An ordinary modern person enjoys luxuries ancient kings couldn’t have dreamed of.
Yet throughout history, we see kings standing in the way of innovations that raise the standard of living for everyone.
If absolute monarchs still ran things, we surely wouldn’t have a shower and microwave in every house.
For short-sighted despots, having an abject, beaten population incapable of organization or resistance serves their interests.
It does not cross their minds that loosening their stranglehold on their own people could enrich them far more.
Yet people in power aren’t in power because they are enlightened visionaries. They are in power because they are good at staying in power.
The system gets exactly what it selects for.
These despots have always understood on some level that they cannot possibly anticipate all the complex changes brought about by a rampant stream of invention and innovation.
The same technology that allows everyone to communicate instantly across hundreds of miles or cook a meal in a minute might also undermine the ruler’s power.
We might think of the story of the town mouse and the country mouse. The country mouse enjoys the riches of the city but finds he must live in constant fear and uncertainty. He ultimately chooses to return to a secure life in the country.
Thus, an overwhelming desire for security becomes the poverty of the rich.
I’ve seen the tombs of the rich and famous of medieval Europe, I couldn’t help but notice that none of them lived past age 60.
I’ve imagined what modern medicine could have done for an older, ailing Henry Tudor.
These winners of the social game lived sickly lives alongside those they’d beaten. In some ways, they had not succeeded in being truly prosperous but only in becoming less wretched than their counterparts.
And so long as they were less wretched than anyone else and were secure in their power, any uncontrolled change was more likely to be a threat than an asset. In their circumstances crushing new ideas was rational.
But to really understand the conservative tendencies of the powerful down to the present day, we have to be honest about human nature.
How much does an i-phone or a television really improve our lives if everyone has one?
The ruler loses when one of his prized luxuries becomes commonplace amongst the seething masses. He will soon turn his attentions to some other thing that is still inaccessible to most people.
The more ways he can distinguish himself from his peons, the happier he is.
As humans, we tend to perceive our wellbeing not by an absolute barometer but by the capriciously shifting circumstances of others.
Might not the farmer who makes a decent living while his neighbors are starving feel a greater swelling of satisfaction than a modern millionaire who owns the same i-pod as the commonest of peasants?
It’s all about relative status and power.
Does a television or a hot shower change the fact that most of us are impotent corporate cogs?
On the other hand does dying young while ruling over a neolithic cave change anything if you can mate with anyone you want and wield ultimate power over life and death?
Does ‘progress’ then really change the way we experience life and our place in society?
Do ‘conveniences’ and ‘entertainment’ do anything more than make our lives as tools and slaves slightly more palatable?
If not, can we blame tyrants who prefer to die in filth as the absolute rulers of starving peasants to living in a wealthy society as mere ‘representatives?’