Tuesday, May 15, 2007

more oligarchy

In the previous post I mentioned Political Parties, by Robert Michels. I only got about 30 pages into it before setting it aside, at least for now. I guess an early 20th Century tome on the doomed nature of democracy isn't quite the best literary compliment to spring.

So I picked up Robert Caro's The Power Broker: Robert Moses and the fall of New York. And wouldn't you know it? It's pretty much the same thing, only in story form.

In a nutshell, it's a 1,100-page book about a man who started out as an idealist and wound up a self-serving emperor. Caro, in characteristic genius, sums it up in the book's intro:
In the beginning -- and for decades of his career -- the power Robert Moses amassed was the servant of his dreams, amassed for their sake, so that his gigantic city-shaping visions could become reality. But power is not an instrument that its possessor can use with impunity. It is a drug that creates in the user a need for larger and larger dosages. And Moses was a user. At first, for a decade or more after his first sip of real power in 1924, he continued to seek it only for the sake of his own dreams. But little by little there came a change. Slowly but inexorably, he began to seek power for its own sake. More and more, the criterion by which Moses selected which city-shaping public works would be built came to be not the needs of the city's people, but the increment of power a project could give him. Increasingly, the projects became not ends but means -- the means of obtaining more and more power.

As the idealism faded and disappeared, its handmaidens drifted away. The principles of the Good Government reform movement had once espoused became principles to be ignored.

That seems to embody Michels' "Iron Law of Oligarchy," except it takes it further -- at least based on the little I read of Michels' book (the introduction, to be precise). The sense I got from the Michels book is that he was looking at an inherent flaw in a system. And here Caro is writing about human nature, he's breaking it down to its barest elements. He's telling a story that's been told since long before Genesis and the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. An old story that is nonetheless always startling. It doesn't gibe with the reality most folks would prefer to create. Certainly not idealists like me.

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