The Wise Dictator 

Burn After Reading

6th June 2022
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Once upon a time, there was a wise and terrible king. People were always rising up against him, and he was always finding new and more subtle ways to exploit them. Tired of crushing rebellions that risked his rule, he hatched a cunning plan. 

When the people seemed most angry, he had tried making small changes like easing up on taxes to calm people down. It worked when it was done at just the right time. But that was a difficult thing - how could he know? What if he was being too lenient and making concessions he did not have to make? His advisers were no good; often right, it's true, but also out to grow their own power and prestige. They would take money from any rogue who thought he could profit from a man who had the king's ear.

But if he could just know the mood of the people reliably, he could stave off riots and rebellions with clever governance. Not forever, naturally, but it was much easier to get rid of ringleaders and rebels when the heat had died down, bringing back the old ways in due course.

So, he tried two things: first, he sent out emissaries to persuade people that his rule was just. That seemed a sensible step to calm the populace. Second, he commissioned a census - not of people, but of ideas. Every five years, he decided, everyone in the land would be asked their thoughts on his rule. That way, he could pre-empt rebellion without firing a shot.

The scheme had some success at first. Indeed it did! But many concerns still worried the king: while he was more popular than ever before, making the changes people had asked for left him looking weak. Other kingdoms began to look at his own with a glint of greed in their eyes. He had to resort to that old trick of blaming policies on a "bad advisor" who would be fired and paraded unceremoniously through the streets. But it was so tiresome always to be looking for new advisors!

Worse still was the cost. Thousands and thousands of pounds from his treasury was poured into this, more even that he had spent on his army and secret police! And all the while, there was no way to be sure anyone was really doing their job. Were his emissaries really doing their best to persuade people? Were his surveyors really taking honest answers in his census? Doubt gnawed at the heart of the king.

And then, one night, an idea came to him. He was ruminating in his chamber, building a house of cards. One card on its own will fall over quickly, just as all his advisors, emissaries and surveyors would fall back on their basest instincts at the drop of a hat unless constantly watched. But what if, like the cards, they could be held up by being made to fall on one another? Held in place... by competition with each other? Arranged just right by a wise king, a system could be set up just-so to support itself on its own weight. He got to work right away, drawing up edicts and proclamations.

First, he would divide his advisors into two groups: one that would try to keep things as they are, the other to advise small, token changes. Instead of the great census asking for people's thoughts, they would simply choose between advisors to the king. That would simplify the sacking of advisors whenever he needed to change his policy.

Every advisor wanted the ear of the king; all the better to take bribes from merchants and lords in other lands. As such, he entrusted the two groups to run themselves and to choose from amongst them whichever advisor as leader had the best chance of winning the confidence of the people. Bribes would now fund the kingdom indirectly, instead of just lining a few pockets for no purpose!

That just left the job of the king's emissaries. Since the advisors would need to convince people to support them, he reasoned, both sides would want the people to believe the system worked, that they had real power. He could be sure they would convince people not to change things themselves through riots and insurrection, but by supporting the right advisors in the great census. And so he abolished his emissaries, and handed their job over to the two groups of advisors as well. They could fund the great persuasion themselves. Perhaps they would do a worse job of it, but at least it would save the king from going bankrupt.

All this took many years of planning and careful work to set up. As the day of the first Great Census approached, and his great bureaucratic edifice neared completion (called "erection day" by his more subversive courtiers), many foreign lords and princes would visit his kingdom. Just a social call, they said, but it was obvious they were investigating his new system. Most of them laughed at him, and none really believed it would work. Behind his back they called him "The Half-Mad King”, and "Demi-Crazy". "Do you really think", they said, "that the people are so foolish as to put into your hands the tools you need to oppress them? We all know might and power is the only way to do that! And only spies can gather the kind of information that you believe they will hand over to you openly and free of charge". They scoffed and they laughed, but the king kept silent, showing no reaction whatsoever.

Needless to say, the laughing lords and princes were wrong! Not only that, even the king was taken aback in the end. When "erection day" arrived, it wasn't just the advisors and a few of their toadies knocking on doors and calling on people to come out; people were volunteering! His spies even reported several former rebels had volunteered for the Progressive Party of Advisors, telling people earnestly, "This is our chance to make things a little better". He didn't believe it at first. But then he laughed, long and loud and hard, and went off to the treasury to count his money.

In time, as the advisors became more confident, he was concerned to see them making promises he had no intention of allowing them to keep. The Progressive Party in particular was rather too eager to commit to changes for his liking. But he needn’t have worried; people became so used to broken promises that they no longer batted an eyelid. They still came back, year after year, just to keep the "other side" from getting in! In the end, his party of progressives was far more conservative than he first intended, pacifying people with hot air and broken promises far more than real reforms. After all, that’s what their sponsors - formerly known as “bribers” - wanted. All well and good.

The king became, in time, the richest king who ever lived. His treasury overflowed with taxes, and still more because, without constant rebellions, the cost of his armies and spies had dwindled to almost nothing. The few remaining rebels could be rooted out secretly in the dead of night. And during the day, his parties of advisors would go around from house to house convincing the people that, despite what they knew in their heart of hearts, they were truly happy, prosperous and free.

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