Ancient and modern

How to get away with being a tyrant

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

16 February 2019

9:00 AM

Last week, in an effort to understand what that left-wing hero Nicolás Maduro, President of Venezuela, must be suffering, Hieron, tyrant of Syracuse, explained to his court poet Simonides why the life of a tyrant was such a misery. Simonides here spells out how Hieron can turn the situation round.

Simonides began by making a crucial distinction between activities that made one hated and those that garnered gratitude. This was the key to success: outsource the former and direct one’s attentions to the latter. So Hieron should give to others the responsibility for handing out punishments and penalties. Building on this sound principle, he should then concentrate solely on encouraging citizens to do good by offering magnificent prizes and rewards for outstanding work. That made financial sense: as Simonides pointed out, the rich already paid out vast fortunes to put on games, plays and chariot races merely for the glory of winning. But Hieron would be putting his money behind a galvanised citizenry and his own security.

So, said Simonides, Hieron must offer largesse for smart regiments, courage in battle and skill in negotiations. Such incentives would also apply to agricultural production, trade and all useful innovations of whatever sort, resulting in a rise in general prosperity.

Fair enough, said Hieron, but what about the hated mercenaries that I employ to defend me? Simonides replied that bodyguards were needed, but he should take the broader view and order them to serve the whole community: they should be instructed to protect everyone from criminal elements; secure the property and livestock of farmers; and keep an eye open for enemy attack. Again, do not build luxury palaces for yourself but public amenities for all; and make your rivals not your own citizens but other states, and show them who is best. In sum, ‘consider the whole country your estate, all citizens your friends and outdo all in benevolence’.

So: problem solved for El Presidente. It also suggests a model for collaborative government: let the party in power outsource the rough stuff to other parties and put all their energies into the vote-winning measures. Only difficulty: are there any?

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