Chapter 1: Home Town Kingdoms

In Chapter I: How Many Kinds of Principalities There Are, and by What Means They Are Acquired, Machiavelli opened The Prince with a brief description of two types of states common in his contemporary Italy:

“All states, all powers… are either republics or principalities.”

In his day, almost every state in Europe was a hereditary entity under the power of a well-established family – a principality; only a few were republics with elections and a governing council (Venice, a competing city-state, was also one, although it had an aristocratic council). Some republics were under the control of a chief magistrate or other appointed official.

A king (or rarely, a queen) was at the top of the pyramid of power in most countries, and various levels of royalty and nobility were arrayed below. Most of the nobles in Machiavelli’s Italy were not royalty, but rather like the Medici and Borgia families: well-established, well-connected, powerful and rich families.

Despite the distance in time and geography, municipalities today are not unlike Machiavelli’s hereditary principalities, although we also share attributes of his republics. We have mayors, councils, boards, committees and staff in place of his princes, nobles and barons.

Instead of principalities and republics, however, we have municipalities controlled by incumbents or newcomers. When incumbents have served a long time, municipalities get more and more like medieval fiefdoms: run by the old establishment, the old who-you-know-not-what-you-know network. It takes newcomers to shake things up and add some vitality to the mix.

Machiavelli was passionate about his city and always concerned about its condition:

“I love my native city, more than my own soul.”
Machiavelli: Letter to Francesco Vettori, 1527,
quoted in Viroli: Niccolò’s Smile

Love of their community or their country is what drives citizens to put the common good before personal needs or desires. It’s what should drive people to enter municipal politics, if we lived in a perfect world.

“…it is the well-being, not of individuals, but of the community which makes a State great…”
The Discourses: II, 2

But it takes a great leader – not always a morally good one – to galvanize the city to achieve its greatness, and make its residents forget any failures or successes of past leaders. The nature of a municipal council will depend on how its leader, its head of council or mayor, behaves.

“We may see a city or province furnished with free institutions by some great and wise founder, flourish for a while through his merits, and advance steadily on the path of improvement. Any one born therein at that time would be in the wrong to praise the past more than the present…”
The Discourses: II, Preface

Your municipality is your kingdom. As its municipal leader, you must guide it to greatness. Treat it with respect and defend its honour and push it to its glory:

“When the entire safety of our country is at stake, no consideration of what is just or unjust, merciful or cruel, praiseworthy or shameful, must intervene. On the contrary, every other consideration being set aside, that course alone must be taken which preserves the existence of the country and maintains its liberty.”
The Discourses: III, 41

But you must also master it and the people within it first; which is the essence of The Prince.

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval kingdoms, with the mayor or warden at the top and the ‘nobility’ of council and ‘barons’ on staff and boards squabbling for their portion of the power below.

Read another way, your mayor plays the role of Machiavelli’s Florence: a strong state trying to control the restless client states – councillors (or aldermen) and department heads – some of whom are open allies, others more cautious allies; some are resentful and want their independence, others are sycophants.

One can stretch the metaphor further and compare the provincial government with a king or queen, and the provincial municipalities like small client states, like Pisa under Florentine rule; they have some independence, but they are still vassals of the provincial lords.

Towns in Conflict

Machiavelli’s principalities – indeed most of the nations of Europe in his day – were in constant conflict, often in open warfare with one another.

In Canada’s municipal landscapes, all municipalities are ruled by a hierarchy that is similar to that of medieval kingdoms, with the mayor or warden at the top and the ‘nobility’ of council and ‘barons’ on staff and boards squabbling for their portion of the power below.

Aren’t today’s municipalities also in constant conflict with one another? Sure, some have regional agreements, share some resources, and even cooperate where it is expedient to do so. Yet every municipality competes for visitors, for growth, for provincial funding, to host sports events, to attract new industries and businesses, and for reputation and prestige. There isn’t a municipality in Canada that wouldn’t happily see its neighbours plowed into the ground if it meant that its municipality was able to attract a major automobile plant.

When the federal government partnered with the provinces for its infrastructure grant program, it was clear only a chosen few would get the money. Every municipality that wanted to get in on the grants had to compete with every other municipality in the province to convince the higher tiers of government that its project was the most deserving, the most beneficial, and better than all the rest.

