In Machiavelli’s day, cities were usually defended by, and their armies composed of, two main groups: militia gathered from local people, and mercenaries, hired from other cities or nations. He called this Chapter XII: How Many Kinds of Soldiery There Are, and Concerning Mercenaries.
Armies in Machiavelli’s days were not just soldiers on the battlefield; they were often used as police and for internal security. Machiavelli was adamant that a city needed “good arms” as much as it needed good laws.
Today, of course, municipalities have police services, but these are not used like armies. Instead we use other agencies for attack and defence: economic development officers, tourist associations, event organizers, consultants, marketing agencies, BIAs, chambers of commerce, and so on. Our battlefields are predominantly intellectual and economic. They may not be as bloody as the battles in 16th century Italy, but our fights are no less important or no less keenly staged.
Machiavelli begins by stating that cities need to be well-managed and not in turmoil, in order to mount any campaign of attack or defence:
“We have seen above how necessary it is for a prince to build a solid foundation, otherwise he will go to ruin. The primary foundations of all states… are good laws and good arms. As there cannot be good laws where the state is not well armed, it follows that where they are well armed they have good laws.”
Good laws can also refer to good policies and strategies, and good planning. Good arms can mean being armed with effective and efficient resources such as staff, programming, budgets and volunteers; not necessarily with weapons. Today’s battlefields are economic.
Municipalities that approach, for example, economic development or communications ad hoc, without a policy and strategy in place, are leaving themselves open to defeat by better-organized and more forceful municipalities.
You must be armed with a solid policy to stand your ground against the competition from other towns and cities.
However, if you base your municipal policies and strategies solely on consultants’ reports, and not your own staff input, you will fail. Every subsequent report will lead you in a different direction, and there is little consistency between reports, even among those from the same consultants:
“If one holds his state based on mercenaries, he will be neither secure nor peaceful; for they are divided, disloyal, ambitious and without discipline… they have neither the fear of God nor are loyal to fellow men…”
Mercenaries, as Machiavelli describes them, I refer to as consultants: outside agencies or individuals hired to do your campaigning, and far too often your decision-making, for you.
“Some consultants… are simply vending machines… If you hire one of these consultants, you better make sure somebody else is providing the creativity, because they sure won’t be… Hold onto your wallet when you deal with consultants.”
Dick Morris: The New Prince, Chapter 38
Everyone knows the old saw about a consultant being a person who borrows your watch to tell you the time. They are mercenaries, albeit not soldiers.
Yes, every council gets an electric thrill when the consultant presents the report in which your SWOT is analyzed; but while you bask in the joy of having leveraged your value-added synergy, that consultant is selling the same services and maybe even the same data to your competitors – other municipalities.
Your Call is Important to Us
Mercenaries, wrote Machiavelli in a stinging description,
“…are useless and dangerous… valiant before friends, but cowardly before enemies… in peace one is robbed by them, and in war by the enemy.…”
Okay, to be fair, not every municipality can afford to employ the army of specialists necessary to provide the recommendations and data in the complex worlds of development, planning, economics, tourism, public works, infrastructure and all the other areas that involve politicians and municipalities.
We often need to hire consultants rather than employ specialists because it’s a financial necessity. But we also hire consultants to assure us that our own ideas are right, and bolster our confidence in our own wisdom. That’s money well wasted.
Staff will appreciate the confidence you show in their abilities if you use them instead of outsiders. You can gain allies among staff by turning to them first, even if you later turn to consultants.
We’ve all seen simple decisions postponed while council awaits a consultant’s report, and then when that report comes in, it merely reinforces the decision that was going to be made before it was commissioned.
Accepting a consultant’s recommendation might seem to save us from having to promote unpopular ideas ourselves, but that merely displays our own indecisiveness to the public. The public will see your defence of an unpopular idea solely on the basis that it’s what the ‘experts’ recommend is as believable as those on-hold messages that say ‘your call is important to us.’
“Men ought therefore to look to the risks and dangers of any course which lies before them, nor engage in it when it is plain that the dangers outweigh the advantages, even though they be advised by others that it is the most expedient way to take.”
The Discourses: I, 52
Sometimes mayors and councillors use consultants like armies, to enforce their sway over more indecisive members who find it difficult to argue against a consultant’s conclusion. What’s in the report must be the truth, because a consultant said so, right? They’re the experts, after all. How can a mere politician argue against their conclusions without discrediting yourself?
