Commercial Machiavellianism

Ida Tarbell


Some  four hundred years ago there was living quietly in a little villa not far from the City of Florence, Italy, a man about forty-five years old, Niccolo Machiavelli by name. His serious occupation—followed at night after a day spent in superintending his estate and drinking wine with his rustic neighbors—was writing a treatise explaining how, in his judgment, the then existing government of Florence could bring that city back to a power and glory which it had lost.

Signor Machiavelli was very well fitted for his task. He was not a scholar, in the strict sense of the term, but he was a man thoroughly familiar with his world. He knew its literature and its history. He was an able writer, perhaps the first prose writer Italy had ever produced. He was a man of large experience in politics, diplomacy, society. For fifteen years before taking to his little villa he had been the private secretary and confidential agent of that most powerful factor in the Florentine Republic — the Council of Ten, and in this position he had seen from the inside some of the most extraordinary events of the period.

He had been with Cesare Borgia when that crafty general, having lured a large number of his enemies to a conference to discuss terms of peace, cut off their heads—for the good of his country! He had passed months at the court of Francis I, one of the greatest of French mediaeval sovereigns, begging men and money to help Florence keep off her enemies. He had matched cunning with cunning; deceit with deceit; bullying with bullying; logic with logic in the leading diplomatic circles of Europe. He was a man of his world, too, always in the thick of the cleverest circle of his city, gossiping, carousing, agitating. He could run an enemy through with a sword, if need be; he could play the gallant with the best of them; he could turn a sonnet to suit the critical taste of his day; and he could write a pamphlet or a screed for the city gate as no other man in Florence.

In short, Machiavelli was a versatile, brilliant, learned man of his times—but he was something more than most of such gentlemen, of whom Florence had many. He had a mind of extraordinary analytical power, a genius for construction, a warm devotion to his native city, and a patriotic passion for her glory. 

Signor Machiavelli was altogether too young and too much in love with life and action to be spending his nights in writing a treatise on government if he could have helped himself. But he could not. He had lost his office by the overthrow of the Republic of Florence and the restoration of the old despotic power of the Medici. Machiavelli saw no chance for a restoration of the republic. But he believed he did see the way for an able despot to make Florence all powerful in Italy. He decided to explain his views to the Medici.

The world has always been divided as to why Machiavelli, a republican and practically an exile because of his principles, should have attempted to teach a despot how to make himself impregnable and his state glorious. There are those who say it was that he might be restored to place—and certainly Machiavelli, when he came to offer his treatise to the Medici, offered his services along with it, pleading that the work itself proved his fitness to serve a despot, which it certainly did; but there was a great deal more than a desire for a position in Machiavelli’s mind. He loved his Florence—ardently, passionately desired her glory. He saw no chance for the success of a republic. He believed a powerful and wise despot could make a state glorious and it mattered little to him how Florence became a stable power if she only achieved the end, and so Machiavelli wrote his Prince—a work destined to become one of the few treatises which have crystallized a political theory into permanent form, a work that fits any age and will continue to fit any so long as human nature remains what it is.

And what was this theory that Signor Machiavelli worked out so well? So direct, so lucid, so comprehensive, and so frank is The Prince that a very brief analysis makes it clear. It opens with a definition of “the business of a Prince,” which, says Machiavelli, “is to make his state great and to extend its borders.” In Machiavelli’s day the prince so generally came into power by force or by adventurous brigandage that it was this class of rulers alone which he seriously considered in his treatise.

Obviously the first requirement of a prince who has secured power is an army; his chief art is the art of war. Even the prophets themselves stood or fell by their power to back up their teachings by force, Machiavelli claimed. Thus Moses succeeded because he had an army to back up his laws. Savonarola failed because “when the multitude ceased to have faith in him he was destitute of the means either to compel faith or to inspire confidence.” It was a mediaeval application of the more modern saying, “Trust in God and keep your powder dry.”

But while Machiavelli places full stress on the necessity of making war in the most scientific and approved manner, he by no means limits his prince’s duties to raising and disciplining troops and to conducting aggressive campaigns. In his judgment there is another and no less important field of action for every prince; it is that of secret intrigue and treachery, the place in which states are most surely undermined and destroyed. The chief weapons in this field are lying, treachery, cruelty; and Machiavelli calmly advises the use of each, always supporting his contention with ample historical illustrations.

