The President and the Good King Dagobert

It is suggested that the good President Biden called off one air strike in Syria after being told in extremis that a woman and a couple of children were near the planned impact (Gordon Lubold et al., “Biden Called Off Strike on a Second Military Target in Syria Last Week,” Wall Street Journal, March 4, 2021), just the opposite of what happened in the movie Eye in the Sky. I suspect that Joe Biden is, in private life, a decent human being. But he has some potential, prefigured in his previous politician’s life, to be a monster in politics. Jason Brennan argues in Against Democracy (Princeton University Press, 2016) that “politics makes us worse.”

But there are two related lessons of the aborted Syria strike that are perhaps less immediately obvious.

The first one is that simple people like to think that their ruler is good. “If only the king (or the Party) knew what’s happening, he would stop it.” Biden didn’t let it happen because he is a good ruler. That may bring to mind—or at least to the mind of a critical Frenchman—the French nursery rhyme “Le bon roi Dagobert” (The Good King Dagobert), in reference to the 7th-century monarch. Interestingly enough, though, the song was composed to mock royalty a few decades before the French Revolution of 1789, that is, before the French replaced a weak king with a series of strong dictators—what frequently happens in revolutions.

Trusting the rulers is an old habit of mankind, probably deeply embedded in our brains by evolution just like, according to Nobel economist Friedrich Hayek, tribal instincts are. In this perspective, the “Great Society” (to use Hayek’s formula) requires that we reject our tribal instincts in favor of an abstract and impersonal order based on individual liberty.

Despite the glitch of 1789, we can view the Enlightenment—including the Scottish Enlightenment of David Hume and Adam Smith—as a major step towards Hayek’s Great Society. The American Revolution was another step. But can mankind stop trusting its supposedly benevolent rulers? This is a crucial question, especially pressing in our troubled times. James Buchanan, the Nobel economist whose work in “constitutional political economy” was devoted to the liberal ideal although in another perspective than Hayek’s, ended up sharing the latter’s pessimism. In a Public Choice article published a few years before his death, Buchanan wrote:

The thirst or desire for freedom, and responsibility, is perhaps not nearly so universal as so many post-Enlightenment philosophers have assumed.

Perhaps many people do want their security guaranteed and their lives ruled by a good king Dagobert?

The second lesson illustrated by the cancelled strike is that it is in the state’s interest to have its subjects believe that the king or democratic ruler is good and benevolent. (In a state that is not perfectly autocratic, “the state’s interest” means the result of the interactions between politicians, courtiers, and government bureaucrats.) It is thus in the state’s interest to reveal, embellish, or leak instances of the rulers’ goodness. Isn’t there a good chance that the Syria incident was leaked under orders from our good king Dagobert?

Even under a constitutional—that is, limited—government, the belief in a good ruler is dangerous because it can disarm essential mistrust. As often, Anthony de Jasay found the way to put a related but more general problem in a few unforgettable words:

Self-imposed limits on sovereign power can disarm mistrust, but provide no guarantee of liberty and property beyond those afforded by the balance between state and private force.

This suggests many other questions. Stay tuned.

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