Hogwash. You got elected. The consultant didn’t. The public expects its politicians to have ideas, goals and visions, not simply rubber stamp consultants’ recommendations. Show the voters you have something inside your head aside from mattress stuffing.
“If the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” Matthew XV, 14
The Clock is Ticking
Reports have a finite lifespan. After three years they’re already tottering on the brink of senility. After five years, they’ve become quaint and slightly embarrassing, like your incontinent, elderly uncle who starts every sentence with, “When I was your age…” Older than that and they’re simply municipal archeology.
Once council and staff become accustomed to depending on consultants for opinions and ideas, they lose their edge and become complacent, no longer innovative. They become unable to think for themselves; only able to accept answers spoon-fed by consultants. The consultants keep coming back because you keep paying them.
“The fact is, mercenaries have no other inducement or reason for keeping on the battlefield other than the small stipend you pay them. This is not sufficient to make them willing to die for you. They are ready enough to be your soldiers while you do not make war, but if war comes they either disperse or desert…”
Mercenaries are motivated by money; not by pride, loyalty, family, community, or any other bond to you or your town. No consultant owes your municipality any allegiance after the contract is ended. While some of what they gather in their study on your behalf may remain confidential, much of it is grist for their mills when they sell their services to another municipality.
And what do you get when you hire consultants? Lots of reports. Forests of trees converted to reams of printed pages held together with Cerlox and spiral binding. PowerPoint presentations. Coloured pie charts and bar graphs. SWOT analyses. And a big bill for all of it at the end.
Go into any municipality and you can find shelves of old reports, collecting dust, still hanging around like teenagers in front of a coffee shop, although no one refers to them any longer. The coloured charts are fading, the paper isn’t crisp but rather dog-eared, and the binding looks worn. The data is old, and stale. But they still occupy shelf space.
If reports don’t tell you what you wanted to know, or if they’re simply outdated, just hire another consultant until you get one who tells it right! Keep that cash register humming.
Machiavelli had little but contempt for mercenary consultants, warning they can lead you astray by missing their target, and ruin you if they don’t produce what is necessary or in line with your own agenda:
“Mercenary captains are either capable men or they are not. If they are, you cannot trust them, because they always aspire to advance their own greatness, either by coercing you, who are their employer, or by coercing others contrary to your intentions. But if the captain is not skillful, he will ruin you by losing his battles.”
Machiavelli always preferred for cities to use their own people and their own resources:
“The prince ought to personally perform the duty of captain; and the republic has to send its own citizens… experience has shown princes and republics, with their own army, make the greatest progress. Mercenaries do nothing except damage…”
So what do you do if you don’t have the internal resources to provide the report, and you don’t have the financial resources to hire a consultant? Maybe you need to rethink the necessity of the report. Maybe you need to ask what you really need from the information.
Maybe you need to depend on your own collective wisdom and show some leadership.
Ever get those consultants’ reports and presentations that were well below the quality and substance of your expectations? Not simply because they didn’t contain what you hoped to read, but because they were incomplete or overlooked salient points? Or had irrelevant or even incorrect data? Or were based on content cut-and-pasted from freely available government sources rather than original research? We all have.
Consultants will often do what they can to avoid hard work and try to persuade you with their mediocrity rather than through valiant effort, hard work, or comprehensiveness:
“They… use every effort to avoid fatigue and danger to themselves and their soldiers; not killing in the fray, but taking prisoners and liberating them without ransom. They did not attack towns at night, nor did the garrisons of the towns attack the encampments outside. They did not barricade their camp either with stockade or ditch, nor did they campaign in the winter.”
In summary, Machiavelli says that dependence on mercenaries (consultants) to achieve your aims makes slow progress and the result is at best a minor achievement. But when they are wrong or fail to achieve their goals, the damage is large and immediate:
“Mercenary armies offer only slow, laborious and feeble victories, but their losses are sudden and astonishing.”
If some problem occurs because you followed a consultant’s recommendation and it ended badly, that result will stain your reputation. People will see it as a result of your poor decision, not the consultant’s poor recommendation.
“For as men judge of things by their results, any evil which ensues from such measures will be imputed to their author. And although if good ensue he will be applauded, nevertheless in matters of this kind, what a man may gain is as nothing to what he may lose.”
The Discourses: III, 35
Remember: no matter how much background accompanies their recommendations, no matter how dense the data or how compelling their PowerPoint presentation, consultants only present opinions. Use your own intelligence and your municipal staff resources to determine if those opinions have any validity and make up your own mind. Depend on your own wit and wisdom.
“Mercenaries have driven Italy into slavery and disgrace.”
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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