Lying, in his opinion, is a sacred necessity. “A prudent prince cannot and ought not to keep his word,”.he says, “except when he can do it without injury to himself, or when the circumstances under which he contracted his engagement still exist.” Craftiness is to be cultivated sedulously. Indeed, Machiavelli impresses it upon his prince that the fox is a worthy example to emulate. “As a prince must learn how to act the part of a beast sometimes, he should make the fox and the lion his patterns, but the fox often wins when the lion would fail: I could give numerous proofs of this and those who have enacted the part of the fox have always succeeded best in their affairs.” 

Nor should he be afraid of cruelty. Like lying and treachery it is often necessary. In an army it is useful in helping keep troops in order. In governing a city it prevents uprisings. 

These are hard practices and evidently make a man feared and hated. Machiavelli calls attention to this fact and argues it out logically: “It has sometimes been asked,” he says, “whether it is better to be loved than feared, to which I answer that one should wish to be both, but that is a hard matter to be accomplished and I think if it is necessary to make a selection it is safer to be feared than to be loved. . . . Men are generally more inclined to submit to him who makes himself dreaded than to one who merely strives to be beloved; and the reason is obvious, for friendship of this kind being a mere moral tie, a species of duty resulting from a benefit, cannot endure against the calculations of interest; whereas fear carries with it the dread of punishment, which never loses its influence.”

 As a general rule, Machiavelli lays it down that hatred is as easily incurred by good actions as by evil—and that when the strongest party is corrupt the prince must comply with their disposition and content them. “He must renounce good or it will prove his ruin.” 

It is not a high notion of humanity that such doctrines as these presupposes. Machiavelli admits this frankly. Indeed, throughout his treatise he repeatedly claims that it is only possible to practice the methods he advises because men are generally so cowardly, so treacherous, and so selfish. For instance, in explaining the wisdom of not keeping promises he says, “I should be cautious in inculcating such a precept if all men were good; but as the generality of mankind are wicked and ever ready to break their words, a prince should not pique himself in keeping his more scrupulously, especially as it is always easy to justify a breach of faith on his part.” And again in cautioning his Prince against having any pride in being considered just and good he says, “The manner in which men live is so different from that in which they ought to live, that he who deviates from the common course of practice and endeavors to act as duty dictates necessarily insures his own destruction. A Prince who wishes to maintain his power ought therefore to learn that he should not be always good.”

It is thus by force, craft, and treachery, and by a wholesale application of the principle that every man has his price, that the great Italian taught that power is to be secured. But this means enemies, for, whereas a man beaten in an open contest waged according to the rules of war may become a friend, he who has been stripped of his possessions by craft and treachery combined with force rarely, if ever, can be trusted. 

How shall he deal with them? It is simple in Machiavelli’s judgment. “Either make a man your friend or put it out of his power to be your enemy,” he says. That is, take him into partnership or crush him. 

“He may revenge a slight injury, but a great one deprives him of his power to avenge. Hence the injury should be of such magnitude that the prince shall have nothing to dread from his vengeance.” That is, the only safe way to deal with a conquered enemy is to destroy him, and particularly is this true if that enemy has ever known freedom. Not only must you destroy all those you conquer, but under no circumstances should you help a rival power in any of its enterprises, even if those enterprises be quite foreign to those in which you are interested — nothing in which as far as you can foresee you ever will be interested, for the prince who contributes to the advancement of another power runs the risk of ruining his own. The rival may, through the help given him, so advance in power that it may one day ruin the prince himself— that is, never help in any way anybody outside of your domain.

But while Machiavelli lays down forcibly and clearly the above rules as essential to securing and increasing worldly power, he repeatedly advises against the unguarded use of them. For instance, cruelty must always be “well applied”—that is, only exercised when it is absolutely necessary. Again, although a prince must do evil when required to preserve and strengthen his domain, he must, above all, preserve an appearance of always doing good. “A prince should earnestly endeavor to gain the reputation of kindness, clemency, piety, justice, and fidelity to his engagements. He ought to possess all these good qualities, but still retain such power over himself as to display their opposites whenever it may he expedient. 

“I maintain that a prince, and especially a new prince, cannot with impunity exercise all the virtues, because his own self-preservation will often compel him to violate the laws of charity, religion, and humanity. He should habituate himself to bend easily to the various circumstances which may, from time to time, surround him. In a word, it will be as useful to him to persevere in the path of rectitude, while he feels no inconvenience in doing so, as to know how to deviate from it when circumstances dictate such a course. He should make it a rule, above all things, never to utter anything which does not breathe of kindness, justice, good faith, and piety; this last quality is most important for him to appear to possess, as men in general judge more from appearances than from reality. All men have eyes, but few have the gift of penetration. Every one sees your exterior, but few can discern what you have in your heart.”

