Machiavelli and U.S. Politics

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and Perception

a much-quoted radio broadcast in October 1939, Winston Churchill
commented on the surprise Soviet invasion of Eastern Poland –
an invasion that closely followed the German attack from the west,
which triggered World War II. In his radio broadcast, Churchill
said of Russia that it was “a riddle wrapped in a mystery inside
an enigma.” Of course, it was only a mystery to Churchill because,
until the invasion, he did not understand why the Soviets and Nazis
had signed a pact that made partners of Stalin and Hitler. Using
Churchill’s own words as a springboard, however, we can devise
a parallel aphorism by blending in the advice given by Niccolò
Machiavelli in his political treatise, The
. In our new Machiavellian aphorism, we may say
that “the practice of politics in the United States is a lie
wrapped in hypocrisy inside a half-truth.” As we shall see,
this neatly characterizes the behavior of most U.S. politicians
for the past century.

further exploration of The Prince and its relevance
to contemporary politics, it is necessary to understand a thing
or two about Renaissance Florence, the city where Machiavelli lived
most of his life. Chief among the ironies of that city was the stark
contrast between its artistic triumphs and its political achievements.
In contrast to its brilliant legacy in literature, painting, sculpture,
and architecture, the political story of this Italian city-state
was one of constant devolution – from spirited republicanism
into one-man rule, or despotism. For nearly the last 60 years of
the 15th century, the city was controlled by the Medici family –
first by Cosimo the Elder and finally by Lorenzo the Magnificent,
who transformed Florence into the cultural capital of Europe while
simultaneously devastating his family’s fortune by the time
he passed from the scene in 1492.

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence in 1469, and he held
a number of legal-diplomatic posts in the Florentine chancery before
his death in 1527. He wrote The Prince in 1513, dedicating
it to Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medici, grandson of Lorenzo the
Magnificent. It is not surprising that The Prince both
reflects and reinforces the Florentine trend toward despotism. It
is an essay on how to maintain political power at all costs. It
is considered infamous because in it Machiavelli argued that politics
writes its own rules and must not be limited by other standards
of behavior or morality.

The infamous reputation of The Prince is puzzling,
however, because it appears to be a source of perpetual inspiration
in Washington, D.C. It defines the actions, if not the rhetoric,
of that city’s politicians and their army of supporters, dependents,
and fawning sycophants. To illustrate the widespread influence of
The Prince, we shall explore a few of the topics that
Machiavelli addressed in his treatise. In each case, we shall also
observe the following three-part pattern. In the very core, nestling
at the root of our current policies, we shall find an unsavory lie.
In turn, this will be shrouded by embarrassing hypocrisy as politicians
shamelessly evade the implications of their lies so that they can
achieve their goals. Finally, acting as an outer hard-candy shell
that never seems to melt away under the heat of close scrutiny,
the hypocrisy itself will be cloaked in a plausible half-truth.
This last element is trotted out for public consumption and promptly
absorbed in preparation for the next series of lies, hypocrisies,
and half-truths. Together we shall discover that – much more
than God, country, and apple pie – the unsavory trinity of
lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth has become synonymous with the American
Way, at least as far as politics is concerned.

as Animals
One cannot read The Prince without coming to the following
realization: Machiavelli believed that most people are craven and
invariably behave like animals in an almost Pavlovian sense. In
chapter 12, for example, he sums up human nature:

It is much safer to be feared than loved, if one has to lack one
of the two. For one can say this generally of men: that they are
ungrateful, fickle, pretenders and dissemblers, evaders of danger,
eager for gain. While you do them good, they are yours, offering
you their blood, property, lives, and children … when the need
for them is far away; but, when it is close to you, they revolt.

As a man who spent his life surrounded by the leading politicians
of his day, we should not be surprised by Machiavelli’s dismal
assessment. Similarly, it should not surprise us that his subsequent
advice reflects this overall perception – regardless of the
topic under discussion. This holds true for advice about when and
how to deceive people, how to take advantage of religious beliefs,
how to betray a trust, how to play off one group against another,
how to determine when one should spend money liberally and when
the purse strings should be pulled tight, when to instill fear,
and when to be merciful. Consequently, Machiavelli is hailed as
an early practitioner of modern political science – or at least
someone who openly stated how politics really worked. In other words,
he caused the scales to fall from our eyes. He showed us the world
as it really is instead of telling us what it should be or what
we would like it to be. For this, readers sometimes consider Machiavelli
to be a beneficent spirit – one who made it more difficult
for dishonest politicians to ply their trade. On the other hand,
in writing The Prince Machiavelli did not wring his
hands too much about their bad habits, so the jury is still out
on whether he was a prophet or a political panderer.

Modern politicians adopt Machiavelli’s assessment of humanity
when they remove decision-making power from the hands of individuals
and place it in the hands of government. This applies equally to
laws governing personal behavior and those governing economic activity.
As a result, in nearly every facet of our lives, we are told what
to do and when to do it by local, state, and federal officials.
Of course, this is for our own good, since, as brute animals, we
are unable to fathom what is best for ourselves. Political leaders
– whether elected democratically or holding office as the result
of a less participatory form of coercion, such as a coup –
assume that they are made of better stuff than we. Consequently,
they not only claim the right to decide for themselves what is best,
but they go further – telling us what to do in order to deliver
us from the consequences of our profound ignorance.

It is easy to see – at this most fundamental level of politics
– the workings of the lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth. The lie
is that politicians have our interests at heart. Their real intention
is the monopolization of power. The hypocrisy is that they –
most undeniably human – give themselves permission to do precisely
what is forbidden to the rest of us as they act on their own behalf
and ours. Finally, the half-truth is that people do indeed make
mistakes – some more than others. This is something about which
politicians remind us incessantly when we try to act on our own
account. They ignore it, however, when they are the actors. Consequently,
our own self-awareness of personal imperfections gives politicians
the leverage they need to impose their will.

Men Versus the People

however, do not overplay their knowledge of our ignorance and tendency
to err. Describing our vast limitations too frequently or too loudly
would be impolitic. After all, who elected them if not these same
dunces? Instead, they claim that they are assisting us, that without
their help the great mass of people would become victims of wealthy,
powerful people who are ruthless in their greed. Machiavelli provides
inspiration for this rationalization. In chapter 9, he identifies
two sorts of people – “great” men and “the people”
– and he informs us of their respective vices and virtues:

I say that one ascends to this principality either with the support
of the people or with the support of the great. For in every city
these two diverse humors are found, which arises from this: that
the [little] people desire neither to be commanded nor oppressed
by the great, and the great [men] desire to command and oppress
the people.

