Tuesday, January 31, 2006

Machiavelli and Adam Smith?

Robert Higgs, senior fellow in political economy at the Independent Institute, contrasts Machiavelli’s advice to a wise prince on how to ensure the prosperity of all citizens of a republic, with Adam Smith on the roots of prosperity lies in countries under the rule of law, natural liberty and justice, and the sanctity of private property (“The Economic Policy of Machiavelli's Prince”, January 30, 2006).

The prince, wrote Machiavelli:

ought accordingly to encourage his subjects by enabling them to pursue their callings, whether mercantile, agricultural, or any other, in security, so that this man shall not be deterred from beautifying his possessions from the apprehension that they may be taken from him, or that other refrain from opening a trade through fear of taxes; and he should provide rewards for those who desire so to employ themselves, and for all who are disposed in any way to add to the greatness of his City or State” (The Prince, New York: Dover, 1992, p. 61).

Smith, who often referred to Machiavelli and had copies of his books in his library, put it similarly in “Wealth of Nations”, New York: Modern Library, 1937 [1776], p. 862 in the Edwin Cannan edition; apologies, I am still in France and cannot access references from my Glasgow (Liberty Fund) edition:

Commerce and manufactures can seldom flourish long in any state which does not enjoy a regular administration of justice, in which the people do not feel themselves secure in the possession of their property, in which the faith of contracts is not supported by law, and in which the authority of the state is not supposed to be regularly employed in enforcing the payment of debts from all those who are able to pay. Commerce and manufactures, in short, can seldom flourish in any state in which there is not a certain degree of confidence in the justice of government.”

Machiavelli placed prosperity along a continuum from countries where the people are oppressed, to where they are free from oppression, of which punitive taxation is a prime symptom:

"[h]e who becomes a Prince through the favour of the people should always keep on good terms with them; which it is easy for him to do, since all they ask is not to be oppressed" (The Prince ,New York: Dover, 1992, p. 25).

To which Robert Higgs comments: “Fortunately for the ruler, the masses do not make great or complicated demands”. Machiavelli added:

A Prince . . . sooner becomes hated by being rapacious and by interfering with the property and with the women of his subjects, than in any other way. From these, therefore, he should abstain. For so long as neither their property nor their honour is touched, the mass of mankind live contentedly, and the Prince has only to cope with the ambition of a few, which can in many ways and easily be kept within bounds” (The Prince,New York: Dover, 1992, p. 47).

These insights from Machiavelli and, later, Smith, should be pertinent in recent discussions on the role of ‘democracy’ in combating terrorism in which it is sometimes forgotten that there is much more than democratic elections needed to combat destructive politics. Democracy has to have its roots deep into liberty, the rule of law, private property and justice.
Simply having elections is never enough.

Communist countries held ‘elections’, as did the Weimar Republic in pre-Nazi Germany and Saddam’s Iraq, but absent liberty, law and personal security from the oppression of the instruments of the state, a ruthless political party can cover itself in a veneer of ‘electoral democracy’, and create all kinds of violent mayhem against its citizens and neighbours.

Robert Higgs is the author of
Resurgence of the Warfare State, Against Leviathan and Crisis and Leviathan, and editor of the scholarly quarterly journal, The Independent Review.

(Read his article at : http://indepdendent.org)


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