A Machiavellian Perspective on the Debt Ceiling and Entitlement Programs
Few historical figures are as infamous and controversial as Niccolò Machiavelli. Often reviled for his prescriptions of cruelty as a means of maintaining political power, Machiavelli gave us perhaps the first treatise on practical political theory. Indeed, it is the purely pragmatic rather than idealistic nature of his work that has earned Machiavelli such prestige and credibility in the realms of political theory and philosophy. Machiavelli was not a utopian. He saw the world as it was, not as he wished it to be.
So, what practical advice can we glean from the so-called founder of modern political science? While the motivations that led him to pen The Prince, his most prolific work, are disputed, whether you subscribe to an esoteric or exoteric reading of the text, it cannot be argued that Machiavelli’s insights on the human condition and prescriptions for statecraft are anything less than prophetic and incisive.
One of the dangers Machiavelli warns of is excessive “liberality” with governmental funds. This danger is present regardless of regime type, afflicting both principalities and republics. Given the mountain of federal debt the United States now finds itself saddled with and the threat of default faced by Washington only a few months ago, this warning feels particularly germane to the current national conversation.
Machiavelli writes in The Prince that a prince who is liberal with his funds will quickly “consume all his resources.” If he wishes to remain liberal then, a prince must “burden the people extraordinarily” and “be rigorous with taxes.” This is because a prince has limited means of attaining capital, and to spend liberally, he must tax the citizenry.
The very same can be said for republics. There are but a few finite means by which a republic may obtain funds. They can borrow from lenders, create additional currency, or tax their populations. The US federal government has, in the past, employed all these methods to acquire the capital necessary to finance its spending. Ultimately, however, whatever funds are borrowed must be repaid, requiring increased taxes, and the effects of simply printing additional money have been so disastrous as to not warrant further discussion. So, as with principalities, a republic that wishes to spend liberally has no option but to burden its people “extraordinarily” with taxes.
This presents several dilemmas. The first concerns economic output. The portion of private earnings that are taxed cannot then be privately invested in erecting enterprises—those demanded by the market—that will contribute to and grow economic output. Additionally, overly burdensome taxes or taxes that are redistributive in nature can be seen as erosive to property rights. If investors, entrepreneurs, and productive workers are not confident that they will be able to reap and retain the fruits of their investments, enterprises, and labors, they will be less incentivized to engage in these tasks that are so necessary to economic output and prosperity.
Another dilemma, linked to the first, pertains to resentment among the citizenry. The relative popularity of likening taxation to “theft” or “legal robbery” tells a great deal about the way that much of the population tends to view taxation. For many, the act of taxation is an infringement upon their basic right to property. This sentiment is only exacerbated when taxation is excessive, unequal, or plainly unnecessary. On this topic, Machiavelli writes, “if [a prince] wants to maintain a name for liberality, [he must] burden the people extraordinarily, to be rigorous with taxes. This will begin to make him hated by his subjects.” In republics and in principalities, such resentment can lead to political instability and may, at times, even place the regime at risk.
Therefore, due to the political and economic instability it engenders, liberality with government funds is not a sustainable mission.
However, as Machiavelli notes, pulling back from liberal spending is not politically easy. For when a prince recognizes the dangers of excessive liberality and “wants to draw back from it, he immediately incurs the infamy of meanness.” Indeed, once a government program is implemented, especially an entitlement program, the beneficiaries of that program feel as if something has been robbed from them if that program is eliminated or even incrementally reduced.
Similar sentiments have been echoed by contemporary thinkers and politicians alike. President Ronald Reagan, in his prominent speech “A Time for Choosing,” opined—albeit somewhat facetiously—that “a government bureau is the nearest thing to eternal life we’ll ever see on this earth.” Milton Friedman, similarly, wrote in his potent classic Capitalism and Freedom that government spending programs “intended to prime the pump” during the Great Depression “are still with us and indeed account for ever-growing government expenditures” and noted that the “haste with which spending programs are approved [during a recession] is not matched by an equal haste to repeal them or to eliminate others when the recession is passed.”
After government programs are implemented, they are seldom repealed. This is, as Friedman and Reagan rightly asserted, partially due to the nature of the Leviathan itself. However, it often isn’t politically viable to even suggest, much less to vote, on a curtailing of government spending and entitlement programs.
Machiavelli warns that for a prince to be seen as liberal, the magnitude of his spending must be ever increasing. Likewise, for the proponents and beneficiaries of the welfare state to be satisfied, federal spending on such programs must be ever growing. Friedman and Reagan knew the unfettered expanse of the welfare state was unsustainable and economically damaging in the sixties. Why, then, has such spending not been curtailed?
A contributing factor, or perhaps even the primary factor, is undoubtedly the politicians’ fear of acquiring the “infamy of meanness.” Last year, when Republican senator Ron Johnson merely suggested that Social Security and Medicare spending be reviewed by Congress before being automatically approved, he was lambasted by media personalities, political opponents, and interest groups. Former Fox News anchor Chris Wallace called Johnson’s suggestion “suicidal politics.” This is despite the latest projections from the Social Security Board of Trustees showing that their fund will be depleted within the next decade.
It is precisely because of the unsustainability of such liberal spending and the taxation it necessitates that Machiavelli advised any prince that “he should not, if he is prudent, care about a name for meanness.” Nor should any politician—if he is courageous—care about the attacks and condemnations that ultimately accompany any calls for critical reductions in government expenditures.