Perhaps this is one source of modern demagoguery. By exploiting
envy and fear, politicians can portray themselves as the saviors
and protectors of the public – doing and saying whatever is
necessary to gain the support needed to remain in power. If it so
happens that a leader seizes the reins of authority with the assistance
of other great and powerful people, Machiavelli recommends that
he immediately sever those ties to win the support of the general
populace – bolstering the illusion that he is on the side of
the little people:

One who becomes prince against the people with the support of
the great must before everything else seek to gain the people
to himself, which should be easy for him when he takes up their
protection. And since men who receive good from someone from whom
they believed they would receive evil are more obligated to their
benefactor, the people immediately wish him well more than if
he had been brought to the principality with their support.

Once again, we can observe the use of the lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth.
The lie is that powerful people are more likely than the average
person to seek control over others. The hypocrisy is that although
political leaders are, by definition, “great” men and
thus – according to Machiavelli’s theory – something
to be feared, somehow they seem to escape the evil predilections
of other great men. Finally, the half-truth is that yes, great people
often do seek power, but are holders of political office somehow
different from other great men and thus immune from temptation?

and U.S. Politics

we understand Machiavelli’s dismal view of humanity, it is
easier to understand the ethical universe in which he operates.
Machiavelli opens his discussion of princely virtues by immediately
discarding them. His explanation is that virtues lack utility and
are merely a product of the imagination (chapter 15):

Since my intent is to write something useful to whoever understands
it, it has appeared to me more fitting to go directly to the effectual
truth of the thing than to the imagination of it. And many have
imagined republics and principalities that have never been seen
or known to exist in truth; for it is so far from how one lives
to how one should live that he who lets go of what is done for
what should be done learns his ruin rather than his preservation.
For a man who wants to make a profession of good in all regards
must come to ruin among so many who are not good. Hence it is
necessary to a prince, if he wants to maintain himself, to learn
to be able not to be good, and to use this and not use it according
to necessity.

And furthermore one should not care about incurring the fame [i.e.,
infamy] of those vices without which it is difficult to save one’s
state; for if one considers everything well, one will find something
appears to be virtue, which if pursued would be one’s ruin,
and something else appears to be vice, which if pursued results
in one’s security and well-being.

Note that for Machiavelli, truth is defined by the effect, or outcome,
of an action from the point of view of a dictator – not by
any intrinsic, unchanging standards of value. Certainly liberty
is not one of them. That is the meaning of the words “effectual
truth” in the preceding quotation. We can see, therefore, that
Machiavelli has defined himself as a situational relativist with
a soft spot for tyranny. And where have we heard this kind of talk
before? From liberals and Democrats? Yes, but it is equally true
of self-proclaimed conservatives and Republicans. In particular,
this viewpoint bears an eerie resemblance to a statement made to
reporter Ron Suskind by a neoconservative senior advisor of President
George W. Bush. In “Without a Doubt,” an article that
appeared in the New York Times on October 17, 2004,
Suskind relates the contents of an interview that took place with
the senior advisor in the summer of 2002 – months before the
United States launched Operation Iraqi Freedom [sic]. According
to Suskind,

The aide said that guys like me [i.e., Suskind] were “in
what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined
as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious
study of discernible reality.” I [Suskind] nodded and murmured
something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He [the
aide] cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really
works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire
now, and when we act, we create our own reality.
And while you’re studying that reality – judiciously,
as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities,
which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort
out. We’re history’s actors … and you, all of you,
will be left to just study what we do.” [Emphasis added.]

This advisor is suggesting that the only “reality” guiding
right-thinking politicians is the current situation and the goals
of the moment, which can change as frequently as the weather. It
is a statement of pure relativism; expediency is the measure of
all things. Certainly this approach contains no values lofty enough
to merit the constant appeals to ethical concepts such as good and
evil, which our current president uses with great frequency.

With this in mind, it should not surprise us that President Bush
– contrary to claims that he was misled by the intelligence
community – was fully aware that Iraq’s WMDs were a pile
of half-truths and tailor-made lies as early as July 2002. This
becomes clear in an article entitled “The
Secret Downing Street Memo
,” published in London’s
Sunday Times on May 1, 2005. The article reprints a
leaked secret memo that summarizes the contents of a briefing received
by British Prime Minister Tony Blair on July 23, 2002. The key part
of the memo reveals information gathered by Richard Dearlove, director
of MI-6 (Britain’s CIA). Dearlove had just returned from a
trip to the United States and was reporting what he had learned
about the Bush administration’s plans for Iraq. According to

It seemed clear that Bush had made up his mind to take military
action, even if the timing was not yet decided. But the case was
thin. Saddam was not threatening his neighbours, and his WMD capability
was less than that of Libya, North Korea or Iran. [Emphasis

Furthermore, the Bush administration was aware that a pre-emptive
war was both unjustified and illegal. According to the memo,

The Attorney-General [John Ashcroft] said that the desire for
regime change was not a legal base for military action. There
were three possible legal bases: self-defence, humanitarian intervention,
or UNSC authorisation. The first and second could not be the base
in this case. Relying on UNSCR 1205 of three years ago would
be difficult. [Emphasis added.]

In a critical revelation, the memo also revealed that the Bush administration
planned to juggle the facts to build a case for its illegal war.
In other words, the neoconservatives planned to “create reality”
in the same manner that was recommended by the senior Bush advisor
quoted in the New York Times article. The secret Downing
Street memo sets out the agenda of the war faction as follows:

Bush wanted to remove Saddam, through military action, justified
by the conjunction of terrorism and WMD. But the intelligence
and facts were being fixed around the policy. The NSC had
no patience with the UN route, and no enthusiasm for publishing
material on the Iraqi regime’s record…. [Emphasis added.]

Note how easy it was for the Bush administration to “fix”
the intelligence and facts so that they would justify the predetermined
policy of war. Britain’s MI-6, however, was not the only intelligence
agency that was able to ferret out the truth about the Bush administration’s
tendency to play fast and loose with the facts. During the build-up
to the war against Iraq, the CIA warned that the much-publicized
“evidence” of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq was
deeply flawed. These warnings were published in several newspapers
and were available through broadcast media as well. Unfortunately,
they did not receive the attention they deserved.

Karen Kwiatkowski, a retired USAF lieutenant colonel and information
specialist posted in the Pentagon’s Near East South Asia (NESA)
office, supplied strong corroboration. She provided the world with
an insider’s view of how the Bush administration was able to
create the facts that “supported” its predetermined policy
to go to war. While posted at the NESA office in the spring of 2002,
she personally witnessed the unholy creation of the Office of Special
Plans (OSP), a project that was close to the hearts of Vice President
Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld.

A lifelong conservative, Kwiatkowski was appalled by the neoconservative
agenda that was being constructed within the OSP. She watched as
bona fide information specialists at the Pentagon were replaced
by politically appointed information magicians in the OSP. The chief
task of these magicians was to toe the White House party line, bury
the objections of lifelong Pentagon professionals, twist the facts,
and orchestrate the flow of information to build a case that supported
the administration’s decision to launch a war. As her frustration
mounted in the months before the invasion, she decided to tell the
world the truth about what was happening inside the Pentagon; she
wrote a series of anonymous dissenting newspaper “columns”
that were posted on the Internet by recently deceased decorated
Vietnam War veteran Col. David Hackworth. Finally, during the week
of the invasion in March 2003, she left the military and went public
with her columns – placing her name on her web postings and
accepting speaking invitations.

