Liberty Matters

Is Liberty a Means or an End?

The course of the Roman republic demonstrates extremely well how difficult it is, in ordering a republic, to provide for all the laws that maintain it free.…[I]f those cities that have had their beginning free and that have been corrected by themselves, like Rome, have great difficulty in finding good laws for maintaining themselves free, it is not marvelous that the cities that have had their beginnings immediately servile have not difficulty but an impossibility in ever ordering themselves so that they may be able to live civilly and quietly.[1]
Liberty is not the default state for a society. Looking at 16th century Italy in The Prince and the early years of the Roman Republic in Discourses on Livy, Machiavelli amply demonstrates liberty was indeed a very tenuous thing. Regardless of whether authority in a country is nominally lodged in a prince or the people, liberty is always at risk.
How, then, can a society achieve liberty? Having achieved it, how can liberty be preserved? Enter Machiavelli, who explains that since liberty does not arise and maintain itself, it needs the help of an enlightened ruler. He offers his counsel, like the friend who cares enough about you to tell you what you really do not want to hear. To enable a society to live in freedom requires someone willing to do hard, and often unpleasant, work.
How unpleasant in the work of establishing and maintaining liberty? You should not get into this business if you want to keep your hands clean. “This will always be known by those who read of ancient things: that after a change of state, either from republic to tyranny or from tyranny to republic, a memorable execution against the enemies of present conditions is necessary.”[2] A memorable execution is necessary? That is blood, not dirt, on the hands of the ruler. A free state creates many enemies, which inevitably create problems for the ruler. “If one wishes to remedy these inconveniences and the disorders that the difficulties written above might bring with them, there is no remedy more powerful, nor more valid, more secure, and more necessary, then to kill the sons of Brutus.”[3] Who were these sons of Brutus? Lucius Junius Brutus overthrew the last of the Roman kings and established a republic in 509 BC. His own sons soon joined a plot to bring back the monarchy. Once discovered, Brutus’ sons were flogged and beheaded while their father watched. Machiavelli approves. 
What good comes of these executions? In yet another rather revealing anecdote Machiavelli demonstrates the objective. A duke wanted to pacify an unruly region.
So he put there Messer Remirro de Orco, a cruel and ready man, to whom he gave the fullest power. In a short time Remirro reduced it to peace and unity, with the very greatest reputation for himself. Then the duke judged that such excessive authority was not necessary, because he feared that it might become hateful; and he set up a civil court in the middle of the province, with a most excellent president, where each city had its advocate. And because he knew that past rigors had generated some hatred for Remirro, to purge the spirits of that people and to gain them entirely to himself, he wished to show that if any cruelty had been committed, this had not come from him but from the harsh nature of his minister. And having seized this opportunity, he had him placed one morning in the piazza at Cesana in two pieces, with a piece of wood and a bloody knife beside him. The ferocity of this spectacle left the people at once satisfied and stupefied.[4]
One can well imagine that having seen a ruthless and cruel ruler thus dispatched, the people felt an overwhelming sense of freedom from cruel tyranny. 
Machiavelli patiently explains, page after page, that achieving and maintaining liberty sometimes requires illiberal means. Indeed, a society which wants to be free must prepare for the day of trouble in which it needs to abandon its freedom. “So a republic will never be perfect unless it has provided for everything with its laws and has established a remedy for every accident and given the mode to govern it. So, concluding, I say that those republics that in urgent dangers do not take refuge either in the dictator or in similar authorities will always come to ruin in grave accidents.”[5]
As Machiavelli proceeds in his analysis of good statecraft, one begins to notice the contradiction. If preserving liberty means frequently resorting to illiberal methods, what exactly is the difference between living in a free state and living under a tranny? Is the difference purely the relative number of atrocities? 
We begin to see the solution to this puzzle of whether liberty can only be maintained by illiberal means when we observe why Machiavelli thinks people care about freedom. The people’s interest in liberty is extremely parochial. “[T]he common utility that is drawn from a free way of life is not recognized by anyone while it is possessed: this is being able to enjoy one’s things freely, without any suspicion, not fearing for the honor of wives and that of children, not to be afraid for oneself.”[6] As Machiavelli observes in The Prince, a ruler can avoid becoming hated “if he abstains from the property of his citizens and his subjects, and from their women.”[7] For Machiavelli, this is the entire extent of the blessings of liberty. It is not freedom of speech or religion or the press or assembly or trial by jury that matters to people. It is simply making sure their bank accounts and spouses are not appropriated by the rulers.
The error of thinking that Machiavelli is acting as a friend to liberty arises because we have not been clear about the nature of liberty in his writings. For Machiavelli, liberty is a means, not an end. He attributes the source of thinking of liberty as a means to the people themselves. A ruler “should examine what causes are those that make [peoples] (sic) desire to be free. He will find that a small part of them desires to be free so as to command, but all the others, who are infinite, desire freedom so as to live secure.”[8] Security, not liberty, is the desired end.
If liberty is a means and not an end, it explains everything that Machiavelli has counseled above. While Machiavelli never actually explicitly said the ends justify the means, it is not farfetched to attribute such a sentiment to him. If liberty is useful in attaining the end of secure society, then by all means, liberty should be promoted. But, at the first sign that liberty is not a useful means, it should be abandoned hastily. 
Far from being that ever honest friend to liberty telling us what we do not want to hear, Machiavelli is the serpent in the garden, whispering sweetly in the ears of a would-be ruler that the appearance of supporting liberty is a good means to achieving and maintaining power. In talking about whether a ruler should be morally good, Machiavelli notes:
[It] is not necessary for a prince to have all the above-mentioned qualities in fact, but it is indeed necessary to appear to have them. Nay, I dare say this, that by having them and always observing them, they are harmful; and by appearing to have them, they are useful, as it is to appear merciful, faithful, humane, honest, and religious, and to be so; but to remain with a spirit built so that, if you need not to be those things, you are able and know how to change to the contrary.[9]
In exactly the same way, it is more important to appear to care about liberty than to actually make that the end toward which you are striving. 
Machiavelli’s influence is thus quite pernicious. The ruler who comes to power with the promise of bringing liberty is soon corrupted. Machiavelli is quick to note “how easily men are corrupted and make themselves assume a contrary nature, however good and well brought up.”[10] But, this path to corruption is made easier by Machiavelli’s frequent reminders that abandoning liberty sometimes really is necessary: “Whoever takes up the governing of a multitude, either by the way of freedom or by the way of principality, and does not secure himself against those who are enemies to that new order makes a state of short life.”[11]
Sadly we have seen Machiavelli’s influence in generation after generation. By encouraging us to think about liberty as a means rather than an end, Machiavelli has made it all too easy to abandon the commitment to liberty whenever more convenient means come along to achieve desirable ends. 
Machiavelli, Niccolo (1996) Discourses on Livy, Harvey Mansfield and Nathan Tarcov, translators, University of Chicago Press.
Machiavelli, Niccolo (1998) The Prince, Harvey Mansfield, translator, University of Chicago Press.
[1] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 49
[2] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, III 3
[3] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 16
[4] Machiavelli, The Prince, VII
[5] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy p. I 34
[6] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 16
[7] Machiavelli, The Prince, XVII
[8] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 16
[9] Machiavelli, The Prince, XVIII
[10] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 42
[11] Machiavelli, Discourses on Livy, I 16