to be the highest refinement of the Enlightenment absolute monarch. As is typical of the time, Louis believed that he was God’s representative on earth. Yet he was unable to take on many challenges directly. Instead of curbing the power of the nobility through legal means, he set up a court at Versailles that was dazzlingly expensive. A nobleman who wanted to maintain his social position would have to build his own palace nearby and appear with the king. All this was staggeringly expensive and diverted time and resources of nobles away from building power bases in the countryside. Yet, it did not establish the precedent of the true subordination of the nobility to the central power of the nation. Much as in Austria, the nobility was a force somewhat outside the government, opposed by the bureaucracy acting in the name of the king. The nobility retained its privileges, most notably the exemption from taxation.

We now believe that Louis never actually said, “L’etat c’est moi.” If he had, he would have had to eat his words by 1709. The endless wars were bleeding France dry and the Allies were coming in for the kill. They had attempted to dictate peace terms that would have required Louis to throw his own grandson off the Spanish throne. The winter had been the coldest in memory; seeds froze in the ground and livestock died in the fields. Facing famine at home and defeat in war, Louis appealed directly to his people.

I have come to ask for your councils and your aid in this encounter that involves your safety. By the efforts that we shall make together, our foes will understand that we are not to be put upon.
— Royal Proclamation, 1709

The people responded, contributing both money and men. Louis was able to extricate himself from his difficulty and obtain an honorable peace. But one cannot be an absolute monarch when times are good and a man of the people when one’s back is to the wall. The two do not go together. Eighty years later, the people would hand Louis’ successors the bill for their support, in the form of the French Revolution.


The Bill of Rights Ratified at the Revolution by King William, and Queen Mary (1689). By Samuel Wale.

The Bill of Rights Ratified at the Revolution by King William, and Queen Mary (1689). By Samuel Wale.

By contemporary standards, the British monarchy was not a success. Charles I had been executed by his own subjects, who then went eleven years with no king at all. After they thought it over and brought the king back, they still did not get this absolute rule business. One of his sons, James II, was chased out of his realm when his subjects conspired with the Dutch to invade England. Then, to top it all off, the subjects interfered with their new king, producing a Bill of Rights that restricted what he could do as king.

Charles had gone to the scaffold maintaining that he, as a king, was not accountable to his subjects, but, one severed head later, there was the proof that he was wrong. This is really the point here. Absolutism was practically unworkable. Both Louis XIV and Joseph II found out that they needed not just the compliance but the active support of their subjects.

The Stuart kings may not have been successful as absolute monarchs, but the British government proved an unqualified success at bringing the country into the modern world. Britain had steered between the extremes of anarchy and excessive centralization of power. The great noble families of the late feudal era — Beaufort, Neville, Mowbray — were gone by 1550. Power was held by the minor nobility and the gentry, who gradually became the government. Instead of a bureaucracy attempting to force the king’s will on a recalcitrant upper class, the British upper class was the government and was fully vested in the success of policy.

Britain would avoid being pulled down by external competitors like Poland or slow decline like Austria. Britain would not be convulsed by revolution and terror like France. The next constitutional crisis for Britain was after 1830, and was precipitated by competition for power between town and countryside. Which is another story entirely.

Why Do We Care?

All this is great history, but what does it mean? The stories of the period illustrate that, already in the Enlightenment, the ruler needed the active participation and support of the ruled. The kings did not have the means to issue orders contrary to the will of the subjects and force changes on a nation that did not want them.

This also shows a test issued by history, with a narrow gate through which the successful nation must pass. Miss on the side of decentralization and be overwhelmed by the neighbors. Miss on the side of centralization and provoke either rebellion or ossification.



That Which Cannot Continue

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From time to time, I mention the idea of a day of reckoning for the United States. What would prompt it? How do I know? When will it happen?

The Cause

The cause of the reckoning will be inability to pay for all the entitlements. We have been voting ourselves rich for almost 85 years now. As we have moved through time and got away with it, we have become bolder. Like most other civilizations that were prosperous in their day, we have convinced ourselves that we are too cool, too rich and too slick to be constrained by the same reality that applies to others.

