PRINCETON – Niccolò Machiavelli is trending. More than 500 years after writing his famous treatise The Prince, Machiavelli has reemerged as one of Europe's most popular political thinkers. And, indeed, his book – one of the earliest political “how to" manuals – has some useful advice for economic policymakers at a time when they are facing extraordinarily confusing challenges.
Monetary authorities have turned to Machiavelli to help them understand European Central Bank President Mario Draghi's policy approach. France's new economy minister, Emmanuel Macron, is likely using Machiavelli's ideas – on which he wrote his master's thesis – to help shape his plan to modernize his country's economy. An influential Moscow think tank called Niccolo M. advises the Kremlin on policies like offensive military communication technologies and hybrid warfare.
But Machiavelli is poorly understood. The most notorious chapter of The Prince, Chapter XVIII, which explains the circumstances in which it is permissible – and even desirable – for rulers to break promises, appears to argue that the most successful rulers think “little about keeping faith" and know “how cunningly to manipulate men's minds." The chapter has been widely interpreted to mean that leaders should lie as often as possible.
Machiavelli's message, however, was more complex. With an expert analysis of the wider implications of deception and “spinning" the truth, he demonstrates that manipulation can work only if the ruler can convincingly pretend not to be engaging in it. In short, leaders must cultivate a reputation for being dependable and sincere – a lesson that Russian President Vladimir Putin clearly never took on board.