Ancient Political Self-Deception

From Gene Expression:

There are certain things which are sacred, certain lines you don’t cross. … I was thinking about [this] a few months ago when I read Rome & Jerusalem: A Clash of Ancient Civilizations and God’s Rule – Government and Islam.  You see, the ancient Romans and Muslims did not have kings. Kings were tyrants, and the early Roman and Islamic polities rejected such tyranny on principle. So of course, instead of kings, the Roman Empire was headed by an emperor, while the Muslims had caliphs. Get it? When Augustus defeated Mark Antony and Cleopatra the official narrative was that the doughty republican traditions of Rome had bested once more the oriental despotism of the Hellenistic world, with their Greek kings and queens. Similarly, the righteous AbbasidsUmayyads. In its place they established a genuine Islamic state which was guided by the traditions of the community as opposed to profane naked autocracy. Right….

As you can see here, the extent of the self-deception and semantic delusion is really humorous. Now, it is true that the early emperors of Rome tended to keep up the illusion that they were simply stewards of the Roman Republic with some verisimilitude. Augustus’ shtick was that his was a restorationist project; he was no dictator or king, just the First Citizen. Similarly, the early Abbasids were ostensibly bringing the vision of the Islamic community to its true fulfillment (especially the Shia party), whereas the Umayyads had been worldly Arab tribalists more in keeping with the values of the jahiliya. … Muslim soldiers were enraged and shocked when the conqueror of Spain allowed his Visigothic wife to convince him to don a crown and so indicate kingship; they accused him of becoming a Christian.

I’ve been saying for years that people prefer democracy mainly because they think it raises their social status – being ruled by a king makes you lower status relative to people who "rule themselves."  We can’t quite fool ourselves into thinking a king is just a "steward", but we apparently can think we really rule because we elect our rulers.

Added 2Apr:  Nazi Hermann Göring:

Oh, [democracy] is all well and good, but, voice or no voice, the people can always be brought to the bidding of the leaders. That is easy. All you have to do is tell them they are being attacked and denounce the pacifists for lack of patriotism and exposing the country to danger. It works the same way in any country.  [HT Caplan

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  • So you’d rather have no government?

  • Cyan

    David Pinto, I have to agree with you — it’s obvious from this post that Robin Hanson is an anarchist, and is definitely not making the point that people sometimes give more weight to labels than to the underlying reality.

  • Nominull

    The British seem perfectly happy to be ruled by a monarch, despite the loss of status. Maybe they’re just better at fooling themselves than we Americans are…

  • Anonymous

    There’s a widespread critique of American democracy as a sham, with the real power being wielded behind the scenes by a consortium of wealthy families that rules the military-industrial complex. It’s possible that in the future we will move to a more democratic system (Wikigov or some such) that will view our present day ideals of democratic rule as completely delusional.

  • ck

    Robin Hanson,

    I’m surprised you would link to that GNXP post. By my lights, the first two sentences are odious and not worthy of respectable company. In the interests of upholding the norms of civilization, serious and well-mannered people shouldn’t engage with people who talk or think like that.

    Sure, there is probably some intellectual substance to the post. But you have to draw the line somewhere.


  • Tiiba


    Your mother was a hamster, and your father smelt of elderberries.

  • Nominull: The British seem perfectly happy to be ruled by a monarch, despite the loss of status.

    The British are most definitely not ruled by a monarch. All European monarchs are little more than lavishly paid figureheads, and everybody knows it.

  • Cyan: it’s obvious from this post that Robin Hanson is an anarchist

    I wouldn’t say this post makes David an anarchist. Also, I wonder if you mean that in a positive or a negative way. Mind that there are several different kinds of anarchists.

  • Cyan

    I read David Pinto’s post as sarcastic, and answered with snark — I thought he was missing the point. I have no defensible opinions about anarchism in any of its various forms.

  • Grant

    Robin, do you think that much of the success of democracy is due to how much easier it is to legitimize than other forms of government? All states need to lower their cost of collecting taxes by legitimizing their actions, but it seems like thats a much easier thing to do with a democracy since people no longer buy the “divine right of kings” line. Perhaps the evolution of politics leads it to require less and less self-deception as it becomes harder and harder to keep people fooled.

    I’m not sure I’d rather be ruled by a true majority instead of our current system. As Bryan Caplan has shown, that could be pretty disastrous too.

  • Devin Haynes

    I think it is equally important to both, try to be what you say you want to be, but also, that whether you’re successful in being what you say you want to be or not, the fact that it is perceived as a certain way in everyones mind, is just as equally important and different. I don’t think you can have the latter, without continuing to work towards the first though, because then you’re lazily living a lie…

  • Cyan, what is obvious to you is not to me.

    Grant, yes of course.

  • Max

    I’ve been saying for years that people prefer democracy mainly because they think it raises their social status – being ruled by a king makes you lower status relative to people who “rule themselves.”

    Aren’t you just reciting the conventional meaning of democracy – namely, “self rule”? You’re saying people prefer democracy because it raises their status from that of peasants and serfs, well, yeah… That’s the whole point of it.

  • Cyan


    I can’t tell now if it was a genuine inquiry or if my first impression was correct. Uninflected text is too impoverished to make that kind of call — my mistake.

  • Thanatos Savehn

    I think Mr Hanson is halfway correct when he writes: “I’ve been saying for years that people prefer democracy mainly because they think it raises their social status”. But I don’t think it’s the whole story.

    I think democracy represents a compromise between the collectivists in society, those for whom position, or social status, within the pecking order is the predominant concern and envy (manifested as egalitarianism) the prime mover; and the individualists, those for whom happiness is the predominant concern and a desire for freedom of action (liberty) the prime mover.

  • My question was serious. My take from the post was that all forms of government are the same, a small group of people ruling over a large group of people with the large group of people having little say in what happens. Does he prefer no government?

  • David, start here.

  • Robin, haven’t you also proposed that disbelief in an idea need be no barrier to vigorously (perhaps devilishly) advocating it? Hence your promotion of futarchy does not necessarily shed light on your beliefs about which government would be best.

  • David J. Balan

    Do you really think we rule ourselves no more (or not much more) than people ruled themselves in the olden days?

  • See the added to post.