28 May 2017

Thomas More's Utopia - How Poverty Makes for Bad Government

A century ago, Thomas More published Utopia. More was beheaded by Henry VIII when he refused to break with Rome and pledge allegiance to Henry rather than the pope and Erasmus helped him to publish Utopia. 500 years ago the modern nation-state was emerging and it created a thicket of issues that had to do with the question of policies and authority and the very identity of a people. More's Utopia was his way of dealing with this, using a fictional place to model what a country could be. It's an imaginative leap that's not just fanciful but helpful as a way to define what could be but has not yet been experienced. (In Utopia, More argues against private property. Centuries later, the Soviet Union honored him for this early definition of communism.) One of the more fascinating acts of social experimentation since has happened when Utopians have tried to create communities that break with tradition.

One of the arguments that apparently prevailed at the time was over this notion of wealth and poverty. Here, More attacks the notion that it is better to rule a poor people. This is one section of his book that still seems relevant.

19th Century Dancing Utopians
And they think it is the prince's interest, ... as if it were his advantage that his people should have neither riches nor liberty; since these things make them less easy and less willing to submit to a cruel and unjust government; whereas necessity and poverty blunt them, make them patient, beat them down, and break that height of spirit, that might otherwise dispose them to rebel. Now what if after all these propositions were made, I should rise up and assert, that such councils were both unbecoming a king, and mischievous to him: and that not only his honor but his safety consisted more in his people's wealth, than in his own; if I should show that they choose a king for their own sake, and not for his; that by his care and endeavors they may be both easy and safe; and that therefore a prince ought to take more care of his people's happiness than of his own, as a shepherd is to take more care of his flock than of himself."It is also certain that they are much mistaken that think the poverty of a nation is a means of the public safety. Who quarrel more than beggars? Who does more earnestly long for a change, than he that is uneasy in his present circumstances? And who run to create confusions with so desperate a boldness, as those who have nothing to lose hope to gain by them? If a king should fall under such contempt or envy, that he could not keep his subjects in their duty, but by oppression and ill usage, and by rendering them poor and miserable, it were certainly better for him to quit his kingdom, than to retain it by such methods, as makes him while he keeps the name of authority, lose the majesty due to it. Nor is it so becoming the dignity of a king to reign over beggars, as over rich and happy subjects. And therefore Fabricius, a man of a noble and exalted temper, said, he would rather govern rich men than be rich himself; since for one man to abound in wealth and pleasure, when all about him are mourning and groaning, is to be a jailer and not a king.

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