21 March 2010

The Prince, Part 6 (Chapter 6)

The Prince, Chapter 6, "Of New Dominions Which Have Been Acquired By One's Own Arms and Ability."*

Today we come to a change in focus, essentially a new section, in The Prince. The first 5 chapters focused on the different types of principalities and how they can be established and held. The answer to the last question seems to be, "ruthlessly wipe out every possible claimant to princehood. In this new section Machiavelli focuses not so much, as the title of this chapter would lead one to believe, on the new dominion/territory itself, but on the person who has acquired it, and the means of acquiring it. In this chapter the focus is on acquiring territory through one's own skill, chapter 7 is about acquiring territory through luck or through the assistance of the real conquerors, chapter 8 is about acquiring territory through "villiany," chapter 9 discusses those coming to power though "the favour of his fellow citizens" in a civic principality, 10 is a sidestep to compare the strength of different types of principalities, 11 discusses ecclesiastical principalities, and that completes the second section (as I would divide it, anyway), because after that he changes focus to discuss different types of armies.

Early in this chapter is a statement that on first reading sounds too banal to possibly have come from Machiaveli's pen:

I say then that in new dominions, where there is a new prince, it is more or less easy to hold them according to the greater or lesser ability of him who acquires them.

Yes, and the Prince's stables will be more or less sturdy according to the greater or lesser ability of the carpenter who builds them. But there is a purpose to this statement. The next chapter discusses principalities acquired by fortune, or luck, and this one discusses those acquired by skill. Therein, he argues, lies an important difference:

And as the fact of a private individual becoming prince presupposes either great ability or good fortune, it would appear that either of these things would in part mitigate many difficulties. Nevertheless those who have been less beholden to good fortune have maintained themselves best.

In other words, sure you might get lucky and get yourself a principality, but don't count on your luck holding out forever--you're still going to need real skill to keep your head on your shoulders and your feet astride your principality.

But Machiavelli notes that most people don't have the exceptional skill necessary to do this, so he recommends that the Prince "should always follow in the path trodden by great men and imitate those who are most excellent." That may sound banal as well, but again I don't think it is. Consider the type of person who is likely to become a Prince. Ego and arrogance are almost a necessary part of the job description, and folks like that don't like to take advice or learn from others. Yet if ego is necessary, it's not sufficient, and only those who are either naturally excellent or follow the example of those who are will succeed for long.

He doesn't really discuss or explain what those lessons are, however. He points the Prince to the examples of "Moses,** Cyrus, Romulus Theseus, and their like" but doesn't really explain either their like or precisely what they did. He could be faulted for lack of detail, but it's likely that the examples of these men were more broadly studied and more generally familiar in his day than in our own. I imagine a rough equivalent would be telling an American schoolchild to follow the example of George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Teddy Roosevelt. (Whether that's good advice is a separate question.)

There is an interesting commentary on the difficulty of reforming the society the Prince has acquired, a reformation that he seems to consider necessary in order to consolidate control. It's interesting because it is very modern, very public choice in spirit.

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have had actual experience of it.

This is very much a kind of rent-seeking argument, ala Tullock and Buchanan. It contrasts with a more Hayekian*** approach that would have emphasized the impossibility of creating a well-functioning set of new institutions from scratch (c.f., "The Use of Knowledge in Society" and Law, Legislation and Liberty). That's not to say Hayek wouldn't agree with the direction Machiavelli takes it. His argument that institutions are the product of human action but not human design is complementary to the approach Ol' Nick takes. And, to repeat myself, a very modern approach it is. He doesn't focus on the genius of the society, the unconscious traditions of the people or some other misguided group-level sophistry, but goes directly to incentives. The beneficiaries of the current structure have one helluva incentive to prevent reform, and the currently dispossessed may have a generalized incentive for reform, but they have particularized incentives to avoid running afoul of that elite and to be wary of the potentially empty promises such reform offers. (We see something quite similar happening in the U.S. today, I believe.) From our 21st century perspective, it may not seem like a brilliant insight, but then my 21st century ears no longer allow me to hear what was groundbreaking about the Beatle's "Love Love Me Do." It's simply become a commonplace in political analysis now--due, ironically, both to Marx and the Public Choice theorists--but at the time this type of individual analysis was outside the conventions of political theory.

