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1620: A political fable

November 13, 2016

The aldermen decided, one autumn evening, that the time had come to modernize the city’s economy and to facilitate the movement of goods between its citizens. So, noses full of heady wine, they proceeded to draft a law the contents of which would be revealed to the latter on the morrow. Early the next morning, the aldermen assembled before the hall to proclaim to all who would hear that the city walls would be torn down, the doors to every house flung open, and the citizen’s belongings free to he who would take them.

The citizens, believing that the aldermen meant well, set about making the changes required of them and watched as wealthy merchants within the city and vagrants without fell upon the possessions so offered. Yet a certain hesitation rose in them as the merchants cleaned house and vagrants asked after their work and guilds. Their uncertainty growing, the citizens asked of their aldermen whether all went well, which the aldermen answered only by nodding and assuring them that lives had indeed improved with the changes.

Reassured, the citizens returned to their homes to find them empty, bereft even of the tools of their trade, and the seed of a doubt was planted. In the weeks and months to come, petitioners presented themselves to the aldermen only to meet with the same response as before. On occasion, the aldermen were to be seen in the streets, often accompanied by the merchants, the whole of them clad in fine cloth and ornament. So did life continue in the city.

When the moment came, some time later, for the citizens to renew their pledge of confidence in the aldermen, many refused. The aldermen thought to allay the citizens’ concerns through long counsel and vote, open to all interested, after which they would surely see the light of reason. To the aldermen’s consternation, one prominent merchant decided also to stand for office, a decision which they met with swift rebuke. Yet they could refuse neither merchant nor common citizen.

So it was that, much to their consternation, the citizens chose to entrust their lives neither to the experienced aldermen nor to one of their own number but instead to the merchant. For, if he had plundered their homes and impoverished their families, the fault lay not with him but with the aldermen who had allowed the plundering in the first place. The merchant had only acted as was his right, and, for lack of a choice, that distinction proved enough for citizens.

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