These, briefly, are the famous principles of Machiavelli. In a word, it is the doctrine that the end justifies the means, that whatever is necessary in order to secure the glory of your country is right. Men should love their country more than their souls. 

Machiavelli gave The Prince to the Florentine despot, but he did not get his reward. Whether the treatise was too strong for the stomach of Lorenzo or not, we do not know. It was only after Machiavelli’s death that the work was published, and no sooner was it out than a storm of indignation broke over it. Impious, infernal—no adjective was too strong to describe the popular judgment. The republicans called him traitor because he sought to teach a tyrant how to become impregnable. The despots hated him because he showed their hand. The church, outraged by his frank accounts of the discrepancies between her practices and principles, put The Prince under its ban and burnt Machiavelli in effigy.

And yet Machiavelli had not invented Machiavellianism. He simply described as clearly and succinctly as he could the methods which his observation and study had taught him to be the most successful in ruling Italian cities. He had considered not at all the morality of methods—no despot who won glory did that. He had considered not at all that a man might lose his soul, might drive other men to destroy their souls, by these practices. The glory of the state—that in Machiavelli’s mind was the end of all political action. If it cost men their souls, still the glory of the state justified the price.

Italy had taught him this, yet Italy, when she saw her own theory stated in black and white, turned on the man who had analyzed her so plainly, and called him traitor. The world took up the cry and from that day to this has characterized the theory that the end justifies the means with the opprobrious title of Machiavellian. It has made an adjective of reproach of the great Florentine’s name, as if he had let loose the evils inherent in the theory which bears his name. As a matter of fact, all that Machiavelli did was to work out the formula for worldly success followed by the ablest rulers of his own time. His crime in the eyes of Florence was that he revealed the formula. 

But though the world repudiated the Machiavellian theory as soon as it saw the light, it by no means abandoned it. Again and again since The Prince first was written, four hundred years ago, its principles have been in as active operation as in the age of despots. Again and again those who hated and feared the theory have risen to overthrow it. What was the Reformation in essence but a revolt against Machiavellianism in the church. What was the French Revolution? Every age, indeed, has seen this theory intrude itself in Church or State, and has seen an attack upon it. Every country has had repeated struggles with it, so has every institution; indeed, so does every individual who aspires.

There has always been a trace of Machiavellianism in American life, but never in the history of our country has the formula been applied and openly defended until the last two decades. Today, however, one could easily reconstruct out of the mouths of our captains of industry a modern edition of The Prince which would serve quite as well as a text-book for the aspirant to financial power as The Prince of Machiavelli would have served Lorenzo de Medici if he had had the brains, the daring, and the dexterity to apply it.

The object of this modern treatise, like that of the mediaeval one, would be to instruct in the art of acquiring and extending power; but while four hundred years ago it was acquiring power in order to make a state rich and glorious, today it is acquiring power in order to make oneself rich and glorious. Four hundred years ago it was a state which the prince aspired to control, today it is a great business—a natural product like iron or coal or oil, a great food product like beef, a great interstate transportation line like the railroad, a great deposit for the savings of the poor like a life insurance company.

These are the kingdoms for which the modern man sighs. They do not come to him as an inheritance any more than in the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries Italian cities came to despots by inheritance. They come by force, and today, as in Machiavelli’s time, the chief art of the would-be captain of industry is war, the end of which is to acquire that which other men now control. It matters not at all that the man who owns the enterprise may have been a pioneer in the industry, may have been one of the first in the country to make sugar, or produce oil, raise cattle, or ice cars; it matters very little that he has developed his own markets, invented his own processes and machines; his property is wanted and he cannot be allowed to live free any more than in Machiavelli’s judgment Cesare Borgia should have allowed the Italian princes whose domain skirted his and who were weaker than he to live free. Business is war, then, not a peaceful pursuit.

And this commercial warfare has been developed by our modern captains to a science as perfect as the militarism of the nations. Its tactics are as admirable, its plans of campaign as clear and able. You want to control beef, for instance—an excellent kingdom to master, so steady and sure are its resources in a prosperous land. But how can you do it? It is an industry as old as the nation. It has been built up and is owned and managed by ten thousand cattlemen on a thousand hills and plains, by hundreds upon hundreds of dealers in the numberless cities and villages and country-sides of the land, by scores upon scores of railroads and steamship lines which compete to carry its products. Where is the central position which, controlled, will bring them all, cattle-raiser, transporter, marketman, under your direction or, if you prefer, drive them from the industry?

