The Machiavellians: Principle I


The Machiavellians, written by James Burnham in 1943, is the greatest work of political “science” you’ve never heard of.

Burnham was a prominent Trotskyite during the 1930s. However, he had a Road to Damascus moment in the wake of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact and the Soviet invasion of Finland. It was during during the period between his previous life as an American Communist/Socialist Party apparatchik and his later career as a prominent conservative intellectual (he was one of the original founders of National Review) that Burnham wrote his two most important books, The Managerial Revolution and The Machiavellians. Writing during this transition produced a curious fusion of the worldview of the Old Left and the nascent worldview of the New Right. Burnham writes in a frame of mind that is largely free of the orthodoxy of the Left but hasn’t yet absorbed the orthodoxy of the Right.

Burnham loomed larger on the U.S. national stage in 1943 than he did later. I’ve read that he’d be ranked as one of the great political thinkers of the 20th century if he’d died in 1944. Burnham’s influence may be wider than recognized, however: Burnham may be the unacknowledged godfather of William Riker’s school of public choice theory. Riker was an influential political science pioneer, the founder of the “Rochester School” of political science. Bruce Bueno de Mesquita, a former student of Riker’s, has even claimed that Riker was “the greatest political thinker since Machiavelli”. Bueno de Mesquita himself has achieved prominence by using an updated version of Riker’s original theory to make accurate predictions about the outcome of political events:

You werent like that before the beard
You weren't like that before the beard

To verify the accuracy of [Bueno de Mesquita’s] model, the CIA set up a kind of forecasting face-off that pit predictions from his model against those of Langley’s more traditional in-house intelligence analysts and area specialists. “We tested Bueno de Mesquita’s model on scores of issues that were conducted in real time—that is, the forecasts were made before the events actually happened,” says Stanley Feder, a former high-level CIA analyst. “We found the model to be accurate 90 percent of the time,” he wrote. Another study evaluating Bueno de Mesquita’s real-time forecasts of 21 policy decisions in the European community concluded that “the probability that the predicted outcome was what indeed occurred was an astounding 97 percent.” What’s more, Bueno de Mesquita’s forecasts were much more detailed than those of the more traditional analysts. “The real issue is the specificity of the accuracy,” says Feder. “We found that DI (Directorate of National Intelligence) analyses, even when they were right, were vague compared to the model’s forecasts. To use an archery metaphor, if you hit the target, that’s great. But if you hit the bull’s eye—that’s amazing.”

If Bueno de Mesquita’s version of public choice theory turns out to have predictive powers, it would validate Burham’s first principle of the “Machiavellian school” (Burnham first stated his principle and then followed it with the contrary view in parentheses):

1. An objective science of politics, and of society, comparable in its methods to the other empirical sciences, is possible. Such a science will describe and correlate observable social facts, and, on the basis of the facts of the past, will state more or less probably hypotheses of the future. Such a science will be neutral with respect to any practical political goal: that is, like any science, its statements will be tested by facts accessible to any observer, rich or poor, ruler or ruled, and will in no way be dependent upon the acceptance of some particular ethical aim or ideal.
(Contrary views hold that a science of politics is not possible because of the peculiarity of “human nature” or for some similar reason; or that political analysis is always dependent on some practical program for the improvement—or destruction—of society; or that any political science must be a “class science”—true for the “bourgeois,” but not for the “proletariat,” as, for example, the Marxists claim.)

I’m more of the Nassim Nicholas Taleb persuasion. I believe that complex systems within the “fourth quadrant” strongly resist efforts to subject them to conventional rational analysis. Naturally, Burnham’s writing in The Machiavellians reflects the style of thinking that preceded the chaos/complexity revolution of the 1970s. This mode of thought held that, given enough time, complex and chaotic systems would eventually surrender to rationalist/reductionist/mechanical solutions. Isaac Asimov’s original Foundation trilogy, written in the 1940s and 1950s, featured weather control machines. That was before Lorenz discovered the butterfly effect, which ruled out the possibility of total weather control that the early Asimov envisioned. I believe that politics is too complex to reduce it to the mathematical precision achieved by the physical sciences. Burnham acknowledges this argument but contends that general principles can still be usefully extracted from the study of politics. Bueno de Mesquita’s work, following in the spirit of Burnham’s work, suggests that there may be more to Burnham’s first Machiavellian principle than I suspect.

3 thoughts on “The Machiavellians: Principle I”

  1. The article you linked about public choice referred to Buchanan and Tullock, who are the names I most associate with public choice. More the point, BBdM seems to be his own loudest cheerleader, and I would be chary of accepting his glowing reports until his models are open to the public and have been thoroughly vetted. Using the CIA as a token for utility, seems to me to be fraught with problems. The most salient is that the CIA is a bunch of bumblers who have shown no skill in analysis or forecasting over the past generation.

    Taleb, and many others, follow Hayek and the Austrian School, in rejecting the notion that there can be such a thing as a science of society (a/k/a scientific socialism, Marxism, etc.). Sensitive dependence on initial conditions is only problem with modeling in general. The more difficult problem is the one Hayek called the knowledge problem. It is conceptually impossible for the modeler to acquire the knowledge needed to create a useful model, because it is emergent and contingent upon the future state of the world. Hegel actually expressed it well. “The owl of Minerva spreads its wings only with the falling of the dusk.”

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