And if a neighbour got funding that was denied to you, I’ll bet you seethed at the injustice of it all.

Look at the branding many municipalities have undergone to try to set themselves apart from others, to establish an identity that competes better on the tourism stage to attract visitors. Canada’s trail capital. Canada’s rose capital. Cactus capital. Apple capital. Garden capital. Fly fishing capital. Ice fishing capital. Sport fishing capital. Canada’s anything-that-you-aren’t-but we-claim-to-be capital.

It doesn’t matter what it is, as long as it separates your municipality from your neighbours, and from other municipalities in your province. As long as it gets reprinted in the media and has a catchy ring that reads well in marketing and advertising, it works.

Your brand doesn’t even have to be unique, although that does help. There are several municipalities that claim to be the trails capital or the ice fishing capital. Who will challenge them? There’s only one cactus capital, so far, but if the title offered some economic or social advantage, you can be sure there would be more.

In an introduction to a speech made by Pier Soderini to Florence’s ruling council, Machiavelli wrote that states needed a balance of force and prudence (wisdom) to stay strong. We still do.

Today, municipalities don’t need the force of arms to defend ourselves in the face of increasing competition. Instead we need to wield more subtle kinds of force: marketing, economic development initiatives, branding, services, a skilled workforce, lobbying for industry, even bonusing where possible (illegal in some provinces, although some municipalities find crafty ways around those restrictions).

Not to spend sufficient money on ‘force,’ Machiavelli warned, was to leave the state defenceless against the arms of other states. In other words, municipalities have to spend enough to provide the services, the marketing, the initiatives, the branding and the lobbying to stay visible and attractive in a competitive environment.

Fail to promote yourself sufficiently, and your neighbours (who will be self-promoting like crazy) will win any contest because they shine in comparison.

A council must be both strong and wise to balance the conflicting demands for services and low taxes. Services contribute to the municipality’s quality of life. That nebulous lifestyle description defines the environment that attracts residents, visitors, and businesses. Those services have to be paid for by taxes, and high taxes make a municipality unattractive – and uncompetitive. You can’t have both.

There are no simple solutions, but that doesn’t mean you give up. Instead, as Machiavelli suggests later, you keep pushing forward.

Although we elect mayors and councils, some of our elected officials form political dynasties that rule over our towns and cities for years, even generations. It often takes the concerted efforts of outsiders to break the lock some incumbents have on the politics of a community.

The Prince is about how to do that: wrest control from the current rulers (the incumbents), and then it tells you what you need to do to stay in power, so the next election you don’t get turfed like the last council was. That takes talent, courage, and allies. And maybe a bit of luck, too:

“Such dominions… are acquired either by the arms of the prince himself, or by the arms of others, or else by fortune or by ability.”

That’s all: two ways to win: by your skill or by luck. Machiavelli was writing to impress a mediocre Medici ruler who got placed in power through luck of birth, not through any talent or ability. In later chapters he has more to say about winning by luck or skill.

As Quintus Tullius Cicero wrote about cities, every municipality is,

“… made up of a combination of nations, in which many snares, much deception, many vices enter into every department of life: in which you have to put up with the arrogant pretensions, the wrong-headedness, the ill-will, the hauteur, the disagreeable temper and offensive manners of many… it requires great prudence and skill for a man, living among social vices of every sort, so many and so serious, to avoid giving offence, causing scandal, or falling into traps, and in his single person to adapt himself to such a vastvariety of character, speech, and feeling.”
Quintus Tullius Cicero: Commentariolum Petitionis

Even if you won your seat by luck, your town is a kingdom of great complexity that requires talent, craft and skill to manage.

And don’t forget cunning and force. Machiavelli recommended how and when to use them to achieve your goals and to consolidate your power. You won’t get far in the political arena without both attributes.

“I confess this course is bold and dangerous, but when necessity presses, audacity becomes prudence, and in great affairs the brave never think of dangers. The enterprises that are begun with hazard always have a reward at last; and no one ever escaped from embarrassment without  some peril.”
The Florentine Histories: III, 3

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