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Thursday, February 1, 1996

Machiavellian Politics

Politicians and Government Officials Ignore the Code of Morals That Governs Private Conduct

The morality of an action depends upon the motive from which we act. If we deny ourselves for the benefit of a needy person, we may experience the joys of charity. If we seek to impress our friends, we may act from ostentation and pride. If we seize income and wealth from some people and share the take with other people, we engage in Robin-Hood plunder. If we hasten to proclaim the giving to the world and expect to be rewarded with public acclaim and election, we are in politics.

Politics is a term of many meanings and diverse connotations, referring 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. It is found in democratic societies as well as absolute monarchies and the most ruthless totalitarian states. In the latter the dictator is the sole politician; he dispenses spoils and privileges and metes out exaction and punishment according to his discretion. In a democracy every citizen has the legal right to participate in politics. Politics is a game in which prizes are distributed and burdens are imposed according to skillful use of pressures and counterpressures. Importunity may prevail over reason, expedience over evidence, and power over justice. Many politicians practice their craft according to rules and principles formulated by Machiavelli.

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. His “ideal” government was 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, and religion, and that it is incapable of observing all the rules of Judeo-Christian morality.

In the footsteps of Machiavelli many American politicians seek to gain the support of the electorate by any conceivable methods. They chatter, coax, and cajole, and if this is ineffective, they pretend, deceive, and promise the world. Promises are useful things, both to keep and, when expedient, to break. Since people are taken in by appearance, politicians appear devout and loyal; yet, in political theory, it is better to be a clever winner than to be a devout loser. Indeed, many American politicians are instinctively Machiavellian, denying the relevance of morality in political affairs and holding that craft and deceit are justified in pursuing and maintaining political power.

The Machiavellian inclinations of many American politicians seek and find intellectual support from the people who would make government the arbiter of economic life. Many academics would place politicians and their appointees, 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, Machiavellian 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 fellowmen. They grant benefits and confer entitlements to the most numerous class of voters, who in turn, pledge their votes for election and reelection. At the same time they impose financial burdens on less numerous classes of citizens who can be ignored at the polls.

Posturing as concerned patriarchs, politicians guide and direct their electorates to the benefit and entitlement troughs. They publicly defend the troughs and loudly cheer the imbibers. Many champion the cause of senior citizens who, in American political life, are first in line. Others plead for special favors for racial and ethnic minorities, for women, workers, farmers, and many others.

Unfortunately, it is not in the power of government to make everyone more prosperous. Government only can 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 should remain unaffected by the process, the cost of the transfer apparatus alone would substantially reduce total economic well-being.

The transfer process does not follow a coordinated policy of income transfer. Each department and 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 public monopolies of their own and bring about conditions that invite monopolistic practices.

The various departments of 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 they do 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.

  • Hans F. Sennholz (1922-2007) was Ludwig von Mises' first PhD student in the United States. He taught economics at Grove City College, 1956–1992, having been hired as department chair upon arrival. After he retired, he became president of the Foundation for Economic Education, 1992–1997.