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. This will be a problem in new possessions for several reasons. First there is the necessary violence inflicted by taking possession, which causes harm to and earns the enmity of a great number of the inhabitants. Second, those who welcomed your occupation will never be satisfied—“you will not be able to fulfil their expectations”—and you cannot use violence against them because you need them, because
however strong your armies may be, you will always need the favour of the inhabitants to take possession of a province.

Although the U.S. is a republic, and thus not the subject of this book, in its invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan it acted as a principality, because the authority it wielded over the inhabitants was that of a Prince. It is well known by now that Bush administration was warned that they would not easily win the favor of the inhabitants, but as well as staking too much confidence in the strength of our armies, they seemed to believe that they would in fact be greeted favorably, at least in Iraq. If Machiavelli was correct about this in his time, he is likely to be applicable today, because it is wholly implausible that human nature has changed fundamentally in a mere 500 years. The same problem can be seen throughout the whole colonial history of Europe. To the best of my knowledge no colony was ever wholly pacified unless, as in the Americas, the native population was decimated.

Those inclined to equate Machiavelli with the Devil, the Ol’ Nick approach, needed to read no further than this early chapter, where he explains the value of ruthlessness.
…men must either be caressed or else annihilated; they will revenge themselves for small injuries, but cannot do so for great ones; the injury therefore that we do to a man must be such that we need not fear his vengeance

Evil thoughts indeed, but to me it is evident that this is more in the nature of a warning than a recommendation. Throughout this section, Machiavelli is arguing that it simply putting garrisons in a conquered province is costly and ineffective, and that better solutions are either to go and live there himself or to plant colonies there (only those whose lands are taken for the colonists will be harmed, and they will be too impoverished and scattered to effectively oppose the Prince—I think here Machiavelli is perhaps a bit naïve; surely all others will fear that their lands may be taken next), whereas a garrison will harm all the inhabitants. I see this as Machiavelli laying out the alternatives to the Prince and suggesting that caressing the population is a better alternative than getting into a situation where such brutality becomes necessary.

Maintaining the Balance of Power
This chapter is notable for its early statement of what has become a fundamental concept of international relations theory, the idea of the balance of power between states. A long quote is useful here.
Further, the ruler of a foreign province as described should make himself the leader and defender of his less powerful neighbours, and endeavour to weaken the stronger ones and take care that they are not invaded by some foreigner [more] powerful than himself.

Machiavelli not only recognizes the concept of the balance of power, but he encourages the Prince to actively promote it for his own interest. But there may be an ulterior motive behind this advice, as maintaining the balance of power can reduce the frequency of war. Princes, or countries in general, are more likely to invade those they see as weaker, but as long as those weaker countries are backed up by a more powerful ally, invasion becomes a less attractive option. Of course anyone can find cases that seem to rebut this rule, but the rule should not be seen as an inviolable law of nature, like gravity, death, or taxes, but a general principle. That is, it’s not that there will be no wars when power is balanced, but that they may be fewer.

Human Nature, or, The Lust for Dominion
The most depressing line in this chapter is Machiavelli’s claim that
[t]he desire to acquire possessions is a very natural and ordinary thing, and when those men do it who can do so successfully, they are always praised and not blamed, but when they cannot and yet want to do so at all costs, they make a mistake deserving of great blame.

This is, I fear, an accurate statement about human nature. Not only is the desire to invade and conquer an appallingly ordinary desire, our outrage is not directed at those who attempt it, but primarily at those who fail. This is beyond a “winners write the history” claim—humans actively admire those who succeed; we admire power beyond any possible moral justification. And here Machiavelli cannot be excused as trying to send a veiled warning, because in his next line he says,
If France, therefore, with her own forces could have taken Naples, she ought to have done so; if not, she ought not have shared it.

He gives a pragmatic warning about trying to be a co-conqueror, but he seems to have no qualms about recommending invasion, so long as one can successfully do it.

If there was a glimmer of hope for libertarians in Machiavelli’s subtle urging that conquering Princes try to avoid having to resort to utter ruthlessness, it is certainly darkened here. It is this very warlike spirit, this desire of some to have dominion over others, that we libertarians oppose. And while we may come to it from somewhat different directions—some are staunch advocates of natural rights and believe no (non-retaliatory) coercion is ever justified, while I reject natural rights in favor of utilitarianism and believe a small degree of coercive government is both inevitable and necessary—I believe we are all in agreement that no good results from this lust for dominion.

Next Week: Chapter 4.

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