A Humble State with No Motorcade
By Pierre Lemieux
In many ways, the modern world, including economic freedom, was born from the fear of tyranny and the institutions (generally unsuccessful) to prevent it. In Power and Prosperity: Outgrowing Communist and Capitalist Dictatorships (Basic Books, 2000), famous economist Mancur Olson had interesting historical remarks about Italian city-states in early modern times:
Sometimes, when leading families or merchants organized a government for their city, they not only provided for some power sharing through voting but took pains to reduce the probability that the government’s chief executive could assume autocratic power. For a time in Genoa, for example, the chief administrator of the government had to be an outsider—and thus someone with no membership in any of the powerful families in the city. Moreover, he was constrained to a fixed term of office, forced to leave the city after the end of his term, and forbidden from marrying into any of the local families. In Venice, after a doge who attempted to make himself autocrat was beheaded for his offense, subsequent doges were followed in official processions by a sword-bearing symbolic executioner as a reminder of the punishment intended for any leader who attempted to assume dictatorial power. As the theory predicts, the same city-states also tended to have more elaborate courts, contracts, and property rights than most of the European kingdoms of the time. As is well known, these city-states also created the most advanced economies in Europe, not to mention the culture of the Renaissance.
This quote is from pp. 39-40 of Olson’s book. Part of it is reproduced at Liberty Tree quotes.
Instead of a bully state, we are in urgent need of a humble state where political leaders and bureaucrats know their place. I especially like Venice’s symbolic executioner, who could beneficially replace the motorcade or, at the very least, occupy the last limousine. (For more discussion of related issues, see my Econlog post “Praetorian Guards from Ancient Greece to Palm Beach or the Hamptons,” January 14, 2019.)