KoMoL Book 1, Chapter 19
Chapter 19’s précis is:
After a strong Prince a weak Prince may maintain himself: but after one weak Prince no Kingdom can stand a second.
The Importance of Leadership
When I was younger, I assumed that the body of an organization was more relevant to its performance than its leadership. Consider a football team; the players generally outnumber the leadership quite substantially. I assumed that by and large, a given body of an organization would perform roughly the same regardless of its leadership.
Now I know better. Leaders are very important. Today I would say a simple model that is closer to the truth is that the body of an organization defines the upper limit of that organization’s performance, but its leadership determines how much of that potential will be tapped. Or to put it another way, on a moment-by-moment basis the performance of an organization will be the minimum of the skills of its leadership and the ability of its members.
It would be fair to say I understand this now… but at the same time I still struggle to understand it more deeply. Some of this effect I think is easy to understand, simply by looking at the flow of communication, the willingness of bits of the organization to follow the organization’s goals rather than their own, and other such things. The structure of how communication flows within an organization and how that interacts with our limited human ability to process information is a rich study, but not particularly mysterious once you take the initial step of simply understanding that there is a study to be made in the first place. (So often that is the hardest step to take!)
My profession by nature takes me naturally into systems engineering. Systems engineering provides a toolkit for understanding many systems in the large. The tools can easily be turned back on understanding a human organization as well from the perspective of a machine of data flow and individual components making decisions. Humans are of course more complicated than machines but the tools can still be useful.
However… I still find that even after accounting for that there is a residual level of difficulty in fighting bad leadership that is difficult to explain. How is it that you can see situations where every subordinate of a given leader believes they are performing poorly, every subordinate knows every other subordinate believes this, and the subordinates have adequate communication with each other, and there is no apparent force above the bad leader keeping them in place (e.g., the board of a corporation), yet the leadership remains? Leadership, and especially bad leadership, has more inertia to it than my mental model of the system can explain. Even in organizations as small as a church board of elders, just about the smallest organization one can imagine that is still an organization, it can be difficult to dislodge even a single person who is visibly failing at their duties and harming the church.
My current conclusion is that there is a spiritual component to leadership as well. In the Bible, God both tells us that human governments are constituted according to His will on some level, and treats tribes and countries as meaningful units, not simply as coincidental conglomerations of individuals. This seems to extend into much smaller organizations as well. If this is the case, then the gap in my analysis of the difficulty of dislodging leadership can be seen as the additional difficulty of spirtually dislodging a leader.
(This also suggests as a practical matter that what organizations you associate with is something you should consider carefully. God may take your membership or support of an evil organization more seriously than you do.)
This is a “God of the gaps”-style argument, in that I’m seeing a hole and filling it in by process of elimination with a spiritual element. It may not be wrong but it is a weak argument. I continue to struggle with more deeply understanding the difference between my mental model of leadership and the observed characteristics it has.
Reconnecting this musing with Machiavelli, I firmly agree that leadership is a big deal for a country and can be highly determinative of its trajectory. The balance between the Great Leader theory versus the Forces of History theory of history is complicated and I don’t know exactly where the truth lies, but I would agree completely that the Great Leader aspect of history is important.
Using Capital to Model a System
Any attempt for a human mind to grasp any non-trivial system involves simplifications. A useful one is to model a system as having some amount of capital in it; you’ve probably heard of “political capital” before, and there are also things like the accounting concept of goodwill in which abstract concepts like the reputation of a company and how loyal its customers are has monetary value assigned to it. You can use this to model a sort of health of an organization.
One of the attributes of money is that it is fungible; all dollars are the same. So a given account of monetary capital can be characterized by one number, on a single dimension. Using the capital concept involves forcing a single dimension on an inevitably more complicated system, but that is also the advantage.
Disney is a current example: It is clearly in decline across the board. One can accurately model that as them converting their social capital built up across decades into monetary withdrawals without replenishing the social capital. But the process has not actually been one dimensional; if you look, you can see that the collapse of Star Wars has been separated from the collapse of Marvel, which is different from their park revenue collapse, which is not necessarily the same as their Disney+ collapse. Collapsing that to a single-dimensional number throws away nuance, but also provides a valuable high-level summary of the process. There is truth both in the complicated analysis and the simplified social capital model.
To rephrase Machiavelli’s observations into this model, no polity can accrue enough capital of the various types to survive two spendthrifts or wastrels in a row.
I would also observe that he does not claim these two categories are exhaustive. Most princes throughout history would be neither weak nor strong, but instead somewhere in the middle, putting roughly the amount of capital back that they withdraw. I infer that he specifically means that two weak princes can’t be survived by virtue of the fact that history is replete with polities that have a strong leader and then survive a long series of leaders who may not be strong, but are not weak either.
Rephrasing Machiavelli’s observation in these terms makes it easy to discuss the difference in scales that comes up again. (Reading ahead in the next few chapters it looks like this is the last you’ll hear of me on this for at least a while.) In Machivelli’s time this may well be accurate. It is hard to believe two wastrels could be survived, much less three.
