Machiavelli redux – I look back on me looking back on The Prince


I recently bought a new laptop and, as I transferred my old stuff to my new laptop, I found this unfinished blog post.  I’m pretty sure I initially wrote this some time in early 2006 (possibly late 2005).  I wish I had found this before the 2008 election as it would’ve been fun to revisit in light of the major issues that drove the election.  Anyway, I want to get this posted while I’m thinking about it.  I’ve copied it here unedited, but I’ve added an afterward at the end (it was unfinished and I wanted to wrap it up instead of leaving it so open-ended).

Me on Machiavelli on welfare and government redistribution of wealth

I’m just about to finish up Machiavelli’s The Prince. Last night, I went to dinner at my favorite local cafe and my server asked if I was reading it “for fun”, to which I replied, “I wouldn’t say it’s ‘fun’, but I’m between books right now and I had this laying around, so I figured I’d give it a shot.” Even in his introduction, the translator says that he’s not sure we can really “learn” much from Machiavelli, but that his writing is insightful, at least as far as the mysterious Machiavelli is concerned.

As I began reading, I couldn’t help but agree with the translator–I didn’t see myself learning a whole lot from this experience. That was true until about half way through the book when I stumbled upon his chapter on “Generosity and Parsimony”. There, I found what I thought was some interesting insight into today’s politics in America.

A brief summary of a tiny part of The Prince

Before I go any further, I should probably give a brief summary of The Prince. I almost wrote something like, “For those who haven’t read and have no desire to read The Prince…”, but that’s just fluff. Really, I’m summarizing for myself so I don’t have to ever read it again. Anyway, a “prince” is basically a “ruler” and Machiavelli talks about how princes come to power, how they maintain their power and some general rules to live by for princes as they try to maintain their principalities. So, his chapter on “Generosity and Parsimony” is another section designed to point out traits of an effective ruler.

Machiavelli essentially says that, although it may be immediately beneficial, giving lots of stuff to people to win their favor is ultimately a trap that will bury a leader. I think he’s talking about bribery, but he’s also talking generally about giving gifts and freebies to the populous at large. He contends that there are several problems with giving things to people to gain their favor. The first is that all the things given have to be taken from somewhere else: he’ll either have to give of his own possessions, which will eventually run out, or he’ll have to take from others and give of their possessions which will eventually make those “others” his enemies and will also eventually run out.

Once the giving stops, the populous, having been spoiled by his generosity thus far, would be discontented and he would lose favor with them. A couple clichés come to mind: “Give them an inch and they’ll take a mile” and “Ignorance is bliss”. If you give stuff to people, especially if they haven’t earned it, and you stop giving them that stuff, they’ll become very restless; if you never give them more than they need, they’ll never know what it’s like to have excess.

Back to my point

But I said this has to do with today’s politics, didn’t I? Here’s how: Socialism, welfare, unemployment and entitlement are all hot-button issues today. Right now, the two opposing schools of thought are: 1) We recognize that people have needs and we believe the best way to satisfy those needs is to give them opportunities to work, earn a paycheck and fend for themselves and 2) We recognize that people have needs and we think that those whose needs are fulfilled should help out those whose needs are not fulfilled. In a nutshell, it’s “bolster the economy and create jobs” versus “tax the ‘haves’ and give to the ‘have-nots'”.

Although he wasn’t talking directly about welfare, I think Machiavelli’s point is valid: giving generously to the “have-nots” by taxing the “haves” seems wonderful until the “haves” get sick of it and demand that the “have-nots” work for their wages. Of course, I don’t believe that people should starve because they can’t find a job, and I believe America is a country that shouldn’t let that happen. People will fall on hard times and our country is wealthy enough to help those people out until they can get back on their feet. But they’ll never get back on their feet if they don’t have any incentive to stand up.

A sidebar on Giuliani’s Leadership

A few months ago, I read Rudy Giuliani’s Leadership and I was very impressed with some of his political philosophies and tactics. Most impressive, though, were his results. He only briefly discusses his take on welfare, but I think it was a great philosophy: When people are without jobs, other citizens should be helping them survive. But, part of helping them “survive” is helping them learn a trade, find a job and get off of welfare. Giuliani’s system provided seminars, vocation training, job hunting and other resources to those on welfare and, as a result, he dramatically reduced unemployment. I think the most substantial tenant of his welfare philosophy was this: If you’re on welfare, we’re going to provide you with all the resources we can to help you find a job, but you only have a certain amount of time to draw benefits and then we’re cutting you off. His philosophy was to “teach a man to fish”.

Back to my point again (and some butchery of my own interpretation of Giuliani’s philosophy)

I suppose my real problem with an open-ended welfare system (and the same goes for strict socialism) is that the system is not designed to actually help anyone get off of welfare. Instead, the system is designed to endear those who are on welfare to the providers, and ultimately to provide votes for the providers. I think it’s easiest to explain this by going back to the adage I mentioned earlier. The adage goes something like this: “Cook a man a fish and he’ll eat for a day. Teach a man to fish and he’ll eat for a lifetime.” To take this a step further, say there were two businesses, each related to the fishing industry, but in different ways. The first business sells fishing gear–poles, lures, line, etc.–while the second is a fish restaurant. The first business would be most interested in increasing the number of fishermen in its area. This business understands that more people fishing means better sales for poles, line, lures and such. The other business would be interested in keeping people hungry for fish and would prefer that people spend their time at the restaurant buying and eating fish because the more people that eat fish, the more revenue they’ll get. More importantly, the latter would realize that it’s bad for people to learn to fish. If people are catching their own fish, they don’t need a restaurant to cook and sell them fish for a significant mark-up.

In both examples, the analogy would extend into the political world as “revenue” equals “votes”. Giuliani’s philosophy was to teach people to fish, but also to give them a couple vouchers to the fish restaurant so they can eat in the mean time. The opposing philosophy would be to have the general population provide unlimited vouchers to those in need so the needy can eat and aren’t motivated to learn to fish on their own (I wouldn’t learn to fish if I knew I’d get three square meals a day at no charge to me).

Afterward (and a bait-n-switch from welfare to populism)

As I read back over this post, I feel that maybe I was talking more about populism than social programs.  I was a little off on some of my terminology (I guess I know what I meant by “open-ended welfare”, though it seems like I could’ve worded that more eloquently), but I think was mostly on point.  The 2008 election was largely driven by populism: Obama ran on a fundamentally populist platform, focusing on “change”, “hope” and other feel-good words for the masses while remaining fairly opaque about himself, his own ambitions and his specific plans; he also focused on taxing the rich and redistributing wealth, creating tons of social programs and spending many billions of dollars while offering little by way of explanation as to whom would fund these programs. It could be many years before we know how many of his promises he’s able to keep, or the cost of trying to keep those promises.

But politics and elections are based on promises (empty and otherwise), so what differentiates normal politics from populism?  To me, the differentiator is not so much the target demographic, class or audience, but the advisability and feasibility of the ideology being preached.  Are we making these promises because they’re best for the country, and ultimately for “the people”? Or are we making promises because they’re the key to maximizing votes for this particular election?  Are we bailing out the Big Three because that’s what’s best for the industry and the country? Or are we bailing them out because we need to save some jobs in the short-term, and a lot of those jobs are union leaders and lobbyists in DC?