Although the administration attempted to blame its decision to go
to war on intelligence errors, the secret Downing Street memo and
Kwiatkowski’s reports have exposed how these “errors”
were created by the White House to obtain the desired results. Consequently,
the House of Representatives published Iraq
on the Record: The Bush Administration’s Public Statements
on Iraq
. This report has received little attention, but
it kept a running tab on the lies manufactured by the White House.
A key paragraph reads as follows:

The Iraq on the Record database contains 237 misleading
statements about the threat posed by Iraq that were made by President
Bush, Vice President Cheney, Secretary Rumsfeld, Secretary Powell,
and National Security Advisor Rice. These statements were made
in 125 separate appearances, consisting of 40 speeches, 26 press
conferences and briefings, 53 interviews, 4 written statements,
and 2 congressional testimonies. Most of the statements in the
database were misleading because they expressed certainty where
none existed or failed to acknowledge the doubts of intelligence
officials. Ten of the statements were simply false.

The Downing Street memo also made it clear that the war planners
gave no thought to the vast damage and upheaval that the invasion
would create in Iraq and how it would be remedied. According to
the memo, “There was little discussion in Washington of the
aftermath after military action.” Is it possible that the lack
of discussion about the aftermath of the war explains why Iraq has
become a blood-soaked basket-case of a country and a recruitment
center for terrorists as a result of the U.S. invasion? Meanwhile,
how many Americans are concerned about the origins of the war as
well as its long-term effects?

It is easy to see how the three-part pattern leaps from the words
of the president and his officials. The lie was the “constructed”
reality, namely the claim that war against Iraq was justified by
the threat of a smoking gun that could come in the form of a mushroom
cloud. The hypocrisy was that the United States, not Iraq, posed
a significant threat to world peace – possessing more WMDs
than the rest of the world combined. The plausible half-truth subsequently
trotted out for public consumption to cover up the lack of WMDs
was the old story that Saddam Hussein was, indeed, a bad man.

and Appearances

In words that are echoed in the mendacity of today’s political
class, Machiavelli enthusiastically endorsed lying. In chapter 18
he summed up his reasons:

How praiseworthy it is for a prince to keep his faith, and to
live with honesty and not by astuteness, everyone understands.
Nonetheless one sees by experience in our times that the princes
who have done great things are those who have taken little account
of faith and have known how to get around men’s brains with
their astuteness; and in the end they have overcome those who
have founded themselves on loyalty.

A prudent lord, therefore, cannot observe faith, nor should he,
when such observance turns against him, and the causes that made
him promise have been eliminated…. Nor does a prince ever lack
legitimate causes to color his failure to observe faith…. But
it is necessary to know well how to … be a great pretender and
dissembler; and men are so simple and so obedient to present necessities
that he who deceives will always find someone who will let himself
be deceived.

These paragraphs are rich with information and misinformation. As
to the latter, Machiavelli is incorrect in assuming a conflict between
“astuteness” and “keeping faith.” Every voluntary
transaction between men requires both. As to the former, it is important
to note that only the goals of dictators are important for Machiavelli.
Consequently, “princes who have done great things” must
be interpreted carefully. Great things do not include the widespread
attainment of freedom or prosperity. These are too mundane for Machiavelli
and his prince. Instead, great things are limited to highly visible
instances of projected power: combat, conquest, and control. Nobody
can accuse Machiavelli of being subtle.

There is more truth, however, in Machiavelli’s appraisal of
the “true believers” and sycophants who surround every
power-hungry politician. Judging by the performance, not the promise,
of today’s welfare-warfare state and its failed social programs
and costly military ventures, the category of “simple”
must include the following groups: citizens who believe governments
can keep them safe from terrorists by stirring up hatred with interventionist
foreign policies; parents who rely on public schools to educate
children and on the insane war on drugs to keep them sober; citizens
who believe that dependency on government handouts is a steppingstone
to self-reliance; churchgoers who confuse political poses and outward
shows of piety with genuine religious devotion; and, of course,
soldiers who believe they are “fighting for freedom” as
they destroy cities, dismiss innocent victims as “collateral
damage,” and bankrupt their own country for a disgraceful bunch
of politicians playing a bloody game of global hegemony with other
people’s lives and treasure.

Unfortunately, Machiavelli’s advice about lying creates a sticky
problem that he is unable to escape. For example, the following
statement falls between the two paragraphs cited above:

Thus, you must know that there are two kinds of combat: one with
laws, the other with force. The first is proper to man, the second
to beasts; but because the first is often not enough, one must
have recourse to the second. Therefore it is necessary for a prince
to know well how to use the beast and the man….

Without truth-telling, how can there be a law-abiding society? Are
citizens expected to faithfully obey laws or ignore them? Good laws
are a kind of standard against which we measure behavior. Surely
citizens will be able to measure their leaders by the laws they
promulgate and the degree to which they abide by them. But if lies
are the common currency of politicians, how can laws not
expose to public view the empty chasm beneath these leaders’
feet? We must conclude, then, that Machiavelli’s advice about
lying virtually guarantees that the “combat” of laws,
which is proper to humans, must give way to the “combat”
of force, which he has judged proper to beasts. Consequently, Machiavelli’s
is a universe fit only for beasts. Animal
, anyone?

With these observations in mind, we can move on to the topic of
virtues that Machiavelli finds inconvenient – even objectionable
– for successful rulers (chapter 18):

     … It is not necessary for a prince
to have all the above-mentioned qualities [being merciful, faithful,
humane, honest, and religious] in fact, but it is indeed necessary
to appear to have them. Nay, I dare say this, that by having them
and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing
to have them, they are useful, and it is [useful] to appear merciful,
faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and to be so; but to
remain with the spirit built so that, if you need not to be those
things, you are able and know how to change to the contrary….
And nothing is more necessary to appear to have than this last
quality [religious devotion]. Men in general judge more by their
eyes than by their hands, because seeing is given to everyone,
touching to few. Everyone sees how you appear, few touch what
you are; and these few dare not oppose the opinion of many, who
have the majesty of the state to defend them.

Having endorsed lies and violence while condemning virtues, Machiavelli
at last states the guiding principle of his political program: the
end justifies the means:

So let a prince win and maintain his state: the means will always
be judged honorable, and will be praised by everyone. For the
vulgar are taken in by the appearance and the outcome of a thing,
and in the world there is no one but the vulgar…. A certain
prince of present times, whom it is not well to name, never preaches
anything but peace and faith, and is very hostile to both….

Today’s politicians speak from both sides of their mouths –
one side cutting deals with their peers in Congress and the other
creating a public fiction for constituents. Business owners, however,
are held to a different standard. The recent conviction of Martha
Stewart illustrates this. Ms. Stewart was convicted of lying to
a federal official – even though she was not under oath at
the time. Meanwhile, federal officials are free to tell as many
whoppers as they wish without fear of prosecution – whether
they are politicians, prosecutors, or FBI agents.

