American Machiavellians?

By Hans F. Sennholz
May 01, 1997

"Politics" is a term of many meanings and diverse connotations. It can refer to the art of political administration; the policies, goals or affairs of a government; the methods or tactics involved in managing an association; and many other activities. Wherever there is government, politics makes its appearance.

Niccolo Machiavelli was an eminent Italian author and statesman who in his best-known work, The Prince, described the means by which government may gain and maintain its power. He recommended that politicians be ever scheming and calculating about political gain and authority. Machiavelli's persuasion differed materially from that of earlier writers: he rejected the ideal and moral and preferred the real and practical. He allowed the conclusion that politics has nothing to do with morals, ethics, or religion.

Many American politicians seek to gain the support of the electorate by any conceivable methods. They coax and cajole the voters, and if this is ineffective, they resort to deception and empty promises. Promises are useful things, both to keep and, when expedient, to break. Since people are often taken in by appearance, politicians appear devout and loyal; yet, in politics, it is better to be a clever winner than to be an honest loser.

The Machiavellian inclinations of many American politicians find intellectual support from the people who would make government the arbiter of economic life. Many academics would place politicians and appointed government officials in the center of the social and economic order, directing and regulating the production process, fixing prices and "redistributing" income. Once in power and at the levers of political control, politicians are likely to serve their own selfish ends. They seek success by saying what people believe, or can be made to believe, rather than what is demonstrably true. They think of the next election, rather than of the next generation. They look for the success of their party rather than that of their fellow men.

Posturing as concerned leaders, politicians guide and direct their electorates to the benefit and entitlement troughs. For example, many champion the cause of senior citizens who, in American political life, are the largest and most vocal interest group. Others plead for special favors for racial and ethnic minorities, for women, workers, farmers, and many others.

Unfortunately, government cannot make everyone more prosperous. Government can only raise the income of one person by taking from another. The taking and giving are not even a zero-net game; they require an elaborate apparatus of transfer that may consume a large share of the taking. Both the giving and the taking may adversely affect the productive efforts of both the beneficiaries and the victims; but even if they were robots and remained unaffected by the process, the cost of the transfer apparatus alone would substantially reduce the net prosperity in a country.

Worse still, the transfer process does not follow a coordinated policy of income transfer. Each department or agency of government pursues its own policy against the endeavors of the other departments and agencies. The Department of Labor seeks to raise wage rates and to lower living costs; the Department of Agriculture labors diligently to reduce agricultural production and raise food prices. Similarly, the Department of Commerce endeavors to reduce foreign imports and raise goods' prices. The Department of Housing and Urban Development seeks to provide low-cost housing; both the Department of Labor and the Department of the Treasury significantly boost housing costs. The former imposes costly labor regulations, the latter levies taxes on housing and thus raises housing costs or indulges in deficit spending that deprives the loan market of needed funds and raises mortgage costs. One agency of government accuses big business of monopolistic tendencies, but others create monopolies of their own and bring about conditions that invite monopolistic practices.

The various departments of the Federal government are vocal advocates of special interests and bitter enemies of the common interest. In its own way each department promises to provide benefits to its charges at the expense of all other people whom it does not represent. All departments together labor diligently to boost living expenses and lower levels of living. But above all, they all contend for and live the ways of Machiavellian mores which set politicians and government officials free from the code of morals that governs private conduct.

Topics: Culture , Economics, Government, Statism

Hans F. Sennholz

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