Why Nations Fail

As a follow on to the Bear Skin blog post several weeks ago titled ‘What would Machiavelli Do?‘ comes this short comment on the book “Why Nations Fail” by Daron Acemoglu and James Robinson.

While Niccolo Machiavelli gave a very well thought out treatise on what Princes, or individuals of power, should do to maintain a stable state, Acemoglu and Robinson give a very well thought out treatise on how complex political and economic systems contribute to the prosperity [or failure] of a state.

In brief, their book puts emphasis on the need for centralised power in much the same way Machiavelli does. Their argument is that prosperity is generated by investment and innovation. Without centralised power, there is disorder, which is anathema to investment.

However, for investment and innovation to flourish, entrepreneurs and inventors must have good reasons to think that, if successful, they will not be plundered by the powerful. If the institutions of power enable the elite to serve its own interest – a structure they term “extractive institutions” – these interests ultimately undermine the very innovation and investment necessary for prosperity.

Numerous case studies are listed of both ‘inclusive’ and ‘extractive’ systems of government creating both ‘virtuous circle’ and ‘viscous circle’ of national prosperity or decline. Botswana is lauded as a contemporary example of a nation which has prospered under good leadership. At the critical juncture of independence from colonial rule, wise Botswanan leaders such as its first president, Seretse Khama, [see A United Kingdom] and his Botswana Democratic Party chose democracy over dictatorship and the public interest over private greed. Botswana holds regular elections, has not since had a civil war and enforces property rights. When diamonds were discovered, a far-sighted law ensured that the newfound riches were shared for the national good, not elite gain.

What is of most startling interest when contrasting the two works of political theory and philosophy, is that Machiavelli eschewed ‘morality’ and what ‘should’ be done, in favour of what is most politically expedient while Acemoglu and Robinson seem to be pointing us back to ancient wisdom. Acemoglu and Robinson argue for leadership that cedes short term power and gain for long term national good and which promotes public interest over private greed. Yet they argue for this from economic rather than morally grounded reasons.

This begs the question, do ancient moral codes derive their wisdom from systems thinking? And are they less divinely illuminated and more beholden to insight taken from the consequences of decisions across generations rather than within the lifespan of any individual?

Once could counter Machiavelli on his point:

He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.

… with the counter wisdom that, one [a ruler] who neglects what ought to be done, sooner effects the ruin of future generations. This alone should give any leader pause to consider their decisions lest their short term success indeed bring about ruin for those who follow.

What Would Machiavelli Do?

Niccolo Machiavelli was a 16th century Italian diplomat and political theorist, author of The Prince (Il Principe).  His short treatise was published in 1532 and has forever secured his fame [or infamy] as the book is singularly responsible for bringing the word “Machiavellian” into usage as a pejorative word in relation social and political dynamics.

The Prince is sometimes claimed to be one of the first works of modern philosophy, especially political philosophy, in which the pragmatic truth is taken to be more important than any abstract ideal.

Niccolo Machiavelli

The general theme of the short text is to accept that the aims of princes – such as glory and survival – can justify the use of any rational means to achieve those ends, without recourse to questions of morality.

He who neglects what is done for what ought to be done, sooner effects his ruin than his preservation.

The Prince starts by defining the “state” to mean,

all forms of organization of supreme political power, whether republican or princely.

He then clearly distinguishes new princedoms from hereditary established princedoms, by saying that hereditary ones are much easier to rule. For such a prince,

unless extraordinary vices cause him to be hated, it is reasonable to expect that his subjects will be naturally well disposed towards him.

This is opposed to his advice to new princes, for whom as the

… new ruler who will need to establish himself in defiance of custom.

Conquests by “criminal virtue” are ones in which the new prince secures his power. Machiavelli advises that a prince should carefully calculate all the wicked deeds he needs to do to secure his power, and then execute them all at once, such that he need not commit any more wickedness for the rest of his reign. In this way, his subjects will slowly forget his cruel deeds and his reputation can recover.


Lorenzo di Piero de’ Medicito whom the final version of The Prince was dedicated.