We moved as the Spirit listed. They never altered their pace,
Being neither cloud nor wind-borne like the Gods of the Market Place,
But they always caught up with our progress, and presently word would come
That a tribe had been wiped off its icefield, or the lights had gone out in Rome.
— Rudyard Kipling, “The Gods of the Copybook Headings” (1919)

I didn’t originate this idea myself. Not only do I have a degree in economics, but I have been reading the thoughts of others for decades. Howard Ruff was forecasting a day of reckoning before I graduated high school. He wrote books like How to Prosper During the Coming Bad Years. But the Coming Bad Years never came. So what happened?

What happened was an active defense. Washington is full of people whose job, really, is to postpone the day of reckoning, whether or not they accept the idea that one is coming. People in Treasury looked at the same data that Howard Ruff was looking at. They also saw that we were jeopardizing the health of the economy by financing entitlements through inflation. So, during the Eighties, they switched to financing entitlements through debt.

Economists have forecast twelve of the past seven recessions.
— Old economics joke

However, continued experience in getting away with it just emboldens people. They start reaching farther and grasping for more. As the decades have passed, politicians have promised more goodies to more people.

With the Hopes that our World is built on they were utterly out of touch,
They denied that the Moon was Stilton; they denied she was even Dutch;
They denied that Wishes were Horses; they denied that a Pig had Wings;
So we worshipped the Gods of the Market Who promised these beautiful things.
— Kipling, loc. cit.

How I Know

In the face of almost nine decades of experience, not to mention contrary assertions from Nobel laureate economists, how can I maintain that a day of reckoning is coming?

Moral Principles of Reality

I work in software engineering. The computer really doesn’t care how much pressure you are under or how badly you want the application to work. If you haven’t written the application properly, it has a defect. You can ignore the defect. You can claim it’s not a bug, but a feature. You can polish the turd: tell everyone who will listen why they should really want the behavior that they’re experiencing. At the end of the day, however, you have a defect, whether you recognize it or whistle past it.

Software does not respond to enthusiasm.
— William L. Livingston, Have Fun at Work (1988)

Economics, like other social sciences, has physics envy; practitioners seek quantitative support for their pronouncements, substituting precision for accuracy when necessary. Any serious normative discussion in economics — what should be, as opposed to what is — relies on assertions from below, from ethics.

A tree falling in the forest really does make a sound, whether or not anyone is there to hear it. Ideas and actions have consequences, whether or not anyone wants to acknowledge them. This is the moral aspect of reality. You can refuse to believe that you are walking off a cliff: on the way down, you can be proud of having given your life for your beliefs. Then — splat!

How Decline Works

I have seen a number of organizations decline and collapse over my lifetime. From my study of history, I have learned about many more. There is a pattern to decline.

How decline works.

How decline works.

The declining organization can marshal its resources to mask the extend of decline for some time. Most people want to believe that all is well, and seize upon favorable evidence provided by outward appearances, while ignoring or excusing the occasional crack in the wall. By the time intractable problems become really noticeable, the rot has become quite advanced.

At a national scale, the machinery to produce happy tunes is massive. It really has to be, since we have fiat money: if the leadership caused the people to lose confidence in the currency, it would in fact become worthless.

The Humanitarian Impulse

We have experienced a 250-year-long explosion in rampant humanitarianism. What’s wrong with that? Well, that depends on how humanitarianism is understood. By most people, it is understood poorly.

Irving Babbitt make a valiant attempt to distinguish between humanism and humanitarianism:

The humanist, then, as opposed to the humanitarian, is interest in the perfecting of the individual rather than in schemes for the elevation of mankind as a whole; and although he allows largely for sympathy, he insists that it be disciplined and tempered by judgement.
— Irving Babbitt, Literature and the American College (1908), p. 8

Babbitt found that the sentimental humanitarian was ready to deny the inner conflict between good and evil in each individual, launching into the expansive pursuit of utopian ideals.

With the progress of the new morality every one has become familiar with the type of the perfect idealist who is ready to pass laws for the regulation of everybody and everything except himself, and who knows how to envelop in a mist of radiant words schemes the true driving power of which is the desire to confiscate property.
— Babbitt, Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), p. 156.

Possessed of the moral force of an observed problem, such as poverty, and the expansive desire to make everyone else make his priority theirs also, whether they want to or not, the sentimental humanitarian seeks to wield the police power of the state to compel others to do what he deems to be good.

