Our Colosseums

I visited the Colosseum the other day. Its history is rich, but I want to focus on one detail in particular: it was a creation intended for the masses.

There's an idea that was part of my study of international relations at Carnegie Mellon called selectorate theory. The theory describes, explains, and predicts both the internal and external policy of a country through a focus on the leaders of individual states. In a few words, the theory pays attention to the relationship between the groups that are involved in electing a leader or keeping a leader in power. Of particular interest is the smallest subset of the group that selects a leader, the winning coalition. When leaders have a small number of people to win over, say, in a dictatorship, the theory predicts the distribution of private goods. When leaders have a large number of people to win over, say, in a democracy, the theory predicts the creation of public goods.

In some sense, the emperor had to pay attention to the masses. They did not select him, but the sangunity of the public was still important. As a result, the building of the Colosseum, while extravagant, could arguably be a smart investment on the part of a ruling emperor. Providing a space for entertainment like gladiatorial contests was sure to have made the public a happy bunch.

Politics has changed quite a bit from the kind we might find in Rome during the time where the Colosseum was in actual use. However, it hasn't changed completely: far from not having to pay attention to the masses anymore, the rise of democracy has made it more important that leaders focus on satisfying the masses. In a sense, then, democratic society still has its metaphorical Colosseums: "projects" already completed, under construction, or promised by potential future rulers in order to sway our opinion.

The Colosseum as it was long ago is no longer, but it leaves a distinct impression of dramatic and public violence as the opiate of the masses. That is, at least in part, the Colosseum's legacy. Today, we can choose our Colosseums indirectly through the power of the vote. What structures will be built to appeal to the masses? We must choose carefully the legacy we intend to leave. Thousands of years from now, will the Colosseums we choose today still stand? What will they say about us? It's up to us.