Understanding as we do that lies are the chief language of federal
officials – one forbidden to the rest of us – let us trace
the three-fold pattern of lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth for the
last four presidents. Didn’t President Reagan tell his supporters
that overgrown government was itself the problem, not the solution?
Didn’t he vow to eliminate draft registration, the Department
of Education, and the Department of Energy? Didn’t President
George H.W. Bush say, “Read my lips” as he campaigned
against raising taxes? Didn’t President Clinton once promise
that his would be the most moral presidency in history and say that
the era of big government was over? Didn’t candidate George
W. Bush specifically condemn nation-building and government overspending
while promising a more humble foreign policy?

The previous citations represent only a tiny fraction of the lies
uttered by these men, and the hypocrisy surrounding each statement
requires no further mention. But what are the half-truths that were
used to cover them up and serve as red herrings to distract the
public from the real legacies of these men? Let us examine them,
one by one.

Reagan is remembered for opening the curtains on “morning in
America” despite saddling taxpayers with massive debt and profligate
spending, trade protectionism, expanding bureaucracies, and an extension
of criminal law that has stuffed our prisons with nonviolent offenders.
Even his tiny cut in marginal tax rates in 1981 was offset by tax
hikes later that year – not to mention bracket creep from inflation.
His words – not his actions – are remembered by the faithful
– just as Machiavelli suggested. The half-truth may be that
he believed his own words, but his actions belied them.

George H.W. Bush was not held accountable – at least not by
Americans – for the deadly consequences of his interventionist
foreign policy. He was not held accountable for meddling in the
1991 dispute between Iraq and Kuwait over the Kuwaiti practice of
slant-drilling to siphon off Iraqi oil. He was not held accountable
for backing the sanctions that caused the deaths of hundreds of
thousands of Iraqi children in the 1990s. This, in addition to his
continued support for Israel and placement of American armed forces
in Islamic holy places led to the attack on the World Trade Center
in 1993 and its destruction in 2001. Americans still do not connect
these incidents with his presidency. Instead, his supporters chided
him only for “failing to complete” the war with Iraq –
a half-truth that ignores the results of that war. Meanwhile, his
enemies in the Democratic Party quibbled only about details in this
assessment, knowing that they participated in and continued the
same policies themselves.

Clinton is remembered primarily for lying about his relationship
with Monica Lewinsky – a comparatively innocent foible that
his supporters happily contrast with the devastating lies of George
W. Bush. This is the “true” aspect of the half-truth that
hides the reality. Clinton’s supporters, however, say nothing
about the Waco conflagration and subsequent whitewash investigation.
They also fail to mention the deadly results of intervening in the
Serbian-Albanian dispute. Similarly, they do not mention the vast
increase in surveillance against American citizens that he authorized
or his continuation of Middle East interventions that contributed
to the terrorist attacks of 2001.

Meanwhile, the excuse mongers are busy portraying George W. Bush
as a verbally bumbling but nonetheless sincere president who fought
valiantly to rein in domestic spending. Both Democrats and Republicans
find it useful to galvanize their respective constituencies by pretending
that Bush is fiscally tough. The Democrats do it to goose the party
faithful with scary talk of horrendous cuts in much-beloved but
ineffective boondoggles. Likewise, Republicans have found they can
hypnotize their not-too-observant poodles by claiming that the Democrats
would be spending us into the 30th century if not for the true-blue
budget-cutting derring-do of Bush and company. Of course, the opposite
is true. The president has a bad habit of approving bailouts for
failed airlines, throwing money into the bottomless pit of medical-benefit
entitlements, signing lard-filled highway bills, and stuffing the
coffers of public schools that regularly churn out bumper crops
of criminals and nitwits in roughly equal proportion. At the same
time, his military expenditures have set new standards in Pentagon
waste. The Democrats are waiting only for their chance to do the


On the subject of war, Machiavelli offers simple advice (chapter

Thus a prince should have no other object, nor any other thought,
nor take anything else as his art but that of war and its orders
and discipline; for that is the only art which is of concern to
one who commands.

Again it is important to remember that Machiavelli’s chief
concern is not the freedom or well-being of citizens. His sole interest
is a ruler’s ability to acquire and maintain power. In contrast,
James Madison, fourth president of the United States and author
of the U.S. Constitution, enumerated the many evils caused by war:

Of all the enemies to public liberty war is, perhaps, the most
to be dreaded, because it comprises and develops the germ of every
other. War is the parent of armies; from these proceed debts and
taxes; and armies, and debts, and taxes are the known instruments
for bringing the many under the domination of the few. In war,
too, the discretionary power of the Executive is extended; its
influence in dealing out offices, honors, and emoluments is multiplied;
and all the means of seducing the minds, are added to those of
subduing the force, of the people…. [There are also an] inequality
of fortunes, and the opportunities of fraud, growing out of a
state of war, and … degeneracy of manners and of morals….
No nation could preserve its freedom in the midst of continual

In taking this stance, Madison echoed the sentiments of John Quincy
Adams, Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, James Monroe, and George
Washington. Moreover, at the Constitutional Convention in 1787,
Madison warned us against the dangers of a standing army:

A standing military force, with an overgrown Executive will not
long be safe companions to liberty. The means of defense against
foreign danger, have been always the instruments of tyranny at
home. Among the Romans it was a standing maxim to excite a war,
whenever a revolt was apprehended. Throughout all Europe, the
armies kept up under the pretext of defending, have enslaved the

When uniformed armies are not used to enslave people directly, politicians
use other techniques to control them. They invent enemies that appear
to threaten the nation. In his book Crisis and Leviathan,
Robert Higgs showed how wars and economic crises help to expand
the power of government and diminish individual liberties. In one
example, he showed how the Wilson administration overcame the opposition
of Americans to involvement in World War I by hiding its true costs.
Instead of relying on free-market purchases to acquire needed resources
(and reveal all costs), the government resorted to command-and-control
measures and propaganda to head off opposition:

In early 1917, when the government committed the nation to waging
full-scale warfare, it became obvious that raising taxes enough
to cover the full market costs of the resources the administration
proposed to employ for war purposes would generate immense resistance.
For the mobilization to proceed and the government to remain in
power the costs had to be at least partially concealed. Accordingly
the Wilson administration, with the cooperation of Congress and
the Supreme Court, undertook conscription of soldiers, establishment
of priorities for the use of transportation, fuel, and manufacturing
facilities, price fixing, extensive commandeering, and even outright
nationalization of entire industries. To divert attention from
the real costs of these actions the government mounted an enormous
propaganda campaign to stir up patriotic emotion and encourage
citizens to act as monitors and enforcers to suppress those who
dared to object or resist. To divide and conquer at the grass-roots
level proved an effective tactic to diffuse resistance and insulate
the highest authorities from public opposition: witness the thousands
of local draft boards, the legion of volunteer food administrators,
and the far-flung corps of fuel authorities.

