November 02, 2006


Caption: Sometimes the prince must stand alone.

This is the fourth post in a series on reading Machiavelli's The Prince for fun and profit. If this is your first visit, please scroll down to the previous entries.

The Gentle Reader may already have noticed this, but working to bring about social change is no picnic. Sometimes it's easier to defend the gains of the past than to achieve something completely new.

To use current examples, it is probably easier to defend Social Security against privatization than it would be to establish it to start with or, say, to achieve universal health care in the United States.

In the former case, the struggle was about something people knew about and had a stake in defending, whereas the latter would involve resistance from powerful players and fear and uncertainty on the part of many.

Similarly, it's probably easier to raise the minimum wage once it is established than to establish it to start with.

What would Old Nick have to say about that? Well...

It must be considered that there is nothing more difficult to carry out, nor more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to handle, than to initiate a new order of things. For the reformer has enemies in all those who profit by the old order, and only lukewarm defenders in all those who would profit by the new order, this lukewarmness arising partly from fear of their adversaries, who have the laws in their favour; and partly from the incredulity of mankind, who do not truly believe in anything new until they have actual experience of it. Thus it arises that on every opportunity for attacking the reformer, his opponents do so with the zeal of partisans, the others only defend him half-heartedly, so that between them he runs great danger.

It's hard to argue with that. But what to do about it? Well, he'd say it was all about power:

it comes about that all armed prophets have conquered and unarmed ones failed; for besides what has been already said, the character of peoples varies, and it is easy to persuade them of a thing, but difficult to keep them in that persuasion. And so it is necessary to order things so that when they no longer believe, they can be made to believe by force.

OK, so that was a little over the top and nice people like us would never get away with that and wouldn't even think about trying it.

But here's the take home message: in trying to bring about change, having a good idea usually isn't enough. Neither is having all the research, especially when one is opposed by powerful interests.

Ultimately it requires building a base of power to push for the change. You can call that organizing or educating the public or base-building. Old Nick would call that virtu.

Sometimes that's enough to bring about change. More often, success comes by a combination of organizing (virtu) and taking advantage of anticipated or unanticipated opportunities as they may emerge. And our boy would call that Fortuna.

Sorry folks, but that's the way it's done.

Next time, lions and foxes, virtu and Fortuna.


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