Machiavelli’s Six Conditions

Fri, Oct 12, 2007 - 7:00am

Last Monday was Columbus Day, and here we see a global controversy in miniature. Some people look at Europe's "universal" civilization as a bad thing. Perhaps they would have preferred to see the spread of Chinese civilization, or Islamic civilization. Would the Incas or the Aztecs have given us democracy and the free market, with the attending liberty and prosperity? Not likely. It may be said, despite the usual atrocities, that Western Civilization has been a good thing. Without Columbus and the discovery of the New World, the United States wouldn't have come into existence. In that event, who would have pulled Europe and Asia out of the rubble of world war? The reader cannot imagine how many outraged letters I receive every week from readers who remind me that America's legacy consists mainly of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. Have we forgotten the history of the last twenty-five centuries? Have we forgotten the cruelty of the Persian emperors, the destruction of Carthage by Rome and the barbarian invasions that inundated Rome? Have we forgotten the whole murderous story with its Viking raiders, Mongol horsemen and cannibals?

It is best to put everything into perspective. The era dominated by U.S. power and the American dollar hasn't been the worst period of history. In fact, it has been one of the best. American power has stabilized the world so that a global system of trade has flourished. And it is that self-same system that supports over six billion human lives. Admittedly, this global system is not perfect. It is not utopia. But it is a far cry from the famine, pestilence and penury of "normal history" - of antiquity and the Dark Ages. Let us contemplate what might have been if the Nazis and Japanese had won the Second World War - or if Communism had triumphed during the Cold War. Does anyone really suppose the world would be better off?

Men seldom appreciate what they have. In the midst of peace and plenty they curse the very mechanism that sustains them. They set aside the folkways that brought prosperity. They neglect the study of those subjects that foster liberty. Inevitably, all their vain enterprises become imbued with malice, spite and envy. They malign the rich and powerful. They curse the philosophers and embrace the false prophets and revolutionary pranksters of history. "America is evil," they say. "American deserves to be destroyed."

Here lies the argument of the coming war. It is an argument that will be settled by the mass use of biological and nuclear weapons. For you cannot destroy a power as great as America, or eradicate its memory, without resorting to ultimate weapons. The reason that the Russians, Chinese, Iranians and others put such stock in nuclear weapons is obvious. These are the only weapons that promise to destroy the Americans. Therefore, history necessarily follows a logical path.

The era dominated by American power and the American dollar isn't going to last. The knives are out and the victim cannot escape. In the long run, something catches you by the heels. We all die. And that goes for nations as well as individuals. The student of history may predict what follows, as a matter of historical logic. The planet will descend into war and dictatorship. Even here in North America we have no assurance that freedom will be prevail. In the last twenty-five centuries of recorded history we find brief periods of republican-type government and much longer periods of monarchy and rule by warlords. Freedom is not the usual state of mankind. As Jean Jacques Rousseau wrote more than two centuries ago: "Man is born free; and everywhere he is in chains."

Our appreciation of today's situation ought to be predicated on an understanding of the extent to which oppression has been the normal state of mankind. Let us therefore appreciate what America has wrought, admitting that bad outcomes have occurred. A balanced view, as opposed to an ideological view, considers the realistic alternatives. It should also be remembered that the problem of maintaining liberty and prosperity is predicated - first and foremost - on the problem of national survival. The ugly business of surviving against enemies and rivals isn't something you can afford to set aside. Americans today are too quick to dismiss the threat of mass destruction that faces them. They decry open borders yet demand the cheap goods those open borders guarantee. It is not enough to survive. We want to live well, and we cling to our "American dream."

Prosperity fosters permissive and lax attitudes. Prosperity also leads us to forget that liberty requires an underlying "order." As the situation in Iraq demonstrates, freedom may signify anarchy and civil war. The Americans were determined to give freedom to Iraq, lacking the brutality necessary for the establishment of order. If the Iraqi dictator murdered thirty thousand innocents a year, the liberation of Iraq has led to thirty thousand deaths a month. Order is more fundamental than liberty. Without order at the foundation, there can be no liberty worth having. This may seem a paradox to the latter-day liberal, yet it is entirely understandable to the conservative who has read Edmund Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France.

The simple forms of the state - monarchy, aristocracy and democracy - tend to degenerate into tyranny, oligarchy and mob rule. According to ancient observers this could be expected within two or three generations of the state's founding. By mixing elements of monarchy, aristocracy and democracy into a single constitution, each element checks the others thereby forestalling a descent into tyranny and civil war.

There is a catch, of course. Certain preconditions are necessary for republican government to flourish. Niccolo Machiavelli listed six conditions, and these may be related loosely as follows: (1) That there is respect for tradition; (2) that the town dominate the country; (3) that popular power is institutionalized; (4) that a large middle class exists; (5) that civic spirit has not decayed; and (6) that there is knowledge of these things. If these conditions are not present, noted Machiavelli, men should not attempt republican government because such an attempt will ruin them.

In the case of Iraq, the country's traditions included Saddam's secret police, mass political homicide, censorship, arbitrary arrest and torture. Popular power was not institutionalized and a large middle class did not exist. It is therefore easy to understand why America's foreign policy in the Middle East has failed. The necessary preconditions for success were missing, as they are missing in many places around the globe. If people want to understand why democracy never triumphed in Russia, why it fails to emerge in China, one merely has to consider Machiavelli's six conditions.

The American failure abroad shouldn't surprise us. Over the last thirty years Americans have lost the knowledge that attends the preservation of vital traditions (i.e., order) and civic spirit. We are therefore unable to recognize the proper course abroad. The time will soon come, as well, when we lose our way at home.

About the Author

jrnyquist [at] aol [dot] com ()