Every step and every movement of the multitude,

even in what are termed enlightened ages,

are made in equal blindness of the future, and

nations stumble upon establishments, which are

indeed the result of human action,

but not the execution of human design.

—Adam Ferguson (1767)

“Is politics as self-contained as Machiavelli assumes? Has the nature of power changed with the slow expansion of commerce and contract?”

For historians of political thought, the year 2013 was the 500th anniversary of the writing of The Prince by Niccolò Machiavelli. It was an occasion to fight it out with the great Florentine. I still have not got over the shock of reading The Prince as a student in Franco’s Spain. The idealistic young man that I was did not know how to counter Machiavelli’s implacable logic. True, times had changed and the crimes of a Borgia were not countenanced. But what if the spirit of politics, even democratic politics, was as Machiavelli had described? Was there nothing else to be said about competition for power but that it was the kind of savage game he described? When democracy was restored in Spain I was elected to Parliament as a lonely libertarian in a conservative ticket. I was not cut out for the job and did not stay long. Does this mean that I had not understood and digested the lessons of The Prince?

I. An eventful life and a complex personality

Niccolò Machiavelli was born in Florence on May 3, 1469, in a family of the lower nobility and modest means. His father Bernard Machiavelli was a natural son, a condition which weighed on our author’s political career. Little is known about Niccolò’s education and early life in Republican Florence, except that he became a distinguished civil servant when he was thirty. His means were always modest: his salary while employed at the Signoria and a house and some land in the village of Sant’ Andrea di Percussina in the borough of San Cassiano.

The situation of relative isolation of the affairs of central Italy changed in 1494, when the King Charles III of France came over the Alps with his army to claim the Kingdom of Naples for himself. The Medici were forced to leave Florence for a long exile of almost twenty years. In the wake of the French, the traditional allies of democratic Florence, the Republic was restored. For a period the acetic priest Savonarola lorded over the populace. He ended by being burnt at the stake. The institutions of the Republic were thus restored in 1498 and Machiavelli, at the age of 29, was made the head of the Second Chancellery of the Signoria, in charge of military and foreign affairs. It is not known why he was offered such a high post. This was the beginning of a distinguished diplomatic and military career.

In 1500 he took part in the first of his many missions to the court of the King of France. He met Cesare Borgia in 1502, again as part of the mission the Signoria sent to deflect the ambitions of the Duke of Valentinois or “il Valentino”, as he was generally called, from carving a dukedom for himself in Romagna at the expense of Florence among other cities. It is when following Valentino that Machiavelli came to distinguish two factors in attaining and maintaining supreme power in a new kingdom: Fortuna and Virtù—on the one hand luck and on the other what the Romans called virtus, courage, decisiveness, ambition, and ruthlessness. Machiavelli’s admiration for the Duke was born during those negotiations—an admiration that grew when he witnessed how ruthless he was towards his enemies and how attentive to the needs of the cities he acquired. Thus, his lieutenant in Romagna, Ramiro de Lorca had proved himself efficient but cruel. To distance himself from such an unpopular strongman he had him beheaded and left in the public square of Cesena, carved like an ox. Machiavelli also recounted Cesare’s revenge at Sinigallia with admiration, in a piece of 1503 he had titled “Description of the way that Duke Valentino killed Vitellozzo Vitelli, Oliverotto da Fermo, Paolo Orsisni and the Duke of Gravina-Orsini” the gist of which he inserted in The Prince. Borgia attracted the four plotters to the castle of Senigallia under false pretenses and had them strangled. Machiavelli in The Prince drew the moral of this story with the following words: “And because this part is worthy of notice and of being imitated by others, I do not want to pass it over” (The Prince, Chapter VII). What he was implying is that, in relations among states and princes force was decisive, in contrast with private life.

In that very year of 1503 Cesare’s father, Pope Alexander VI, died. Borgia later told Machiavelli that he had worked out in detail what to do if this happened before he had consolidated his conquests: he had a remedy for everything, “except that he never thought that, on top of his [father’s] death, he himself would also be a death’s door”. Machiavelli adds that, apart from the misfortune of his illness, his mistake was not to oppose the election of Julius II to the Papal See. Machiavelli added in The Prince that, finding nothing else amiss in his deeds, he “proposes him […] as a model to be imitated by all those who by chance have been raised to political dominion”.

