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Tags: leader | advice

Machiavelli's Take on Advisers Still True for Today's Leaders

statue of niccolo machiavelli

Statue of Niccolo Machiavelli, outside the Ufizzi gallery, Florence, Italy. (Dreamstime)

Paul F. deLespinasse By Tuesday, 22 September 2020 10:19 AM EDT Current | Bio | Archive

Political philosopher Niccolo Machiavelli (1469-1527) warned that "a prince who is without any wisdom himself cannot be well advised." We no longer call most rulers princes, but his warning still holds true for today's top political leaders, no matter what we call them — dictators, prime ministers or presidents.

Machiavelli's point is especially relevant during the current COVID-19 pandemic.

Leaders need advisers. Government's decisions can produce important consequences in many different aspects of today's complicated world. No one leader can know enough to predict all of them.

Anybody who thinks that he or she knows everything is a fool. As Socrates told his students, "the awareness of ignorance is the beginning of wisdom."

Leaders are only human, and as Will Rogers famously said, we are all ignorant, just on different subjects. Rulers who "shoot from the hip" without considering the consequences will hit unintended targets, undermining and quite possibly destroying their effectiveness.

As Machiavelli also noted, many people want to give the top leader advice, often trying to inspire decisions benefiting themselves. A leader would go crazy trying to examine their motives and sort out all of the conflicting ideas which come in unsolicited. So leaders need to pick a few official advisers and listen mainly to them.

But a leader who just picks advisers known to agree with his or her preconceptions might as well not bother. Advisers who suck up to the leader will be useless except as spin-doctors justifying decisions over which they had no influence.

Experts, too, are ignorant about many things outside their own specialties. Their advice is useful only in arenas in which they are competent. They will inevitably give conflicting advice, based on their own specialized perspectives. An effective leader must decide what to do, taking all advice into consideration but not allowing any of it to dictate the decisions.

It is well understood in Washington, D.C., that experts should be "on tap, not on top." Policy choices always require tradeoffs between conflicting governmental objectives, and it is not for experts on only some of the consequences of a proposed policy to decide what the policy should be. The ultimate compromises between conflicting considerations need to be made by a responsible (hopefully) political leader or leaders to whom as many as possible of the important consequences have been spelled out.

President Trump is not an ideal leader, by Machiavelli's standard. He has far too much confidence in his own opinions and frequently denounces experts who disagree with him as fools. But he has correctly pointed out that public health is only one of government's many legitimate goals and that the public's economic well-being is another one. Fully achieving either goal would seriously undermine the other one. So the leadership problem posed by COVID-19 is determining how much weight to place on these conflicting goals.

Problems can arise, though, when a leader makes such decisions on the basis, not of getting compromises that best serve the general interest, but of getting the most personal political advantage. Such decisions are especially suspect when made during the last stages of a campaign for re-election.

Before an election it is tempting to prefer a decision which produces short-run public benefits (like more jobs) even if its longer run results are disastrous — perhaps an epidemic that gets out of control, but only after the election.

Ideally, we would elect leaders who are willing to subordinate their own political interests to the general interest and do what is best for the general public even if it means they will lose an election.

There are worse things than losing an election. But that might be hard to understand by leaders who consider themselves such geniuses that the country cannot afford to lose their services.

Paul F. deLespinasse is Professor Emeritus of Political Science and Computer Science at Adrian College. He received his Ph.D. from Johns Hopkins University in 1966, and has been a National Merit Scholar, an NDEA Fellow, a Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and a Fellow in Law and Political Science at the Harvard Law School. His college textbook, "Thinking About Politics: American Government in Associational Perspective," was published in 1981 and his most recent book is "Beyond Capitalism: A Classless Society With (Mostly) Free Markets." His columns have appeared in newspapers in Michigan oregon, and a number of other states. Read Prof. Paul F. deLespinasse's Reports — More Here.

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Machiavelli's point is especially relevant during the current COVID-19 pandemic.
leader, advice
Tuesday, 22 September 2020 10:19 AM
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