Long before Niccolo Machiavelli wrote his now-famous work of political philosophy, The Prince, there was another man writing in a similar vein in China. And his words have important lessons that can prove useful, even today, for our own politicians.
Han Fei was a prince in the Han Kingdom in the third century BCE. He was a member of and spokesperson for the “legalistic” school. In his short life he wrote 55 books – short essays we would probably call chapters today – assembled into the Han Feizi.*
One of the few English-language versions of Han Fei Tzu is Burton Watson’s translation (Columbia University Press, 1964). Reading it today, I am fascinated at the relevance of these ancient words to today’s politics. Even though he was writing in a vastly different political climate, a different culture and a different technological era, like Machiavelli and Sun Tzu, his comments on politics and leadership still resonate in today’s world.
One of his books was called The Ten Faults, and I reproduce here the opening synopsis of that book from Watson:**
These are the ten faults:
- To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty;
- To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one;
- To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall;
- To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress;
- To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise;
- To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction;
- To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself;
- To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others;
- To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment;
- To ignore the demands of courtesy, though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of our ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.
Change a few words – ministers to councillors, music to sycophants, feudal lords to staff… you can see how well these ideas and admonitions fit into today’s local political arena. So here is my modern analysis of Han Fei’s words.
1. To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty
Any politician’s larger loyalty must lie not with a small handful of people who helped it or the individual politician get elected, but to the nation, province or municipality at large. That also relate to any political body’s or party’s – and that includes a municipal council’s – greater loyalties.
To be loyal to a special interest group or a coterie of supporters at the expense of the community’s needs will lose the support of the larger community.
2. To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one.
Scoring short-term political gains against opponents or other parties are minuscule, petty victories. They stand to lose the larger victory gained from creating a cohesive, cooperative, consensual government – or council. The short term gain may be easier to accomplish than the larger gain, but it places the larger gain much further away, if not entirely unreachable.
And more to the point, greater goals require consensus. Councils and other tiers of government are often accused of “block voting” – a term cast in unfavourable light in election campaigns, but often a reality in practice because blocks are required to achieve goals.
To avoid blocks in non-partisan organizations (like municipal councils), one has to avoid creating factions. And to avoid factions, one has to avoid chasing petty and selfish gains and concentrate on the greater good of the community.
3. To behave in a base and willful manner and show no courtesy to the other feudal lords, thereby bringing about your own downfall.
Change feudal lords to staff and fellow politicians, and this line makes itself clear: to act in an autocratic and self-serving manner, to dictate rather than lead, to ignore or show discourtesy to staff will create a sullen, rebellious workforce and subversive colleagues. This will hinder, not work towards your goals.
Staff and bureaucrats are not servants. They deserve respect. They should be asked for advice or comment, not dictated to. And they should never be micro-managed by anyone on council.
And bureaucrats should never, ever be blamed for something a government – or any single politician – initiates.
Civility towards other politicians, even those in other parties, is also a key to developing consensus. You don’t have to compromise political ideas or sell out your goals to be civil.
4. To give no ear to government affairs, but long only for the sound of music, thereby plunging yourself into distress.
Change that to the sound of sycophants, or yes men, and it works nicely. Those outsiders who praise you may not be doing so for altruistic reasons. They may be after something more tangible than just to bask in your presence.
At the same time, those in government who speak, even critically, could be offering better and more sound advice with few if any strings attached, since they have already gained the seat of power.
Greene has a chapter titled, “Never Put Too Much Trust in Friends, Learn How to Use Enemies.” In it he writes,
‘Be wary of friends – they will betray you more quickly, for they are easily aroused to envy. They also become spoiled and tyrannical. But hire a former enemy and he will be more loyal than a friend because he has more to prove. In fact, you have more to fear from friends than from enemies.’
French King Louis XIV (1638-1715) commented,
“Every time I bestow a vacant office, I make a hundred discontented persons and one ingrate.”
“Princes, and especially new ones, have found more faith and more usefulness in those men whom, at the beginning of their power they regarded with suspicion, than in those they at first confided in.”
5. To be greedy, perverse and too fond of profit, thereby opening the way to the destruction of the state, and your own demise.
Well, perhaps it’s not always about profit, but rather about not spending: parsimony when largess is called for.
When a government holds the budget reins too tightly and refuses to grant small favours to the many impoverished yet deserving community groups who are requesting support, it loses the support of the people themselves.
What do we gain by withholding $100 or $200, even $1,000 from community groups – except for bad relations and public scorn? The group gains a lot from that paltry sum, and in turn repays the benefactor with respect.
I can remember when a local council refused similar, small requests because they were made “outside the budget process.” That incompassionate view regards process as superior to people. And the people will remember that small, but bitter act of unkindness.
6. To become infatuated with women musicians and disregard state affairs, thereby inviting the disaster of national destruction.
Women musicians provided the aesthetic and cultural background to the Chinese court, but in themselves wielded no power or control. Today it might be the glitter of the office, or the title and attention that comes with moving in higher political circles. It might be the attraction of a position with a larger authority – during or even after a political career. Or just the self-satisfaction of being asked to attend functions in some official role.
Even just to be recognized by a stranger as a politician or member of a council is what drives some people to get involved.
And for some, the sound of their own voices is the sweet music they hear. Or it could be the urging of their friends and family that encourages them to run for office. But those are selfish reasons; not for the greater good.
Politicians all have some ego invested in their role, but we must beware of treating the glitter as the metal itself. We are there to serve, not to marvel at the brightness of our own reflections.
7. To leave the palace for distant travels, despising the remonstrances of your ministers, which leads to grave peril for yourself.