Later missions of Machiavelli in an increasingly senior role led him to visit France again and to sound the intentions of the indecisive German Emperor Maximillian and to negotiate with the irascible Pope Julius II. In 1508 he took part in the submission of rebellious Pisa by force of arms. In between missions he was intent on creating and funding a citizen army for Florence, along the lines of the Roman legions. He did not trust mercenary forces led by condottieri that were the fashion at the time. These ideas he would later expound in his 1521 book La Arte della Guerra, or The Art of War. However, the troops he raised and organized proved to be useless in the defense of the town of Prato, overrun and sacked by the Spanish troops under the command of Viceroy Raimundo de Cardona. This rout marked the end of the free Florentine Republic whose servant he was and the Medici returned to take their place in the city.

Machiavelli was immediately dismissed from the Signoria and confined to his village, except for being called in to have the accounts of his citizen army closely scrutinized: he was found exact and honest. He had restarted writing his Discourses on Livy when a thunderbolt struck: his name was found on a list in possession of a young hothead intent on killing Giuliano de Medici. Locked up in the Bargello, the horrendous Florentine jail, he was interrogated under torture,1 but escaped execution by refusing to confess. He was lucky that, on the death of Julius II, Leon X, a Medici Pope, was elected and there was a general pardon. His services to the state ended there though, with the exception of a few minimal missions and the commission of Istorie fiorentine, a history of Florence. In the last year of his life, democracy returned to Florence and Machiavelli joined in organizing the participation of his city in the Holy Alliance against the Spanish. The Alliance was unable to stop the Landsknechte and Tercios of Emperor Charles V, which famously went on to sack Rome in 1527.

Let me return to 1513. When he was released from the Bargello in March, he set aside the Discourses on Livy and started writing The Prince. By December the work was finished. In a letter of December 13 to his friend Francesco Vettori, the Florentine Orator or Ambassador to Leo X, he wrote that he had finished “uno opuscolo de Principatibus” , an opuscule on principalities. The question remains of when and why he wrote chapter XXVI, the eloquent, passionate call to some young scion of the Medici family to free Italy from the barbarians who had invaded it, and composed the dedication of the work to the young man who was to rule Florence as Lorenzo II Medici. Was this simply self-serving? Of course he wanted to be back in public service. And we know from his letters to Francesco Vettori that he had toyed with the idea of a dedication Lorenzo’s uncle Giuliano, the effective ruler of Florence for a short period after the fall of the Republic. But Giuliano, busy and surrounded by courtiers as he was, might not give his pamphlet full attention. In the end the dedication went to Lorenzo, who had just been made captain general of Florence. When one reads the dedication together with chapter XXVI, the patriotic passion in both texts justifies their insertion on their own merits. Machiavelli did want some great man to redeem Italy.

He bore his forcible retirement in Sant’ Andrea di Percussina for nearly fifteen years with some bitterness but, we are sure, with the famous sardonic Machiavelli smile. In those years he wrote The Prince and the Discorsi, published La arte della Guerra (1521), looked after his family, managed his house and land and loved the beautiful women who crossed his path. On December 10, 1513 he wrote a dignified letter to Vettori where he describes one day of life he lives. Early in the morning he catches some thrushes with bird-lime. Then he oversees the cut of some wood to sell for he fears he is being cheated. Later he sits himself by a fountain and takes to reading some book by Dante, Petrarch, Ovid or some minor poet: “I read their passions of love, and those loves remind me of mine, and I enjoy myself with these thoughts.” He then repairs to Sant’ Andrea to chat with passers-by and hear their stories and complaints, as he had done with the wood-cutters in the morning. After a Spartan meal with his “brigade”, as he calls his family, he goes to the village tavern for a noisy game of cards.