But as Adam Smith said a couple of centuries after Machiavelli, “There is a great deal of ruin in a nation.” Or in capital terms, it is possible for a larger modern-day polity to build up enough capital to potentially survive a much longer succession of spendthrifts and wastrels. The United States does not have a single “prince”, being far larger than anything Machiavelli had any experience with, but if in the last 60+ years we’ve had the occasional President who may not have been a complete loss, we have continuously had a Congress the entire time that was. Spendthrifts and wastrels have been eating away at the capital the United States has accrued my entire life, plus a couple of decades, and it is still shambling along.
I am reminded of people who today poo-poo the bears who say the economy is in bad shape and getting worse, by believing that the only relevant touchstone of the health of the economy is the performance of the stock market. It is true that the big and flashy prediction of the bears is that the stock market may very well tank at some point, but the scoffers cognitively collapse that into simply a prediction that the stock market will have a big crash. If the stock market has not yet crashed, then the bears must be entirely and 100% wrong about the health of the economy and everything therefore must be fine, and the louder and longer the bears raise the alarm without the stock market collapse the more crazy and insane the bears must be.
If you turn the discussion of the sickness of the economy into something richer than the binary question of “are we visibly in a stock market collapse” into an examination of a broad swathe of economy indicators, checked against history, cross-checked against each other, I would say that other than the specific prediction of exactly when the stock market is going to crash, their predictions have been substantially borne out.
But the collapse of the stock market is much closer to the end game than the beginning of the process. The scoffers will at some point be surprised when “for no reason at all” the system suddenly collapses. Those who were taking a more holistic view all along, even if they get the date wrong, were more right at any given point than the scoffers.
Similarly, I think people see the decay of the United States as a binary question of “Is the Federal Government nominally functioning or not?”, agains something closer to the end game than the beginning, and fail to consider the richer set of indicators available. Immigration is opened up, and the Federal Government does not immediately collapse, so there must be nothing wrong with it. God is pushed out the schools, and the Federal government does not immediately collapse, so it must not have had an effect. Homosexuality is pushed… abortion is pushed… politicians ever and always take the next step of corruption and selling out the American people… and collapse is not immediate.
In a larger world, with larger organizations, greater accumulated capital of various types, and more inertia in all these organizations, it is possible to net drain both literal capital and social capital for longer than “two prince”’s worth of time in the modern world. But Machiavelli is not wrong… he is merely not correct yet.
Discourses on Livy - Chapter 19
When we contemplate the excellent qualities of Romulus, Numa, and Tullus, the first three kings of Rome, and note the methods which they followed, we recognize the extreme good fortune of that city in having her first king fierce and warlike, her second peaceful and religious, and her third, like the first, of a high spirit and more disposed to war than to peace. For it was essential for Rome that almost at the outset of her career, a ruler should be found to lay the foundations of her civil life; but, after that had been done, it was necessary that her rulers should return to the virtues of Romulus, since otherwise the city must have grown feeble, and become a prey to her neighbours.
And here we may note that a prince who succeeds to another of superior valour, may reign on by virtue of his predecessor’s merits, and reap the fruits of his labours; but if he live to a great age, or if he be followed by another who is wanting in the qualities of the first, that then the kingdom must necessarily dwindle. Conversely, when two consecutive princes are of rare excellence, we commonly find them achieving results which win for them enduring renown. David, for example, not only surpassed in learning and judgment, but was so valiant in arms that, after conquering and subduing all his neighbours, he left to his young son Solomon a tranquil State, which the latter, though unskilled in the arts of war, could maintain by the arts of peace, and thus happily enjoy the inheritance of his father’s valour. But Solomon could not transmit this inheritance to his son Rehoboam, who neither resembling his grandfather in valour, nor his father in good fortune, with difficulty made good his right to a sixth part of the kingdom. In like manner Bajazet, sultan of the Turks, though a man of peace rather than of war, was able to enjoy the labours of Mahomet his father, who, like David, having subdued his neighbours, left his son a kingdom so safely established that it could easily be retained by him by peaceful arts. But had Selim, son to Bajazet, been like his father, and not like his grandfather, the Turkish monarchy must have been overthrown; as it is, he seems likely to outdo the fame of his grandsire.
I affirm it to be proved by these examples, that after a valiant prince a feeble prince may maintain himself; but that no kingdom can stand when two feeble princes follow in succession, unless, as in the case of France, it be supported by its ancient ordinances. By feeble princes, I mean such as are not valiant in war. And, to put the matter shortly, it may be said, that the great valour of Romulus left Numa a period of many years within which to govern Rome by peaceful arts; that after Numa came Tullus, who renewed by his courage the fame of Romulus; and that he in turn was succeeded by Ancus, a prince so gifted by nature that he could equally avail himself of the methods of peace or war; who setting himself at first to pursue the former, when he found that his neighbours judged him to be effeminate, and therefore held him in slight esteem, understood that to preserve Rome he must resort to arms and resemble Romulus rather than Numa. From whose example every ruler of a State may learn that a prince like Numa will hold or lose his power according as fortune and circumstances befriend him; but that the prince who resembles Romulus, and like him is fortified with foresight and arms, will hold his State whatever befall, unless deprived of it by some stubborn and irresistible force. For we may reckon with certainty that if Rome had not had for her third king one who knew how to restore her credit by deeds of valour, she could not, or at any rate not without great difficulty, have afterwards held her ground, nor could ever have achieved the great exploits she did.
And for these reasons Rome, while she lived under her kings, was in constant danger of destruction through a king who might be weak or bad.
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