We’ve concluded that Machiavelli’s The Prince would have approved of the “Machiavellian” tactics of our central bankers: assuming that the end justifies the means, doing “whatever it takes” no matter who gets hurt, believing that they are not merely omnipotent, but omniscient.
But before we conclude that Machiavelli himself would have approved of all this nonsense, we need to look at his other masterpiece, Discourses on Livy.(1)
The Prince and Discourses were composed during a few months of startling creative energy in 1513. Although Discourses was published first, it is generally agreed that The Prince, the shorter, pithier, vastly more controversial work, was written first.
The inquiry in The Prince was, in a way, quite narrow: which rulers succeed and which fail, and why. But if the topic was narrow, the import was momentous, since Machiavelli was talking about freedom itself. Of course, what he meant by “freedom” isn’t what we mean by “freedom:” the freedom to parade naked in Times Square hustling tips from goggle-eyed tourists. No, what he meant was freedom from domination by a more powerful foreign society, that is, freedom as opposed to slavery.
The inquiry in Discourses was broader: what is the best way to organize a human society? In other words, not every society will always have a successful ruler, one who practices what The Prince preaches. During those periods when a society labors under a weak ruler, some societies will break – monarchies and autocracies, for example – while others will merely bend and muddle through – republics, for example.
Since the two masterpieces were written at roughly the same time, we might indulge in a small conceit, compress time, and imagine Machiavelli at work. He was in a kind of self-imposed exile in 1513, the Medici family having returned to power in Florence and Machiavelli having been tossed out of office.
In the morning (we imagine), the great man labors away on The Prince. He then pauses for his meager luncheon – he was mainly impecunious at this point – and considers the sordid kind of world that requires its rulers to behave so shamefully in order to succeed. Might there be a better world out there somewhere, he wonders, or at least a better way of organizing human societies?
With these thoughts in mind, Machiavelli turns – presumably after a short nap – to Discourses. And he in fact finds a better world, or at least a modestly better one: ancient Rome,(2) as described by Livy. Throughout Discourses, Machiavelli constantly compares the ancients to modern-day Italians, and not to the advantage of the latter. The ancient Romans were a superior people, he believed, stronger, more virtuous.
On the other hand, the Romans were hardly without their faults, and Machiavelli isn’t shy about pointing them out. Discourses focuses on the various ways the Romans – and their competitors – organized their societies: hereditary monarchies, what we would call dictatorships, republics. Machiavelli’s heart was clearly with the republic: “[I]f we compare the faults of a people with those of princes, as well as their respective good qualities, we shall find the people vastly superior in all that is good and glorious.” (Book One, Chapter 58) Still, he was hardly a starry-eyed republican. Even relatively sound republics had trouble controlling factions, and the deliberative method of reaching conclusions made for painfully slow decisionmaking.
One reason the republic appealed to Machiavelli was the check it provided on the more extreme conduct of its rulers.(3) Like leaders everywhere, leaders of republics have to do many unsavory things to stay in power and to ensure the freedom and prosperity of their people.
But while unscrupulous or unprincipled conduct by a monarch or autocrat could quickly spiral out of control, leading to unnecessarily cruel or even depraved conduct – conduct that could infect the entire polity(4) – the need to get elected and reelected curbed a republican ruler’s worst instincts: “[I]n a well-ordered republic it should never be necessary to resort to extra-constitutional measures.” (Book One, Chapter 34) In other words, Hillary is probably not pleased about the prospect of Joe Biden running for President, but she’s unlikely to hire a hit man to take care of the problem. Hiring a hit man would have been the first solution that popped into the minds of the Borgias.
The republican idea took root in the Roman Republic, but it disappeared and didn’t reappear until the Florentine Republic. Discourses, which examines both, is thus a core text of republicanism, following in a straight line from Lucius Junius Brutus and Collatinus (founders of the Roman Republic) down through Discourses, and on toward the American Founders via Locke, Montesquieu and Rousseau.
Which brings us full circle back to the central question of what Machiavelli might have thought of our friends at the Fed. If he were writing Discourses today, he would make two crucial points: First, delegating control of the American economy to an unelected, unaccountable group of academic economists is the absolute worst way to govern. Second, a society so ineffectual that it has no choice but to stoop to such an uninspired stratagem will soon find itself dominated by a stronger people: slavery, that is, as opposed to freedom.
(1) Technically, Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio. My Italian isn’t that great, but this seems to me to say that Machiavelli proposes to discuss the first “decade” of Livy, when what he actually does is talk about the first ten books, that is, chapters, of Livy’s Ab Urbe Condita Libri, a monumental history of Rome from its founding down to Livy’s own time. The 10th book ends just before the launch of the Punic Wars, the most massive armed conflicts ever fought up to that time. Also, in case you’re wondering, the word “Punic” refers to the Phoenician ancestry of the Carthaginians.
(2) It’s useful to keep in mind that, although Machiavelli seems ancient to us, having flourished half a millennium ago, the first ten books of Livy describe events that occurred more than 1,500 years before Machiavelli was born. Noisome humans have been around for a long time.
(3) “In fact, when there is combined under the same constitution a prince [a president], a nobility [a congress] and the power of the people, then these three powers will keep each other reciprocally in check.” Book One, Chapter 2.
(4) Pope Alexander, the patriarch of the Borgia family, reportedly organized frequent orgies at the Vatican, once hiring fifty courtesans to entertain his guests. Alexander’s daughter, Lucrezia, may have attended at least one of these entertainments. Of course, all of this could be apocryphal – some considered Alexander to be a competent, even a great, Pope.
Next up: When the World Changes and We Don’t
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