26 February 2010

Unclear on the Concept

I have to share this, from my brother's blog.
On State Street today [in Ann Arbor], I encountered a couple folks holding up one of those Obama-with-the-Hitler-moustache posters. Our 7-second conversation went something like this:

Me: "Aren't you afraid of being arrested?"
Him: [utterly confused look] "Arrested? No, I'm not afraid of being arrested."
Me: "Guess he's not much of a Hitler, then, is he?"
Him: [utterly confused look persists - he still hasn't taken my point]

Coincidentally, I encountered this Mark Twain-attributed quotation not five minutes later:

“You can't depend on your eyes when your imagination is out of focus.”

I don't believe all conservatives are stupid, or that all stupid people are conservatives, but I do believe there's a strong correlation between stupidity and a certain type of conservative.

25 February 2010

The Death of Positive Liberty

My other blog, Positive Liberty, is dead. Jason Kuznicki, the blog's real owner and administrator, has had continuing problems with domain host IPower, which included a major crash that destroyed years worth of posts (most of which has been recovered through the tech savvy of Jason's brother-in-law). The latest, and most severe problem, was IPower failing to automatically charge Jason's credit card for re-registering the domain site and failing to notify him that it hadn't, allowing professional domain hijackers to steal the site.

Jason, understandably, is tired of fighting these battles, and has accepted an invitation to join the League of Ordinary Gentlemen.

Although I only blogged at Positive Liberty for about a year and a half, I will greatly miss my colleagues there and a great many of our regular commentors. I have offered to take on the role of blog administrator, if my colleagues want to continue together, and will announce it here if they agree. However we have lost the positiveliberty.com domain, and have probably lost the irreplaceable Jason Kuznicki as well.

Please keep in touch.

22 February 2010

The Prince, part 4 (chapter 4)

The Prince chapter 4: "Why the Kingdom of Darius, Occupied by Alexander, Did Not Rebel Against the Successors of the Latter After His Death

The best thing about approaching The Prince this way is that it forces me to slow down and think about what it means. If I were reading straight through, I might do just that--read straight through. But by focusing on each chapter individually, I slow down and take more time to think about it before I move on. And writing about each one helps tremendously, too, because as E.M. Forster is supposed to have said, "How can I know what I think until I see what I write?" Any good scholar can agree with this sentiment, I am sure (and may eternal damnation be the lot of those who don't, for they are a scourge upon society). Which is to say, that taking time to write about these chapters requires that I think about them, in order to put my thoughts together at least semi-coherently, and if only I had time to do so with everything I read, I would be a much more well-educated person.

Anyway....on to ol' Nick.

15 February 2010

The Prince, part 3 (chapter 3)

Chapter 3: Of Mixed Monarchies

By “mixed” monarchies, Machiavelli means those that are composed of possessions accumulated at different times, so that they do not have a long tradition of unity. They are very problematic, he says, because “men change masters willingly, hoping to better themselves.” This may, at first blush, seem to contradict his thoughts on how unwilling people are to upset the settled tradition of a hereditary family, but the difference is in the lack of tradition in these new possessions. If there is no tradition to cling to, and the new Prince is unsatisfactory, there is every incentive to revolt, in the hope of achieving a better condition. They “deceive themselves,” however, and usually go “from bad to worse.” These sentiments are strikingly reminiscent of Burke, who would surely sympathize.

Holding Conquered Provinces
But even though those who rebel may be deceiving themselves about their chances of bettering their lot, Machiavelli is not writing to them—they are not the subject of their advice. It is the Prince whom he is warning here.

13 February 2010

The Prince, part 2 (Chapters 1 and 2)

The Prince, chapters 1 and 2.

I'll begin my discussion of The Prince by covering two chapters, because they are so very short. Most weeks I'll likely cover only one, so that these posts don't become egregiously long and rambling.

