The Corner

Old School

Tyler Cowen quotes himself approvingly:

Many of the supposed “heroes” of the past were liars, frauds, and butchers to varying degrees. The association of fame with entertainers, for all its flaws, departs from earlier concepts of heroic brutality and martial virtue. Most of today’s famous people have had to persuade consumers to offer their allegiance and their dollars. Nowadays fame is attained through a high-stakes game of pursuit and seduction, rather than a heroic contest or a show of force in battle. The shift in fame to entertainers is a modern extension of the Enlightenment doux commerce thesis that the wealth of the market civilizes morals and manners and supports an ethic of bourgeois virtue.

…Modern politics emphasizes images, rumor, negative campaigning, and a circus-like, mass media atmosphere. Leaders lose their stature and become another set of celebrities. We talk about them and use them for entertainment. Yet contrary to the views of many critics, these developments are by no means wholly negative.

Commercial society has brought the taming of fame to politics…

The appropriate manifestation of political leadership can and should evolve to reflect the nature of the challenges that face a society. In general, in a commercial society, there will be times when this will tend to look more like Adam Smith than Genghis Khan. But this is not the same thing as “entertainers” engaging in a “game of pursuit and seduction” in a “circus-like, mass media atmosphere”.

Here’s Machiavelli, from Discourses on Livy, with a somewhat different take:

…after the Romans had subjugated Africa and Asia, and had reduced nearly all Greece to their obedience, they felt assured of their liberty, and saw no enemies that could cause them any apprehension. This security and the weakness of the conquered nations caused the Roman people no longer to bestow the consulate according to the merits of the candidates, but according to favor; giving that dignity to those who best knew how to entertain the people, and not to those who best knew how to conquer their enemies.

That move didn’t turn out so well. Politics as celebrity is a fun game, as long as you think you are immune from challenge or danger. Not so much when nasty, determined men show up to kill you and move into your house.

Jim Manzi is CEO of Applied Predictive Technologies (APT), an applied artificial intelligence software company.

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