Wartime measures also served as springboards to reduce other liberties.
In one example, Higgs outlined an argument used during World War
II to justify centralized economic controls:

If the military draft provided the crucial link in the creation
of the legislative and administrative chain that the government
wrapped around individual rights during the war, it served an
even more fundamental purpose in giving legitimacy to the suppression
of economic liberties. Virtually everyone who considered the matter,
from influential economists, bureaucrats, and congressmen right
up to Supreme Court justices and the President himself, used and
accepted the validity of the moral argument: if A is all
right, then X is certainly all right; where A was
military conscription and X was any governmental suppression
of individual rights whatsoever, especially any denial of private
property rights…. Most astonishing is the almost universal acceptance
of the argument’s premise that military conscription, a transparent
example of involuntary servitude, is morally untarnished.

Higgs then summarized the 20th-century trend of crisis-based government

After the ideological transformation that took place during the
Progressive Era, each genuine crisis has been the occasion for
another ratchet toward Bigger Government. The Progressive ideological
imperative that government must “do something,” must
take responsibility for resolving any perceived crisis, insures
new actions. The actions have unavoidable costs, which governments
have an incentive to conceal by substituting coercive command-and-control
devices for pecuniary fiscal-and-market means of carrying out
their chosen policies. Military conscription, wage-price controls,
assignment of official priorities and physical allocation of selected
commodities, countless economic and social regulations, import
quotas and export controls – all confirm the hypothesis.
Knowing how much a crisis facilitates Bigger Government, special
interests always use such propitious occasions to seek whatever
governmental assistance they think will promote their own ends.
Once undertaken, governmental programs are hard to terminate.
Interests become vested, bureaucracies entrenched, constituencies
solidified. More fundamentally, each time the government expands
its effective authority over economic decision-making, it sets
in motion a variety of economic, institutional, and ideological
adjustments whose common denominator is a diminished resistance
to Bigger Government. Among the most significant of such adjustments
is the Supreme Court’s consistent refusal to protect individual
rights from invasion by governmental officials during national
emergencies. Precedents established during extraordinary times
tilt the constitutional balance even during ensuing normal times.

Finally, Higgs, who published Crisis
and Leviathan
in 1987, issued the following warning to
his readers:

We do know something about the future. We know that other great
crises will come. Whether they will be occasioned by foreign wars,
economic collapse, or rampant terrorism, no one can predict with
assurance. Yet in one form or another, great crises will surely
come again, as they have from time to time throughout all human
history. When they do, governments almost certainly will gain
new powers over economic and social affairs.

With these words in mind, let us trace some of the effects of the
U.S. policy of interventionism and the so-called war on terror.

markets. Just as wartime measures concealed the true cost of
U.S. involvement in World War I and II, the current interventionist
foreign policy conceals the true cost of petroleum-based products.
U.S. soldiers, for example, currently are posted in 135 countries
around the world – many in or near oil-producing countries.
Consequently, the price consumers pay for heating oil, gasoline,
and other petroleum-based products does not reflect the high cost
of maintaining this military presence or of sending foreign aid
to the leaders of these nations. In other words, the true cost of
petroleum products is unknown because U.S. taxpayers subsidize their
supply – distorting energy markets and other sectors that rely
on petroleum.

and social regulations. The next time you send money to your
favorite charity, make sure that the U.S. government has not placed
it on the hit-list of charities that are suspected of assisting
terrorists. Of course, the U.S. government determines the definition
of “terrorism” as well as what constitutes a friendly
rather than an enemy nation – which can change from moment
to moment.

of industries. In many ways, the travel industry has been nationalized
to accommodate our interventionist foreign policy. Using the phrase
“nationalized industry,” however, would tend to undercut
the freedom that our administration claims to hold dear to its heart.
Nonetheless, airport searches, pat-downs, long lines, and the seizure
of “threatening” objects such as nail clippers are not
typical of free-market transactions. Similarly, the taxpayer-subsidized
TSA employees loitering in huge, but easily duped numbers have been
imposed by the government. Finally, the taxpayer bailouts of failing
airlines and their bloated pension plans are the most obvious example
of airline nationalization.

profiteering. Many companies that hold contracts to “reconstruct”
Iraq (they will do this several times by the look of things) have
been criticized for failing to document invoices and for bidding
on noncompetitive contracts. Furthermore, the market for “security
experts” and “security technologies” has mushroomed.
Consequently, resources are being drained from other areas of the
economy into this new growth industry.

From the pages of the New York Times to the broadcasts
of the Fox news channel, the drumbeat for war was incessant in the
run-up to Operation Iraqi Freedom [sic]. Americans have been told
by government officials “to watch what we say” and that
“if you’re not with us, you’re with the terrorists.”
Fearing criticism from the administration’s true believers,
one company withdrew advertising from a late-night talk show because
the host simply pointed out that the 9/11 hijackers could not honestly
be called cowards. Furthermore, we are constantly reminded that
the terrorists “hate us for our freedom and values.” With
no consistent commitment to liberty, much of the press remains uncritical
of constitutional violations. Instead, their chief concern is being
cut off from inside sources of political gossip in retaliation for
covering news stories that are critical of the administration. The
specter of being frozen out of the loop is as frightening as having
the government shut them down or arrest them, as Lincoln did to
hundreds of newspapers and thousands of editors, legislators, and
businessmen who disagreed with his policies. Then again, has anyone
seen an al-Jazeera broadcast from Iraq lately? The U.S. military
blew up its Baghdad office and killed a reporter there despite repeated
reminders about its exact location. In addition, the U.S.-backed
provisional government shut down al-Jazeera’s offices in August
2004 “for one month,” citing national-security concerns.
The offices have remained closed.

Even more important than the willingness of the press to play “follow
the leader,” the uncritical populace – “educated”
in government-controlled schools – eats up a steady stream
of propaganda. The willingness to believe lies (even after they
have been exploded) and to trust government authorities is a testimony
to the true product of government-controlled schooling: blind obedience.

Once again we can trace the pattern of lie, hypocrisy, and half-truth.
We’ve already addressed the administration’s 237 lies
about WMDs and links to terrorism. When it turned out that there
were no WMDs and no links between Iraq and the attack on the World
Trade Center, the deception was exposed for all to see. Even Bush
could not bear the charge of being called a liar – not to mention
a hypocrite – since he frequently voiced his faith in God and
warned of evil-doers lurking in every nook and cranny. Consequently,
the president concocted a plausible half-truth to cover his tracks.
He claimed he had been misinformed by intelligence experts. The
half-truth, of course, is that U.S. intelligence agencies are
notoriously inaccurate, and the president knew it. After all, his
father was director of the CIA from 1976 to 1977 – so he likely
had a closer look than most of us. Among other examples, the CIA
is infamous for vastly overestimating Soviet strength just before
the USSR fell to pieces all by itself in 1991. More recently, the
CIA was part of a massive government failure to prevent the September
11 attacks. Still, the president knew that “incompetence in
government” would provide a safe harbor in which he could wait
out the storm of limp criticism once the war against Iraq was exposed
for what it was – another government-sponsored tragedy that
will haunt us for decades by generating anti-U.S. terrorism. Even
worse, the writings of Karen Kwiatkowski and the contents of the
Downing Street memo already demonstrated that the Bush administration
orchestrated the flow of misinformation that was used to build a
false case for war.

