Monday, August 1, 2011

Brief thoughts on Gordon's Discourses on Tacitus

Thanks to The Liberty Fund and my Sony Reader (thanks again, honey!), I've recently had the privilege to read the following passages:
An absolute Prince is of all others the most insecure; as he proceeds by no rule of Law, he can have no rule of Safety. He acts by violence, and violence is the only remedy against him. (p. 145)
It is indeed apparent from our History, that those of our Princes who thirsted most violently after arbitrary rule, were chiefly those as were remarkable for poor spirit, and small genius, Pedants, Bigots, the timorous and effeminate. (p.148)
When men are once above fear of punishment, they soon grow to be above shame. Besides, the genius and abilities of men are limited, but their passions and vanity boundless; hence so few can be perfectly good, and so many are transcendently evil. They mistake good fortune for good merit, and are apt to rise in their own conceit as high at least as fortune can take them. (p.162)
Would a Prince live in security, ease, and credit? let him live and rule by a standard certain and fixed, that of Laws, nor grasp at more than is given him. Many by seeking too much have lost all, and forfeited their Crown through the wantonness and folly of loading it with false and invidious ornaments. While nothing would serve them but lawless Power, even their legitimate Authority grew odious, and was rent from them. (p.168)
The lessons set forth here apply equally well whether one considers the example of (in the realm of drama) Macbeth, or (in the realm of history) the C├Žsars, or...more recent exemplars.

Thursday, April 28, 2011

A few thoughts on Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War

I'm reading C.V. Wedgwood's The Thirty Years War (among other things, as time permits), and I was struck by the (potential, at least) timeliness of the following passages (pages 164 and 165 of the 1961 Doubleday Anchor edition):

"In Prague the gravity of the situation was increased by the necessities of the government. Frederick had begun the trouble by slightly debasing the currency during his year of rule; Ferdinand's nominee, Liechtenstein, continued the process, reduced the amount of silver in the coinage by more than seventy-five percent and attempted to fill the imperial coffers -- and his own -- with the profit which he made on the mint. In January 1622 Ferdinand, in hope of further gain, made a contract with a group of speculators for the establishment of a privately controlled mint in Prague. The currency was drastically debased while prices were forcibly stabilized; the plan failed utterly, for the people became suspicious and hoarded what good money they had, while in spite of the provision of the government, food alone rose to twelve times its normal price. External trade stopped altogether and for the ordinary exchanges of everyday life the people took to barter. To add to the damage done by this crazy scheme, the chief object of the contractors was rather their own enrichment than the payment of Ferdinand's debts.

"At this moment Ferdinand was besieged with demands to buy the confiscated lands. The local nobility and many wealthy merchants offered him what had once been fair prices in the Prague money, prices which he could not now refuse to take without repudiating his own currency. It was one thing to sell the lands and another to make use of the money; Ferdinand had accepted his own coin, but his soldiers threw it back in their officers' faces, because the local peasants would not take it in exchange for the necessities of life. Throughout Bohemia trade came almost to a standstill, the peasants would not provide the towns with food, the army was mutinous, the civil population starving, and certain contractors, of whom Liechtenstein was not least, were among the richest men in Europe. At Christmas 1623, Ferdinand devaluated the money and broke the contract. By that time the greater part of the confiscated land had been sold for an average price of less than a third its normal value. His first move towards financial security had been catastrophic, for nor only had he lost the advantage of the confiscation, but he had completed the economic ruin of Bohemia. Wealth, which had been widely distributed among an industrious peasantry and an active urban population, had become, through political persecution and the disastrous effects of the inflation, concentrated in a few unscrupulous hands. As a source of imperial revenue Bohemia had become useless."

Wedgwood here is writing of the brief tenure of Frederick, the Elector Palatine, as King of Bohemia. Ferdinand was Archduke, erstwhile King of Bohemia himself, and Holy Roman Emperor. The next thing (more or less) that happened -- at least in Wedgwood's recounting -- was Wallenstein. Oh, joy.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Smoke on the breeze

And today, I offer this:

The Concord Hymn
Ralph Waldo Emerson (1837)
By the rude bridge that arched the flood,
     Their flag to April's breeze unfurled;
Here once the embattled farmers stood;
     And fired the shot heard round the world.

The foe long since in silence slept;
     Alike the conqueror silent sleeps,
     And Time the ruined bridge has swept
     Down the dark stream that seaward creeps.

