December 18, 2009

Virtu and fortuna

Goat Rope has been looking at public policy and how it happens these days. It occurred to me (not for the first time) that the author of Ecclesiastes was right about there being nothing new under the sun.

Some of the wisest words ever written about political strategy come from my old pal and sometime patron saint Niccolo Machiavelli, who admittedly does have a bit of a PR problem.

But let's put in in context. In his book Agendas, Alternatives, and Public Policy, political scientist John Kingdon looks at how public policy gets made. His most interesting idea--and one that rings true in my experience--is that there are policy windows that open sometimes. When they're open, you have a chance at getting things done and when they close, you don't. (Speaking of which, the jury is still out on the window for health care reform.)

A policy window could be a crisis, a change in mood following an election, the expiration of a piece of legislation that has to be revisited, or any number of things. Sometimes--rarely--you know in advance when a window might open. Most of the time you don't. That means you need to do a lot of preparation in advance to be able to seize the moment when it comes.

In his classic The Prince, Machiavelli talked about virtu and Fortuna. Virtu basically means the voluntary things we have control of while Fortuna referred to the unexpected opportunities that might come along. Machiavelli believed that we could at least anticipate and prepare for these opportunities:

...I think it may be true that fortune is the ruler of half our actions, but that she allows the other half or thereabouts to be governed by us. I would compare her to an impetuous river that, when turbulent, inundates the plains, casts down trees and buildings, removes earth from this side and places it on the other; everyone flees before it, and everything yields to its fury without being able to oppose it; and yet though it is of such a kind, still when it is quiet, men can make provisions against it by dykes and banks, so that when it rises it will either go into a canal or its rush will not be so wild and dangerous. So it is with fortune, which shows her power where no measures have been taken to resist her, and directs her fury where she knows that no dykes or barriers have been made to hold her.

The key to success, in Machiavelli's day as in our own, is the matching of virtu to Fortuna, which above all means adapting to the needs and opportunities of the moment:

...the prince who bases himself entirely on fortune is ruined when fortune changes. I also believe that he is happy whose mode of procedure accords with the needs of the times, and similarly he is unfortunate whose mode of procedure is opposed to the times....

I therefore conclude then that fortune varying and men remaining fixed in their ways, they are successful so long as these ways conform to circumstances, but when they are opposed then they are unsuccessful.

FORTUNA IS FICKLE. Here's reaction from the AFL to the health care reform goat rope in the Senate.

ANOTHER VIEW. Krugman says pass it.

A STATE VIEW of what reform, especially Medicaid expansion, would mean to WV is given here.

COOL VIEW of an undersea volcanic eruption here.


1 comment:

Wabi-Sabi said...

Great stuff all week!

One of the speakers at this year's Create WV Conference mentioned the importance of "reinforcing serendipity" when it comes to community development.

I like that alot and think it seems to fit with the concept of "fortuna" and our windows of opportunity to get things done.