Is Machiavelli relevant to today’s municipal politicians?


Niccolo MachiavelliAre the political theories of a 16th-century Italian diplomat relevant to today’s municipal politics? Yes, assuming you know and have read his works, not just the bumper-sticker over-simplification that says, “The end justifies the means.”

Actually, Machiavelli never wrote those words. That’s a modern condensation. It’s also an erroneous paraphrase of what he wrote in The Prince, because it overlooks a lot of his comments on the effect of some types of behaviour on the honour and reputation of the ruler. Machiavelli stressed the cause and effect of a ruler’s actions on his power, his honour and his reputation. He had little interest in rulers who abused their power.

Machiavelli did not advocate cruelty or violence towards subjects, and was highly critical of rulers who abused their power. He argued that mistreatment of people would not win loyalty, trust, or obedience. But, he said, expedient methods could be justifiable if there are clear and measurable benefits from those acts.

Machiavelli today is also known from the adjective “Machiavellian,” which suggests something evil, underhanded, and sneaky in politics. But that, too is a false impression.

Shortly after its publication, both the Catholic and Protestant churches condemned The Prince. It was even banned in Elizabethan England and the Pope placed it on the Index Librorum Prohibitorum (List of Banned Books) in 1559. The churches believed Machiavelli’s works fostered political and moral corruption because presented politics outside the church’s control and influence. Machiavelli did not believe in the divine nature of power, and this challenged the churches’ authority. Hence the demonization, and the attribution of duplicity to the term “Machiavellian.”

Many people recognize that he wrote Il Principe, (in English: “The Prince,”) but few municipal politicians can lay claim to actually having read it. More’s the pity because it has a lot of lessons for today’s politicians.

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility, with the mayor at the top and the nobility squabbling of their portion of the power below. The mayor plays the role of Machiavelli’s ruler of Florence: a strong state trying to control the client states, some of whom are allies, others are resentful and want their independence. Uppity or subservient… doesn’t that sound like many on today’s municipal councils?

Machiavelli wrote, “…the hereditary prince has less cause and less necessity to offend; hence it happens that he will be more loved; and unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him; and in the antiquity and duration of his rule the memories and motives that make for change are lost, for one change always leaves the toothing for another.”

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are like Machiavelli’s principalities: they are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval nobility.

Sounds a lot like political incumbents, doesn’t it? One estimate suggests incumbents have a 40 percent better chance of getting re-elected than newcomers have of getting elected. Every one of us knows of incumbents who stay in office from inertia, rather than by great acts or by taking brave and principled stands. But Machiavelli warned against complacency and stresses the need to win the public’s love and gratitude. Never take the electorate for granted is a subtext message in The Prince.

Machiavelli’s principalities – indeed most of the nations of Europe – were in constant conflict, often open warfare with one another. Aren’t today’s municipalities also in conflict with one another? Not through armies and war, of course. We’re more subtle than that.

Sure municipalities have regional agreements, share some resources, and cooperate where it is expedient to do so. But every municipality is competing for visitors, for growth, for provincial funding, for new industries and businesses, and for reputation. There isn’t a municipality in Canada that wouldn’t see its neighbours plowed into the ground if it meant the municipality was able to attract a major automobile plant.

Yes, I think Machiavelli has a lot of relevance for today’s municipal politicians. I have a new book in the making about this, so stay tuned.