Wednesday, April 6, 2011

Machiavelli and Modern Politics

Machiavelli said that the highest virtue was whatever allowed the prince to survive politically.  This may not always express itself in the survival of the state; many politicians believe the ends justify the means they use in their own ideological pursuits.  They may not call this Machiavellian, but clearly it fits  his idea of virtue.

Of course no respectable political leader would admit to engaging in Machiavellian ethics.  That being said, I thought it would be interesting to try and find examples of Machiavelli's influence on modern politics, using a few words from Machiavelli himself.

A prince never lacks legitimate reasons to break his promise.

"Read my lips", this is practically a maxim among politicians.  Saying one thing and doing another is second nature to most successful politicians.  Of course this can backfire, therefore breaking promises is best used only for preserving political position. For example, promising not to raise taxes can get you elected president, but don't break that promise until your second term. 

Hatred is gained as much by good works as by evil.

Here Machiavelli is saying that even when we try to do good deeds, we often do evil.  In other words, be prepared for people who will not like you, even when you are trying to help them.  This continues to happen to the US throughout the world.  Remember our relief missions to Somalia?  Bombing Yugoslavia?  The wars in Iraq, Afghanistan and now Libya?  We think we are doing good, but we just seem to be making more enemies. 

In this country health care reform, granting everyone access to medical care, is ostensibly a good thing but many view this change with hostility.  Likewise, many shortsighted people in the middle class vehemently resist higher taxes for the wealthiest 2% - even though it can only help them and the economy.  Similar views can be found when we try and make people wear seatbelts, buy car insurance, avoid predatory mortgages, etc...
It is better to be feared than loved, if you cannot be both.

If you cannot make everyone love you, make them fear you but never make the people hate you.  Being loved is great, but fear has worked well for other countries (USSR and Nazi Germany) and many countries have loved or feared the US.  However, once people begin to hate you will have lost respect and potential allies. Many countries have contempt for the US which is one reason we have lost influence on the global stage.  
I'm not interested in preserving the status quo; I want to overthrow it.

This has been uttered by Marxists, Fascists, Liberals, Conservatives, etc...  Of course Machiavelli does want to preserve the status quo as far as staying in power goes.  Machiavelli also said that when taking power,  the prince should eliminate the old nobility and replace it with new more loyal followers.  This would literally be true in more extreme situations, but even in our democracy a new president wants his most trusted allies in key positions. Machiavelli also suggested making the rich poor and the poor rich which will help endear a new monarch to the masses. 
Necessity justifies behavior that is not considered moral normally

With our war on terror we justify military tribunals and suspension of habeus corpus as "necessary". We should remember that Lincoln also suspended habeus corpus during the Civil War and FDR illegally interned Japanese-Americans during WW2.   But as Machiavelli says, a state and a prince can do whatever is necessary to preserve the government.   It could be argued by Lincoln, FDR, GW Bush and Obama that they are only doing what is required to protect us (i.e. the government) out of necessity.

It is necessary for him who lays out a state and arranges laws for it to presuppose that all men are evil and that they are always going to act according to the wickedness of their spirits whenever they have free scope.

Thomas Aquinas wanted us to believe that most men are good and only a view needed to be directed toward virtue.  Machiavelli took a more pragmatic, realistic view.  We need laws in our country to protect our freedom and property from other people.  People are inherently self-interested and nearly everyone seeks to acquire more resources than they need for survival. We can find innumerable examples of this without even mentioning Wall Street, the predatory mortgages, pyramid and Ponzi schemes.   Laws should protect the prince, his government and his people from these evils. 

Of course the prince does not need to follow these laws - but he should appear to follow them.  

The first method for estimating the intelligence of a ruler is to look at the men he has around him.

Machiavelli thought that good counsel was critical for a successful prince.  Abraham Lincoln was known for his "Team of Rivals" and other presidents and leaders have depended heavily on their cabinets.  However, bad counsel can lead to ruin - ask Tsar Nicholas II about how Rasputin worked out.  I also imagine someone told Nixon that breaking into the Watergate hotel was a good idea. 

For among other evils caused by being disarmed, it renders you contemptible; which is one of those disgraceful things which a prince must guard against.

You need a strong military to reflect your strength and keep away "wolves".  Germany and Japan instigated WW2 in part because they considered the Allies to be weak.  Our country uses its military as a deterrent to other countries that would threaten us - although it does not always work.  Likewise, it could be argued that Saddam Hussein kept up the ruse of having WMDs to keep his neighbors wary of him.   
Machiavelli also stressed the importance of citizen-soldiers, rather than hired mercenaries.  Like our military, no one has more at stake in preserving a government than those who freely choose to defend it.

The one who adapts his policy to the times prospers, and likewise that the one whose policy clashes with the demands of the times does not. 

All politicians needs to read the political tea leaves.  If you want to stay in power, you need to be on the right side of political issues like segregation in the South, busting up or supporting unions, or going to war.

There is nothing more difficult to take in hand, more perilous to conduct, or more uncertain in its success, than to take the lead in the introduction of a new order of things.

Every time someone in our country tries to change the status quo, like fixing health care or social security, they run into a barrage of opposition.  A prince has to have all the characteristics listed above to be able to push his new political agenda.  He is confident, secure at home and abroad, has good counsel and is willing to do whatever it takes to achieve his goal. 

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