In a section that should be no surprise to the those familiar with The Prince, Machiavelli argues that political leadership should give the appearance of being in control at all times—even when its course of action is set by external circumstances (“necessity”):
Prudent men gain favor for themselves out of affairs, always and in their every action even though necessity constrains them [prudent men] to do them [necessary actions] in any case. (I.51.1)
In the case of Rome, it was necessary that wages be paid for military service. Livy says that the senate
decreed, without waiting for any suggestion by the plebs or their tribunes, that the soldiers should be paid from the public treasury, whereas till then every man had served at his own costs. Nothing, it is said, was ever welcomed by the plebs with such rejoicing. (IV.59-60)
Machiavelli argues that the senate wisely, even virtuously, took a situation in which they had no real option and turned it to their advantage. Roman wars were being conducted farther and farther afield, which meant the number of men who could afford to go on campaign was shrinking with every victory. This in turn meant either war would have to stop or the military would have to be paid so the middle class and better-off poor could afford to serve. The great show of “generosity” on the part of the Senate both benefited the state and made the senators look that much better in the eyes of the people. Livy even records that “it was this generous treatment on the part of their commanders which first reconciled the plebs to the patricians” (IV.59).
In response to the objections of the tribunes—these were the officers elected to be the institutional voice of the plebeians—that taxes would have to be raised to pay these new military costs, the senate entrenched its popularity by ensuring that the bulk of the tax burden from this fell visibly on the nobility. Had the senate pursued this policy in the longer term, they may even have managed to completely undermine the tribunate and to establish their aristocracy as the final authority in the Roman Republic, given that they could represent both the nobility and the common people equally well.
Another lesson from this move by the Senate, according to Machiavelli, is that the best means of offsetting attempts to seize power in a republic is to anticipate the moves of potential dictators:
And truly, in a republic, and especially in those that are corrupt, the ambition of any citizen cannot be opposed with a better, less scandalous, and easier mode than to anticipate the ways that he is seen to tread to arrive at the rank that he plans. (I.52.1)
If someone is trying to rise to power by making promises to the common people (and how else would a dictator rise to power in a republic?), the legitimate leadership would be wise to anticipate and follow through with those promises before the potential dictator can capitalize on them. We in America see this principle at work virtually every election year, as each political party tries to outdo the other in its grandiose claims taken from the other side’s playbook and escalated often beyond all reason. While that’s not quite the same as preventing dictatorship per se, the same idea is clearly at work.
However, there is a danger in this approach. Such anticipation must be done carefully and with an honest and accurate measuring of the direction of current political winds:
Therefore, in every policy men should consider its defects and dangers and not adopt it if there is more of the dangerous than the useful in it, notwithstanding that a judgment had been given of it that conforms to their decision. (I.52.3)
Promises made to the people should be neither beyond the bounds of reality nor based on a misunderstanding of the nature of contemporary politics. If the result of the proposed action or program is worse than the rule of a dictator, or even facilitates the rise of a dictator, it must not be pursued. Cicero made this mistake when he tried to out-maneuver Mark Antony, and he paid for it with his own life. On the other hand, the Florentine Piero Soderini might have been stopped had someone applied this principle during his rise to power.
Shifting topics slightly, Machiavelli discusses how republics are often talked into self-destruction if they are not wisely led:
…many times, deceived by a false image of good, the people desires its own ruin; and if it is not made aware that that [image] is bad and what the good is, by someone in whom it has faith, infinite dangers and harms are brought into republics. When fate makes the people not have faith in someone, as happens at some time after it has been deceived in the past either by things or by men, it of necessity comes to ruin. (I.53.1)
One problem with republics, according to Machiavelli, is that there is a combination of factors that can make a proposal nearly irresistible, namely:
(1) The proposal appears on the surface to benefit the state, “Even though there is loss concealed underneath;”
(2) The proposal appears to be spirited and require courage to undertake, “even though there is the ruin of the republic concealed underneath” (I.53.2).
This combination is so seductive to a republic that without a wise hand checking the people, they will voluntarily rush to their own destruction. To tie this back into earlier discussions, if a people is corrupt and unwilling to listen to those who are wise enough to know better, there really is no hope. Especially if those who actually do have a sense of what makes good policy are inarticulate or otherwise unable to clarify why the proposed action is so foolish: “it may always be difficult to persuade it [the people] of these [good] policies if either cowardice or loss might appear, even though safety and gain might be concealed underneath” (I.53.2).
At this point, we might ask how this is different from a republic pursuing its own glory? After all, that’s what Machiavelli has told us a great republic will do given the opportunity, and that seems to line up nicely with the second factor listed above—that the planned action requires boldness and courage. But the difference comes in the first factor: a great republic will pursue glory that is good for the state, not the shadow or facade of glory that really does no one any good and only leads to its own destruction. Being able to tell the difference between the two is a question of wisdom on the part of the leadership and prudence on the part of the common people.
Machiavelli provides a lengthy list of examples to back up his argument from both Roman and Florentine history, and then sums up his position:
I say, thus, that there is no easier way to make a republic where the people has authority come to ruin than to put it into mighty enterprises, for where the people is of any moment, they are always accepted; nor will there be any remedy for whoever is of another opinion. But if the ruin of the city arises from this, there arises also, and more often, the particular ruin of citizens who are posted to such enterprises, for since the people had presupposed victory, when loss comes it accuses neither fortune nor the impotence of whoever has governed but his malevolence and ignorance; and most often it kills or imprisons or confines him… (I.53.5)
The outcome of grandiose unrealistic schemes will be the destruction of the state, or at the very least the destruction of the citizens responsible for carrying them out. We should note that this latter does not necessarily include either those who have proposed the schemes in the first place or the people themselves who approved it. In a republic, guilt is placed squarely on those functionaries who are given the task of doing the impossible. When they fail to perform as expected, their punishment is proportional to the disappointment of the people.
We probably don’t need to give a list of American examples of this characteristic of republics—that’s too much like shooting fish in a barrel. And yet, I’d love to hear what you folks have to offer: where have we set ridiculous goals and then either suffered ourselves as a result or punished those public functionaries who failed to meet them for us?
Coyle Neal is Assistant Professor of Political Science at Southwest Baptist University in Bolivar, Missouri.