In the Carboniferous Epoch we were promised abundance for all, 
By robbing selected Peter to pay for collective Paul; 
But, though we had plenty of money, there was nothing our money could buy, 
And the Gods of the Copybook Headings said: “If you don’t work you die.” 
— Kipling, loc. cit.

Thus we have people who are now saying that a citizen has the right to health care. It’s understandable that they should say this, and understandable that people should want this. Health care has the potential to be ruinously expensive, and no one wants to watch a loved one die. However, how is this to be provided? Health care is a wealth-producing activity. Whom do we enslave to produce the wealth to pay for health care as a right? Apparently, the answer is: Everyone, a little bit. We can afford it, right?

Actually, no. Health care is about the worst thing you can make a right of, because the demand for health care is effectively insatiable. If we can get everyone to live to eighty, why not press on to ninety? Where are we prepared to stop? It is undiscussable.

When Will It End?

Events of this year have made it more clear to me than before that this people, firmly in the grip of sentimental humanitarianism, will heed no warning. Thus it has ever been:

When that day comes, you will cry out for relief from the king you have chosen, but the Lord will not answer you in that day.
— 1 Samuel 8:18

The people who run the country will continue to strive to keep the vote-buying engine running. It is their responsibility to do so, and they certainly do not want to have the collapse on their watch. They will continue to seek ways to postpone the consequences, preferably until they are dead and gone.

If I could identify the event that must trigger the day of reckoning, it would be the job of someone in Washington to make sure that triggering event does not occur. This active defense will continue until someone miscalculates or a series of unforeseen events box the government into a corner. There are really bright people in Washington, so the latter is more likely. In chess, it’s called zugzwang (move-compulsion); you must do something, but anything you do is profoundly disadvantageous. It’s how World War I started, among other disasters.

We are already getting a taste of how unpleasant this can be. We haven’t got to the difficult part yet. I wish I had a less unpleasant report to make, but I don’t see the country having the will to take the necessary measures until reality reveals the consequences so forcefully that only the truest of believers can ignore them.

As it will be in the future, it was at the birth of Man
There are only four things certain since Social Progress began. 
That the Dog returns to his Vomit and the Sow returns to her Mire, 
And the burnt Fool’s bandaged finger goes wabbling back to the Fire;

And that after this is accomplished, and the brave new world begins
When all men are paid for existing and no man must pay for his sins, 
As surely as Water will wet us, as surely as Fire will burn, 
The Gods of the Copybook Headings with terror and slaughter return!
— Kipling, loc. cit.

Written by srojak

May 8, 2016 at 1:17 pm

Wayne Bidwell Wheeler

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348px-Wayne_Bidwell_Wheeler,_half-length_portraitThis man, who looks like he might have been a bank clerk for George Bailey, actually has his fingerprints on three amendments to the Constitution. He coined the phrase “pressure group” and directed the efforts of the first effective such creature. He personally supervised Congress for over ten years. Now he is almost completely forgotten; that is not right.

Wheeler was born in 1869, on a farm in northeast Ohio. While he was still a boy, a drunk hired hand on the farm stabbed Wheeler in the leg with a hayfork. This event influenced Wheeler to be militantly opposed to alcohol.

He worked his way through Oberlin College, where he was recruited by Howard Russell Hyde, founder of the Anti-Saloon League (ASL). At the time, the leading anti-alcohol organization was the Woman’s Christian Temperance Union (WCTU). The WCTU campaigned for prohibition, but also for women’s right to vote, government ownership of utilities and factories, prison reform and vegetarianism. By contrast, the ASL would be laser focused on one goal: national prohibition of the production and distribution of alcohol. Anyone who supported this cause was a friend; anyone who opposed it was an enemy.

Billy Sunday, meet pioneering social worker Jane Addams: you’re working together now. The evangelical clergy of the age were motivated to support Prohibition because of their faith; reformers like Addams signed on because of the devastating effect that drunkenness had on the urban poor. Ku Klux Klan, shake hands with the Industrial Workers of the World (IWW): you’re on the same team. The Klan’s anti-liquor sentiment was rooted in its hatred of the immigrant masses in liquor-soaked cities; the IWW believed that liquor was a capitalist weapon used to keep the working classes in a stupor.
— Daniel Okrent, “Wayne B. Wheeler: The Man Who Turned Off the Taps,” Smithsonian Magazine, May 2010 (

While still studying law, Wheeler was already working full time for the ASL, speaking and recruiting in Ohio. Before long, Wheeler and the ASL had tossed out 70 state legislators who were not sufficiently dry. Having control of the Ohio legislature, Wheeler could put through a local-option law that would allow individual towns and counties to vote themselves dry.