Since there are many possible qualities that a prince can be said to possess, he must not be overly concerned about having all the good ones. A prince may be perceived to be merciful, faithful, humane, frank, and religious, but most important is only to seem to have these qualities. A prince cannot truly have these qualities because at times it is necessary to act against them.

In addressing the question of whether it is better to be loved or feared, Machiavelli writes,

…it is far safer to be feared than loved if you cannot be both.

Fear is simply a means to an end, and that end is security for the prince. The fear instilled should never be excessive, for that could be dangerous to the prince.

Machiavelli notes that a prince is praised for keeping his word. However, he also notes that a prince is also praised for the illusion of being reliable in keeping his word. A prince, therefore, should only keep his word when it suits his purposes, but do his utmost to maintain the illusion that he does keep his word and that he is reliable in that regard.

As Machiavelli notes,

He should appear to be compassionate, faithful to his word, guileless, and devout. And indeed he should be so. But his disposition should be such that, if he needs to be the opposite, he knows how.

In summary, to answer the titular question, ‘What would Machiavelli do?’ one may well surmise he would above all, do what needs to be done…

…for a man who strives after goodness in all his acts is sure to come to ruin, since there are so many men who are not good.

The Orchid Thief

The Orchid Thief is a 1998 non-fiction book by American journalist Susan Orlean based on an article that Orlean wrote for The New Yorker. It is based on her investigation of the 1994 arrest of John Laroche and a group of Seminole Indians in south Florida for poaching rare orchids in the Fakahatchee Strand State Preserve.

Laroche, a Miami eccentric, hit upon the idea of collecting endangered species of orchids from swampland that was Seminole territory, by using real Seminole Indians to obtain his specimens and exploiting their legal right to use their own ancestral lands.

Laroche narrates a poetic passage about the beauty and mutability of the Orchid and the limitless shapes and forms they take to attract insects, insects which in turn imitate their shapes and coloring and fall in love with the flowers, propagating them in a curious dance of nature. Orlean’s writing centered on the power of singular passion to drive a person’s life.

Adaptation,  is a 2002 American comedy-drama, directed by Spike Jonze and written by Charlie [and Donald] Kaufman, based on Orlean’s book. Kaufman who had been hired to write a screenplay of the book, experienced writer’s block He ultimately wrote a script based on his experience of writer’s block while adapting the book into a screenplay.

Kaufman has a similar singular passion to Laroche, the passion to create a truly unique story, one that is far from the formulaic Hollywood scripts he abhors. The film then is a a pun, referring both to Darwinian principle of adaptation among Orchid species as lauded by Laroche, and the ordeal for Kaufman of adapting a book into a screenplay.

Kaufman co-credits the screenplay to his twin brother, a curiosity since Donald does not exist outside of the screenplay. Donald is everything Charlie is not – confident, successful with women, a hack writer. Faced with the surprising news that Donald’s script for a clichéd psychological thriller, called The 3, is selling for six or seven figures in Hollywood , Charlie resorts to attending a screenwriting seminar in New York to seek inspiration.

Needless to say the film slides from biography of man with writer’s block into a ludicrous conglomeration of elements of a Hollywood thriller, drugs, sex, guns, chases, even a crocodile attack. Charlie visibly perks up once he knows how to convert the book into a film and closes wondering which international superstar will portray himself in the film.

The film is both teller and told, both narrator and narrated. One is left realising that we have not watched a story of a man adapting a book into a screenplay, we have in fact been watching the story of a man telling the story we are watching, co-written by a character within the screenplay, leading us on a merry dance of adaptive creativity.

But what more would you expect from the writer-director duo who brought us ‘Being John Malkovich.’

Pygmalion

Pygmalion (Πυγμαλίων Pugmalíōn) is a legendary figure of Cyprus, most familiar from Ovid’s narrative poem Metamorphoses. He is a sculptor who falls in love with a statue he has carved.


Depiction of Ovid’s narrative by Jean Raoux.

Having crafted the perfect woman, Pygmalion makes offerings to Aphrodite at her festival day, quietly wishing for a bride who would be “the living likeness of my ivory girl.” When he returns home, he kisses his ivory statue, and finds that its lips are warm. He kisses it again, and finds that the ivory has lost its hardness. Aphrodite has granted Pygmalion’s wish. Pygmalion marries the ivory sculpture and they live happily together.

