There can only be one!

Dynasties decay.   The founder generally has a lot on the ball – tough, a natural leader, and canny campaigner – but his son is unlikely to be so exceptional.  Partly this is a manifestation of regression to the mean, and partly because his mother was probably chosen for something other than her talents as a warlord. By the fourth or fifth generation, it can be hard to believe that the useless poet on the throne is truly a member of the Golden Family.

This decay is a fundamental historical fact – an inevitable consequence of  biology and primogeniture.  It’s one of the important weaknesses of dynastic rule. The Ottomans, however, found a way around it for some centuries – the law of fratricide.  Upon the death of the Sultan, all of his sons were theoretically eligible for the succession (not just the oldest).  Since the Sultan had a harem, there were a lot of them. Whoever first seized power then had all his brothers and half-brothers executed by ritual strangulation. Incompetents didn’t win out in this struggle.

In practice the law of fratricide was not quite this simple, and imperfectly fair.  Older sons were assigned provincial governorships, and a Sultan could assign a favored son to a close-in province, increasing his chance of being the first to Istanbul.  This ensured that the successor had administrative experience.  It cannot have been pure truncation selection for genetic awesomeness, because younger brothers (toddlers, for example) were at a disadvantage.

This system was effective.  The first few Sultans were competent, even before the law of fratricide.  Partly that was due to a less formal forms of competition for the throne, involving rebellions and civil wars, but some was probably luck: that’s why the Ottoman state existed rather than an expanded Sultanate of Rum or whatever.  The law of fratricide kept the streak going: the Ottoman state had ten competent rulers in a row.  I think no other state can make such a claim.

The system worked, but I doubt if anyone enjoyed it. Starting around 1600, things changed.  The ‘rule of elderness’ was adopted  – all males within an older generations were exhausted before the succession of the eldest male in the next generation.  Eligible males other than the new Sultan were locked up in the kafes [‘the cage’], a suite of rooms deep within the Topkapi palace.  Their education ceased.  They were allowed barren concubines,  and some other recreations, mainly macrame.  Some of these people emerged much later as the new, deeply confused Sultan: the last Sultan, Mehmet VI, emerged at the age of 56,  totally ignorant of the Empire and everything else, other than macrame.

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35 Responses to There can only be one!

  1. Fratricide assumes, probably correctly, that the exercise of power is best done by those who would rather be feared than loved. The English had less luck with their succession plans: the rule of primogeniture was contested all too often by pretenders, barons, other related kings and even, sometimes, commoners. Perhaps it was the English unwillingness to embrace fratricide which made for dangerous ambiguity: whenever regression to the mean in the royal brood was all too obvious it paid everyone to kill a few rivals in order to get the crown.

    • dave chamberlin says:

      We love democracy, we think it can’t be beat. But I don’t think we have had two competent president’s in a row in my 60 year lifetime. A much better method of selecting a highly competent leader was found by the Ottoman Turks who had ten excellent leaders in a row and I think we should adopt it as much as possible. Once the president dies all 50 state governors race to the white house, whoever gets their first and successfully gets all the other governors strangled will be the next president. Cabinet members had better stay on top of their game. Otherwise they will be served red sherbet and if they don’t beat the head gardener in a 300 yard foot race they will be executed.

      • anon says:

        Competent or incompetent, relatively weak executive power is a feature not a bug of the US Constitution.

      • Power in a democracy is much more diffuse. In a parliamentary system, it’s even more flexible than the US system. Hence Churchill was picked to replace Chamberlain.

        Outside the government, huge corporations and small businesses run by their own rules. Farming may be at the family level.

        Belgium had no federal government for over a year due to inability to form a coalition. They survived just fine.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        Points well taken. My ridiculous proposal would just get us a highly competent Stalin. But underlying my statement that we haven’t had two competent presidents in a row in sixty years is a serious problem. Campaign finance reform could have and should have been instituted a long time ago but thanks to our supreme court it never happened. Politics sadden me, science and history fill me with wonder, guess which topics I devote the most time to.

  2. Matt says:

    Dynastic decline through regression seems meaning you go from a guy like Stalin to an imperfect copy of Stalin that’s more like the average person (less competent but lacking in other traits that make Stalin, Stalin). Might not always totally all be “bad” for most people’s status, depending on the Great Man’s balance of competence to traits in a ruler that you don’t really want, but which helped them to seize power anyway.

    Speculation, but might inbreeding be a way to hang on to more of the founder’s right stuff?

    Thereby why constitutional monarchy and similar arrangements might tend to emerge in more outbreeding populations, because the successors to the big Mafia that runs the state and all the little Mafias that run everything else down from there tend to retain less ancestral competence and less ancestral desire for domination and status, so alternative arrangements are found.