In 1905, Governor Myron T. Herrick had pushed for changes to the local-option bill that, in the view of the ASL, compromised it. The ASL demanded revenge and Wheeler set out to obtain it. Herrick was backed by Mark Hanna, the Republican boss who also created William McKinley. Herrick was popular and politically successful. Nevertheless, Wheeler set his sights on Herrick, organizing more than 300 rallies against Herrick that year. Wheeler succeeded in unelecting Herrick, providing another object lesson for politicians of the power of the ASL.

Never again will any political party ignore the protests of the church and the moral forces of the state.
— Wayne Wheeler

Wheeler had figured out that his ability to mobilize a large bloc of voters gave him disproportionate political power. His key insight was that he didn’t need a majority of people; he needed a majority of people who showed up to vote. In a straight-up referendum on prohibition of alcohol sales, the ASL could only command a minority. However, the ASL could decisively influence an election by isolating their single issue and mobilizing voters, exerting influence beyond their numbers and tipping the scales for the dry candidate and against the wet.

Having asserted control of Ohio, the ASL was ready to go national. However, national prohibition would be impossible as long as Washington was hooked on alcohol. The federal government depended on excise taxes on alcohol for revenue; these taxes had provided as much as 40% of annual revenues since the Civil War. Without a substitute, Prohibition was unthinkable.

The ASL thus teamed up with progressives to pass the Sixteenth Amendment, creating the income tax. Overnight, the government’s dependence on alcohol was removed. Now Wheeler could work on what the ASL called “The Next and Final Step”: national prohibition.

I do it the way the bosses do it, with minorities. We’ll vote against all the men in office who won’t support our bills. We’ll vote for candidates who will promise to. We are teaching these crooks that breaking their promises to us is surer of punishment than going back on their bosses, and some day they will learn that all over the United States—and we’ll have national Prohibition.
— Wayne Wheeler, speaking to Lincoln Steffens

In 1914, resolutions for Prohibition and women’s suffrage amendments finally emerged from congressional committees. The ASL saw women’s votes as essential to overcoming obstacles to Prohibition, although ultimately the Prohibition amendment would jump ahead of the amendment granting women the right to vote.

By 1916, the ASL was ready for the final push. They had spent over $50 million in 2010 dollars. The payoff was a favorable Congress, four more states voting themselves dry and the defeat of every wet measure in every state. Wheeler had set up a printing plant in Westerville, Ohio, that produced more than forty tons of flyers, pamphlets and other printed matter a month in support of Prohibition. Understanding his alliance with progressives, Wheeler had made sure the plant was a union shop.

There was also urgency for the final push. In 1920, there would be a census, followed by redistricting. Cities would gain representation in Congress, at the expense of rural areas. Cities were wet; the countryside was dry. Wheeler liked to quote William Cowper: “God made the country, and man made the town.” So when Senator Boise Penrose of Pennsylvania, an ardent wet, demanded a seven-year limit on ratification of the Eighteenth Amendment, Wheeler and the ASL had no objection. They knew they didn’t really even have that long. In the event, ratification by 36 states took thirteen months.

For the next six years, Wheeler sat in the Senate gallery, watching over Congress, the President and the new Prohibition Bureau whose staffing he controlled. He supported tainting drinkable alcohol with poison, saying, “The person who drinks this … is a deliberate suicide.” Wheeler retired in 1926 and died a year later.

Nothing is more certain than that when the next history of this age is examined by dispassionate men, Wheeler will be considered one of its most extraordinary figures.
The Baltimore Sun

He is little remembered today, but those who study the events of one hundred years ago must conclude he was an extraordinary figure. If there were a lobbyist’s hall of fame, a statue of Wheeler would belong in the front entryway. He showed future single-interest political pressure groups how do get it done.

Written by srojak

May 3, 2016 at 5:28 am