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Archduke Joseph II, "Political Daydreams" [Rêveries politiques] (1763)

Originally written in French, the following is an early confidential essay by the future Emperor Joseph II (ruled in co-regency with his mother Maria Theresa, 1765-80, and as emperor alone, 1780-90). He expresses his robust “absolutist” conception of state power, especially above and against the interests of the “great” or magnate aristocracy. Yet he also advocates negotiations with the elite-dominated provincial estates and monarchical rule through a structured bureaucracy and ministerial cabinet.

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The two fundamental principles according to which one should act are unlimited power [in order] for the state to be able to do everything good, and the means to support this state without foreign help. To accomplish both of these goals, I would advocate:

1. Demoting and reducing the wealth of the “great ones” [i.e. the magnate aristocracy], because I do not find it very useful that there are small kings and rich subjects who live in prosperity, without worrying about what will become of the state. I see it as an axiom that every person in his capacity as a subject of the state, which supports and protects him and guarantees his rights, owes his service through the tasks that the state, whose spokesman is the ruler, holds him capable of, not according to his own convenience or pleasure. However, because people are no longer made for the offices, one must fit the people to them. That smacks of despotism, but without the aforementioned absolute power to do everything, one is hindered by regulations, statutes, and oaths, which the territories think are for their own protection, but which, viewed rationally, only work to their disadvantage — without this unlimited power it is neither possible for a state to be fortunate, nor for a ruler to accomplish anything great. I consider it a principle that the steering of the giant machine by a single head, even a mediocre one, is better than ten excellent ones, if they all must reach an agreement about every action. God save me from violating the oaths that I have sworn, but I believe that one must try to convince the territories and make them understand the extent to which a limited monarchy, as I suggest, would be useful to them. Therefore, I would propose to make an agreement with the territories, in that I would ask them for ten years for unconstrained power, to do everything for their benefit without seeking their consent. To accomplish this would demand great effort, but I think that the moment is favorable at this hour, and experience will show them the benefit. Many individuals will be unhappy about it, but the majority of the nation is to be given preference over this group.

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