Chapter 1: How Many Kinds Of Principalities There Are, And By What Means They Are Acquired
The first chapter of The Prince threw me for a loop the first time I read it. It's only four sentences long, and says nothing substantive--it just notes that a) all states are either republics or principalities, b) principalities are either hereditary or new, c) new principalities are either brand new, or they are new possession annexed to an existing hereditary principality, and d) these acquired possessions are either used to living under a prince or they are used to being a republic.

I found this confusing because it just seemed like a ever-expanding list of types of states. But the second time I read it I realized that it is actually a nested list, and with each step he goes deeper, making finer distinctions, so that the reader understands that all principalities are not alike, nor even are all new principalities alike, and implicitly noting that the differences between them are important. This is, after all, a work of practical theory. No airy, wishful, handwaving here, he is telling us that to properly manage a principality, you need to understand the details of what type of state it is. And note also that republics are discarded after the first distinction. This work is not meant for the governor of a republic, which should be a warning to all those who casually believe that Machiavelli is writing about leadership in general. There are lessons to be learned here, but they may not apply to our contemporary democracies.

Chapter 2: Concerning Hereditary Principalities
Machiavelli works himself up to a whole five sentences in this chapter, the sum total of his argument being that it is easier for a Prince to hold onto a hereditary state than a newly acquired one, because the people are already accustomed to his family's rule. Barring an "extraordinary and excessive force" from outside--i.e., Germany marching into Poland--all a hereditary Prince has to do is not mess with the country's traditions and avoid "extraordinary vices [that] cause him to be hated." The later is probably easier said than done, as those born to wealth and power often seem naturally inclined to extraordinary vices. Never actually having been constrained, they lack the common person's intuitive understanding of social propriety (I'm looking at you, Charlie Sheen).

"Extraordinary" is a key qualifier here, I think. He doesn't expect Princes to lack vice, and the chapter can be read to say that tradition and custom are strong enough that the Prince's subjects will allow some, perhaps considerable, degree of self-indulgence, rather than engage in the effort and risks of a revolt. The attachment to tradition does seem to be a major factor in human behavior, both social and political. From the family that gets together every Christmas despite not really liking each other all that much, to the continuing support for now-politically powerless royal families, as in, for example, Britain, Denmark, and the Netherlands.

I, too, believe in the value of tradition. A tradition shouldn't be overthrown lightly because it's quite plausible that its longevity is closely related to its utility. Of course tradition should not be fetishized, either. It's not beyond the bounds of reason that a particular tradition could have disutility, and is only clung to through superstition. And it's more than a little probable that some traditions' utility accrues only to a subset of the population, while creating disutility for the rest. Nevertheless, some people will fetishize tradition, a fact that an adept political analyst will not ignore.

There is also a veiled warning to those who try to take new possessions. The hereditary Prince, he notes, has "less necessity to offend," the subjects, meaning that an invading Prince must of necessity, cause offense. And how could it not be so? And yet time after time invaders seem to be surprised that their actions--waging war, blowing things up, disrupting the economy, changing the political institutions--cause offense (we're all looking at you, Dick Cheney).

Next Week:Chapter 3

01 February 2010

The Prince, Part 1

For a number of reasons I have been stimulated to re-read Machiavelli’s The Prince, which I have read twice, but only when I was much younger, with less education and less experience than I now have, and, in both cases, read hurriedly. And it is my experience that a worthwhile book requires several readings, separated in time with other relevant reading in between to provide greater context and connectivity, to be even reasonably well understood.

It is a relatively short work, so it seemed appropriate to blog my way through it, to share my thoughts with others and to get their thoughts in return. I will not make an attempt at exhaustive explication, detailed analysis, or thorough and original interpretation, but will, a chapter or two at a time, comment on what happens to strike me as I am reading. It would be lovely to make this a weekly event—and who couldn’t get amped for Prince Mondays?!—but being both busy and bipolar, please don’t hold your breath in anticipation. However, if you’re at all interested, read on for the first installment, in which I give a backgrounder on our author, Nicollo Machiavelli.