When evening comes, I go back home, and go to my study. On the threshold, I take off my work clothes, covered in mud and filth, and I put on my royal and courtly dress. Thus decently attired, I enter the ancient courts of rulers who have long since died. There, I am warmly welcomed, and I feed on the only food I find nourishing and was born to savor. I am not ashamed to talk to them and ask them to explain their actions and they, out of kindness, answer me. Four hours go by without my feeling any anxiety. I forget every worry. I am no longer afraid of poverty or frightened of death. I live entirely through them. (Inglese,1989, letter 19)

II. Machiavellian politics

Though the Discorsi and The Prince should be read together I will mainly pay attention to the latter and more celebrated work.

The effective truth of the matter

“It seems to me more convenient to go straight to the effective truth of the matter than to the imagination of it”, says Machiavelli at the start of chapter XV of The Prince. He proceeds: “How one lives is so far away from how one should live, that he who forgoes what is done for what should be done learns rather his ruin than his preservation.” In The Prince Machiavelli wants to discover the kind of behavior necessary to keep and govern a new principality, that is to say, one where the lord cannot rely on the peaceful enjoyment of a tradition. That kind of behavior can be very distant from what is demanded by ordinary morality.

In an interesting passage of his correspondence with Vettori he had rejected the efforts of his friend to interpret reality with the help of the great classical philosophers. His friend had used Aristotle’s Politics to deny the capacity of federated republics like Switzerland to expand their territory, despite the present lording of the Swiss over Milan. That is as may be, replied Machiavelli. He did not know what Aristotle had to say about the subject but he remembered that the Etruscans were a federation and governed the whole of northern Italy in their time. He was only interested in “what could reasonably come to be, in what is and has been”. (Viroli, page 141)

Back to The Prince. In chapter XVII, one of the most notorious, he asks himself whether it is better for a new prince to be cruel or merciful. If he has to choose one or the other, he concludes, “it is much safer to be feared rather than loved”. Men “are ungrateful, simulate and dissemble, run away from danger and are greedy for profit”. He adds a phrase that still echoes under the vaults of political philosophy: “men forget more easily the death of a father than the loss of their patrimony”, he argues when recommending that the prince should take the possessions of his subjects quickly and in one swoop.

The object of political action is the increase of territory and the enjoyment of power. It is “very natural and ordinary to want to acquire”. A republican constitution with its liberties is desirable but runs the danger of invasion by outside barbarians. The only way to stay independent is strong political and military power.

The dangers for a new prince come from two sources: outside enemies and inside disorder. He quotes from Virgil’s Aeneas:

Res dura , et regni novitas me talia cogunt

moliri, et late fines custode tueri.

“Hard necessity and the novelty of the kingdom compel me to use these ways, and to defend its borders with ample guard”. The new prince must be ready to wage war against his neighbors and should “not mind the ill repute of cruelty, as long as he keeps his subjects united and loyal”.

Still there are limits, such as those he studies in chapter VIII, “Of Principalities Acquired by Crimes”. Lowly Agathocles, who became the undisputed King of Sicily amply exceeded his limits. Agathocles, relates Machiavelli, one day summoned the people of Syracuse to the agora and had all the senators and well-to-do of Syracuse put to the sword. He thus “held the principality without any civil controversy”. However, concedes Machiavelli, “one cannot call virtù to kill ones citizens, betray ones friends, have no faith, mercy nor religion”. He adds that this kind of behavior can “make one acquire an empire, but not glory”. (chapter VIII)

In chapter XVIII he discourses on what should be the qualities of a prince. Everyone understands that it is “praiseworthy for a prince to keep faith, to live with integrity and not cunningly”. But “in our time, the princes who have done great things have not kept faith with their promises […] and in the end have overcome those who founded themselves on being loyal”. Nor should a prudent ruler “keep his faith, when keeping it turns against him, and the reasons that made him promise are spent”.

Does one see a soupçon of Machiavelli’s famous smile when he advances these thoughts, which in another would suggest cynicism? The chapter is titled “How should princes keep faith” and is full of examples of rulers who promised what they never kept but always found someone to inveigle—the supreme example in the art of deception being Pope Alexander VI. “A prince, then, does not need to have all these qualities, but it is very necessary that he should seem to have them.”

The more encompassing reflections of the Discorsi

The Discorsi, whose composition was interrupted by his arrest and then by the writing of De principatibus, is a work of wider scope. It considers the general principles sustaining states of all forms, not only new principalities: city states, popular republics, monarchies old and new. When both works are read together the scandalous nature of the reflections on new principalities is somewhat diluted. What is confirmed is Machiavelli’s conception of politics as an autonomous field, subject in its functioning to its own natural laws, where morality and ethics confuse rather than clarify the principles of action.

