“A republic should do so much more, as through the mode of electing it has not only two in succession but infinite most virtuous princes who are successors to one another. This virtuous succession will always exist in every well-ordered republic.” – Machiavelli: Discourses on Livy
I do not really recall a time when I have actually quoted Machiavelli except when I casually ask whether the end justifies the means. But I thought that it would be useful to revisit his work since The Prince is really an attempt by the author to sell his services to any and every one. At least that is my opinion. He is for me a classical pragmatist, deceptive, remorseless, cunning and crafty – in a nutshell an immoral, egocentric opportunistic. But these characteristics and personality traits should not be translated to mean that there is not much of value in his work. His other publication, Discourses on Livy which addresses the issue of the corrupt state, among other things, is also useful.
But reading his work does provide several lessons to voters as we near a late but inevitable poll and either eagerly await the opportunity to cast our vote or at least await the results the following day. Most of the electorate are tax paying individuals in one form or the other; whether [they pay] road tax, personal income tax, NSRL, VAT and so on. There are far too many to list. Consequently, that single fact makes it an absolute necessity for citizens to exercise their fundamental right to vote.
Important too is the fact that the right to vote is a fundamental privilege in a democracy and in any event, we are given few other opportunities to participate in national decision making. Sanctioned by international law and conventions and agreements such as the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the American Convention on Human Rights, citizens have the right to universal and equal suffrage. Though implied, in Barbados, Belize and the Bahamas there is no constitutional right to vote (see Section 42), unlike Antigua and Barbuda, Grenada, Dominica, Jamaica, St. Kitts-Nevis, St. Lucia (Section 33), St. Vincent and the Grenadines and Trinidad and Tobago. But this right is established in election law.
In his work, Machiavelli strongly urged citizens to “keep their hands on the republic” by practising their civic duty of voting, engaging in politics and “choosing the lesser evil” among the candidates when voting. The idea of refraining from voting was abhorrent to him and he argued that such colossal failure would grant leaders free reign to dominate and pursue self-interests at the expense of the common good. Thus, exercising the right to vote is not just about supporting a party or not, it is about defending your personal liberty.
We must, therefore, approach voting and political issues with the same degree of concern that we do when shopping, for politics can also be viewed as a marketplace.
Machiavelli makes a direct connection between the choice of leadership and tax payment and thus, in his view, it is precisely because we do and should pay taxes, that citizens should elect leaders who will use the public funds in a responsible manner. He, therefore, takes a strong stance on the misuse of public funds, contending that taxes ought to be used to guard liberty. The lesson here is that we should make the decision based on appropriate use of public funds and its opposite; questionable use. And so remember the Auditor General’s report and the identification of questionable behaviour.
Further, in the just-released or leaked (unofficial) Public Accounts Committee report, (which some members of government objected to being tabled in the House of Assembly), a number of disturbing allegations were made.
Are these indications of sound financial judgement and transparency? Absolutely not! I have addressed the issue of the “sit tight” political leader elsewhere I believe. A reading of Machiavelli’s work also shows a concern with keeping the same people in power for a long time because of the risk of partisanship developing between the leaders and “soldiers”, which I will interpret to mean all who are included in the governing elite. His reasoning was that such a partisanship would lead to the development of a “network of private allegiances”. To avoid this phenomenon, Machiavelli urged citizens to elect young leaders with impressive traits instead of leaders who stick to power for long. So, contrary to much that I have written in the past, if you accept Machiavelli’s reasoning, then the time may be ripe to vote for newer political parties and/or new candidates and persons who have not overstayed their welcome.
But among other admonitions, Machiavelli cautions citizens to choose eloquent leaders who also enjoy good morals as other leaders could mask their evilness with eloquence. In other words, treat the gifted in tongue, and those leaders in public office who tout high moral standards with a degree of trepidation. This can be viewed in conjunction with his urgings on separating personal appearance from accomplishments. For Machiavelli, citizens ought to make a decision on who to vote for by making a clear choice between the lesser evil among the candidates. This can be best achieved by judging candidates on what they have done (including the ministers and their close circle of advisors) instead of judging them by their appearances. In his view, close associates and confidants of our leaders should be competent, faithful and straightforward, not flatterers. Only under such conditions, he contended, should we presume the leader to be good.
Additionally, he advises citizens that they must guard against neutrality during wars but at the same time, inexplicitly, he also cautions against taking sides. This is odd, but remember the purpose of Machiavelli. He was selling himself to any who was interested. All I can advance here is that we must avoid partisanship and promote rationality in voting. So loyalty to political parties ought not to trump reasonableness.
There is a direct connection I think, between adopting reasonableness in making a political decision such as how to cast the vote and an assessment of the social and political programmes of political parties and those who lead them. Here, a reading of Machiavelli would reveal his concern with such platforms, and the principles of natural justice and international law. Do leaders in their public pronouncements and programme implementations violate the norms of justice and international law that are in sync with sound social and political programmes?
There is much more of course that Machiavelli touches upon including the role of religion, but as we near the imminent poll, these can act as useful guides.
(Cynthia Barrow Giles is a senior lecturer in political science at the University of the West Indies, Cave Hill Campus)