Following up on this line of thought, Machiavelli notes the important distinction (he's really big on distinctions, in case you hadn't noticed yet) between those reformers who can simply command and compel the changes, or whether they have to entreat, beg, and plead. Those who can command are likely to succeed, while those who must entreat "invariably succeed ill." Presumably those who have the ability (which this chapter is about) will be able to command, and those who achieved their position through fortune will be too dependent on others and will have to resort to entreaties. But there is a broader application to executive power here--success comes from ability to command, and the necessity of resorting to entreaty leads to failure. The U.S. presidency, notably, is deficient in command power. In a href="http://www.powells.com/biblio/0029227968?&PID=24067" target="_blank">Presidential Power, Richard Neustadt tells the story of Truman in his last days in office pondering the frustration awaiting his successor, Eisenhower, who was used to command. "Poor Ike," he said, "He'll sit here and he'll say, 'Do this, do that,' and nothing will happen." Of course the Presidency was not designed to be an active executive (despite Hamilton's argument in Federalist 70), and it's real failures these days comes not simply from it's lack of command authority, but the efforts to use the office as though it did have that command authority.

And Machiavelli clearly admires the active, authoritative, Prince of great ability. This is not simply a clinical explanation of what successful princes have done, but a glowing paean to the successful militarist in a way that is reminiscent of contemporary neo-conservatives. He dismisses the Meades as "weak and effeminate through long peace," a critique that is unabashedly pejorative. In conjunction with his forthright--almost eager--emphasis in prior chapters on maintaining control by lopping off people's heads, his inclusion of Moses begins to sound almost like a purposeful cover for a political theory that cannot square with sermon-on-the-mount Christianity (although, of course, there have been, and are, Christians who hold remarkably similar views, and religious establishments that have as well). Machiavelli's reputation for amorality seems well-deserved, and it is quite likely that most people who gained only a slight familiarity with Ol' Nick never got past the first few chapters.

There is more to come, of course, and it's not all of a piece in quite this same way, but there is little doubt that Machiavelli admired the heroic warrior prince in a way that I cannot. His sneer at the Meades reminds me that peace and war are a game where war is a suboptimal equilibrium. Were everyone to be at peace, they would all be weak and effeminate, perhaps, but it would be a more productive and wealthier world. But being warlike is a dominating strategy: If no others are warlike, then being warlike allows you to profit more greatly than them; If all others are warlike, then you'd damn well better be so as well. Although I noted that Machiavelli's analytical modernity above, normatively he is clearly pre-modern. If he were transplanted to today's world, he would be able to carry on quite a good conversation with positive political theorists (such as public choice theorists and game theorists), but would bamboozle, and be bamboozled by, normative political theorists (political philosophers).

Next week, Chapter 7, "Of New Dominions Acquired By the Power of Others or By Fortune."


*Those clicking through to the link may notice a discrepancy in the title. I am using the Modern College Library Edition, translated by Luigi Ricci and revised by E.R.P. Vincent. The online version uses a translation by W.K. Marriot. I have no competency to comment on which translation is to be preferred.

**Machiavelli is clearly aware that Moses seems an odd addition to the list. He defends the inclusion by noting that while Moses "merely carried out what was ordered for him by God, still he deserves admiration, if only for that grace that made him worthy to speak with God." This is unpersuasive, though. Moses, like David, is explicitly shown as a flawed man, and the moral of God working through them is not that they were particularly worthy, but that God can use even the imperfect for his purposes. It's a small point, though, and deserving of no more than a footnote in rebuttal.

***Oddly, a google search for Hayek and Machiavelli turns up relatively few hits, with the top one being about Salma Hayek's rack. I kid you not.

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