In the Discorsi Machiavelli asks himself what it means “to govern well”; how one establishes a free state and orders it over the years; what is the best military organization of a republic, a principality or a monarchy; what are the ethical and republican virtues that maintain a free constitution; or what it means for the citizen to love his country. Machiavelli’s is a scientific and empirical research rather than a study in political ethics.

He does bring in experiences from many lands and past and present times: Mesopotamia, Ancient Greece, Macedonia, Carthage, Persia, and the Italian Republics of his time and experience. However, his main laboratory is the history of the Roman Republic and Empire. Curiously enough, nobody then and even today seems to have noticed that it was only the Latin Empire that disappeared in the fifth century A.D. This narrow vision may explain the shock across Europe when Constantinople fell to the Ottomans in 1458, as if that state had totally slipped from the memory of the West. That year also marked the beginning of the end of Venice as a trading Republic and its transformation into a mainly Italian power, which Machiavelli should have noticed. But this is not the place to find fault with the scope of Machiavelli’s historical and political analysis. My object is different. I want to ask two rather more important questions: is politics as self-contained as Machiavelli assumes? Has the nature of power changed with the slow expansion of commerce and contract?

“Fortuna” foretells of the unexpected consequences of political action

At this point one may ask whether there is some element in Machiavelli’s conceptions that could be taken to allude to all those conditions and restrictions falling outside the control of the ambitious—the social developments alluded to by Ferguson in the quote at the frontispiece of this essay. I think there is: for him political success for new princes depended not only on virtù but on fortuna also and in equal proportions.

Commentaries of the role of fortuna in Machiavelli’s thought could fill a volume. It means more than luck. Fortuna is not simply the rag-bag of all those random elements that can undo the best plans or crown the less prepared intrigue. It includes the misreading of circumstances by an unhappy prince, as was the case for Cesare Borgia. Some princes were able to sail into contrary winds, which was the case for Ferdinand the Catholic of Spain, so admired by Machiavelli. It also includes how well the fundamental character of a ruler fitted with each circumstance.

The locus classicus on this question is chapter XXV, titled “quantum fortuna in rebus humanis posit“, how much fortune can do in human affairs. His explanation of success or failure is more complex than simply summing under fortuna all the random elements of a situation or even saying that “human affairs are governed by luck and God” and personal will had little to do with our fate. In troubled times, as those when he writes, it almost seems that the will of individuals counts for nothing, even he has been tempted to think so. He uses a telling metaphor. It is as with one of those untamed rivers that flood lands, fell trees, topple houses, and there is no other remedy but fleeing them. But in quieter times, people can repair banks, dig channels and otherwise tame the future force of the waters. So it is with fortune: one can prepare for calamitous times, rather than simply leaving the land open to flooding. So it is with Italy, a land without river-banks and dykes: other would her fate be if she was “repaired with convenient virtue, as are Magna [Graecia], Spain and France.”

The mix of fortuna and virtù is not simply half and half. Some characters are more suited to different circumstances. Princes cannot really change the character they were born with. To triumph it is important to “proceed with the quality of the times”. Some man reacts to circumstances “with caution, another with impetuosity; one with violence, another with art; some with patience, […] some with design.” He gives the example of violent Pope Julius II, who took Bologna with sheer audacity, while the differing interests of Venetians, Spanish and French stopped them from intervening. In the end, then, Machiavelli “thinks it is better to be impetuous than cautious, because Fortune is a woman; so that, when wanting to vanquish her, it is necessary to beat her and hurt her.”

True, the concept of fortuna is not analytical enough to structure the unwilled consequences of human action. Napoleon was an avid reader of The Prince but despite his cunning and his violence he did not build the Europe he wanted. What is it that made Mussolini and Hitler fail, at huge cost for their nations and the world? Was Stalin successful in building a Soviet empire? Mao Dse Dong unified China but he wasted the suffering he imposed on his people if what he wanted was a proletarian revolution. It is not merely lack of fortuna that explains these unexpected outcomes.

