Friday, May 05, 2006

Niccolo Machiavelli (1469 - 1527)

It was tough work reading about Machiavelli. Plodding through the Introduction of Meineche(1), I get that Machiavelli assumed that the human need for “community" (i.e. association with others) necessitates strong government. Organization is needed, and people apparently cannot organize themselves. They need a strong leader. Governmental power is, however, self-limiting, as the very existence and growth of the state depends on limited use of power. That's true, for if a government is too oppressive, it stifles productivity, so a market needs to be free to a point.

The Prince is Machiavelli's main work(2). The Introduction was so revealing that I was tempted not to bother with the rest. Machiavelli's life and ideas seem very much like today's establishment in so many ways. As quite a young man he went into public service as, from what I could gather, something between a politician and a bureaucrat. He was in the Florentine Republic, which was part of what is now Italy. Early on he regarded warmongering as the way to bring other countries into line. Later, after many variations in the line-up of countries and rulers, he lost his position because of a change in regime. With time to think, he came up with the modern idea that the best government is a mixture of many forms of government, reminding me of the middle-of-the-road mixed economy we now have with an increasingly strong dose of socialism, along with enough of a free market to keep people from getting too discouraged. This would be ruled over by "extraordinary geniuses of superior virtue," i.e., an elite(3).

The Prince is primarily about conquering states and holding them, and administering conquered states. This is not very libertarian, and to think that this man is more influential today than Murray Rothbard is! It just goes to show.

I am painting with a very broad brush here and will be the first to admit it. Machiavelli was very government-oriented. The same goes for Strauss, Kristol, the neoconservatives, and the Left. This is really the crux of the matter. The real difference between all of these and the Libertarians is that, for them, everything revolves around and depends on government "authority." For the libertarian, individual liberty and self-responsibility are the mainspring of progress.

Machiavelli thought political stability could be obtained by keeping the masses in their place by the use of religion. He didn't think it mattered what this religion taught(4). Thomas More, in his Utopia, said the same thing at about the same time. But this powerful sovereign state poses a threat greater than any other because, as John Locke (1632 - 1704) countered, rational self-interest would lead people to live in harmony, to buy, sell, and trade for mutual benefit, and this does not require any government, regardless of neoconservative (and leftist) propaganda.

Irving Kristol, discussing Machiavelli's Discourses(5), writes that Machiavelli said, when it comes to national interest, nothing should stand in the way, not justice or legality. He also points out on the same page that Mussolini was alleged to keep The Prince on his night table, and heads of state have read Machiavelli for ideas.

Machiavelli, Nietzsche, and de Sade are, Kristol says(6), three major figures in the history of Western thought who have rejected Christianity. Well, two out of three ain't bad for a neoconservative school of thought descended from that kind.

(1) Meineche, Friedrich, Machiavellianism: The Doctrine of Raison d'Etat and its Place in Modern History, Transaction Publishers, New Brunswick, 1988.

(2) Machiavelli, Niccolo, The Prince, translated by Paul Sonnino, Humanities Press, Atlantic Highlands (NJ), 1996.

(3) Ibid. P. 15.

(4) Van Creveld, Martin, The Rise and Decline of the State, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1999, P. 72.

(5) Kristol, Irving, Reflections of a Neoconservative, Looking Back, Looking Ahead, Basic Books, Inc., New York, 1983.

(6) Ibid. P. 134.


Anonymous said...

i certainly agree with your comments.
If only you'd been a bit less pretentious, it would have been slightly more tasteful.

A critic

Anonymous said...

i do agree with your comments...
about what you write on paragraph 4, isn't it 'authority' and the self-responsibility are just the same?