Bring Back the Joust: A Modest Proposal

Every election season, people complain about the ineffectiveness of democratic voting as a means of achieving meaningful change. This is because major parties have conspired to keep minor parties from having a chance of success, wealthy donors determine who has enough money to stay in a primary contest long enough to win, and incumbents are able to use the considerable perks and powers of their offices to campaign for re-election. Voting also serves to sanitize statism and hide some of its inherent violence from the population. There must be a better way, and perhaps there is one that does not require a popular uprising or a cultural shift. To improve the future, let us consider something from the past: the joust.

Cavalry games date back to Roman antiquity, as does the idea of chivalry. The dearth of recorded history during the 5th to 8th centuries makes a link between the Roman hippika gymnasia and medieval jousting difficult to establish. What is known is that jousting tournaments were a development of the High Middle Ages and continued through the early Renaissance. Their invention is credited either to Henry the Fowler (876-936, r. 919-936) or Geoffrei de Preulli (d. 1066). The earliest known use of the word ‘tournament’ dates to 1114, and refers to the keepers of the peace in the town leaving it ‘for the purpose of frequenting javelin sports, tournaments and such like.’ Regular events of this type were held during the lifetime of Charles I, Count of Flanders (1084-1127). By the 1160s, the sport of jousting had developed into the form it would maintain into the 14th century.

There were two major types of joust; the joust a plaisance, which used blunted lances and was expected to be non-lethal, and the joust a l’outrance (also called joust à la guerre), which used sharp lances and was fought until surrender or death. Joust a plaisance was used for tournament contests while joust a l’outrance was common during wartime or for dispute resolution.

During the 14th century, jousting became more regulated and less lethal. A barrier between the riders was added and specialized jousting armor was produced which was too heavy for any other practical purpose. The sport declined due to the invention of the musket in 1520, the death of Henry II of France in a joust in 1559, and the rising popularity of the theatre as a form of entertainment. The final jousting tournament was held on March 24, 1624, but revivals of the sport have been attempted since the 1970s.

A combination of joust a plaisance and joust a l’outrance could serve as an alternative to political elections for determining who should hold government office. Rather than have candidates seek ballot access, advertising time, media appearances, campaign contributions, and debate access, all candidates for a particular office could be put into a jousting tournament bracket, much like the joust a plaisance of old. But the contest should be a l’outrance; a candidate must advance through the tournament bracket by either killing one’s opponents or by making them surrender to avoid being killed. The exact nature of this may vary by jurisdiction and office. In some cases, all contests would be to the death, with refusal to deal a coup de grace being punishable by death. In others, surrender would be not only an acceptable alternative, but the encouraged outcome. A surrender might allow one to try again in the next tournament, or perhaps it would bar one from seeking government office again for a number of years or for life, thereby substituting political death for physical death. A case where both contestants in a match either die or forfeit would create a bye for someone in the tournament unless it occurs in the final match. If a double death or forfeit should occur in the final match for an office, then the office may either be filled by another tournament or left vacant until the next political term has ended. A person who declares candidacy and is unopposed may not take office; all who take government office must joust at least once. Incumbents may or may not have to joust at least once per tournament, depending on the jurisdiction and office. A government office which cannot be filled after several tournaments have been held in an effort to fill it should be abolished.

This system presents several advantages over contemporary democracy. The joust severely curtails the influence of money in politics. The difference in electability between a candidate of a major party and a candidate of a minor party is usually far greater than the difference in jousting ability between the equivalents. A great expense on riding lessons, quality horses, and quality equipment will certainly bestow an advantage, but not as much as the advantages that establishment candidates currently have over outsiders or minor party candidates. The influence of money could be diminished further by standardizing the horses and equipment used for the joust.

Second, the jousting system eliminates two problematic types of politician in the current system: the chicken hawk and the oathbreaker. A chicken hawk is a politician who advocates for wars and other military actions while having refused to enter the military oneself and/or acting to keep one’s children out of military service. The jousting system ensures that no one can get into a position of power to be able to declare, fund, or carry out a war without risking one’s own life in combat. Thus, all who would vote to declare war would have at least some degree of combat veterancy, even if with antiquated weapons. Some oathbreakers could be weeded out in the tournament, as they display cowardice when faced with mortal combat and are punished accordingly. Other oathbreakers could be challenged in a recall joust, which would function as an analogue of contemporary recall elections.

Third, the jousting system channels political violence into a more controlled format. Assassination attempts should be far less common, as one may legally kill an unpopular politician by entering a jousting tournament against that person and winning. Even the threat that this may happen should make politicians treat their constituents with far more dignity and respect than they do now, and could lead unpopular politicians to resign more frequently.

Fourth, the jousting system would disabuse everyone of the notion that government is anything other than an institution of violence. Seeing their would-be leaders careening at each other on horseback while aiming sharp lances at each other would make clear to everyone that these people are intent on exercising a monopoly on initiatory force against the civilian population, to the point of being willing to kill people for the opportunity. The reaction of people to staring this reality in the face is likely to change the political climate for the better, toward less of a belief in a role for the state in society.

Fifth, the jousting system would essentially create term limits, as it is a very dangerous activity that leads to many injuries. After a certain number of jousts, a competitor will be sufficiently injured as to be ineffective. This would spell the end of the era of career politicians who stay in office for decades until dying of natural causes. While term limits can create perverse incentives in an electoral system, the joust mitigates those incentives as discussed above.

The joust would also have some non-political benefits. The code of chivalry developed alongside the joust, and the return of jousting could lead to a resurgence of chivalric values, such as courage, honor, courtesy, justice, and charity. The sport would also be a great source of entertainment, especially if a plaisance tournaments for fun and profit were held in addition to the political contests. Sports gamblers would have yet another subject for betting, and sports bars would have another subject to bring in customers. Merchandise could be made not only for those who joust, but for fans of jousting in general or champion jousters in particular.

Of course, we may anticipate some criticisms. One is that by abolishing voting, the joust takes us back to a time when the common person had even less power. The truth is that a voter has very little power; in some cases, the odds of deciding an election are less than the odds of being killed in a car accident on one’s way to the polling place. Unlike the historical jousts, this proposal allows anyone to seek office by entering. After all, titles of nobility, entry fees, and other such historical and contemporary encumbrances are rather petty in light of volunteering to fight to the death in order to hold government office. Another related criticism is that women and racial minorities may be disempowered by the change from elections to jousts. This is truly meritless; most of the energy delivered by a jousting lance in a collision ultimately comes from the horse, and any woman or person of color may enter the joust, just as a white man may enter. It may be that there would still be a minority of women in government office, but this should be expected regardless of the methods used to choose rulers simply as a matter of biology. There is also the matter that a highly skilled jouster may be nearly impossible for an ordinary person to challenge and defeat, but this is still more likely than an ordinary person with ordinary means challenging and defeating an establishment politician. Finally, one may wonder why all of the effort should be made to re-establish jousting when firearm duels could achieve many of the same objectives. The answer is that the joust provides a lengthier entertainment, requires more skill, and (most importantly) involves less luck.

Admittedly, it is unlikely that this method of choosing politicians will ever be implemented, and it is not the answer for creating a libertarian society. But as shown above, replacing elections with jousts could do far more good than harm. Bring back the joust!

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