  3. Ernie says:

    If everyone in a country was absolutely obsessed with the idea that the human pinkie finger was a symbol of a leader’s connection to god and was required for him to be a good ruler, this whole problem would be solved. The oldest brother could simply have his younger siblings’ pinkie fingers cut off, and let them live.

    This would mean that ruling families would be much more free to have big families and expand their power even more.

  4. Difference Maker says:

    One of the golden ages of Chinese history, the Tang dynasty, famously involved its 2nd emperor deposing his father and killing his brothers, becoming the illustrious Taizong. Not very Confucianly. This was the nascent era of the Turks and the Tang Chinese had extensive relations with the steppe.

    The Tang rulers were half Turkicized themselves, iirc the founder’s father won his mother in an archery competition.

    One of Taizong’s favorite sons allegedly plotted a similar fratricide and was banished. The successor instead was the weak and perennially ill Gaozong. Incidentally, this allowed his wife to usurp the throne and become the only woman to assume the title of Emperor.

    • Difference Maker says:

      “the illustrious Taizong.”
      Illustrious, and even exemplary.

      “One of Taizong’s favorite sons”
      spoke Turkish and lived in a yurt.

      “the only woman to assume the title of Emperor.”
      The Empress Wu Zetian.

      The Chinese had long noted the different treatment of women in neighbor foreign nations. Nevertheless, though steppe women were freer and were even involved in warfare, and at this time Indo European societies still bordered China, apparently one of the reasons the Turks began to chafe under Tang rule and eventually rebelled, was that Wu Zetian was a woman.

      • Difference Maker says:

        “one of the reasons the Turks began to chafe under Tang rule and eventually rebelled, was that Wu Zetian was a woman.”

        A sentiment I can understand

  5. dearieme says:

    “But I don’t think we have had two competent president’s in a row in my 60 year lifetime.”

    Truman and Eisenhower? Reagan and Bush the Elder?

    • Sixty years of life takes the gentleman back to 1953, so he would not have been alive during Truman’s presidency.

      Eisenhower (1953-1961) – highly competent in all areas of presidential leadership, except perhaps party leadership. Even his record on civil rights is now being recognized as more advanced than previously thought.

      JFK (1961-1963) – mildly competent (JFK wasn’t nearly as good as early hagiographers like Schlesinger and Sorenson led the public to believe, and not as bad as later revisionists like Garry Wills depicted), but didn’t get much done either way.

      LBJ (1963-1969) – mildly incompetent and corrupt (As politically competent as any president ever in passing his legislative agenda and thus an important president for domestic policy, but a terrible leader otherwise).

      Nixon (1969-1974) – incompetent and corrupt. His skill at foreign policy is still to this day greatly exaggerated.

      Ford (1974-1977) – mildly competent, but like JFK didn’t get much done either way. Still, it’s hard to dispute that probably the best president of the four to serve between 1964 to 1980 was the only one not elected by the American people.

      Carter (1977-1981) – incompetent in every way imaginable. He failed in domestic policy, foreign policy, and as a party leader.

      Reagan (1981-1989) – competent. Not a bright man, but he had great political instincts and he was leading a political movement which fit the moment.

      George H.W. Bush (1989-1993) – mildly incompetent. The best foreign policy president since Eisenhower- much more competent in that area than Nixon, in my opinion. But he was incompetent at domestic policy and a failed party leader.

      Bill Clinton (1993-2001) – competent. (A smart policy man who was as good with economic policy as any chief executive in the post-WW2 era. I predict Republicans will greatly miss this kind of Democratic president, who was so willing to adapt to GOP pressure and to adopt conservative ideas.)

      George W. Bush (2001-2009) – incompetent. Other than Nixon and maybe Hoover, I can’t think of another Republican president this bad. Grant? Arthur? Even Harding? Not a chance.

      Barack Obama (2009-2017?) – At this stage, it looks like incompetent, but we’ll see how the second term ends.


      So other than that odd couple of Eisenhower and JFK, I would agree with Dave Chamberlain.

      • teageegeepea says:

        Noam Chomsky has said JFK was worse than Nixon, so maybe he really was alright.

      • dave chamberlin says:

        I think we had three competent presidents in a row with Eisenhower, Truman and Roosevelt, but I was born during the Eisenhower presidency. I like Pincher Martin’s summarization of our presidents.

      • Matt J. says:

        Nixon was the last decent president we had. He was probably the best president we’ve had in the past 60 years.

      • misdreavus says:

        Competence, of course, is not the same thing as acting in the best interests of the common people. But it is absolutely essential for the continuation of a royal lineage or dynasty.

    • Anthony says:

      By misdreavus’s standards, the only competent presidents since 1901 were T. Roosevelt, Coolidge, F Roosevelt, and Reagan, with honorable mention to Harding and Kennedy. Semi-compentent ones: Wilson, Truman, Eisenhower, Nixon, Clinton, George W Bush, and Obama.

      • misdreavus says:

        Try not to put words in my mouth, or to blatantly misinterpret my own words. Maybe then you’ll get somewhere.

