Chapter 11: Agencies You Can’t Control

Although Machiavelli’s next chapter, XI: Concerning Ecclesiastical Principalities, might seem to fall outside the boundaries of municipal politics, it has considerable relevance to us today. In his world, the Papacy was not only an ecclesiastical power, but a temporal and military one. The church controlled many cities and had its own army. You won’t find anything similar in Canada today. Or will you?

Machiavelli described ecclesiastical principalities as,

“… acquired either by ability or good fortune, and they can be held without either; for they are maintained by ancient religious institutions, which are so all-powerful, and so efficacious that they sustain their princes no matter how they behave and live.”

All-powerful kingdoms whose rulers aren’t accountable to other princes? Sounds to me like some of our sister organizations – conservation authorities, boards of education, property assessment corporations, county governments, even provincial and federal ministries.

What else do you call those agencies that seem to be able to command loyalty and obedience from municipalities?

Perhaps it’s cynical of me to suggest, but when I read Machiavelli’s words that,

“Being upheld by powers, to which the human mind cannot reach … it would be the act of a presumptuous and rash man to discuss them…”

I can’t help but think of these agencies and their untouchable, almost divine authority. It doesn’t have to be a religious authority: it can be any strong ideology that gives them strength. And, as Machiavelli says, those people who imbibe of that ideology are impervious to arguments or challenges against it:

“These princes alone have states but do not defend them; they have subjects but do not rule them; and the states, although undefended, are not taken from them. The subjects, although not governed, do not care, and they have neither the desire nor the ability to alienate themselves.”

Lost Battles

Ever try to argue over your municipality’s high educational levy with a school board? Or argue about anything else with that board? Ever try to get your conservation authority levy lowered? You quickly find those boards can do as they wish, even in contravention of your municipal laws and policies. Sure seems like divine authority to me.

In Ontario, boards of education get to comment on development applications, even if they are in no way related to schools. When one small municipality did not approve a school application to build more portables on its already portable-dense property, the school board refused to comment on development applications. Without their approvals, all developments were in limbo, and could not proceed.

In the end, council had to give in and allow the portables to be placed, in order to get out of the bottleneck and get other applications moving forward.

This event fits with Machiavelli’s comment that, although the temporal power of these agencies seems minimal, not even kings have been able to overthrow an ecclesiastical power:

“Every baron and lord… has had little regard for the church’s temporal power, yet now the King of France trembles before it, and the church has been able to drive him from Italy…”

In Machiavelli’s example, the Pope flaunted his authority by withholding appointments of cardinals in the lands of his enemies, which caused as great a turmoil then as withholding planning approvals did in our times:

“He held two things firm: the one, the greatness of the church, with which he terrified them; and the other, not allowing them to have their own cardinals, who caused the disorders among them.”

Municipalities cannot win battles against them, nor does Machiavelli suggest princes attempt to do so. Tremble in awe, and leave them alone.
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