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No Excuse-Making

Here’s a letter to a very smart and able correspondent:

Mr. Charles Butler

Dear Mr. Butler:

Thanks for your e-mail and for patiently awaiting my tardy reply.

You think me “impractically idealistic” to hold politicians to the same moral standards to which we hold private citizens.  Government, in your view, “must deal with monumental affairs” – monumental affairs whose successful management, you believe, requires that government officials “follow Machiavelli’s practical advice.”

It is an odd argument that insists that, because politicians have higher responsibilities than do private people, politicians should therefore be held to lower moral standards.

I reject this argument.  I reject it for the same reason that Edmund Burke rejected Machiavellianism: “All Writers on the Science of Policy are agreed, and they agree with Experience, that all Governments must frequently infringe the Rules of Justice to support themselves; that Truth must give way to Dissimulation; Honesty to Convenience; and Humanity itself to the reigning interest.  The Whole of this Mystery of Iniquity is called the Reason of State.  It is a Reason, which I own I cannot penetrate.  What Sort of a Protection is this of the general Right, that is maintained by infringing the Rights of Particulars?  What sort of Justice is this, which is inforced by Breaches of its own Laws?  These Paradoxes I leave to be solved by the able heads of Legislators and Politicians.  For my part, I say what a plain Man would say on such an Occasion.  I can never believe that, any Institution agreeable to Nature, and proper for Mankind, could find it necessary, or even expedient in any Case whatsoever to do, what the best and worthiest Instincts of Mankind warn us to avoid.  But no wonder, that what is set up in Opposition to the State of Nature, should preserve itself by trampling upon the Law of Nature.”*

If “monumental affairs” cannot be managed by human beings without the managing human beings violating common rules of honesty and decency, the proper move is not to excuse the violations of common rules of honesty and decency but, instead, to strip human beings of any and all authority to manage “monumental affairs.”

Donald J. Boudreaux
Professor of Economics
Martha and Nelson Getchell Chair for the Study of Free Market Capitalism at the Mercatus Center
Fairfax, VA  22030

* Edmund Burke, A Vindication of Natural Society (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982 [1756]), pp. 41-43.

UPDATE: I’m aware that Burke’s Vindication is a satire (as my colleague Dan Klein reminds me by sending me this essay by George Smith).  Yet (1) given Burke’s own very Hayekian understanding of the limits of human reason and knowledge, it’s likely (in my view) that Burke in fact really did reject Machiavellianism for the reasons suggested in the quotation,* and (2) even if Burke’s ghost itself is appalled at my quotation of him above, I believe that the quotation expresses beautifully an important piece of often-ignored wisdom.

* I’m no Burke scholar, so I concede up front that my educated guess (for that is all it is) about Burke’s attitude toward Machiavellianism might well be wrong.