Chapter 16: Parsimony Beats Generosity

Picking up the theme from his last chapter, in Chapter XVI: Concerning Liberality and Meanness, Machiavelli makes the point that being generous for its own sake actually harms your reputation, and will cost you all your belongings and political capital. Liberality in his chapter title also translates as “generous.”

If you’re going to be benevolent, even if you just pretend to be, you need to make sure everyone knows about it, otherwise you’re wasting your money:

“It is good to have a reputation for being generous. Nevertheless, generosity exercised in a way that does not bring you the reputation for being generous, injures you. If you exercise it modestly as it should be exercised, it may go unnoticed, and you will not avoid the reproach of being a miser.”

Don’t be an anonymous donor. Make sure you get at least a photo op from your benevolence. But watch what you give away.

You want that second ice surface? Sure, build it! That downtown civic centre for the arts? No problem; shovel’s in the ground. Another off-leash park for your dogs? Bought the land and just waiting for the fencing. Pave Jones and Smith streets again? Run the water and sewer lines out to the Tenth Concession? Upgrade the water plant? Let’s get on it…

Too much generosity is going to hurt you. People always want more and more and more. They’re never content with enough.

“Since the desires of men are insatiable, Nature prompting them to desire all things and Fortune permitting them to enjoy but few, there results a constant discontent in their minds, and a loathing of what they possess, prompting them to find fault with the present, praise the past, and long for the future, even though they be not moved thereto by any reasonable cause.”
The Discourses: II, Preface

Later in the chapter, Machiavelli points out that those who are running for office need to have a reputation for generosity. What else but promises are you going to hand out on the campaign trail? But once you reach power, it has to stop.

“Either you are a prince in fact, or in a way to become one. In the first case this generosity is dangerous, in the second it is very necessary to be considered generous…”

Generosity is a slippery slope. Once you start being generous in office, in order for everyone to continue to see you as generous, you have to keep giving and then giving more:

“Anyone wishing to maintain among men the reputation of generosity is obliged to be ostentatiously lavish…”

You have to make sure you’re present at the photo op for the cheque presentation or other council largesse.

However, too much ostentation in a politician is a career stopper. Soon you’ll have to go back to the electorate and raise taxes to pay for everything you promised. To keep being seen as generous obliges you to show no end to your ostentation, but doing so will ruin you:

“A prince thus inclined will consume in such acts all his property, and will be compelled in the end… to unduly burden his people with taxes, and do everything he can to get money to maintain his reputation.”

It’s easier, Machiavelli says, to create a reputation for generosity than to live with the reality of it.

Promises, Promises, Promises

We all make promises on the campaign trail when we’re fighting to win a seat at the table; generous promises of favours, gifts, tax relief, new facilities, lower user fees, better services. And we all discover once we get into office that we can’t afford everything we promised, not if we want to also keep that other major promise we all make: keeping taxes low.

You can break the others, but once you break that last promise, you become,

“… unpopular with his subjects, and becoming poor, he will be despised by everyone…”

If you don’t have the funds in reserves to pay for your largesse, you have to borrow the money. You plunder your reserves, empty the coffers, and then your municipality borrows the rest through long-term debentures. The taxpayers have to ante up.

The generous promises you actually try to keep – like that new ice surface, the new sidewalk, the stretch of road paved, the skateboard park, the longer library hours – they benefit the few; often just special interest groups or a small segment of the community. But the big promise that you break – about no tax increases – will offend the majority:

“With his generosity, having offended many and rewarded few, he is vulnerable to the very first sign of trouble and … wishing to withdraw from his reputation, he runs at once into the reproach of being miserly.”

Those your generosity doesn’t benefit will become angry at you for spending their money on what they see as frivolous gestures or unnecessary upgrades. You build a new library for the literati, and the hockey parents complain they needed another ice surface instead. You build new soccer pitches and the arts community complains they needed a public art gallery. You repave one street and the folks on the next one over complain theirs has more potholes and should have been done first.

You get into worse trouble for raising taxes to pay for your promises. Then, because there’s no money left, you try to recover by cutting spending which means services. Uh uh. Doesn’t work. Now you’re seen as stingy. Your reputation is in shambles by that point.

Better to be the miser right away. People will respect you – perhaps grudgingly and not right away, but they will eventually do so:

“A wise prince ought not to fear the reputation of being miserly, for in time he will come to be seen as more generous than if he was generous from the start. People will see that, with his economy his revenues are enough, that he can defend himself against all attacks, and he is able to engage in enterprises without burdening his people…”

In the long run, people will respect the tightwads for watching over their money more than the lavish spenders. The electorate will remember you better for keeping their taxes low than for any gifts you bring them. As long as you don’t burden them with extra taxes, or cut too many services, over time they will see your stinginess as generosity.

“Thus it comes to pass that he exercises generosity towards the people from whom he does not take, who are numberless, and miserliness towards those to whom he does not give, who are few.”

Those who are angry for not getting the things you promised during the campaign are a lot fewer than those whose taxes you keep low.

“We have not seen great things done in our time except by those who have been considered mean; the rest have failed… A prince, therefore… ought to hold of little account a reputation for being mean, for it is one of those vices which will enable him to govern.”

Generosity, Machiavelli concludes, is self-defeating. Don’t try to pursue a reputation for it. The more you spend, the more you will need to tax, and the more you tax, the more you will be hated.

However, if you can cadge some provincial or federal money, everyone will think you’re wonderful for spending someone else’s money on them:

“It does not hurt your reputation if you squander that of others, but instead adds to it; it is only squandering your own that injures you.”

Doesn’t matter that it’s really just one taxpayer paying for everything. As long as long as it doesn’t look like you’re spending local money on luxuries, they’ll love you for it.

If you want to get re-elected, be a skinflint, because too much generosity will earn you only a bad reputation. The councillor who always questions spending and tries to reduce the budget is the one whose name gets in the media most often.

“There is nothing so self-defeating as generosity … a prince should guard himself, above all things, against being despised and hated; and generosity leads you to both. It is wiser to have a reputation as a miser, which brings disdain without hatred, than by seeking a reputation for generosity to incur a name for rapacity which begets both disdain and hatred.”

People will eventually like you more for what you didn’t do to them, rather than for any benefits you provided.
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