Monday, August 12, 2013

Meet the new boss, dumber than the old boss

Everybody, except for my anarchist friends, is pretty much reconciled to the fact that people are going to have governments, one way or the other. Given that, the next debate is how the government should be structured, that is, what is and is not the responsibility of government.  That's mostly what we argue about in this country.  I, of course, am on the side of just enough government and not one bit more.  Logically, "just enough" varies from place to place and from time to time.  When you have a society of Northwest European Protestants with all kinds of work ethics and a strong bias towards civic pride and duty, the government can leave lots of things to individuals.  With a less responsible and dependable population, a government finds itself needing to do a lot more, to avoid civil strife and chaos in general. Which is something to think about when you're considering amnesty for millions of Third World peasants.

Having said all that, the next question is, how do we pick a government?  Most democracies and republics theorize that the people ought to pick the people that will rule them by voting.  This sometimes works, but most places the ruling class is pretty good at manipulating elections so that it's very unlikely that the Wrong People will rule.  And if they ever do, the ruling class has learned how to smear them and pull them down, or even kill them, and restore their own power.

For most of human history, though, once we have a big tribe or small nation, we generally have rule by a monarch of one kind or another.  When a guy founds a dynasty, he's usually a pretty capable guy by definition, but what about his heirs?  And their heirs, etc.?

Greg Cochran has some theories about this, and also tells us how the Ottomans managed to keep their rulers competent for several generations, something I knew nothing about.  That's what I like about real scientists.  They tell me stuff I didn't know before.  From his blog at, Cochran writes:

There can only be one!

Dynasties decay.   The founder generally has a lot on the ball – tough, a natural leader, and canny campaigner – but his son is unlikely to be so exceptional.  Partly this is a manifestation of regression to the mean, and partly because his mother was probably chosen for something other than her talents as a warlord. By the fourth or fifth generation, it can be hard to believe that the useless poet on the throne is truly a member of the Golden Family.
This decay is a fundamental historical fact – an inevitable consequence of  biology and primogeniture.  It’s one of the important weaknesses of dynastic rule. The Ottomans, however, found a way around it for some centuries – the law of fratricide.  Upon the death of the Sultan, all of his sons were theoretically eligible for the succession (not just the oldest).  Since the Sultan had a harem, there were a lot of them. Whoever first seized power then had all his brothers and half-brothers executed by ritual strangulation. Incompetents didn’t win out in this struggle.
In practice the law of fratricide was not quite this simple, and imperfectly fair.  Older sons were assigned provincial governorships, and a Sultan could assign a favored son to a close-in province, increasing his chance of being the first to Istanbul.  This ensured that the successor had administrative experience.  It cannot have been pure truncation selection for genetic awesomeness, because younger brothers (toddlers, for example) were at a disadvantage.
This system was effective.  The first few Sultans were competent, even before the law of fratricide.  Partly that was due to a less formal forms of competition for the throne, involving rebellions and civil wars, but some was probably luck: that’s why the Ottoman state existed rather than an expanded Sultanate of Rum or whatever.  The law of fratricide kept the streak going: the Ottoman state had ten competent rulers in a row.  I think no other state can make such a claim.
The system worked, but I doubt if anyone enjoyed it. Starting around 1600, things changed.  The ‘rule of elderness’ was adopted  – all males within an older generations were exhausted before the succession of the eldest male in the next generation.  Eligible males other than the new Sultan were locked up in the kafes ['the cage'], a suite of rooms deep within the Topkapi palace.  Their education ceased.  They were allowed barren concubines,  and some other recreations, mainly macrame.  Some of these people emerged much later as the new, deeply confused Sultan: the last Sultan, Mehmet VI, emerged at the age of 56,  totally ignorant of the Empire and everything else, other than macrame.

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