On this green bank, by this soft stream,
     We place with joy a votive stone,
That memory may their deeds redeem,
     When, like our sires, our sons are gone.

O Thou who made those heroes dare
     To die, and leave their children free, --
Bid Time and Nature gently spare
     The shaft we raised to them and Thee.

Found here...which is sort of ironic, don't you think?

Monday, April 18, 2011


Sheila is busy these days (and less hidebound a blogger than I am), and so I cheerfully offer this, to honor the day:

Listen my children and you shall hear
Of the midnight ride of Paul Revere,
On the eighteenth of April, in Seventy-five;
Hardly a man is now alive
Who remembers that famous day and year.

He said to his friend, "If the British march
By land or sea from the town to-night,
Hang a lantern aloft in the belfry arch
Of the North Church tower as a signal light,--
One if by land, and two if by sea;
And I on the opposite shore will be,
Ready to ride and spread the alarm
Through every Middlesex village and farm,
For the country folk to be up and to arm."

Then he said "Good-night!" and with muffled oar
Silently rowed to the Charlestown shore,
Just as the moon rose over the bay,
Where swinging wide at her moorings lay
The Somerset, British man-of-war;
A phantom ship, with each mast and spar
Across the moon like a prison bar,
And a huge black hulk, that was magnified
By its own reflection in the tide.

Meanwhile, his friend through alley and street
Wanders and watches, with eager ears,
Till in the silence around him he hears
The muster of men at the barrack door,
The sound of arms, and the tramp of feet,
And the measured tread of the grenadiers,
Marching down to their boats on the shore.

Then he climbed the tower of the Old North Church,
By the wooden stairs, with stealthy tread,
To the belfry chamber overhead,
And startled the pigeons from their perch
On the sombre rafters, that round him made
Masses and moving shapes of shade,--
By the trembling ladder, steep and tall,
To the highest window in the wall,
Where he paused to listen and look down
A moment on the roofs of the town
And the moonlight flowing over all.

Beneath, in the churchyard, lay the dead,
In their night encampment on the hill,
Wrapped in silence so deep and still
That he could hear, like a sentinel's tread,
The watchful night-wind, as it went
Creeping along from tent to tent,
And seeming to whisper, "All is well!"
A moment only he feels the spell
Of the place and the hour, and the secret dread
Of the lonely belfry and the dead;
For suddenly all his thoughts are bent
On a shadowy something far away,
Where the river widens to meet the bay,--
A line of black that bends and floats
On the rising tide like a bridge of boats.

Meanwhile, impatient to mount and ride,
Booted and spurred, with a heavy stride
On the opposite shore walked Paul Revere.
Now he patted his horse's side,
Now he gazed at the landscape far and near,
Then, impetuous, stamped the earth,
And turned and tightened his saddle girth;
But mostly he watched with eager search
The belfry tower of the Old North Church,
As it rose above the graves on the hill,
Lonely and spectral and sombre and still.
And lo! as he looks, on the belfry's height
A glimmer, and then a gleam of light!
He springs to the saddle, the bridle he turns,
But lingers and gazes, till full on his sight
A second lamp in the belfry burns.

A hurry of hoofs in a village street,
A shape in the moonlight, a bulk in the dark,
And beneath, from the pebbles, in passing, a spark
Struck out by a steed flying fearless and fleet;
That was all! And yet, through the gloom and the light,
The fate of a nation was riding that night;
And the spark struck out by that steed, in his flight,
Kindled the land into flame with its heat.
He has left the village and mounted the steep,
And beneath him, tranquil and broad and deep,
Is the Mystic, meeting the ocean tides;
And under the alders that skirt its edge,
Now soft on the sand, now loud on the ledge,
Is heard the tramp of his steed as he rides.

It was twelve by the village clock
When he crossed the bridge into Medford town.
He heard the crowing of the cock,
And the barking of the farmer's dog,
And felt the damp of the river fog,
That rises after the sun goes down.

It was one by the village clock,
When he galloped into Lexington.
He saw the gilded weathercock
Swim in the moonlight as he passed,
And the meeting-house windows, black and bare,
Gaze at him with a spectral glare,
As if they already stood aghast
At the bloody work they would look upon.
It was two by the village clock,
When he came to the bridge in Concord town.
He heard the bleating of the flock,
And the twitter of birds among the trees,
And felt the breath of the morning breeze
Blowing over the meadow brown.
And one was safe and asleep in his bed
Who at the bridge would be first to fall,
Who that day would be lying dead,
Pierced by a British musket ball.