Unfortunately, this Bush administration – much as the Kennedy,
Johnson, Nixon, Reagan, the first Bush, and Clinton administrations
– failed to take into account the resentment generated when
invaders embark on wars of aggression in the homelands of other
people. The writer Gore Vidal, however, has made up for this oversight.
In his book Perpetual
War for Perpetual Peace
Vidal lists 201 U.S. military
operations that took place between the victory over Japan in 1945
and the attacks of September 11. The list was compiled by the Federation
of American Scientists. Think of it: 201 conflicts since 1945. This
is what generated the blowback that Americans still refuse to acknowledge
– preferring instead to repeat nonsense such as “they
hate us for our freedom.”

Crimes and Atrocities

Machiavelli, there is no deed too ruthless for rulers on the fast
track to dictatorship. A prince who wishes to remain in power must
not blink at opportunities for cruelty when they can advance his
position. Consequently, in chapter 5, Machiavelli advises would-be
princes to follow the example set by the ancient Romans in dealing
with the Greek cities conquered by Rome as it gobbled up the Mediterranean

[The Romans] were compelled to destroy many cities in that province
so as to hold it. For in truth there is no secure mode to possess
them other than to ruin them. And whoever becomes patron of a
city accustomed to living free and does not destroy it, should
expect to be destroyed by it; for it always has a refuge in rebellion
in the name of liberty….

These same sentiments seemed to govern U.S. policy during the wars
waged against Vietnam and Iraq. In Vietnam, the United States dropped
more than 7 million tons of bombs – three and one half times
as much as were dropped in World War II. It is not surprising that
in both North and South Vietnam, 2 million innocent civilians
were killed in addition to 1 million Vietnamese soldiers.

In Iraq, the sanctions following Operation Desert Storm – backed
by the United States and UN – led to the deaths of hundreds
of thousands of Iraqi children during the 1990s. This horrifying
total continued to grow until Operation Iraqi Freedom [sic] and
its aftermath finished off tens of thousands of additional noncombatants.
Cities such as Fallujah have been leveled and turned into ghost

Since the Middle Ages, efforts have been made to protect noncombatants
from the ravages of war. The United States appears to be turning
the clock back on that effort. In both wars of aggression just cited,
U.S. soldiers were following the orders of politicians. Neither
politicians nor soldiers were acting on the conviction that liberty
and free enterprise ultimately triumph over communism and tyranny.
Instead, they acted on the shameful presumption that freedom requires
the mass murder of people who pose absolutely no threat and are
located on the other side of the world.

War as a Crime

During the proceedings of the War Crimes Tribunal held in Nuremberg
after World War II, it was established that wars of aggression are
in themselves war crimes. Wars of aggression were defined as invasions
launched by nations that have not been attacked – even if the
aggressors call the invasions “pre-emptive attacks” or
“wars of liberation.” Consequently, both the Vietnam War
and the invasion of Iraq were war crimes. As such, they betrayed
the founding principles of our nation. Furthermore, the politicians
who launched these wars were never brought up on charges –
even when the events that triggered them were shown to be fabrications.
In Vietnam, it was the Gulf of Tonkin incident; in Iraq, it has
been the nonexistent WMDs.

But Machiavelli has soothing words for leaders who are fearful of
bad reputations. In chapter 8, he described how the king of Syracuse,
Agathocles (ca. 300 B.C.), once assembled the senate of that city.
He then proceeded to have its members murdered along with the richest
people in the city. Once they were dead, said Machiavelli, “he
[Agathocles] seized and held the principate of that city without
any civil controversy.” The lack of outrage among American
citizens about the U.S. war of aggression in Iraq may be an indicator
of a similar absence of ethical standards in America. Even during
the Vietnam War, anti-war sentiments were more often triggered by
the deaths of U.S. soldiers than by outrage directed against the
immorality of creating so many civilian Vietnamese casualties or
awareness that wars of aggression are intrinsically war crimes.

In another example, Machiavelli described how the dictator Oliverotto
took control of the city of Fermo in A.D. 1501. Oliverotto asked
his uncle, Giovanni, to hold a banquet in his behalf, during which
Oliverotto’s soldiers slaughtered Giovanni and all the other
guests – enabling Oliverotto to take control of the city. Machiavelli’s
assessment of this crime and the slaughter committed by Agathocles
was matter-of-fact. He drew a distinction only between the ineffective
versus effective use of atrocities – labeling them respectively
as badly used and well used:

Someone could question how it happened that Agathocles and anyone
like him, after infinite betrayals and cruelties, could live for
a long time secure in his fatherland, defend himself against external
enemies, and never be conspired against by his citizens, inasmuch
as many other have not been able to maintain their states through
cruelty even in peaceful times, not to mention uncertain times
of war. I believe that this comes from cruelties badly used or
well used. Those can be called well used (if it is permissible
to speak well of evil) that are done at a stroke, out of the necessity
to secure oneself, and then are not persisted in but are turned
to as much utility for the subjects as one can. Those cruelties
are badly used which, though few in the beginning, rather grow
with time…. Hence it should be noted that in taking hold of
a state, he who seizes it should review all the offenses necessary
for him to commit, and do them all at a stroke…. For injuries
must be done all together, so that, being tasted less, they offend
less; and benefits should be done little by little so that they
may be tasted better [by the people].

Knowing this, should we assume that the shock-and-awe tactics pursued
in March 2003 in Iraq were intended as an “evil deed well used”
(to use a Machiavellian expression) because they ended swiftly?
If so, what about the indefinite “detention” and torture
of suspects at Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo – not to mention the
deportation of prisoners to countries where torture is practiced?
Unfortunately for those who wish to adhere to the advice of Machiavelli,
these abuses are taking place over an extended period of time. They
are not being “done at a stroke” as Machiavelli recommended.
Consequently, the Renaissance master would categorize these abuses
as “cruelties badly used.”

Just Following

Amid the
fog of lies and emotions whipped-up by politicians interested
in transforming our free republic into a despotic empire, have
atrocities and cruelty become acceptable to once-civilized Americans?
Aren’t we being just a wee bit precious in guarding the airwaves
from dirty words here at home while our soldiers force defenseless
captives to strip naked and simulate sexual acts before beating
them to death during interrogation, attacking them with dogs,
shaving their beards and leering at them in degrading postures,
smearing them with fake menstrual blood, and kicking their genitals
in the name of freedom?

