March 20, 2010

Lessons from the (Modern) Prince, Part 2: Timing of reform

Following from my previous post on the lessons that Machiavelli’s The Prince can give us today, I thought I’d discuss the timing of policy reform. This is applicable, in my view, for most policy makers, especially political policy makers, and for large reforms. This series of posts is part of Project 52 – one post per week throughout the year.

Hence it is to be remarked that, in seizing a state, the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily; and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits. He who does otherwise, either from timidity or evil advice, is always compelled to keep the knife in his hand; neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs. For injuries ought to be done all at one time, so that, being tasted less, they offend less; benefits ought to be given little by little, so that the flavour of them may last longer.

Machiavelli, The Prince, Chapter VIII

In keeping with my nod to Antonio Gramsci, the prince in this example should be thought of as the political party, rather than an individual. The prince is not the leader (i.e. not Rudd or Obama, etc). The “usurper” in the quote above equates to a political party who has just won government over the former prince. The “injuries” are the prince’s legislative and other reforms.

… the usurper ought to examine closely into all those injuries which it is necessary for him to inflict, and to do them all at one stroke so as not to have to repeat them daily…” The newly elected political party’s first task is to identify its legislative program. As Machiavelli remarks, it is best for new princes to implement their changes (injuries) as soon as possible. This is of course difficult, as the new government will not have the detail and knowledge base to immediately introduce its new bills to parliament.

A wise prince (political party) therefore prepares its bills and other legislation for major reforms before the election. This is evident for example with Jeff Kennett, whose ministers secretly formulated legislation that was passed through parliament within months of winning government in Victoria, while the Labor party was still in disarray.

It is for this reason also that wise princes should make their changes as soon as possible. The deposed prince (the former government and new opposition) are demoralised, disorganised and ill-equipped to handle a disciplined, powerful prince. They likely do not even have a leader (as we saw after the 2007 election, it took  a while for the Liberals to elect a new leader).

The new prince also has the benefit of claiming a mandate. Thus, they benefit from a supportive public, a media preoccupied with the “honeymoon period”, and a disorganised opposition.

… and thus by not unsettling men he will be able to reassure them, and win them to himself by benefits.” All of the controversial legislation should be weighted at the front of the new prince’s reign. Things like health care reform, carbon pollution reduction, tax changes, and so on. Meanwhile, the benefits, such as tax cuts, increases to welfare and benefits, or improvements to the pension, can be introduced throughout the parliamentary term. All of the “pain” is experienced at the start, the unsettling period is over quickly, and any displeasure from the electorate can be restored through the beneficial changes throughout the rest of the four years.

… neither can he rely on his subjects, nor can they attach themselves to him, owing to their continued and repeated wrongs.” This is a problem that the Obama and Rudd have found. Because they have spent a considerable part of their first terms “listening” and “consulting”, they have spread out the injuries.

The subjects in this case is not just the electorate, but also the “nobles” – the powerful entrenched business interests, such as the carbon lobby, private health insurers, and the rest of the Business Council of Australia members. While they may have been supine at the start of the prince’s reign, they grow in boldness and anger as the new government slowly introduces its legislation. Their interests are mostly for no change. By giving them time, they can plot and plan against the prince – building opposition in parliament and the community. The prince is therefore “compelled to keep the knife in his hand” – and be constantly publicly fighting and defending throughout the parliamentary term. This fighting distracts the populace from focusing on the good things.

As Machiavelli says, people remember the wrongs commmitted against them far more than generosity.

Finally, given the Australian electoral cycle, the earlier major reforms are brought in, the most the Australian people and business can become used to the changes. Hopefully, by the time the election comes around again, the new changes are ingrained and now considered part of the natural order of things, making it difficult for future “usurpers” to undo the reforms.

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