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Cruelty Well Used: Machiavelli, Walker, and Romney?

Machiavelli’s advice to princes holds important lessons for Mitt Romney if he is elected president.

The career of Wisconsin Governor Scott Walker, read in light of the 500-year-old work of political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli, offers a prudent path for Mitt Romney if he wins the presidency. Walker’s conduct as governor highlights a defensible Machiavellian approach to political problems that will certainly confront a Romney presidency.

I say a defensible Machiavellian approach because there is, of course, much in Machiavelli’s thought—including perhaps his deepest convictions about the nature and purposes of politics—that a morally serious person could not accept. As Leo Strauss observed, Machiavelli is commonly reputed to be a teacher of evil, and there is ample evidence in The Prince that that reputation is well-earned. Nevertheless, Machiavelli’s work, like that of any first-rate political thinker, includes insights into human nature that are true. It is essential that any political leader understand and respect these truths even in the pursuit of non-Machiavellian ends. Specifically, it is necessary for any statesman aiming to secure the common good to come to grips with Machiavelli’s understanding of the power of human self-interest and how it manifests itself in relation to politics, and to learn how to behave prudently in light of these considerations.

Particularly relevant to our country’s present difficulties is Machiavelli’s notion of “cruelty well used.” As a realistic observer of the human condition, Machiavelli realized that any political ruler would have to impose policies that many subjects would experience as painful. Machiavelli’s advice is that a prudent leader will not shrink from imposing this pain when it is truly necessary for the state, but will do it all at one stroke at the beginning of his rule in order to get it over with. Such a course of action will give the people time to forget the pain they have endured, especially as the benefits arising from the initially painful decisions ripen and grow, crowding the pain of the past from the popular mind.

This was precisely Walker’s strategy in Wisconsin, whether or not he saw it as Machiavellian. Walker concluded that the state’s fiscal health required reforms to collective bargaining for public employees, reforms that those employees and their allies experienced as painful, to say the least. Moreover, it was predictable that those who disapproved the reforms would try to prevent their enactment by roiling state politics in a painful way for almost all attentive citizens. Nevertheless, Walker pressed forward with these reforms immediately upon taking office and has remained firm in defending them. As a result of his boldness he has been vilified more than any American governor in recent memory. Yet he just enjoyed a convincing victory in the recall election that his enemies orchestrated, and during that election campaign the painful reforms he instituted were not even made an issue by his enemies. It is hard to think of a more convincing modern example of Machiavelli’s wise advice about “cruelty” well-used.

Walker’s career also calls to mind two other famous pieces of Machiavellian counsel. First, Machiavelli warns princes against cultivating a reputation of generosity, that is, as a dispenser of material benefits. To sustain such a reputation a prince must be continually generous, which depletes his resources. Then the prince must turn to taxation, which, by offending men’s natural self-interest, renders him hated.

Second, Machiavelli contends that it is easier and safer for a prince to secure his rule by defending the interests of the “people,” not those of the “great.” Human nature is powerfully influenced by self-interest, but that self-interest tends to show itself in two different forms, one more ambitious and demanding, and one less so. It is easier to satisfy the people, Machiavelli observes, because their aim is generally more honest than that of the great: the people—ordinary citizens—for the most part want to be left alone and keep what they have. The great, in contrast, want to exercise power over others in order to get more. To satisfy the great, who are few in number, you have to offend the people, who are more numerous: not a good political bargain. Admittedly, the public employee unions of Wisconsin began as an effort to help ordinary people. But over time they ascended to a position among “the great” in Machiavellian terms: they became politically well-connected and sought to use political power to win benefits that others would have to pay for. All of Walker’s conduct implies an understanding that the surer path to secure political popularity is, paradoxically, by administering a government that offers less and therefore allows ordinary citizens to keep more.

The lessons for a President Romney are clear. Romney evidently believes, along with most sober observers, that America’s fiscal health will require initially painful reforms to the federal budget, including politically dangerous reforms to popular programs such as Social Security and Medicare. The counsel of the political theorist Machiavelli would be not to shrink from imposing this pain but to enact such reforms as quickly as possible after taking office so that, once accomplished, the voters will have plenty of time to forget the pain before the next election. And if Romney, as a practical man, distrusts mere theorists, he may observe that the practical wisdom of Machiavelli’s advice is borne out by the real-life experience of a successful present-day governor.

One could object that Walker’s and Romney’s situations are not analogous, that Walker’s challenges adhered more closely to Machiavelli’s “the people versus the great” dichotomy than would Romney’s. After all, Walker inflicted direct pain on only a small minority of vociferous and determined voters: public sector unions. President Romney, in leading a reform of Social Security and Medicare, would be tampering with programs from which large majorities of voters expect to benefit. In other words, Social Security and Medicare, unlike generous public employee benefits, truly benefit “the people” and not only “the great.” Moreover, such programs are so long-established that the people tend to view them as their own property, and not as an ambitious or greedy effort to take resources from others. This mentality is summed up in the much-lampooned voter demand that “government keep its hands off my Medicare.”

This consideration no doubt makes Romney’s task more difficult, but several other compensating differences could make a President Romney’s task easier than Governor Walker’s. First, Walker succeeded in implementing reforms hated and bitterly resisted by a core Democratic constituency in a traditionally Democratic state. The political culture of America as a whole, however, is somewhat more conservative than that of Wisconsin: Wisconsin is—or was—a blue state, but America is not a blue country. Therefore it would be reasonable for Romney to calculate that a sufficient percentage of American voters could be brought to understand and reconcile themselves to the entitlement reforms that his administration would have to implement.

Second, the government of the United States, unlike that of Wisconsin, has no mechanism whereby to recall its chief executive. Walker was able to recover from the political fallout resulting from his initially controversial decisions within a year and a half. If Romney’s reforms are resisted by a bigger proportion of the electorate, he will also have more than twice as much time as Walker for voters to forget their anger before he faces reelection.

Third, there is a distinct possibility that the day of reckoning—the federal fiscal crisis that will require very painful remedies indeed—could come during Romney’s own first term if he does not act to avert it. Better for him to impose the needed cuts earlier, less painfully, and more at his own discretion rather than later, more painfully, and as dictated by necessity.

Finally, of course, as all commentators recognize, it will be possible to mitigate the pain of the needed entitlement reforms by making them operative little or not at all on present beneficiaries of Social Security and Medicare, and instead imposing them on future beneficiaries. This, too, will be painful and resented, but not as much. American voters have certainly come to regard Social Security and Medicare as something that is “theirs” in the sense of something that is owed to them and that would be perilous to take away. Nevertheless, people will resent less a mere reduction in benefits that they were to have received some years in the future.

Politics—the art of taking care of the public interest while also getting elected and reelected—is a difficult calling because political self-interest and the common good never coincide so perfectly that a responsible political leader can avoid taking risks. Still, Niccolo Machiavelli and Scott Walker teach us that political self-interest and the common good coincide enough in the long-run that a prudent leader, properly calculating which risks to run, can do necessary but unpopular things and still emerge triumphant.

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