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PROMISE AND PERFORMANCE
PUBLISHED IN THE "OUTLOOK," JULY 28, 1900
T is customary to express wonder and horror at
the cynical baseness of the doctrines of Machiavelli. Both the wonder and the horror are justified, though it would perhaps be wiser to keep them for the society which the Italian described rather than for the describer himself, but it is somewhat astonishing that there should be so little insistence upon the fact that Machiavelli rests his whole system upon his contemptuous belief in the folly and low civic morality of the multitude, and their demand for fine promises and their indifference to performance. Thus he says: "It is necessary to be a great deceiver and hypocrite; for men are so simple and yield so readily to the wants of the moment that he who will trick shall always find another who will suffer himself to be tricked. . . . Therefore
a ruler must take great care that no word shall slip from his mouth that shall not be full of piety, trust, humanity, religion, and simple faith, and he must appear to eye and ear all compact of these, . . . because the vulgar are always caught by appearance
and by the event, and in this world there are none but the vulgar."
It therefore appears that Machiavelli's system is predicated partly on the entire indifference to performance of promise by the prince and partly upon a greedy demand for impossible promises among the people. The infamy of the conduct championed by Machiavelli as proper for public men is usually what rivets the attention, but the folly which alone makes such infamy possible is quite as well worthy of study. Hypocrisy is a peculiarly revolting vice alike in public and private life; and in public life— at least in high position-it can only be practiced on a large scale for any length of time in those places where the people in mass really warrant Machiavelli's description, and are content with a complete divorce between promise and performance.
It would be difficult to say which is the surest way of bringing about such a complete divorce: on the one hand, the tolerance in a public man of the nonperformance of promises which can be kept; or, on the other hand, the insistence by the public upon promises which they either know or ought to know can not be kept. When in public speech or in a party platform a policy is outlined which it is known can not or will not be pursued, the fact is a reflection not only upon the speaker and the platformmaker, but upon the public feeling to which they ap
peal. When a section of the people demand from a candidate promises which he can not believe that he will be able to fulfil and, on his refusal, support some man who cheerfully guarantees an immediate millennium, why, under such circumstances the people are striving to bring about in America some of the conditions of public life which produced the profligacy and tyranny of medieval Italy. conduct means that the capacity for self-government has atrophied; and the hard-headed common-sense with which the American people, as a whole, refuse to sanction such conduct is the best possible proof and guarantee of their capacity to perform the high and difficult task of administering the greatest Republic upon which the sun has ever shone.
There are always politicians willing, on the one hand, to promise everything to the people, and, on the other, to perform everything for the machine or the boss, with chuckling delight in the success of their efforts to hoodwink the former and serve the latter. Now, not only should such politicians be regarded as infamous, but the people who are hoodwinked by them should share the blame. The man. who is taken in by, or demands, impossible promises is not much less culpable than the politician who deliberately makes such promises and then breaks faith. Thus when any public man says that he “will never compromise under any conditions," he is cer
tain to receive the applause of a few emotional people who do not think correctly, and the one fact about him that can be instantly asserted as true beyond peradventure is that, if he is a serious personage at all, he is deliberately lying, while it is only less certain that he will be guilty of base and dishonorable compromise when the opportunity arises. "Compromise" is so often used in a bad sense that it is difficult to remember that properly it merely describes the process of reaching an agreement. Naturally there are certain subjects on which no man can compromise. For instance, there must be no compromise under any circumstances with official corruption, and of course no man should hesitate to say as much. Again, an honest politician is entirely justified in promising on the stump that he will make no compromise on any question of right and wrong. This promise he can and ought to make good. But when questions of policy arise-and most questions, from the tariff to municipal ownership of public utilities and the franchise tax, are primarily questions of policy-he will have to come to some kind of working agreement with his fellows, and if he says that he will not, he either deliberately utters what he knows to be false, or else he ensures for himself the humiliation of being forced to break his word. No decent politician need compromise in any way save as Washington and Lincoln did. He
need not go nearly as far as Hamilton, Jefferson, and Jackson went; but some distance he must go if he expects to accomplish anything.
Again, take the case of those who promise an impossible good to the community as a whole if a given course of legislation is adopted. The man who makes such a promise may be a well-meaning but unbalanced enthusiast, or he may be merely a designing demagogue. In either case the people who listen to and believe him are not to be excused, though they may be pitied. Softness of heart is an admirable quality, but when it extends its area until it also becomes softness of head, its results are anything but admirable. It is a good thing to combine a warm heart with a cool head. People really fit for self-government will not be misled by overeffusiveness in promise, and, on the other hand, they will demand that every proper promise shall be made good.
Wise legislation and upright administration can undoubtedly work very great good to a community, and, above all, can give to each individual the chance to do the best work for himself. But ultimately the individual's own faculties must form the chief factor in working out his own salvation. In the last analysis it is the thrift, energy, self-mastery, and business intelligence of each man which have most to do with deciding whether he rises or falls. It is