You know the rest. In the books you have read
How the British Regulars fired and fled,---
How the farmers gave them ball for ball,
From behind each fence and farmyard wall,
Chasing the redcoats down the lane,
Then crossing the fields to emerge again
Under the trees at the turn of the road,
And only pausing to fire and load.

So through the night rode Paul Revere;
And so through the night went his cry of alarm
To every Middlesex village and farm,---
A cry of defiance, and not of fear,
A voice in the darkness, a knock at the door,
And a word that shall echo for evermore!
For, borne on the night-wind of the Past,
Through all our history, to the last,
In the hour of darkness and peril and need,
The people will waken and listen to hear
The hurrying hoof-beats of that steed,
And the midnight message of Paul Revere.

-- Henry Wadsworth Longfellow

Mark me down for a sap if ye maun, but this is still one of my favorite poems.

Wednesday, April 6, 2011

The weakest link in the supply chain

It appears that Toyota will be forced to shut its U.S. plants this month as they run out of parts. The quake has disrupted (to say the very least) Toyota's ability to deliver parts to supply the U.S. plants.

I mention this because it points up an unintended consequence of just-in-time (JIT) inventory management. In the normal course, and managed well, JIT is highly efficient and allows firms to avoid having lots of capital tied up in (particularly) raw materials or work-in-progress inventory. In the event of a supply shock (earthquake, major storm, Teamsters strike, etc.), however, JIT practices can impose component shortages/stock-outs very quickly.

It's a no-win for companies in the developed world, though: run lean and be vulnerable to the next Black Swan that augers in somewhere along the supply chain, or sink capital into higher levels of raw-material or WIP inventory and have the extra added bonus of paying taxes on it.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Brief clarification to the previous brief thoughts

I must beg your pardon (all two of you); I was not entirely clear as to what I had in mind with regard to Cato. It is not that it is better to weep for a lost loved one or friend than to weep for lost virtue or liberty; rather, it is that imbuing a place, whether Rome or...anywhere else (bigger than one's own homestead), with the status of "immutable symbol of virtue and liberty" is merely setting one's self up for severe disappointment.

I also confess that having read Cato: A Tragedy after reading Caesar's Commentaries (courtesy of Caesar's team of traveling PR agents, as someone admirably said on some forum), I found myself wanting in knowledge of the Roman Civil War (that one, at any rate). Cato himself appears to have been all that reputation makes him, but I must (subject to further research as time allows) question whether throwing in with Pompey was really the way to defend republican ideals. At first blush, I find little to choose between Caesar and Pompey. I can say that my younger son's second grade history curriculum, while not bad, does implicitly back Caesar against Pompey...which may be no more than the instinctive collectivist love of centralizing power that Hayek notes in discussing Sidney and Beatrice Webb, and George Bernard Shaw in The Road to Serfdom (about which I shall have somewhat to say, one of these days).

As additional evidence of the preceding, I'll note that the curriculum explicitly waxes rhapsodic about the centralizing tendency of Byzantium. I'm sure it was just that the right people weren't in charge, and not anything inherent to the centralizing tendency, that made it end as it did. :)

Monday, February 21, 2011

Brief thoughts on Addison's Cato

Just finished reading Cato on my Sony Reader, and for all that people -- including many lovers of liberty -- lionize this play, I think Addison got it exactly wrong in at least one spot. When the soldiers bring the broken body of Cato's son Marcus before Cato in Act IV, relating Marcus's heroic last battle (including the slaying of the traitor Syphax), he said only. "I'm satisfied."

Contrast this with David's "O my son Absalom, my son, my son Absalom! would God I had died for thee , O Absalom, my son, my son!"

The argument given by Addison is that Cato's (and by extension, everyone else's) tears were better saved for Rome:
Cato. Alas, my friends,
Why mourn you thus? let not a private loss
Afflict your hearts. 'Tis Rome requires our tears,
The mistress of the world, the seat of empire,
The nurse of heroes, the delight of gods,
That humbled the proud tyrants of the earth,
And set the nations free; Rome is no more.
Oh, liberty! Oh, virtue! Oh, my country!
Weep less for things, I say, than for people. For even where things -- places, countries -- are held to be the embodiment of high ideals, they do so at best imperfectly, and there is no promise they will not cease to embody those ideas altogether. One ought save one's tears for people worthy of them.

David had less cause to weep for Absalom than Cato for Marcus, yet wept the more...and I think better of him for it.