bureaucracybusters

WHEN PRESIDENTS ACT LIKE MAFIA BOSSES: PART ONE (OF TWO)

In Bureaucracy, History, Politics, Social commentary on December 10, 2018 at 12:27 am

It’s probably the most-quoted passage of Niccolo Machiavelli’s infamous book, The Prince:

“From this arises the question whether it is better to be loved than feared, or feared more than loved. The reply is, that one ought to be both feared and loved, but as it is difficult for the two to go together, it is much safer to be feared than loved. 

“For it may be said of men in general that they are ungrateful, voluble, dissemblers, anxious to avoid danger and covetous of gain. As long as you benefit them, they are entirely yours: they offer you their blood, their goods, their life and their children, when the necessity is remote, but when it approaches, they revolt.

“And the prince who has relied solely on their words, without making other preparations, is ruined. For the friendship which is gained by purchase and not through grandeur and nobility of spirit is bought but not secured, and at a pinch is not to be expended in your service. 

“And men have less scruple in offending one who makes himself loved than one who makes himself feared. For love is held by a chain of obligations which, men being selfish, is broken whenever it serves their purpose. But fear is maintained by a dread of punishment which never fails.”

Portrait of Niccolò Machiavelli by Santi di Tito.jpg

Niccolo Machiavelli

So—which is better: To be feared or loved?

In the 1993 film, A Bronx Tale, 17-year-old Calogero (Lillo Brancato) poses that question to his idol, the local Mafia capo, Sonny (Chazz Palminteri).

“That’s a good question,” Sonny replies. “It’s nice to be both, but it’s very difficult. But if I had my choice, I would rather be feared.”

Sonny has “done 10 years in the joint.” There he got an education in power—from the works of Machiavelli. Now he wants to pass on those hard-learned lessons to Calogero.

“Fear lasts longer than love. Friendships that are bought with money mean nothing. You see how it is around here. I make a joke, everybody laughs. I know I’m funny, but I’m not that funny. It’s fear that keeps them loyal to me.”

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Sonny gives advice to his adopted son, Calogero

But Sonny warns there is a trick to being feared: “The trick is not being hated. That’s why I treat my men good, but not too good.

“I give too much, then they don’t need me. I give them just enough where they need me, but they don’t hate me.”  

Many who quote Machiavelli in defense of being feared overlook this vital point: “Still a Prince should make himself feared in such a way that if he does not gain love, he at any rate avoids hatred, for fear and the absence of hatred may well go together.”

Presidents who desire above all to be loved risk inviting their enemies to see them as weaklings.

Case in point: Bill Clinton.

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Bill Clinton

Clinton needed to be loved. He once said that if he were in a room with 100 people and 99 of them liked him but one didn’t, he would spend all his time with that one person, trying to win him over.

But while he could charm voters, he could not bring himself to retaliate against his sworn Republican enemies.

Clinton sought to endear himself to Republicans by:

  • Adopting NAFTA–the Republican-sponsored North American Free Trade Act, which later proved so devastating to American workers;
  • Siding with Republicans against poor Americans on welfare; and
  • Championing the gutting of the Depression-era Glass-Steagall law, which barred investment banks from commercial banking activities.

In 1998, emboldened by Clinton’s refusal to stand up to them, House Republicans moved to impeach him over a sex scandal with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. But his Presidency survived when the Senate refused to convict.

To establish a fearful reputation, a leader must act decisively and ruthlessly when the interests of the organization are threatened. Punitive action must be taken promptly and confidently.

One or two harsh actions of this kind can make a leader more feared than a reign of terror.

Case in point: Ronald Reagan.

Always smiling, quick with a one-liner (especially at press conferences), seemingly unflappable, he projected a constantly optimistic view of his country and its citizens.

Ronald Reagan

But there was a steely, ruthless side to Reagan that appeared when he felt crossed.

On August 3, 1981, nearly 13,000 air traffic controllers walked out after contract talks with the Federal Aviation Administration collapsed. As a result, some 7,000 flights across the country were canceled on that day at the peak of the summer travel season.

Reagan branded the strike illegal. He threatened to fire any controller who failed to return to work within 48 hours.

On August 5, Reagan fired more than 11,000 air traffic controllers who hadn’t returned to work. The mass firing slowed commercial air travel, but it did not cripple the system as the strikers had forecast.

Reagan’s action stunned the American labor movement. Reagan was the only American President to have belonged to a union—the Screen Actors Guild. He had even been president of this, from 1947 to 1954.

There were no more strikes by Federal workers during Reagan’s tenure in office.

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