  6. Sid says:

    I remember that the Mughals had a similar such system for succession. I also remember that it seldom ever ended up well. Akbar lived up to his name, while Humayun was a bumbler, outwitted by a Pashtun (Sher Khan) of all people, and Jahangir and Shah Jahan were both recalcitrant mediocrities. Aurangzeb stands out as an effective manipulator of men, whose fanaticism, duplicity, wars with the Deccan Shi’ites and riling up the Marathas made Mughal rule of India a hollow claim.

  7. A question in borderline earnest: you’ve had some time to think about this, Cochran, what system of leader selection do you think is working “least badly” in recent history? Restricting yourself to modern states, with internet and plumbing.

    • Greying Wanderer says:

      Not addressed to me but in my view an ideal democracy would effectively create a non-hereditary aristocracy which seems like it would be best by definition.

      The further a democracy is from operating at the ideal level the least aristocratic (literal definition) the leaders will be. Most western democracies are currently disproportionately influenced by mass media ownership and small numbers of big campaign donors so for the most part we have a media/plutocrat oligarchy masquerading as a democracy. By definition these people don’t want good leaders. They want good puppets. Their ideal candidates would be actors.

      (And that imo is what we have been seeing more and more of over the last 30 years: actor-puppets.)

      It seems to me a properly functioning democracy requires (among other things):
      1) a pluralist and mutally antagonistic mass media
      2) some way of preventing billionaires from deciding who the candidates are going to be through giving or withholding campaign funds.

      Given number 2) especially t’s not surprising that most western countries have a political class who are all working for the cheap labour lobby.

      • You’re welcome to insert yourself into any inquiry of mine, Grey. ^_^

        I should reiterate, however, that though I agree with all of the above, my question is not for an ideal, but for an example. The current government of post-bank-revolution Iceland might fulfill some of your media criteria, or the government of Singapore might fulfill some of your descriptions of a non-hereditary aristocracy.

        The question is: what government, which is a real example from real history in the real world in the modern era, is the “least bad”? It’s a much more challenging question, ofc.

  8. Anthony says:

    “Partly this is a manifestation of regression to the mean, and partly because his mother was probably chosen for something other than her talents as a warlord.”

    Marrying the daughters of more recently-established royal families helps mitigate that problem.

  9. Weltanschauung says:

    Surely this alleged Ottoman rule of fratricide is just an Orientalist urban legend, part of the crusading colonialist Eurocentric narrative that demonizes the Other.

  10. dearieme says:

    What, no “co-chief executives”? How terribly backward.

  11. Sid says:

    Here is my take on a solid alternative to democracy in the West: adoptive monarchy. We are acquainted with the Five Good Emperors of Rome. Before an Emperor died, he would adopt his most capable, wise and just subordinate as his son, who would become Emperor after his adoptive father died. The Roman Empire was perhaps at its most stable and prosperous point duribg this time period, and Edward Gibbon esteemed it as the high point of human history up through the time he was writing his tomes about Roman history, at least for the common Roman citizen.

    If the American electorate continues to decline, ever falling into idiocy, factionalism and dementia, then I think it might be prudent to put adoptive monarchy into play, and have our monarchs rule the country in the spirit of the Constitution while temporarily holding it in suspension. The monarchs would have 40 to 80 years to pursue enlightened demographic policies, which would ensure that the American people would be ready for democratic rule again. There of course would be a Congress and courts. Both of these branches of government would at first be impotent, but would gradually regain their former power and prestige. At some point, the monarchy would be abolished, with an elected president regaining command of the executive branch, having about as much power as, say, Eisenhower did.

  12. Greying Wanderer says:

    “The question is: what government, which is a real example from real history in the real world in the modern era, is the “least bad”? It’s a much more challenging question, ofc.”


  13. Rosenmop says:

    They should not let first degree relatives of leaders run for the head office.. It should be a law. Pierre Trudeau was a very popular Prime Minister in Canada a generation or two ago. I didn’t like him or his politics but I think he was quite intelligent. Now his son Justin is leader of the opposition and could become Prime Minister. Justin is good looking and dumb as a box of rocks. He can barely string together a coherent sentence. But a lot of the voters are dumb too.

    Then there is Hillary.

  14. This thing just hiccupped so I hope I’m not double-posting here. Anyhow, I always learn something interesting when I come here, and I’ve taken the liberty of reprinting this one here:

  15. Pingback: linkfest – 08/12/13 | hbd* chick

  16. Steven C. says:

    The Irish used to have a custom that the righ, or king, had to be without blemish. They were also free to designate any member of their family as tanist or heir apparent. The Ostrogothic kingdom had elected kings: the electors were those Goths who were landowners and could provide military service, both in person and from their feudal dependents. A candidate had to be both an elector and a member of the Amaling family by blood, adoption or marriage.

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