If so, it is not the first time it has happened. Before World War
II, Germany had been considered one of the most civilized nations
in Europe. Nonetheless, in the politically orchestrated frenzy of
fear and empire building, some of the worst atrocities of the 20th
century – a century virtually awash in atrocities – were
committed within its borders and conquered territories. Furthermore,
these atrocities were committed with the cooperation of the churchgoing
citizens and soldiers who, after all, were just following orders.

Returning to the War Crimes Tribunal held in Nuremberg after World
War II, the excuse that “I was just following orders”
was not deemed acceptable when offered by Nazi soldiers accused
of war crimes. That excuse is now known as the infamous “Nuremberg
Defense.” We’ve been hearing the same justification for
events taking place at Abu Ghraib, Guantanamo, and at prisons located
in countries where torture is allowed – as in the case of Maher
Arar, who was deported to Syria, where he was tortured at the behest
of the CIA. The new attorney general, Alberto Gonzalez, has proven
to be just as unethical as John Ashcroft on the subject of torture.
Gonzalez said the provisions of the Geneva Convention were outdated
and ill-suited for dealing with captured al-Qaeda and Taliban fighters.
He added that laws prohibiting torture do “not apply to the
president’s detention and interrogation of enemy combatants.”
He also complained that the pain caused by interrogation must include
“injury such as death, organ failure, or serious impairment
of body functions in order to constitute torture.” He even
characterized the small acts of human kindness recommended in provisions
of the Geneva Convention as “quaint.”

As in previous examples cited in this essay, the pattern of lie,
hypocrisy, and half-truth applies to the way U.S. politicians have
framed the discussion of war crimes perpetrated by the military
forces of the U.S. against both civilian populations and detainees.
The lie used to justify these atrocities was that they were intended
to bring down evil leaders. Americans have had plenty of time to
become accustomed to this rationalization. President Truman’s
bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki is a prime example. Those nuclear
explosions yielded approximately 200,000 innocent civilian victims.
Their real purpose was to “send a message” to America’s
World War II ally, the Soviet Union, informing its leaders that
the United States indeed possessed a formidable weapon. President
Truman, however, misled Americans by claiming that the nuclear weapons
were used to prompt a faster surrender and save the lives of 500,000
American soldiers (the correct figure, supplied by the military,
was actually 46,000 soldiers). Americans were not told that the
Japanese leadership already had sued for peace before the bombings
– seeking virtually the same terms that were obtained after
the bombings. Using Truman’s falsehood as its touchstone, U.S.
politicians claimed that the napalm and Agent Orange used in Vietnam,
the sanctions against Iraq, and Operation Iraqi Freedom itself were
designed to topple the leaders of evil regimes. These tactics, however,
have failed. Nothing was gained, and only the bodies are left to

When accused of encouraging these crimes and other acts of torture,
politicians resort to “damage control.” To avoid the charge
of hypocrisy, they create a plausible half-truth as a cover story.
They tell us the crimes were “isolated acts” and were
confined to a few “bad apples.” Then they sponsor sham
investigations that – it is not surprising – discover
wrongdoing only among the lowest ranks of soldiers. This protects
the reputations of high military and administrative officials from
being blemished. While it is indeed true that soldiers of low rank
carried out the atrocities, the question that must be asked is whether
they were really acting without the implicit assent of their commanding
officers as well as such political higher-ups as former Attorney
General John Ashcroft, his successor Alberto Gonzalez, Defense Secretary
Donald Rumsfeld, former CIA Director George Tenet, and President
Bush himself.

Administration officials, however, should not worry too much about
their reputations. America seems to be developing a thick callus
around its conscience. Each new revelation of cruelty or deception
– such as the lies and many-layered cover-up surrounding Pat
Tillman’s death – is quickly absorbed by the public and
forgotten. This indicates a woeful decline in the kind of behavior
deemed “acceptable” in the United States. The hearts of
some Americans have grown so hard that callers to one nationwide
talk-radio show have proudly described barbeque parties celebrating
the atrocities of Abu Ghraib. These on-air descriptions were accompanied
by laughter and encouragement from the talk-show host.

As in the case of Machiavelli’s prince, in today’s political
arena, deeds are neither intrinsically evil nor good – merely
ineffective or effective. They require only the proper calculation
to determine their advisability. The end justifies the means –
or as the French proverb goes (much quoted by tyrants): “You
can’t make an omelet without breaking eggs.”

Choice and Spending

would take great comfort in the “public choice” theory
as outlined by economists James Buchanan and Gordon Tullock. Public-choice
theory tells us that politicians cannot legislate or spend taxpayer
dollars wisely. Why? Because there simply is no incentive to fight
powerful interests on behalf of the majority of taxpayers.

This is how it works. On the one hand, the general public remains
intentionally unaware of most legislation because keeping informed
requires too great an investment of time in proportion to the benefit
gained from the information. Even if individuals become aware of
harmful legislation, they are unwilling to do anything about it.
Why? Because the negative financial impact of the legislation on
each person is small (but it adds up), and the cost is divided among
all taxpayers.

While the effort required to successfully block one bit of legislation
is huge for a single taxpayer to assume, special-interest groups
receive rich rewards from legislation designed expressly for their
benefit. The benefit, which is taken in very small amounts from
millions of taxpayers, is highly concentrated in a much smaller
group – whether it is a business group, a labor union, the
local PTA, or government employees. Consequently, the recipients
are willing to invest the resources needed to influence the legislators.
Like crime, living off the public dole can pay off handsomely. Public-choice
theory goes a long way toward explaining the redistributionist flavor
of the legislation that dominates U.S. politics: the victims are
many, dispersed, and silent, and the beneficiaries are few, organized,
and vocal.

In much the same spirit, Machiavelli delivers the following insight
in chapter 3, where he describes how a new ruler can seize the belongings
of newly conquered enemies and divide them among his supporters:

One offends only those from whom one takes fields and houses in
order to give them to new inhabitants – who are a very small
part of that state. And those whom he offends, since they remain
dispersed and poor, can never harm him, while all the others remain
on the one hand unhurt, and for this they should be quiet; on
the other, they are afraid to err from fear that what happened
to the despoiled might happen to them.

Divide and conquer. That’s the message. Otherwise, politicians
would have to face up to Frédéric Bastiat’s succinct
– and frightfully accurate – definition of the state:
“the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live
at the expense of everyone else.”