The Iron Law of Politics

When reading The Prince many of us feel that Machiavelli overlooked an essential part of reality, he who was such a realist. He saw politics as governed by an internal iron law that conferred success on he who lied, cheated, used force on his enemies, and cowed his people cruelly hoping they would appreciate the order he imposed on society.

For more on these topics, see Game Theory, by Avinash Dixit and Barry Nalebuff, and Rent Seeking, by David R. Henderson in the Concise Encyclopedia of Economics.

He discounted, or was blind to, the importance of respect for property, of honored contracts and of mutually beneficial exchange. This is still the case today with students and practitioners of international relations, who see agricultural, industrial and financial activity merely as instruments of state power. The cowardly, greedy, overbearing humans described by Machiavelli are not incapable of rational foresight and of pursuing their own interest in unplanned harmony with those of others. “It is not from the benevolence of the butcher, the brewer or the baker that we expect our dinner but from their regard to their own interest”, noted Adam Smith.2 And this space for “positive sum games”, as we economists call them, is getting larger and wider by the day.

In sum, Machiavelli’s method is suited to studying some aspects of politics as an autonomous activity governed by its own logic but it is an incomplete method.

III. Leaving the state of nature

Machiavelli was certainly not the only philosopher to think that the world of politics was governed by an iron law. Thomas Hobbes is the first one that jumps to mind.

The state of nature in Leviathan and The Prince

Hobbes started from an even more exclusively materialist conception of human nature to defend absolute power as a condition for a well-functioning Commonwealth (Leviathan, 1651). The concept of “the state of nature” of humanity in Hobbes is not very different from Machiavelli’s implicit starting point when speaking of the political world. For Hobbes, men have very similar physical and mental capacities. They are moved by the passion for “power, worth, dignity, honour and worthiness” (Leviathan, I.10). With such human material, the war of all against all is served. In the state of nature “men live without other security than what their own strength, and their own invention shall furnish them withal”.

In such condition, there is no place for Industry; because the fruit thereof is uncertain; and consequently no culture of the Earth; no Navigation, nor use of the commodities that may be imported by Sea; no commodious Building; no Instruments of moving, and removing such things as require much force; no Knowledge of the face of the Earth; no account of Time; no Arts; no Letters; and which is the worst of all, continuall feare, and danger of violent death; And the life of man, solitary, poore, nasty, brutish, and short. (I.13)

Again, these words like some of Machiavelli’s have echoed warningly in the halls of political philosophy ever since they were written.

For the Florentine “the state of nature” or “the warre of all against all”, to use two Hobbesian expressions, was as between princes and states: the private life of the people flourished when there was peace, and private life was subject to and governed by ordinary morality. The biography of Machiavelli presents us with a better kind of man than his satanic legend. As a person he was not Machiavellian. At the time it was generally accepted that men had trysts outside marriage; but apart from that, he was an attentive husband, a loving father, an honest public administrator, and a great servant of the state. For him, the three spheres of life were governed by different rules: family and friends by love and attention; public service, by professionalism and faithfulness; but politics by the desire for preeminence and the need for survival. Only in politics was there need for leaving ethics aside.3

The escape route proposed by Hobbes was more completely detailed than in The Prince and the Discorsi. In Leviathan he proposed a social contract.

The only way to erect such a Common Power, as may be able to defend them from the invasion of Forraigners, and the injuries of one another, and thereby to secure them in such sort, as that by their own industrie, and by the fruits of the Earth, they may nourish themselves and live contentedly; is to confer all their power and strength upon one Man, or upon one Assembly of men, that may reduce all their Wills, by plurality of voices, unto one Will. (Leviathan, II.17)

Both The Prince and Leviathan are incomplete in two dimensions. On the one hand, the idea is missing that the part of social life that follows the paths of free agreements in mutual benefit is much larger than the realm of politics, something that is missed by many Machiavellians today who can only see economic and social life in terms of struggle for power, instead of spontaneous cooperation by free competition. On the other hand, the analysis is also missing the slow learning and diffusion in large parts of the world of freer institutional arrangements with a lesser degree of sovereign interference. Liberal democracy and globalization may seem fragile but they still seem to be forging ahead.