Any modern captain will tell you it is in transportation. If you can, by any means, so control the railroads and steamships which ship the cattle first and the dressed meat later as to obtain better rates than anybody else, you can control ranchmen and dealers. For if you can ship what you buy cheaper than your competitors, you can afford to sell cheaper. The world buys where it can buy cheapest. In time the world’s market is yours and when it is yours you can pay the ranchman your own price for cattle. There is nobody to offer him another. You can make your own rate for the transportation; you are the only shipper. You can demand of the consumer the highest price. There is nobody to offer him one lower.

Secure the special favor of the railroad then and the rest will be easy, as it is in all great military campaigns where the key to the position has been found and where all resources have been concentrated on its capture. And this favor secured, go after the dealer. If you are a courageous and plausible person, tell him frankly that his business belongs to you, and he had better sell at once.

But he does not wish to sell. He has queer ideas about the business being his. He stands on what he calls his rights and a fight is as inevitable as it was in Machiavelli’s time when some little Italian town accustomed to governing itself refused to turn over its keys to a big neighbor. And it is beautifully clear from the revelations of our captains of industry during the last thirty years of investigation on what plans the fight will be fought. Cut off his supply of meat. If he has none he sells none. But cattlemen cannot be prevented from selling. No, but if it costs the obstinate dealer more to get that meat to his market than it does you to get it to yours, he cannot sell at the price at which you sell.

And here enters the railroad rebate—the modern battering-ram for crushing those who fight to save their own. Crushing them by preventing them getting the supply on which they feed at livable rates of transportation. We all understand it. For nearly forty years we have had it illustrated constantly before our eyes. Recently we have had it ad nauseam. Small dealers in oil and coal, and lumber and salt, and a hundred other things forced into combination, into bankruptcy, or into new lines of business—because they could not get a rate which enabled them to ship; the big shipper forcing the discrimination until his rival succumbed like a wall weakened by incessant battering.

But the besieging captain of today has other weapons than his formidable special rate. Have you ever watched, month after month, an attack on a recalcitrant business by some great leader? It is quite as interesting in its way as the study of the siege of Toulon, of Vicksburg, or of Port Arthur. Mines are run under the man’s credit and exploded at the moment when they will cause the most confusion; abatis are constructed around his markets until whenever he would enter them he falls into entanglements which mean retreat or death; a system of incessant, deft sharp-shooting is kept up, picking off a bit of raw product here, delaying a car-load there; securing the countermand of an order at this point, bullying or wheedling into underselling at that, trumping up lawsuits, securing vexatious laws. For fertility of invention in harassing maneuvers I recommend the campaign of a modern captain of industry as far superior to the annoyances of the famous guerrilla warfare of the Spaniards. 

Now we will all admit that under the competitive system, in a sense, business is war; that is, men are each rightfully seeking to make his own venture as big and as powerful as his ability and energy permit, but in all war, even that of four hundred years ago, there are rules. Compare the use of the ancient battering-ram with the use of the modern one—the rebate. The former was recognized as a legitimate instrument, and the latter has always been declared illegitimate. That is, when an Italian despot sallied forth to knock down the walls of a city he wanted to add to his domain he used an instrument which the laws allowed—but our modern captain uses as his principal weapon of conquest an instrument forbidden by all the laws of the game.

As far as weapons of war are concerned, he really goes the Italian despot one better. Not only that; he equals him easily in those practices which have always been supposed to be an Italian specialty, and which, as has already been pointed out, form the backbone of Machiavellianism as it is developed in The Prince.

Consider the parallel. Our modern captain, like our mediaeval tyrant, must be prepared for cruelty. If he cannot win over a man and make him a convert to his scheme; or if he does not want him in his aggregation—he must put it out of his power to be his enemy. That is, he must crush him. Machiavelli suavely advises to do him an injury of such magnitude that the prince shall have nothing to dread from his rival’s vengeance. This will make you feared, of course, but the consoling observation Machiavelli offers to those who may gulp a bit at wholesale slaughter is that it is safer to be feared than loved.

