Front Page Titles (by Subject) Machiavelli, Corruption, and America - Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4
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Machiavelli, Corruption, and America - Leonard P. Liggio, Literature of Liberty, October/December 1979, vol. 2, No. 4 
Literature of Liberty: A Review of Contemporary Liberal Thought was published first by the Cato Institute (1978-1979) and later by the Institute for Humane Studies (1980-1982) under the editorial direction of Leonard P. Liggio.
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Machiavelli, Corruption, and America
“Machiavelli: Republican Politics and its Corruption.” Political Theory 7 (February 1979):5–34.
Professor Shumer focuses primarily on the thought of Niccolo Machiavelli (1469–1527), especially on his theory of republican politics and its decay as outlined in the Discourses. Indirectly, however, she is also concerned with contemporary American politics and the conditions required for truly humanistic politics.
In current usage, the term “corruption” denotes one of two realities: either personal dishonesty or practices which incorporate an improper mixture of money and politics. Machiavelli, however, employs the term in the older sense, in which a whole polity may be “corrupt.” In the Discourses, for example, he develops an elaborate comparison between ancient Rome, the healthy republic of virtu, and Florence, the republic of corruption. Professor Shumer scrutinizes the critique of Florence and detects many parallels with contemporary American conditions.
For Machiavelli, the essential dimension of the corrupt commonwealth is a pervasive privatization of both the average citizen and those who hold public office. In such a polity, citizens view the public sphere as merely a wider field in which to pursue private interests. As a result, leaders easily play on the cupidity of the populace with promises and flattery; worth slowly becomes irrelevant in electing public officials.
This profile of a corrupt people disturbingly resembles modern political scientists' descriptions of normal, healthy, political activity in contemporary America. As a typical example, Robert Dahl observes that “in a rough sense, the essence of all competitive politics is bribery of the electorate by politicians.” Unlike Machiavelli, Dahl assumes that men are “by nature” privatized and that they will pursue only their own interests in the public sphere, power being just one more weapon in the personal struggle to dominate.
As a further consequence of privatization, Machiavelli observes that a people who abandon the task of working out a meaningful collective life lose the capacity for long-term judgment. Since supreme public values do not exist, all is consumed by the confused passions of the moment. No shared ideals oppose the ruthless use of power. Thus a privately-oriented people must, of necessity, fear conflict, since it lacks the means to control the excesses of political competition.
On the other hand, Machiavelli views boisterous conflict as the hallmark of a healthy political race. The ancient Romans often engaged in frenzied political contention. Yet, since they possessed a solid public sense, the conflicts ended in debate and engendered new laws. Among the decadent Florentines, however, political rivalries could only lead to violence, exile, and death, and to a new tyranny to end those ills.
For Machiavelli, the most critical task of every people is to evolve coherence, purposes, and meaning in public life. The task is difficult, since as insightful minds realize, we are faced with an essentially empty world, a world devoid of absolute values. Through politics, men can create finite, solid reality out of this infinite possibility, either through the Prince, who alone knows the fragility of his creation, or through a community of citizens willing to face their situation without illusion. As they do this, they lay the foundations for an enduring political tradition.
In contrast to the living stuff of tradition, open to conflict and fundamental questioning, modern polities have substituted bureaucratic order and complex legislation—superficial foundations for a free and vigorous commonwealth. By shirking the hard quest for public values, today's peoples have, in Professor Shumer's view, chosen moral and spiritual liberty and long-term survival.