We have not progressed much compared with Renaissance Italy in what concerns international relations, which are still very Hobbesian. Internal political life in the more civilized countries has been tamed in its methods though not in the spirit in which they are carried on. However, economic activities and exchanges are extending their sphere of action and helping individuals to be freer. States and governments still interfere but communication technologies and economic globalization multiply escape routes.

Trades in the state of nature according to Buchanan

Even in a state of nature, “during the time when men live without a common Power to keep them all in awe” and therefore are “in that condition which is called Warre” (Leviathan, I.13), a spontaneous equilibrium could appear. It is not an optimum equilibrium but it can be stable and open to contracts, agreements, and individual exchanges. I am saying two things here: one, that hostile competition has a natural limit; and two, that there are spontaneous avenues out of the state of war of all against all. If this were not so, how could we have made such relative progress as we call civilization? The problem is not to explain tribal poverty but the “Wealth of Nations”.

James Buchanan published a seminal study in 1975, titled The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan4, where he studied the operation of a state of nature as a theoretical model. He reasoned that there is a moment when the disorder of anarchy touches bottom, so to speak. In the Hobbesian natural state there appears an equilibrium distribution of resources. Each individual or family only stretches its aggressive resources to the point that what they obtain at the margin with those efforts equals the marginal cost of securing and defending shares. This initial state looks like Hobbes’s natural state, but a way out appears which is different from a grand social contract to appoint an absolute ruler: the agreement to trade, barter and exchange Adam Smith spoke of. There will often be repeated trades that are enforced without a central authority. (Buchanan, The Limits if Liberty, chapter 2). It is enough that the cheated party plays “tit-for-tat”, by answering in kind until the other party mends his ways.

Possible ways out of the state of nature

Such an escape from Hobbesian equilibrium will be helped by the emergence of the institution of private property, whereby the limits between “mine and thine” are traced and areas of friction reduced. All parties to the recognition of such demarcation profit from the reduction in the use of resources for defense and aggression. Subsequently agreements take place in two steps: one is the initial demarcation of rights, which may be unequal according to the relative strength and ability of the parties—really a sort of constitutional arrangement; the other is trades and exchanges in specific goods acquired according to the rules originally defined. Measures to curb shirkers and free-riders may appear spontaneously or be agreed at the constitutional level.

This kind of development is the one described by Adam Ferguson. That is the way to explain why and how the great majority of us human beings has emerged from the Hobbesian war of all against all. We individuals are in a large measure autonomous and sufficiently rational to come to favorable agreements. Over time, individuals determine the evolution of the rules of society. This evolution is mostly immanent and the result of individual decisions. Democracy can slowly be learnt through the hard lessons of reality. In some parts of the world people know that to fight inflation with price controls is an added source of conflict. In other parts experience has shown that the nationalization of services, such as health or education, wastes resources and worsens quality; and also that political intervention in labor markets reduces productivity and increases natural unemployment. And so on.5 In Latin America people may someday begin to compare the results attained by the Bolivarian ALBA block, led by Cuba and Venezuela, and those enjoyed by the countries in FTAA, the Free Trade Area of the Americas. In Europe we have seen the Swiss in two referenda of 2010 reject increased taxes on the income and assets of the wealthiest, as well as the extension of paid holidays to six weeks.

IV. Conclusion

The search for “the effective truth of the matter” can often confuse. It is true, as Machiavelli saw, that political competition has an element of oppression typical of zero or even negative sum games. It confers on it an essential cruelty that is quite the opposite of the cooperation brought by economic competition. But democratic civilization precisely consists of taming and limiting power. Only the future will tell whether the widening of commercial exchanges will at least in part take some of the weight of sovereignty from our shoulders.

My thesis is that Machiavelli can be shocking or even sound cynical in many of his pronouncements because he cuts off the field of politics from the rest of social life and presents it as governed by what I have called “the Iron Law of Politics”. There are other social regularities and they soften or counteract the cruel realities of politics. They are bringing prosperity and civilization to an increasing number of people. Machiavelli could not see them for lack of the requisite analytical instruments, which were invented in the latter part of the 18th century.