What is today half the power of a half-dozen of our leading captains of industry? It is that they are feared by thousands of men. What is it that drives many a railroad president to grant rebates—a crime in the eyes of the law for which he knows that if the government does its duty he will be fined and imprisoned? Fear of a warfare on his freight, his bonds, his stocks. Why do so many men with righteous causes of complaint throw up their hands at the approach of the captain of their particular industry? Because they know that resistance almost inevitably has ended in failure. Every one who knows Wall Street—the railroad business, the copper, steel, oil, beef business—knows that half the popular stock in trade of the leaders is that they have intelligently and persistently cultivated Machiavelli’s counsel that it is safer to be feared than loved.

It is not only cruelty which is necessary in modern businesses. It is lying. Follow the testimony in the great insurance investigations of the past fall and compare it with the investigations of other years, and perjury sticks out at every corner, perjury so obvious in many cases that it is laughable. Follow the testimony of the leader of the great oil trust—that of many railroad men, when it is necessary they lie. No Borgia or Medici ever followed more wisely and carefully than our captains Machiavelli’s great rule—”A prudent prince cannot and ought not to keep his word except when he can do it without injury to himself.” 

But while the Machiavellian rule that a Prince should do evil or good according as the one or other serves his interests can be shown by a multitude of documents to be followed faithfully and intelligently by the modern captain of industry, he is no less scrupulous in obeying Machiavelli’s injunction not to do evil unnecessarily, that is to do it only when it is necessary to attain the end. Our modern captains of industry rarely lie or break the laws, bribe or practice cruelty, save for the sake of the end; that is they do not do these things for the sake of doing them as a Caligula or a Nero would have done. They do them for the good of the business. Listen to one of our railroad officials who, recently on the stand, testified to granting a rebate. “We knew it was illegal but it was the only way we could get our share of the business;” that is, the law is less important than the share of business.

In one great concern where for nearly forty years there is an unbroken record of lawbreaking and of spying and of hard dealings, the repeated explanation has been that it was for the good of the business. Not long ago a western senator of the United States was found guilty of stealing public lands. A former colleague openly justified him on the ground that by this robbery the land had been opened up more quickly than it otherwise would have been. Wherever a case comes to the surface it is promptly justified as necessary to keep up the dividends, expand trade, meet competition, get your share of the business, stimulate commerce. That is, in the minds of our commercial leaders the end justifies the means as much as it ever did in the mind of Cesare Borgia, the monks of the Spanish Inquisition, of Napoleon Bonaparte, or of Count Metternich. 

Probably at no period of the world’s history where the Machiavellian formula has been the chief working one of a great social institution has its crowning principle—to give the whole fabric the color of charity—been so universally practiced as it is today by our captains of industry. Cesare Borgia, Machiavelli’s great model and that incredible villain, his father, Pope Alexander VI, troubled themselves precious little about screening their deeds with clemency and charity—their failure to do so was a chief cause of their final failure. Machiavelli realized this and it was his reason for repeatedly putting emphasis on the necessity of posing as a saint, however great a devil you may be.

Today there is hardly to be found in American industry a leader, however Machiavellian in practice, who does not seek to justify himself in the eyes of the public by some form of benefit to society. He may cultivate the arts, he may establish lectureships, he may endow colleges, he may build hospitals, but whoever he is, however truly a commercial brigand he is, he follows Machiavelli in appearing a social benefactor. It is instinct with him primarily, not calculation. There are few men, whatever their practices, who do not instinctively desire to be called honorable and generous, and to be considered gentlemen.

The world has so advanced since Machiavelli’s days, too, that few men are so unconscious of the social obligations that they do not try to square themselves with God and man for what they take contrary to the legal or the moral code. But what may be instinct at first inevitably becomes a calculation as they grow in brigandage. They see it pays to be known as public benefactors. That such a reputation will keep the public silent longer than any other. That a great gift may often head off a legislative investigation. It is an application of Napoleon’s wisdom: When the people are restive, “gild a dome,” that is, give them something new to see and talk about, distract their attention; that done, their sense of injustice is soon asleep. 

Now this parallel between our modern industrial code and that of The Prince is not a mere fanciful one. It is a legitimate historical parallel easily reinforced by a multitude of documents as every one must admit who knows the industrial records of the United States for the last forty years. Commercial Machiavellianism is the accepted industrial formula. It is not only accepted and defended as necessary to our national prosperity and our happiness by those who practice it and profit by it, but the nation, as a whole, winks at it. How often do we hear from the lips of eminently respectable citizens the words: “Business is business” ? How often in justification of lying, “Everybody lies”? How often in defense of bribery the words of the Missouri judge, “Bribery at worst is merely a conventional crime”? How often the words of Tim Campbell of New York, “What’s the Constitution between friends”? That is, the public as a whole is coming to admit Machiavellianism as a business necessity and to justify it by the end. 