Once again, we can perceive the workings of lie, hypocrisy, and
half-truth. The lie is that, when someone seizes the belongings
of another, the slate somehow is wiped clean and the new property
holder will be secure in the newfound wealth. The truth is that
seized property is stolen property. In general, people tend to retaliate
against thieves – whether they are freelance street thieves
or well-armed, uniformed soldiers acting on behalf of politicians.
The hypocrisy is that the new owners believe they have a bona fide
claim to the stolen property. Is it likely, however, that a ruler
who does not respect property rights will respect their bogus claim?
The recipients of the stolen booty are likely to be victimized,
in turn, the moment it becomes convenient – whether their booty
is “awarded” to someone else or confiscated more slowly
by taxation. This hypocrisy is covered up, in turn, by whatever
slogan or excuse can be manufactured to galvanize the new recipients
of the booty into assisting their leader. In foreign policy (Iraq,
anyone?), the excuse can be far-fetched: an enemy is about to attack,
so we’d better attack first (and use their oil money to pay
for our attack). In domestic politics, it can be a claim of unfair
advantage, unequal distribution of wealth, monopoly control, or
greed – a malady that never seems to infect those who wield
the accusation. No matter how tenuous this half-truth, people accept
it if it is convenient.

Spending: Parsimony or Liberality?

devotes an entire chapter to the question of liberality versus parsimony
in spending. His advice, however, has been disregarded by contemporary
politicians. They understand in their bones that Machiavelli was
advising rulers who had long-term plans – plans defined by
decades and dynasties, not by this week’s polls. He did not
anticipate the short-term thinking that has been engendered by two-,
four-, and six-year election cycles. Consequently, his instructions
about fiscal responsibility (chapter 15) sound quaint and out of

If one wants to maintain a name for liberality among men, it is
necessary not to leave out any kind of lavish display, so that
a prince who has done this will always consume all his resources
in such deeds. In the end it will be necessary, if he wants to
maintain a name for liberality, to burden the people extraordinarily,
to be rigorous with taxes, and do all those things that can be
done to get money. This will begin to make him hated by his subjects,
and little esteemed by anyone as he becomes poor…. When he recognizes
this, and wants to draw back from it, he immediately incurs the
infamy of meanness.

Thus, since a prince cannot, without damage to himself, use the
virtue of liberality so that it is recognized, he should not,
if he is prudent, care about a name for meanness. For with time
he will always be held more and more liberal when it is seen that
with his parsimony his income is enough for him….

In response to Machiavelli’s concern that “in the end
it will be necessary … to burden the people extraordinarily,”
today’s politicians are guided by a quip of economist John
Maynard Keynes in his Tract
on Monetary Reform
: “Long run is a misleading guide
to current affairs. In the long run we are all dead.” Keynes
demonstrated the short-term bias that underlies democracy as a political
system. In contrast to today’s politicians, who constantly
praise democracy instead of individual rights and constitutional
limits on government power, one of the nation’s founders, John
Adams, condemned democracy in his writings. In one instance, he
pointed out that democracy would ultimately evolve into despotism.
In a letter to Jefferson, he added that “democracy will envy
all, contend with all, endeavor to pull down all, and when by chance
it happens to get the upper hand for a short time, it will be revengeful,
bloody, and cruel.”

Using John Adams as a springboard, we can appreciate the observations
of Austrian-school economist Hans-Hermann Hoppe. In his book Democracy:
The God That Failed
, Hoppe observed that even monarchy
is preferable as an alternative to democracy:

It is worth remembering that any prince who failed in his primary
duty of preserving the dynasty – who wrecked or ruined the
country, caused civil unrest, turmoil and strife, or otherwise
endangered the position of the dynasty – faced the immediate
risk of either being [sic] neutralized or assassinated by another
member of his own family. In any case, however, even if the accident
of birth and his upbringing could not preclude that a prince might
be bad and dangerous, at the same time the accident of a noble
birth and a princely education also did not preclude that he might
be a harmless dilettante or even a good and moral person. In contrast,
the selection of government rulers by means of popular elections
makes it practically impossible that any good or harmless person
could ever rise to the top. Prime ministers and presidents are
selected for their proven efficiency as morally uninhibited demagogues.
Thus, democracy virtually assures that only bad and dangerous
men will ever rise to the top of government; indeed as the result
of free political competition and selection, those who rise will
become increasingly bad and dangerous individuals, yet as temporary
and interchangeable caretakers they will only rarely be assassinated.

It appears that only gridlock in Washington will prevent each successive
president from outdoing his predecessors in the arena of profligate
spending. In John Denson’s book Reassessing
the Presidency
, economists Richard Vedder and Lowell
Gallaway offered tacit proof of Hoppe’s theory in an essay
entitled “Rating Presidential Performance.” In the essay,
Vedder and Gallaway used various criteria to rank U.S. presidents
in terms of the economic damage they unleashed while in office.
They presented their rankings in a series of five charts –
taking into account the following criteria for each president’s
term in office: the government’s share of the nation’s
total output, change in the size of government, the “inherited”
size of government, and the presence of inflation.

Viewing the data in the charts, one cannot help but notice that
there has been an increasingly depressing trend toward fiscal irresponsibility
since the founding of the republic. As a remarkably ironic surprise,
however, President Clinton was ranked as fiscally more responsible
than all of the following presidents: Richard Nixon, Ronald, Reagan,
George H.W. Bush, Lyndon Johnson, Herbert Hoover, Woodrow Wilson,
Abraham Lincoln, and Franklin Roosevelt.

Consequently, we should sing the praises of gridlock. While their
reputed enemy President Clinton held office in the 1990s, it seems
that Republican congressmen were able to achieve the slight victory
of curbing government spending by a minuscule amount. Once they
possessed control of the White House and Congress, however, Republicans
opened wide the sluice gates of government spending. By every measure
of spending, domestic or military, Republican-controlled government
has become so saturated by pork that pigs are squealing everywhere.
This ensures that the current president, George W. Bush, will have
the honor of bumping along on the murky bottom of the fiscal cesspool.
He will be in the company of the most fiscally irresponsible presidents
in U.S. history; Presidents Hoover, Wilson, Lincoln, and Franklin
Roosevelt all managed to appear in the bottom six slots in every
one of the Vedder-Gallaway charts, with only one small exception
in the case of Herbert Hoover.

Here as elsewhere, we can see the pattern of lie, hypocrisy, and
half-truth. All of these presidents have claimed to hold the financial
interests of Americans close to their hearts. Each of them, however,
has used taxpayer dollars to subsidize some special interests over
others – never cutting spending across the board in any significant
amount. When their opponents in another political party point this
out, they deliver a series of half-truths to rationalize their willingness
to spend other people’s money – each one, in turn, rhapsodizing
about the merits of the special interests they serve. These interests
include poorly run businesses in need of tax-fed subsidies; spoiled
union members who refuse to compete honorably by offering products
of value to consumers; middle-class families seeking subsidies for
college tuition or secondary schools; government employees who oppose
cuts in spending programs they administer; law-enforcement agencies
whose members gain job security by persecuting persons who commit
crimes that have no victims; and members of the military-industrial
complex who lick their chops at every multi-billion defense system
and refuse to pull back from the overextended network of ineffective,
war-provoking bases spread like a gill-net around the world.

29, 2005

Lawrence Ludlow [send him mail]
is a freelance writer living in San Diego. Harvey C. Mansfield's
translation of The

is the source for quotations unless otherwise noted.

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