In modern times, George Bernard Shaw’s play Pygmalion, reexamines the myth through the story of underclass flower-girl Eliza Doolittle who is metaphorically “brought to life” by a phonetics professor, Henry Higgins. Higgins teaches her to refine her accent and conversation and otherwise conduct herself with upper-class manners in social situations. The play inspired the film My Fair Lady starring Audrey Hepburn.


King Cophetua and the Beggar Maid, 1884, by Edward Burne-Jones, currently hangs in the Tate Gallery, London.

George Bernard Shaw’s re-telling of the Pygmalion myth also draws upon the Elizabethan ballad of King Cophetua. Titled “The King and the Beggar-maid,” the story is Cophetua, tells of an African king who one day while looking out a palace window, witnesses a young beggar, Penelophon, “clad all in grey”. Struck by love at first sight, Cophetua walks out into the street, he tells Penelophon that she is to be his wife. She agrees and becomes queen, and soon loses all trace of her former poverty and low class.

C. S. Lewis often used Cophetua and the beggar girl as an image of God’s love for the unlovely. In The Problem of Pain, he writes,

We cannot even wish, in our better moments, that [God] could reconcile Himself to our present impurities – no more than the beggar maid could wish that King Cophetua should be content with her rags and dirt…

In classical fairy tales, the maiden is woken from an enchanted sleep by the kiss of the Prince, just as Pygmalion, the sculptor awakens his bride, with a kiss. Moreover, Professor Higgins endows Eliza with dignity and pride, bringing her ‘to life‘ by bestowing upon her the graces of society. But these tales offer little nuance to what may occur to an unsuspecting creator once he has summoned a real life woman with agency and choice, into his life.

It is not love to to fashion a person as though an object, to be pure and good, endowed with life yet with the expectation it will remain good and pure in perpetuity? A mannequin or socially engineered project like Eliza Doolittle cannot truly feel loved nor genuinely love in return under such conditions.

Bernard Shaw’s play notoriously does not end with the fairy-tale love story of Ovid’s Pygmalion. Rather Eliza rebels from Higgins, refusing to fetch his slippers and he grows furious for “lavishing” his knowledge and his “regard and intimacy” on a “heartless guttersnipe” who he has made “a consort for a king.”  The Hollywood film version ‘My Fair Lady’ of course rejected such a realistic ending in favour of, well a Hollywood one.

What is reality then? The Hebrew prophets tell of a tragic drama between YHWH and his people, here depicted as a young girl taken from poverty to be the bride of the King. Ezekiel 16 reads:

10 I clothed you with an embroidered dress and put sandals of fine leather on you. I dressed you in fine linen and covered you with costly garments. 11 I adorned you with jewelry: I put bracelets on your arms and a necklace around your neck, 12 and I put a ring on your nose, earrings on your ears and a beautiful crown on your head.

However, the bride does not remain beautiful and obedient for the king. She soon rebels, turning to prostitution and idol worship and even giving her children up for human sacrifices.

15 “‘But you trusted in your beauty and used your fame to become a prostitute… 16 You took some of your garments to make gaudy high places, where you carried on your prostitution... 17 You also took the fine jewelry I gave you, the jewelry made of my gold and silver, and you made for yourself male idols and engaged in prostitution with them. 

The prophet continues to lament all of Israel’s misfortunes as resulting from the self inflicted chaos of Israel’s choices, a once chosen and adorned bride who chased other lovers. He closes with a reminder of YHWHs eternal promises.

Soren Kierkegaard’s version of the ballad of King Cophetua, ‘The King and the Maiden’ retells the tale with the king willing to take on the clothes of a beggar to claim the woman he loves. It is he that abases himself rather than she he elevates, lest he overwhelm her with his power and grandeur and never truly claim her heart.

The King and the Maiden

This short story strikes at the heart of the reader, for love is true love not when the object of desire is bestowed with graces to make her worthy of love, but when she is met by the humbled heart of one earnestly and repeatedly wishing to know her win her heart, one indeed willing to suffer the pains of loving her and her imperfections and keep coming back to an eternal promise of love.