Now looked at a little more closely, what is the business end our captains of industry seek? It certainly is not—never has been—except in rare cases, the mere accumulation of private wealth, the mere winning of personal power. These men who control the industrial world today are, as a rule, men of great imagination—men who have looked over a vast field of scattered forces and seen how they might bring them into harmony and direct them to definite ends, how in thus combining and organizing they might not only build in their own land one great and splendid industry in the place of the thousands of little ones now doing the work, but they might extend this great creation into foreign lands, thus enlarging American empire, piling up American power, enriching the American people.

Our captains of industry are poets in their ways—poets who rhyme in steel and iron and coal, whose verses are great ships and railways and factories and shops. They create that the world may have more food and light and shelter and joy. They create for the joy of it—for the sake of feeling themselves grow, for the sake of doing for those they ‘love. This, to a degree, is the vision of them all. These are noble ends, but they can only be kept so by noble means. Yet, almost immediately comes the realization that this dream of universal empire cannot be reached by the means which human law and justice prescribe. What of it? The man, hot with his vision, sees his end as greater than truth, than righteousness, than justice. He gradually, and perhaps unconsciously at first, works out a modern version of the half-pagan formula of Machiavelli to apply to a modern and Christian situation, and the world, dazzled by the magnificence of his achievement, justifies him as he does himself.

Now, is he right? Are we right? Is the Machiavellian system today so firmly implanted justified by its results as we see them today? What are the results? Take the material ones. Is there a great monopolistic trust in existence today which has carried out its avowed purpose of better and cheaper products, because of combination? In my judgment not one. The whole history of the trust aiming at monopoly has been that it never gave a pound of beef or a gallon of oil of any better quality or cheaper price than it is forced to do by competition.

And why should we expect it to? Suppose that a trust builder started out honestly, fired by the vision of a world-wide machine—a benefit to man and a glory to his nation—and to accomplish this end he breaks laws, crushes rivals, lies, is cruel, treacherous, unscrupulous. How long will his vision resist his evil doing? Let us who have seen our visions fade by the hardening of our hearts answer. The ultimate end of public good, which let us grant that the man may have had at the start, is killed by the wrongdoing necessary to secure his end. A selfish greed of power and gold replaces it. It cannot be otherwise. The ideal must deteriorate if the means used to realize it are vicious.

Look at the history of the life insurance companies as revealed recently. The men at their heads have wrought their own ruin by deliberately doing evil—doing evil because of their unbridled, increasing greed. Yet, no doubt, the day was when many of the men foremost in these scandals were fired by the nobility and the sacredness of their business, and looked with pride and exultation on the amount of the return they could by careful and devoted management make, to the thousands upon thousands of the poor who saved and denied themselves and struggled to provide for dependent wife or child. And yet these men came to struggle to secure for themselves and their families and friends the bulk of all the earnings coming from the money of those who had trusted them. Never, indeed, have we had a more perfect examples of the ultimate result of the Machiavellian formula — and that is the moral downfall of the man who practices it. 

But the formula not only ruins the men who practice it—what does it do for the great body of young men who, as employees of a great corporation, must of necessity know the meaning of the practices? Take the matter of bribing clerks in railroad freight offices to turn over information concerning the shipments of rival concerns. In at least one great trust this practice is so extensive as to have become a matter of elaborate bookkeeping. No clerk can be so stupid as not to know he is doing a wrong and harmful act when he betrays private information. He knows the money paid him for the information is a bribe. Yet the money comes from a great and powerful corporation. Even if he wants to refuse it he dares not lest he lose his position. His honor is sullied—his manhood shaken—his soul corrupted. There can be no estimation of the corruption of manliness which this practice alone has caused. There can be no condemnation too bitter of the men who have devised the system. They are corrupters of youth. 

Think again of what must be the effect on a great body of young men employed by a trust, when they know their president has lied deliberately on the witness stand, has lied for the good of the business. There are plenty of such cases revealed in our commercial investigations. The young man loyal to his employer and yet trained to honor the truth must almost inevitably come to the conclusion that lying is one of the necessary implements in successful business—and as time goes on he probably will conclude that it is all right if it will aid in getting you anything you want. If the good of the business justifies lying, it justifies all other things—law-breaking, cruelty, treachery; unconsciously the young man becomes a Machiavellian in his theory of the relation of honor to business.  Not only does he come to defend these practices to himself; he soon will be adept in defending them to others.

