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Machiavelli's Commercial Republic

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Abstract:

In his Florentine Histories Machiavelli describes the emergence and character of a new, distinctively modern form of tyranny. He first attributes the political turmoil characteristic of the Florentine republic to the arrogant unwillingness of the nobles to obey the laws and their repeated error in looking to foreign powers to defend the city rather than organizing and maintaining a defensive force composed of their own citizens. But he shows that the ability of the nobles to flout the law was reduced when the Florentines passed legislation prohibiting anyone from owning a castle within twenty miles of the city. A second and perhaps even more fundamental problem arose as a result of the change the Signori made in the way the highest magistrates were elected, however. By adopting a “mode” whereby the names of citizens eligible to hold the highest offices were put into bags and then drawn out by lot, the Signori instituted an apparently democratic change that enabled the party in power to make sure only its friends or partisans were drawn. The people were not able to elevate the most meritorious individuals or their own champions by means of elections. Since there were no public trials of individuals accused of attempting to overthrow the republic, the people had to resort to the streets. And their riots convinced the “popular nobles” who had initially been sympathetic to the desire of the people not to be oppressed that the people should be excluded from the government. The Medici thus formed a party that eliminated the opposition and granted virtually unlimited power to its unelected head.
The new form of tyranny that can arise in what is nominally a republic does not depend upon military might, as did Caesar’s rise in Rome. This new form of tyranny emerges only in the absence of an immediate external threat of conquest; and when such a threat emerges, such a tyranny will either collapse or fall prey to a conqueror—or, as in Florence, both. This tyranny is deceptive, because its leaders not merely promise to benefit the people, but actually do so by distributing various kinds of goods to them as private individuals. To most of its subjects, such a tyranny does not appear to be onerous, so they are not inclined to resist or rebel against it. In the Florentine Histories Machiavelli shows how the people can also be corrupted by appeals to their desires for security of their lives and property. The recipients of individual benefits a would-be tyrant grants them do not see, or if they do see, do not care that they are being deprived of their liberty. Once established, this form of “soft” tyranny is particularly difficult to uproot—except by means of a foreign invasion—because, as Machiavelli repeatedly shows, a corrupt people will not support those who seek to overthrow the tyranny and re-establish republican rule.
The republics Machiavelli saw (and that we continue to see in the modern world) tend to be based on commerce rather than primarily on military might. They do not have to fear the rise of a virtuous young general, such as Caesar in Rome, and the imposition of a tyranny by force, so much as the emergence of a seemingly beneficent figure like Cosimo de’ Medici who acquires power by means of his many partisans. In the Florentine Histories Machiavelli suggests that their legislators can prevent the rise of a tyrant by what he calls private means internally by making sure that elections of the highest officials in the government cannot become controlled by parties or partisans the way they had been in Florence. Such an individual may acquire power by liberally sharing the benefits of his own wealth, but he retains power by having his partisans take control of the state. They then destroy their competitors by means of force, false accusations, and onerous taxes. And, although such a figure rises to power with popular support, once established his party seeks to insulate their rule from accountability to the people as well. Since no individual can continue to fund a widespread distribution of goods on his own, his partisans and successors will need to use public funds to buy support of their control of the state. They will, therefore, have to impose onerous taxes. The people will become impoverished and want to rebel, but they will not easily find experienced politicians able to organize an effective opposition. Machiavelli sought to teach his readers the necessity of devising laws that not merely reward virtuous individuals for their public service, but also enable the ambitious to check the self-regarding ambitions of others like them.
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Name: American Political Science Association Annual Meeting
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Zuckert, Catherine. "Machiavelli's Commercial Republic" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, TBA, Philadelphia, PA, <Not Available>. 2017-11-28 <http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1126870_index.html>

APA Citation:

Zuckert, C. H. "Machiavelli's Commercial Republic" Paper presented at the annual meeting of the American Political Science Association Annual Meeting, TBA, Philadelphia, PA <Not Available>. 2017-11-28 from http://citation.allacademic.com/meta/p1126870_index.html

Publication Type: Conference Paper/Unpublished Manuscript
Abstract: In his Florentine Histories Machiavelli describes the emergence and character of a new, distinctively modern form of tyranny. He first attributes the political turmoil characteristic of the Florentine republic to the arrogant unwillingness of the nobles to obey the laws and their repeated error in looking to foreign powers to defend the city rather than organizing and maintaining a defensive force composed of their own citizens. But he shows that the ability of the nobles to flout the law was reduced when the Florentines passed legislation prohibiting anyone from owning a castle within twenty miles of the city. A second and perhaps even more fundamental problem arose as a result of the change the Signori made in the way the highest magistrates were elected, however. By adopting a “mode” whereby the names of citizens eligible to hold the highest offices were put into bags and then drawn out by lot, the Signori instituted an apparently democratic change that enabled the party in power to make sure only its friends or partisans were drawn. The people were not able to elevate the most meritorious individuals or their own champions by means of elections. Since there were no public trials of individuals accused of attempting to overthrow the republic, the people had to resort to the streets. And their riots convinced the “popular nobles” who had initially been sympathetic to the desire of the people not to be oppressed that the people should be excluded from the government. The Medici thus formed a party that eliminated the opposition and granted virtually unlimited power to its unelected head.
The new form of tyranny that can arise in what is nominally a republic does not depend upon military might, as did Caesar’s rise in Rome. This new form of tyranny emerges only in the absence of an immediate external threat of conquest; and when such a threat emerges, such a tyranny will either collapse or fall prey to a conqueror—or, as in Florence, both. This tyranny is deceptive, because its leaders not merely promise to benefit the people, but actually do so by distributing various kinds of goods to them as private individuals. To most of its subjects, such a tyranny does not appear to be onerous, so they are not inclined to resist or rebel against it. In the Florentine Histories Machiavelli shows how the people can also be corrupted by appeals to their desires for security of their lives and property. The recipients of individual benefits a would-be tyrant grants them do not see, or if they do see, do not care that they are being deprived of their liberty. Once established, this form of “soft” tyranny is particularly difficult to uproot—except by means of a foreign invasion—because, as Machiavelli repeatedly shows, a corrupt people will not support those who seek to overthrow the tyranny and re-establish republican rule.
The republics Machiavelli saw (and that we continue to see in the modern world) tend to be based on commerce rather than primarily on military might. They do not have to fear the rise of a virtuous young general, such as Caesar in Rome, and the imposition of a tyranny by force, so much as the emergence of a seemingly beneficent figure like Cosimo de’ Medici who acquires power by means of his many partisans. In the Florentine Histories Machiavelli suggests that their legislators can prevent the rise of a tyrant by what he calls private means internally by making sure that elections of the highest officials in the government cannot become controlled by parties or partisans the way they had been in Florence. Such an individual may acquire power by liberally sharing the benefits of his own wealth, but he retains power by having his partisans take control of the state. They then destroy their competitors by means of force, false accusations, and onerous taxes. And, although such a figure rises to power with popular support, once established his party seeks to insulate their rule from accountability to the people as well. Since no individual can continue to fund a widespread distribution of goods on his own, his partisans and successors will need to use public funds to buy support of their control of the state. They will, therefore, have to impose onerous taxes. The people will become impoverished and want to rebel, but they will not easily find experienced politicians able to organize an effective opposition. Machiavelli sought to teach his readers the necessity of devising laws that not merely reward virtuous individuals for their public service, but also enable the ambitious to check the self-regarding ambitions of others like them.


Similar Titles:
The natural foundations for rule and the case for republics in Machiavelli’s The Prince and Discourses on Livy

Montesquieu and Rousseau on the Possibility of a Large and Commercial Republic


 
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