Machiavelli meets Mill: A comparison of systems of governance

This is the kind of things that happen when things are written in four fragments many days apart

On the Purpose of Community

Clichéd as it sounds, the world is increasingly globalised. More and more, states interact with each other and form symbiotic relationships, and we observe the rise of the “global citizen”. How then, are rulers of nation-states to govern their people, in light of the spread of the “civilized” concept of human rights?

Many documents, such as the UN charter and the US Bill of Rights, lay out rules that we expect national leaders to uphold. However, the question remains: what is the purpose of a nation, or of a community?

The social contract theorists maintain that people in an organised society subscribe to a set of arbitrary rules, designed to limit certain freedoms, for the protection of other freedoms. The widely held belief within the particular society is that these protected freedoms benefit the individuals of the society, and by extension, the society itself.

Similarly, it could also be argued that society forms as people, ideas, and manpower are consolidated, and progresses with the aim of benefiting its constituent members.

It appears, then, that human society is a utilitarian enterprise. The usual criticisms of utilitarianism then arise. How is the utility of any particular action or rule measured? In the case of fully consequentialist utilitarianism, is the permissibility of intuitively abhorrent actions problematic? A debate arises over human motivations: should people act in a utilitarian or (rule-based) ethical manner, and does this necessitate a new understanding of the purpose of society?

On the Machiavellian Governor

For now, let us proceed with the assumption that society is a utilitarian enterprise, with the aim of maximising utility of individual persons. As we compare Machiavelli with Mill, we keep in mind how their proposed systems of governance benefit the governed.

Machiavelli, in The Prince, summarily encourages rulers to do whatever is necessary to remain in power. We bandy about the term “Machiavellian” to describe one who is cunning and manipulative, resorting to any means to achieve a goal.

In The Prince, Machiavelli encourages leaders to keep up the appearance of virtue; as such appearances endear him to the populace. This virtue can take many forms; religiosity, charity, integrity, etc. However, this very exhortation precludes the need for any real virtue; in fact, the only truly valuable trait, in the Machiavellian school, would be any behaviour that, suiting the situation, enables the ruler to maintain his hold on power.

In light of our presumed purpose of governance, Machiavelli seems inadequate. A ruler that seeks foremost a hold on power may try to do so by endearing himself to the people, but surely not all the time, and surely not always by addressing their most pertinent needs. On occasion, the interests of such a ruler may be antagonistic to that of the governed; surely this is not what we desire out of a government that seeks the benefit of the governed.

The failings of the Machiavellian idea of leadership are succinctly expressed by Douglas Adams in the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy: “Anyone who is capable of getting themselves made President should on no account be allowed to do the job.”

Of course, Machiavelli does make praiseworthy suggestions. Undoubtedly, there are benefits in uninterrupted rule; the advantages of government stability have been evident in the success of long-term government policy and vision, whilst planning upset caused by regime change has often left nations struggling. A ruler able to consolidate his hold on power and ensure long-term stability will be able to provide the attendant benefits to the governed.

Additionally, Machiavelli does recognise that the best way for a ruler to stay in power is to pander to the desires of the governed. The desires may not always be to the best interests (best utilitarian outcome) of the governed, but oftentimes, with the guiding hand of a skilled leader, they are close enough that the governed receive a fair fraction of maximum potential utility.

On Mill’s Liberty and the Democratic mode of Government

As discussed above, the continuous rule of a single entity seems insufficient to ensure the utility of the governed. Does Liberty as favoured by J.S. Mill and the democratic mode of thinking it has spawned fare better towards this end?

In his celebrated treatise, On Liberty, Mill champions, foremost, the cause of individual liberty. He espouses the necessity of exercise of individuality and unfettered thought and opinion, for utilitarian ends. However, there is debate over the nature of the utilitarianism he pursues.

Mill forwards the proposition that, through the “collision of truth with error” and the resulting “livelier impression of truth”, and through the promotion of personal individuality exercised via liberty in thought and deed, beneficial, utilitarian, outcomes arise.

However, Mill’s conception of utility seems counter to that of aggregate utility of a community. In any such community, it appears necessary that some individuals possess more liberty of individuality than others, as such inequitable distribution of individuality results in greatest aggregate individuality or aggregate happiness.

In light of how the conflicting desires of differing individuals necessitates the limitation of some liberties, should Mill’s envisioned state of “free individuals” still guide us in seeking a mode of governance?

The resolution lies in viewing Mill’s vision as an ideal, while constructing a social order based on the realities of community. Ideally, every individual would be free to exercise their individuality in any manner non-harmful to others. However, due the conflictory nature of varied individual demands, many groups or individuals will find their individuality limited in some way.

The outcome of these limitations is the State. The State imposes Law that curbs certain liberties, for the sake of the combined welfare of the individuals. Every government does this, from the most authoritarian dictatorships to the most liberal democracies; there are areas that remain prohibited.

Therefore, we see that Mill’s ideals, espoused in On Liberty, do seek to achieve utilitarian aims. However, Mill places emphasis on individuals attaining maximum happiness and its translation into collective happiness. Oftentimes, this may not be the case. Instead, individual happiness (read, liberty) may be curbed to some degree, so as to achieve the maximum for the community as a whole.

Concluding Statements

It seems that Machiavelli makes no overtures towards accomplishing the utilitarian goal of society in The Prince, while Mill seeks only the utilitarian cause of the individual in On Liberty. What, then, is required of leadership?

Certainly, Mill was considering the happiness of community best served by the happiness of individuals, which in turn was best served by affording said individuals with liberty. But seeing as how such liberties inevitably come into conflict with each other, it appears that the role of a leader is to find the balance between the conflicts of wills most beneficial to the community.

The role of leadership is no easy one. The leader must actively choose to suppress some freedoms, no matter how odious the thought may be, if the result of such action is for the benefit of the community. He must be “Machiavellian” in nature, willing to be ruthless, to sacrifice the few of the sake of many. The difference lies in his aims; while Machiavelli’s Prince seeks to grasp power at all costs, the New Prince seeks the greatest communal benefit, at whatever immediate cost.

Of course, this raises the hoary issue of the nature of the “best course of action”. To lead with the greatest conviction that the sacrifices being made are for the best requires infinite wisdom and knowledge, two things that leaders might find themselves in short supply of. If it turns out unfeasible or impossible to discern the best course of judgement, the only choice left may be Rule Utilitarianism.

But even then, there are problems. Mill’s Liberty is a sort of rule utilitarianism; the rule being: “protect liberty”. But even then, the wisdom and knowledge to discern that “these are the best rules” is still lacking.

I can only then forward this humble solution; that each individual struggles along as best as he can, to eke out the greatest happiness he can for himself, even whilst caught in churning seas of the conflictory desires of other individuals around him. And that each individual schleps along until we become a race of Übermensch, capable of co-existing completely without conflict and with complete understanding of “goodness”, toiling for the greatest good of all other men in a true utilitarian society.

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