Inspired by tonight’s live election debate on British television, I thought I would post a few of my views on the (presently quite horrible) subject of government and politics. Well, let’s be clear about this: “inspired” is probably the wrong word to use, considering how highly I regard any of Gordon Brown, David Cameron, or Nick Clegg (and to a lesser extent their policies, though they all have their merits).
The quotes I am posting must (unfortunately, for I would dearly like to have said some of them) be attributed to Frank Herbert – primarily from his literary works. It just so happens that I consider his views particularly astute in this respect, and greatly admire the author in general. No in-depth discussion, as a change from usual, though I’d like to think some of the following points may be interesting starting points for a debate.
The people I distrust most are those who want to improve our lives but have only one course of action.
Governments, if they endure, always tend increasingly toward aristocratic forms. No government in history has been known to evade this pattern. And as the aristocracy develops, government tends more and more to act exclusively in the interests of the ruling class — whether that class be hereditary royalty, oligarchs of financial empires, or entrenched bureaucracy.
Absolute power attracts the absolutely corruptible. This is the danger of entrenched bureaucracy to its subject population. Even spoil systems are preferable because levels of tolerance are lower and the corrupt can be thrown out periodically. Entrenched bureaucracy seldom can be touched short of violence. Beware when Civil Service and Military join hands.
All governments suffer a recurring problem: Power attracts pathological personalities. It is not that power corrupts but that it is magnetic to the corruptible. Such people have a tendency to become drunk on violence, a condition to which they are quickly addicted.
Empires do not suffer emptiness of purpose at the time of their creation. It is when they have become established that aims are lost and replaced by vague ritual.
If you think of yourselves as helpless and ineffectual, it is certain that you will create a despotic government to be your master. The wise despot, therefore, maintains among his subjects a popular sense that they are helpless and ineffectual.
One of the hardest things for a tyrant to find is people who actually make decisions … Most bureaucracies before mine sought out and promoted people who avoided decisions.
Bureaucracy destroys initiative. There is little that bureaucrats hate more than innovation, especially innovation that produces better results than the old routines. Improvements always make those at the top of the heap look inept. Who enjoys appearing inept?
Major flaws in government arise from a fear of making radical changes even though a need is clearly seen.
Delegate heavily to only the same people and you fell into bureaucracy.
It is naïve to expect any bureaucracy to take brilliant innovations and put them to good use. Bureaucracies ask different questions… These are the typical questions, … : Who gets the credit? Who will be blamed if it causes problems? Will it shift the power structure, costing jobs? Or will it make some subordinate department more important?
I assure you from a God’s Olympian perch that government is a shared myth. When the myth dies, the government dies.
Good government never depends upon laws, but upon the personal qualities of those who govern. The machinery of government is always subordinate to the will of those who administer that machinery. The most important element of government, therefore, is the method of choosing leaders.
These quotes almost all appear towards the end of Herbert’s Dune series, where they usually appear in the context of long dialogues as well as narration. There is certainly no shortage of philosophy and musings in his later work, though I would admit to missing some of the action of the original novel! If you lack the patience to work through the entire series (for which I would not blame you), you can find just about all of the relevant (notable) quotes between the Wikiquote page and this excellent blog post.
As always, I’m curious to know what other people make of these ideas. Certainly, they are greatly generalised comments (maxims?), yet it is often only this sort of (cautious) generality that leads to profundity. Either way, they are in my opinion designed above all to make the reader probe the ideas further in their own mind, as they have undoubtedly made me do.