Long before Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince, there was another man writing in a similar vein in China. His words have important political lessons that are useful, even today, for our municipal councils.
Han Fei Tzu 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 call chapters today. 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 the books was called The Ten Faults, as Master Han Fei listed them:
- 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, musicians to sycophants, feudal lords to staff and it’s startling how well these ideas and admonitions fit into today’s local political arena. Here is my analysis of Han Fei’s words.
1. To practice petty loyalty and thereby betray a larger loyalty;
Council’s larger loyalty lies not with the handful of people who helped us get elected, but to the community at large. 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 community. The larger loyalty belongs to the electorate as a whole.
“For when the authority of princes is made but an accessory to a cause, and there be other bands that tie faster than the bond of sovereignty, kings begin to be put almost out of possession.”
Francis Bacon: Essays – Of Seditions and Troubles
2. To fix your eye on a petty gain and thereby lose a larger one.
Scoring short-term gains such as being able to expose another councillor for an alleged or minor transgression, or to score some minuscule political victory over an opponent by sidelining them from a committee or reducing their role, loses the larger victory that would be gained from creating a cohesive, cooperative, consensual 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, the greater goals require consensus. Some councils get accused of “block voting” – a term usually cast in an unfavourable light in election campaigns. But to avoid blocks, 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.
Sometimes that means staying with the status quo, at least initially.
“Preach the need for change, but never reform too much at once… too much innovation is traumatic and will lead to revolt.”
Robert Greene, 48 Laws of Power: 45
Sudden change is rarely the result of consensus; more often it is the result of applied force. It might bring about a short-term gain, but the long-term result will work against you.
Machiavelli also said in Chapter VI,
“There is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things.”
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 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 which will hinder, not work towards your goals.
Staff are not servants. They deserve respect. They should be asked for advice or comment, not dictated to. They should never be micromanaged by anyone on council.
And staff should never, ever be blamed for something council – or any single member of council – initiates.
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 reason – flatterers whom Machiavelli warns you to avoid. They are after something more tangible than just to bask in your presence.
Those at the table 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.”
Robert Greene: 48 Laws of Power
French King Louis XIV (1638-1715) commented,
“Every time I bestow a vacant office, I make a hundred discontented persons and one ingrate.”
Similarly, Francis Bacon wrote:
“It is true that in government it is good to use men of one rank equally; for to countenance some extraordinarily is to make them insolent, and the rest discontent, because they may claim a due.”
Francis Bacon: Essays – Of Followers and Friends
Machiavelli himself wrote in Chapter XX,
“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 more than just profit that people get fond of. Some councillors get positively exuberant over not spending: egregious parsimony. Being a skinflint has it political rewards, as Machiavelli noted in Chapter XVI, but when a council 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 can lose the support of the people themselves.
What do you gain by withholding $100 or $200, except for bad relations, and angry coffee shop talk? In the greater scheme of the budget, is it worth the animosity? The group gains a lot from that paltry sum, and in turn repays council with respect, gratitude and free PR.
I can remember when small requests for help – in the hundreds of dollars, $150 in one case – were turned down by my council because it the request was made “outside the budget process.” That incompassionate view regards process as superior to people. And the people will remember that small act of unkindness, especially come the next election.
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 – getting onto the executive of AMO or FCM, for example. Or it might just be the self-satisfaction of being asked to attend functions in some official role.
Even just to be recognized by a stranger as part of the council is exciting for some.
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.
That is a warning not to leave local affairs in the hands of others, and not 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 council who hold important committee roles. 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, 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.”
Han Fei Tzu: The Two Handles
By which I read that a mayor’s behaviour and actions are the de facto standard for the rest of council. We abide by the examples he or she sets for us. And if he or she does not abide by whatever formal or informal code of conduct exists, then neither will the rest of council.
After all, if the moral standard has been breached by the head of council, what compels the rest of council to adhere to it, outside their own personal moral compass?
In another book, 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.”
Han Fei Tzu, Wielding Power
Standards such as those set out in your Code of Conduct or Code of Ethics must be maintained.
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.
Han Fei is clearly saying that when you are at fault, you cannot continue in that direction except at the risk of your reputation. The loyal ministers might be either staff or the rest of council (or perhaps they would be loyal if treated with respect and compromise).
Reputation matters. Machiavelli said it a dozen times in The Prince. It is also a chapter Greene’s work: So Much Depends on Reputation – Guard It With Your Life. He writes,
“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.”
Robert Greene: 48 Laws of Power
Friedrich Nietzsche wrote,
“It is easier to cope with a bad conscience than with a bad reputation.”
Friedrich Nietzsche, the Joyful Wisdom, I: 52
9. To take no account of internal strength but rely solely upon your allies abroad, which places the state in grave danger of dismemberment.
I see the internal strength as council, and the allies abroad as the special interest groups or supporters outside the council, but who hover around in close proximity. Outsiders may advise, but they do not govern. But when you give them more attention, respect and listen to them more closely than you listen to the elected members of council, pretty soon you have a revolt at the table, you have factionalism and you have a Balkanization of goals.
The ‘allies abroad’ can sometimes want more than they have: power, authority, control. And since you are perceived as their ally – or puppet, depending on circumstances – they demand you arrange for them to get more.
In another book, 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.”
Han Fei Tzu, Facing South
I recall increasing friction between one council of the day and the members of a strategic planning committee, over whose role it was to run the town. Apparently some of the committee members were deeply offended that council did not jump up and dance to their tune and start implementing every suggestion in their reports.
Those committee members wanted more attention paid to their recommendations, and chafed at nothing being given power to implement them. Council preferred to rely on its own ‘inner strength’ – that is to let the elected officials run the town. Eventually, committee dissolved itself in an angry flurry of accusations and self-righteous indignation flung through the local media.
After the furor died down, council reconstituted the committee the following year with new members who carried on the work in a less contentious and more cooperative manner. Council clearly laid out who was in control and who was merely an advisor. Council relied on its ’inner strength,’ instead of allowing itself to be led by its committees.
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 council to operate as a group, not merely individuals at the same table, 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 one another, tattle-telling, whispered innuendo, secret or selective meetings – there are not courteous, respectful acts. They are obvious displays of distrust, disrespect, suspicion. The head of council’s role should be to create consensus and find compromise, not sow discord and distrust, but every council member has to practice some restraint and respect as well for it to work.
Of course, you can’t take always Han Fei simply at face value. As a Legalist, he was an opponent of contemporary 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 (similar to Machiavelli’s moralist contemporaries), the Legalists were more pessimistic and pragmatic. They believed people were basically bad, evil or lazy (or all three), and need to be ruled by force and strength. The Legalist approach in many areas of civic governance is similar in many ways to Machiavelli’s misquoted dictum that “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 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.
Previous Chapter – Next Chapter
- Machiavelli and Sejanus - October 14, 2022
- A Meeting of the Minds? - July 3, 2021
- Machiavelli’s Prince as satire - June 8, 2017
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