Calls for Hobbesian centralization may be the worst solution when there is conflict and disagreement. The instinct of politicians and administrators is often to increase regulation and extend prohibition in their own interest. This is what we see in the reactions to the recent financial crisis with calls of the European officials and national politicians for a united or federal Europe.6 The idea of reducing the size of government and widening the scope of the free economy is something few of them consider.

However, one should not be over-confident about the future taming of politics by spontaneous social action. Governments, trade unions, crony capitalists, and rent-seekers in general do not tire in their efforts to engross what others produce. True, the methods of politics in the civilized world are not those of Sinigallia but the spirit of politics is still the same. In The Road to Serfdom (1944) Friedrich Hayek wondered “Why the worst get on top”. The only way to soften the iron law of politics is to reduce the field in which it obtains, through economic competition and globalization. In a way, The Prince is as useful a warning as Hayek’s war-book for those who, whenever a crisis befalls, think of no other remedy but increasing the control of governments over economic and social life.

Short bibliography

There is no end to what has been written on Machiavelli and The Prince. The following list is of sources used or mentioned in the column.

Buchanan, James M. (1975, 2000): The Limits of Liberty. Between Anarchy and Leviathan. The Collected Works of James M. Buchanan, vol. 7. Liberty Fund.

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1521): Libro della arte della guerra di Niccolò Machiavelli, cittadino e segretario fiorentino. Firenze.

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1531, 1984): Il Principe e Discorsi sopra la prima deca di Tito Livio. Introduzione di Giuliano Procacci e a cura di Sergio Bertelli. Feltrinelli, Milano.

Machiavelli, Niccolò (1989): Lettere a Francesco Vettori e a Francesco Guicciardini. Edizione a cura di Giogio Inglese. Rizzoli, Milano.

Ferrara, Orestes (n.d.): Maquiavelo. La vida, las obras, la fama. La nave, Madrid.

Hayek, Friedrich A. (1944, 1976): The Road to Serfdom. With a foreword by the author. University of Chicago Press.

Hobbes, Thomas (1651, 1968): Leviathan, or the Matter, Forme, & Power of a Common-Wealth Ecclesiastical and Civill. With an Introduction by C.B. Macpherson. Pelican Classics.

Viroli, Maurizio (1998, 2004): Il sorriso di Niccolò. Storia di Machiavelli, Laterza, Bari e Roma. La sonrisa de Maquiavelo. Prólogo de Benigno Pendás. Ediciones ABC S.L. Also in English: Niccolo’s Smile. Farrar Straus and Giroux, New York.


Machiavelli was submitted to “strappato” or Stretching, a method of interrogation that consisted in tying the suspect’s hands with a rope behind his back, pulling the rope through a pulley fixed to the ceiling, and letting the man fall short of the floor. Machiavelli resisted six disjointing falls.

This was also the case for Hobbes, in all that the Sovereign deigned not to interfere with. “The Liberty of a Subject, lyeth therefore only in those things, which in regulating their actions, the Sovereign hath praetermitted: such as the Liberty to buy, and sell, and otherwise contract with one another; to choose their own aboad, their own diet, their own trade of life, and institute their children as they themselves think fit; &the like.” (II.21)

Available online at: The Limits of Liberty: Between Anarchy and Leviathan, by James M. Buchanan. Library of Economist and Liberty.

Of course the record is mixed, so to speak. A Swiss referendum of November 2013 has set a limit to bankers’ bonuses and golden parachutes. In that same referendum a proposal to limit the difference between the best and the worst paid in corporations to 12:1 was rejected by 62.5% of the votes.

In a previous piece, I lay out my case for the causes of the financial crisis. See “The Paradox of Money.” January 6, 2014, Library of Economics and Liberty.


*This column is a revised version of a lecture I gave on “Machiavelli and The Prince” at the Spanish Royal Academy of Political and Moral Sciences on November 18, 2013.

Pedro Schwartz Pedro Schwartz is “Rafael del Pino” Research Professor of at San Pablo University in Madrid where he directs the Center for Political Economy and Regulation. A member of the Royal Academy of Moral and Political Sciences in Madrid, he is a frequent contributor to the European media on the current financial and social scene.

For more articles by Pedro Schwartz, see the Archive.