Let us suppose that the private secretary of some great captain of industry of to-day—a man who, for the good of the business, has found it necessary to put into practice the methods we have been considering—suppose this man’s confidential secretary to be a man of keen and analytical mind, of clear power of expression, of an ardent enthusiasm for business, loving the particular industry whose captain he serves as Machiavelli loved Florence; ambitious to see it all-powerful as Machiavelli was ambitious to see his beautiful Florence powerful; and let it come to a point in his career, as it came in Machiavelli’s when he was about forty-five years old, that his industry, after the loss of its first powerful head, retrogrades from a first to a second or a third place in the order of business industries—that it is in danger of falling still lower.

The secretary sees the reason: the new management has loosened its grip. It no longer fights for the privileges the law forbids, no longer tracks its competitors in secret and in secret undermines them, no longer bribes or lies. Can you not imagine this secretary reared to believe that these things are essential in business and that business success is a paramount duty; can you not imagine him sitting down to frame for the guidance of those who, in his judgment, are ruining the business—the code which alone in his experience and judgment can make a business great?

That is, our young men the country over are not only learning the essentials of commercial Machiavellianism and accepting them, but they are becoming their defenders. And when they reach this point clear thinking and unselfish actions will be as impossible to them as recent revelations show that they have become to an appalling number of our financial leaders. They are men lost to society—men lost to the state. There is but one name for this and that is treason. Indeed, I doubt if this trust question has a more serious phase than this corrupting of the minds and the hearts of youths. 

But this Machiavellian formula affects more than our industrial life today. It is, to an alarming degree, the working formula of our political parties. It has reduced at least one great sport to a degradation which is a national scandal. It crops out in every art and profession. It has invaded even the field whose teachings are most fundamentally antagonistic to it—the field of the Christian religion.

What are the scandals of our political life but the gross application of the great Italian’s principles? We buy votes that our party may succeed. It is illegal, it is corrupt; but the success of the party is a higher law, to which we must sacrifice our common creed of morals. We stuff ballot boxes, run in repeaters, vote in blocks of five, juggle the returns, all for the glory of the party. We take the funds of corporations whose only object we know to be to provide a future protection and favor for themselves, we do it though it is in many places contrary to law, and everywhere contrary to sound morals.

We tolerate, even support, in their aspirations unspeakable politicians like Addicks of Delaware, Depew of New York, Quay of Pennsylvania. The good of the party requires it. If by any chance scandals occur, bribery is too flagrant, the alliance between the campaign committee and the corporations too obvious, the activities of the politicians too pernicious, we do our best not to force out the truth that we may correct the wrongs; we cover them with plausible explanations, condone them with scriptural quotations on the sin of judging our fellow man—as if the whole basis of government by the people was not judging him—protect them with the pious challenge “let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” silence all critics by a bluster of righteous indignation as to the impossibility of people whose aims and words are so noble doing these vile things. It is the Machiavellian game of affirming you are virtuous whatever your practices. It is a great game and, well played, it works a long time.

But it is impossible in a nation where business and politics are the two absorbing interests that the dominating creed of those interests should not influence all departments of life. It is inevitable that our art and our literature should not escape the Machiavellian hand which rules us. We see it in the overweening respect that we have for the “best-sellers” among books, the big prices of the artists. Quantity and price, not the integrity, sincerity, and freshness of the product, are unquestionable, powerful motives in artistic life today. 

Most deplorable of all is the influence these doctrines have on the Church. In a poem published not long ago in a leading religious journal this line is found, “The Union right or wrong, still this will be my song.” It is nothing but a new version of the Middle Age theory that for the glory of a country a man should be willing to sell his soul. And could anything be more brutally Machiavellian than the arguments recently brought to bear upon one great captain of industry by certain of those who were trying to induce him to contribute to foreign missions, that quite apart from the persons converted the mere commercial result of missionary effort to our land is worth a thousandfold every year of what is spent on missions! 

It is this threatening saturation of all our active ties with commercial Machiavellianism which is the most alarming phase of American life today. Unless it is checked it means a general demoralization of the sense of fair play, a general lowering of our intellectual honesty. Our indifference to it up to this point has, perhaps, been natural enough. The nation, as a whole, has been dazzled by its material success. There is no one of us with blood in his veins, with the love of great games and great fights in his heart, that is not stirred by the sight of growth, of expansion, of the piling up of wealth and power.

