January 28, 2004

The Case for Dictatorship

David Gordon reviews The Modern Prince: What Leaders Need to Know Now, by Carnes Lord:

Lord wastes no time in letting us know where he stands. Machiavelli must be our guide. In particular, we must learn from him that the supreme form of political leadership consists of founding "new orders." The founding prince molds his society according to his ideas: "Listen to Machiavelli: ‘It should be considered that nothing is more difficult to handle, more doubtful of success, nor more dangerous to manage, than to put oneself at the head of introducing new orders. For the introducer has all those who benefit from the old order as enemies, and he has lukewarm defenders in all who might benefit from the new orders’" (p. 8, quoting Machiavelli).

The leader must innovate; but what sort of innovation earns Lord’s praise in the American context? It transpires that Lord’s Machiavellian new orders do not amount to very much: he has merely dressed up in fancy language Alexander Hamilton’s familiar program of a strong executive who follows a mercantilist economic policy.

Here Lord stands on familiar Straussian ground. Straussians revere the Federalist; and whenever you find someone yammering about the wisdom of "Publius," it is a good bet that you have found one of Strauss’s acolytes.


When Lord discusses how the leader is to use force in foreign affairs, the restraints of justice never cross his mind. Instead, the leader, in correct Machiavellian fashion, must follow an energetic, impetuous course of conduct. He must avoid a danger: he must not pay too much attention to advice from the military. Not, of course, because the generals are apt too readily to counsel military intervention; quite the contrary, they tend to be altogether too cautious.

I have promised to save the best for last; and, with Lord’s help, the promise is easily fulfilled. Many people, according to our cheerleader for "energy," entertain an erroneous assumption. They have the strange idea that, faced with a crisis, one should endeavor to reduce tensions and settle the issues in dispute peacefully. What nonsense! "Particularly troublesome is the idea that visible preparations for war should be avoided in a crisis for fear such actions will lead to unwanted escalation. . . . There is a tendency today in some quarters to understand crisis management as a form of ‘conflict resolution’ in which third parties set out to prevent or end violent conflict between other states. . . . Some conflicts are stubbornly resistant to mediation by outsiders, and there may well be cases . . . where military action is the only realistic option for advancing the prospects for a political settlement and eventual lasting peace" (p. 204).

We must not let the nasty mediators get in the way of Impetuous Leader, as he blasts and bombs to insure eventual peace. And it gets even better. A crisis atmosphere is in many cases desirable. Otherwise, the leader cannot get what he wants: "In a larger perspective, one should bear in mind that crises can have their positive side. They present opportunities not always available to policy makers to mobilize the country behind certain policies and to overcome bureaucratic obstacles to firm action. . . . [Crises] may also open avenues for skilled leaders to strengthen alliances, bolster the legitimacy of their regimes, and enhance their international prestige" (pp. 204-05). Carnes Lord, whatever his virtues, has not given much help to those who endeavor to acquit Straussians of bellicose tendencies.