Do not to leave local affairs in the hands of others, and spend too much time focusing on issues outside your own border or jurisdiction. Ministers might be translated as staff, or might be other members of government. Or perhaps distance suggests chasing lofty but unrealistic goals while the day-to-day stuff is overlooked. Too much forest, not enough trees?
In another section (the book titled The Two Handles), Han Fei writes,
“Government reaches to the four quarters, but its source is in the centre…Things have their proper place, talents their proper use… If the ruler tries to excel, then nothing will go right…. He establishes the standard, abides by it, and lets all things settle themselves.”
By which I read that the leader’s – the prime minister’s, the premier’s or the mayor’s – behaviour and actions are the standard for the rest of council. Other politicians abide by the examples the leader sets for us. And if the leader himself or herself does not abide by the rules, then neither will the rest of the politicians.
After all, if the leader breaches rules of conduct – what compels the rest of the politicians to adhere to it, outside their own personal moral compass?
8. To fail to heed your loyal ministers when you are at fault, insisting upon having your own way, which will in time destroy your good reputation and make you a laughing stock of others.
Loyal ministers might be either staff or politicians – who they would be loyal if treated with respect and compromise. Leadership is always an exercise in restraint, in compromise and sharing. When a leader treats it as a divine mandate, or considers himself or herself infallible, autocracy occurs. Revolt and unrest follow.
And Han Fei is clearly saying that when you are at fault, you cannot continue in that direction except at the risk of your reputation.
Reputation is also a chapter Greene’s work: So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard It With Your Life. He says,
“Reputation is the cornerstone of power. Through reputation alone you can intimidate and win; once it slips, however, you are vulnerable and will be attacked on all sides. Make your reputation unassailable. “
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,
“It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation.”
In Wielding Power, Han Fei writes,
“In ferreting out evil within the palace and controlling it outside you, you yourself must hold fast to your standards and measurements.”
Standards upheld by the leader are those the rest will see as the path to tread.
9. To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment.
Internal strength can be found in government caucus, or in council; the allies abroad are the special interest groups or supporters outside the council, those who hover around in close proximity, trying to influence or steer the government.
Outsiders may advise, but they do not govern. When politicians give them more attention, respect and listen to them more closely than they listen to the other elected members of government, the outsiders soon steer the ship of government. The result is factionalism and Balkanization of goals within the government as outside interests compete for attention.
These ‘allies abroad’ often want more than they have: power, authority, control invested in government. If you are perceived as their ally – or puppet, depending on circumstances – they demand you help get them more of what they demand.
In the book, Facing South, Han Fei writes,
“This is where rulers go wrong: having assigned certain ministers to office, they then try to use unassigned men to check the power of the assigned. They justify this policy by claiming that the interests of the assigned and the unassigned will be mutually inimical, but in fact the rulers find themselves falling under the power of the unassigned.”
Government has to rely on its own ‘inner strength’ – that is to let the elected officials run the country or town. When special interests are thwarted, it often leads to a flurry of angry accusations and self-righteous indignation. A wise politician ignores the noise and carries on.
10. To ignore the demands of courtesy, though your state is small, and fail to learn from the remonstrances of our ministers, acts which lead to the downfall of your line.
Civility, respect, courtesy, compromise, compassion – these are things that can bind a person to a leader better and more strongly than force, power, fear or anger. And it’s not just in the leader that these are necessary: for a government, or council, to operate as a group, everyone has to practice them. But they are crucial to the leader if he or she wishes to avoid rebellion fomenting in the ranks.
Spying on other members of government – reading their private emails , for example – is not a courteous, respectful act. It is a show of distrust, disrespect, suspicion. The head of government’s role should be to create consensus and find compromise, not sow discord and distrust.
Courtesy also needs to be given to higher tiers of government, and to respect the roles of others on the political stages, be it at a municipal or national level.
* Of course, you can’t take always Han Fei simply at face value. As a Legalist he was an opponent of the Confucianists, and discredited their talk of loyalty, compassion and kindness. Han Fei was mostly be in the might-makes-right camp, and would be considered very right wing today. Where Confucianists were moralists who believed humans were basically good and a leader needed a benevolent hand to rule, the Legalists were more pessimistic. They believed people were basically bad, evil or lazy (or all three), and need to be ruled by force and strength. The Legalist approach is similar in many ways to what others have reduced Machiavelli’s dictum to: “the end justifies the means.”
Feeling unappreciated in his homeland, Han Fei left Han, he went to Ch’in (Qin) where he was arrested, To avoid execution, he was convinced to commit suicide. His Legalist doctrine, however, quickly developed a strong following among the expansionist Ch’in Dynasty, which unified China shortly after Han Fei’s death. The Ch’in persecuted the altruistic Confucianists, executing many and destroying their texts.
** The 1939 Liao translation has them thus:
- The first is to practise loyalty in small ways, which betrays loyalty in big ways.
- The second is to esteem small advantages, which hampers big advantages.
- The third is to force personal bias, assert oneself, and behave discourteously before feudal lords, which leads to self-destruction.
- The fourth is to neglect political counsels and indulge in the five musical notes, which plunges one into misery.
- The fifth is to keep covetous and self-opinionated and rejoice in nothing but gain, which is the root of state-ruin and self-destruction.
- The sixth is to indulge in women singers and neglect state affairs, which forecasts the catastrophe of state-ruin.
- The seventh is to leave home for distant travels and ignore remonstrances, which is the surest way to endanger one’s august position at home.
- The eighth is to commit faults, turn no ear to loyal ministers, and enforce one’s own opinions, which destroys one’s high reputation and causes people to laugh at one.
- The ninth is not to consolidate the forces within one’s boundaries but to rely on feudal lords abroad, which causes the country the calamity of dismemberment.
- The tenth is to insult big powers despite the smallness of one’s own country and take no advice from remonstrants, which paves the way to the extermination of one’s posterity.