These mammoth enterprises of ours, extending around the earth, fill us with exultant pride. We are an achieving people, we say. We recall, too, that these great material successes mean other things. They mean endowments for our colleges, buildings and equipment for our hospitals, fresh funds for our missions, parks in our cities, pictures in our museum. It is, perhaps, natural that in our pride at the magnificence of our results we should overlook the integrity of the means by which they are achieved, should fail to ask ourselves whether clear thinking, honest living, aspiring ideals, unselfish devotion to unselfish ends were growing as fast as endowments and buildings.

It is certainly easy enough for anyone to persuade himself for a time at least that material growth is its own justification, particularly when that success contributes to one’s pet enterprises. At all events, for many years warnings against the corruption inherent in our illegal and immoral business practices have been received by the majority of those to whom our public morals are entrusted with silence or apology. “Judge not lest ye be judged,” “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” they tell us. Can there be greater blasphemy than to apply these noble Christian counsels to men convicted repeatedly of betraying their trusts, of perjuring themselves for business sake, of breaking and evading laws for greed? Even the continued revelations of these practices and the awful results in destroying character which are and have been coming to us daily this Fall have not been sufficient to disturb the complacency of many a smooth-tongued teacher.

We still hear “wait — judge not lest ye be judged” uttered by eminent mouths as proof after proof is laid before us of the ruin of character which has been wrought by our long indifference to how a man made his money, if he only made it and gave it to the church or college or city. This is no advocacy of hasty condemnation. To accuse without proof is a crime, but to excuse when you have proof is likewise a crime. 

The issue is coming to be too distinct to evade. We must either declare for or against the Machiavellian theory. I am told that it is useless to trouble ourselves, that it will right itself. And that is true. It will right itself in the long run. We all of us may accept, root and branch, the Machiavellian theory, accept it, practice it in our business, in our homes, in society. We may make this country as truly Machiavellian as was the Age of Despots, but that will not defeat the ultimate triumph of eternal justice. The Good is the stronger principle. It finally prevails. All that we can do is temporarily to accelerate or to delay the stream of righteousness.

We can help make our age Machiavellian, but all of the men of the earth combined cannot entrench that theory so firmly that a future age will not destroy our work. We cannot build so gloriously with it that a future age will not condemn us as we do the Despots of Italy. The question is whether we are going to throw our weight for or against the present system—whether we are going as a nation to tolerate it and let the future overthrow it, or whether we are going to try to take care of it ourselves.

There are many signs that we are choosing to do our own house-cleaning, that we have no intention of going down to history along with Cesare Borgia and Alexander VI, the Monks of the Inquisition and Count Metternich; that we are recognizing frankly that commercial Machiavellianism is our great present-day problem.

And if so, what is there to do about it? The first and most effective work is to air the formula, drag it out into the light, put it down in black and white, state it exactly as it is and as our captains practice it. How many of the very men who practice the Machiavellian formula would be willing to stand by it in the open if it were put to them in its bald truth? How many of them would openly put their names to the following creed ? 

“Success is the paramount duty. It can be attained in the highest degree only by force. At times it requires violence, cruelty, falsehood, perjury, treachery. Do not hesitate at these practices, only be sure they are necessary for the good of the business and be very careful to insist upon them always as wise and kind and that they work together for the greatest good of the greatest number.” We all know that there is scarcely one of them so hardened that he would not pale at the thought of signing that creed and yet it is constructed substantially out of their own words as spoken at one time or another on the witness-stand. 

The truth is the Machiavellian formula carries its own death potion with it. It cannot stand the light. It is only strong when it is out of sight—when it is unuttered. Today, as four hundred years ago, state it bluntly and men disown it. Why was Machiavelli repudiated by Italy as soon as The Prince was published? Why has his name remained to this day in all nations an adjective of reproach? Because he set forth uncondemned a system which demands that men sell their souls for worldly glory. And never in any age, blind and hard and temporizing as men may have been, have they been willing to admit aloud that it pays to buy wealth or power or glory at the cost of the soul. They are willing to practice the formula so long as they can avoid hearing it, those who profited by their success have been willing to support them so long as they could deaden their intellects by repeating “judge not lest ye be judged,” but when it came to defending the Machiavellian creed aloud, they dared not do it.

And herein lies our safety. The truth, nothing but the truth, ugly and cruel and relentless as it may be, is the cure for commercial Machiavellianism.


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