Review of Peter Galie and Christopher Bopst’s “Machiavelli & Modern Business”

The Prince (Classics) by Niccolo Machiavelli (1961-07-30): Books

Niccolo Machiavelli’s The Prince (1532) is largely responsible for every departure from Puritan standards of business ethics; and should be looked upon with Biblical criticism. Most of the corrupt and deceptive practices that exist in governments and businesses today, can be linked with the “Machiavellian” principles laid down in this evil book. It was placed on the List of Prohibited Books by the Catholic Church. But I would allow for only one Machiavellian principle: and that is it may be permissible to righteously lie or at least withhold information from an enemy that would do a good man harm, as the prophet Elisha did to the Syrian army (2 Kings 6:19). In that case, God miraculously assisted him in his deception. Jesus echoed this view when he said, “I send you out as sheep in the midst of wolves. Therefore be wise as serpents and harmless as doves” (Matt. 10:16). But the Bible holds no place for manipulative slandering, or tale-bearing, or spreading false rumors with the intent of ruining a person’s reputation (Exod. 20:16).

Galie and Bopst, while trying to be fair to Machiavelli, admit that in his Discourses, he makes clear statements against what he called “corruption,” or bribing people to stay in line with the organization the leader is managing. Machiavelli would be against what we today would call white collar crime: falsifying financial information, insider trading, money laundering, investment fraud, embezzlement, stock market manipulation, etc. Things like this led to the Enron scandal. Machiavelli was apparently against things like that, but its likely the only reason he was against those things, is because white collar crime can tear down an organization. When it comes to the area of “soft skills,” Machiavelli encourages the darker side of human nature to find its expression, to play a strategic game of king of the hill at office politics, and come out on the top as the manager.

The Machiavellian businessman is all about playing the game of office politics, being keenly aware of forces like self-interest and internal competition within a company. The ambitious and self-serving mentality of looking out for number one. Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations underscored self-interest and competition as national economic forces; its what he called the “invisible hand” that guides the economy. But long before Smith was born, Machiavelli had emphasized self-interest and competition as personal things to be dealt with, while in a leadership role. When his principles are applied to the business world, financial success would be the only goal, not building team morale or employee loyalty to the company. Christian ethics are actually viewed as obstacles to financial success, because worldly means need to be used to achieve worldly ends or goals. In this case, using gratuitous profanity, maintaining ungodly friendships, flirting with people at work regardless of their relationship status, etc. He doesn’t state these things literally, but they are a logical outgrowth of his thinking.

More closer to the chest is Machiavelli’s idea that the ends justify the means, whether they are ethically right or wrong. One business writer, Stanley Bing, titled his book What Would Machiavelli Do? The Ends Justify the Meanness (2000). The “meanness” being things like workplace bullying and manipulative behavior, which can put you at an advantage but at another person’s expense. Of course, this destroys team morale and makes employees have an “independent contractor attitude” (p. 246). “It is better to be feared than loved,” he says. This makes a business feel more like a street gang, or a dysfunctional family, than a professional environment.

Habitual lying is one of the more Machiavellian traits: or, lying that professionally benefits you and keeps you in control of your career goals. Its what people call “lying to get ahead.” CEOs, for example, can motivate employees by lying to them about pay raises. Certain employees can be singled out and told things to scare them away, like, “We’re probably going to have to start laying a lot of people off.” This so that certain undesirable employees will just quit on their own, so the manager doesn’t look like a bad guy for firing them. Often these can be very good productive employees that hold a lot of influence with people, but which may unintentionally pose a competitive career threat to the manager. The manager might actually feel threatened that this employee might be used to replace him, so he targets him and makes him feel uncomfortable, until he finally just leaves on his own. However, Machiavelli would probably more lean in the direction of telling half-truths and withholding information than he would of blatantly lying and creating fictional stories all the time. The one is more cunning, the other is easier to detect and publicly condemn. The key is to be underhanded and always look like a good guy to everybody else. In other words, be a total hypocrite.

Galie and Bopst say that the central message of Machiavelli’s book The Prince is that business leaders “should adopt a cynical and amoral view of the world, look out for themselves first, and let the ends justify the means” (p. 244); and the proper view of a Machiavellian person is one who believes in the “use of deception, cruelty, and ruthlessness to achieve one’s goals” (p. 245).

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