Is It Better For A Ruler To Be Feared Than Loved?
In his book, The Prince, originally written in 1513, Niccolò Machiavelli considered whether it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved. He argued that although one might wish to be both, it is difficult to unite both traits in one person, and given the limitation of choosing only one approach, rulers should wish to be feared. This book has informed many new princes and royals on how to best preserve power. In particular, this book provided a handbook to Florence’s Medici Family (that had returned to power just a year before its publication), on ruling and the exercise of power.
Before analysing whether it is better for a ruler to be loved or feared, it is important to describe what it means for something to be ‘better’ or ‘worse’ for a ruler. This essay will define a ruler’s interests in terms of whatever best allows them to preserve power for as long as possible. Note that we could understand Machiavelli's statement in terms of whatever best allows a ruler to execute their office effectively regardless of the length of tenure. Since the two do not always pull in the same direction, this interpretation might have led us to different conclusions about the optimal style of rulership. I shall focus on the preservation of power as the primary end. It is also important to ask what exactly ‘fear’ means here – who is doing the fearing, and why are they afraid? This essay identifies two different sets of actors that a ruler must engage with – fellow politicians, and the general public. It will argue that the perfect situation for a ruler is to be loved by his people but feared by his political rivals – a combination that has worked well for many rulers throughout history, making them less vulnerable to popular uprisings on the one hand, and political coups on the other. It also argues that in addition to love and fear, rulers should seek to gain respect among their subjects. Lastly, it examines the modern-day implications of Machiavelli’s arguments in the corporate world.
In my view, Machiavelli was wrong that it is better for a ruler to simply be feared than loved – the perfect situation for a ruler is actually far more complex; rulers should seek to be loved by their people but feared by their political rivals. Machiavelli said that as men are generally fickle and afraid of danger, they will support a prince that they love only when it is convenient to do so, and betray them when trouble arrives. He argued, therefore, that ruling by fear is a better way of ensuring loyalty, as it means that people will always be obedient to a prince to avoid the risk of punishment. While he did say that ideally a ruler should be both loved and feared, but that this is difficult to achieve, this argument does not apply here. Though it may be difficult to be loved and feared by the same group of people, it is possible and effective for a ruler to be loved by the population but feared by his political rivals.
Contrary to Machiavelli’s beliefs, I believe that fear among the general populace actually increases a ruler’s risk of facing unrest. Machiavelli’s premise that people will always obey a ruler they fear to avoid punishment is incorrect. Even if this premise holds in the short term, in the longer term, rule by fear fosters hate and a desire for vengeance and is not a sustainable way of maintaining support among a state’s citizens. Arguably, rule by fear may actually increase a ruler’s risk of facing revolution/opposition. Several examples throughout history give empirical evidence for this. For example, though the tactics of repression and terror used in the USSR, and particularly by Stalin, allowed the Soviets to maintain power throughout much of the 20th century, citizens living under the Iron Curtain were disillusioned. This manifested itself in uprisings such as the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, and the Prague Spring in 1968, and the eventual dissolution of the Soviet Union itself by 1991. This shows that the resentment among a population ruled by fear eventually makes such rule untenable in the long term. Rulers should therefore seek to be loved by their people to maintain security from popular revolt.
At the same time, however, rulers should seek to be feared by their political opponents. Fear by political opponents is an effective means of maintaining power. For example, though rulers like Adolf Hitler and Mao Zedong committed atrocious acts while in power, and should not at all be looked up to, they were undeniably effective in maintaining power. The reason that they were able to do this so effectively was due to the fear that they created amongst their political rivals. Creating fear among rivals is a way of ensuring that they do not attempt to undermine your power, and do not attempt coups. A ruler should thus seek to be loved by their population but feared by their political rivals.
It is important to recognise that though Machiavelli draws a helpful comparison between two extreme forms of leadership (being feared vs being loved), it would be wrong of us to infer that these are the only two ways of ruling. In reality, a ruler can simply be well-respected and trusted to carry out his mandate effectively to best promote a state’s wellbeing. Respect is a vital weapon in a ruler’s arsenal – respect differs to fear or love in that it concerns a ruler’s ability to carry out their office effectively, rather than anything to do with their personality. In my view, rulers should seek to be respected and have the confidence of their contemporaries. Respect is vital for a ruler to keep power as ultimately, they need people to trust them to do what is best for the nation. If a ruler does not have the trust of their subjects to look after their people's interests, they will ultimately lose power eventually.
While we can at first analyse Machiavelli’s position in its historical context, we should also recognise that this same historical context limits Machiavelli’s conclusions in their scope. Many of his arguments are far less relevant today given the rise of democracy – whether people vote for candidates that they love, or respect, or simply even the candidate they view as the ‘lesser of two evils’, people certainly do not vote for the candidate they fear. This is reflected in the rise of personality politics – figures such as Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Narendra Modi and Vladimir Putin seek to build strong followings based on their personalities – they seek to gain political support through love among their voter bases, not fear.
Additionally, Machiavelli seems to ignore the fact that different styles of ruling vary in efficacy depending on the political context. A glaring example of this nuance is peacetime vs wartime. During times of war, perhaps the most effective leader is one who is ruthless, pragmatic, and unafraid to be threatening or devious in order to keep their nation together and achieve military victory. Such a leader sounds like they may well be feared by some. In times of peace and prosperity, however, an effective ruler is likely one who can foster unity among a population, inspire others and command respect. Therefore, when analysing Machiavelli’s arguments, we should understand that his conclusions apply within the political context that he wrote in.
It is also important to note that in today’s day and age, politics is not the only context where Machiavelli’s arguments are relevant. Globalisation and economic development have occurred to an extent where mega-corporations are now equally as, if not more important as governments. Therefore, CEOs of the biggest companies today, especially tech companies such as Google, Facebook, Amazon and Tesla/SpaceX, face the exact same choice of leadership by love or fear as politicians in the 15th and 16th centuries like Cesare Borgia and the Medici. I think the debate crosses over quite symmetrically from politics to business, and in the same way that politicians should not seek to be feared by their people, business leaders should seek to be loved and respected by their employees. A toxic culture of fear in corporations would stifle innovation and development, as workers would be hesitant to question the ideas of their seniors. Additionally, a workplace culture of fear would be a hostile one to work in – this would result in excessive turnover rates, as workers grow increasingly uncomfortable, resulting in a loss of highly skilled and knowledgeable workers. Furthermore, this could even result in outcomes such as increased propensity among employees to go on strike, and whistleblowing by employees about such poor conditions to the media. Therefore, corporate leaders should also not try to be feared, but instead seek respect and love.
In conclusion, Machiavelli was not entirely right that it is better for a ruler to be feared than loved. Rulers should instead try to be loved by their people but feared by their political rivals – this helps them to avoid popular uprisings, while also avoiding coups from their rivals. While love and fear are important tools for a ruler to utilise at various stages, rulers must also look to gain respect among their people that they will carry out their office effectively. It is also important to recognise that Machiavelli’s arguments are limited in scope due to the historical context in which they were written – e.g. his arguments do not particularly apply to democracies or varying political contexts. Perhaps most crucial in analysing Machiavelli’s arguments today are their implications for corporate leaders. In an age where many corporations are reaching, if not exceeding, the power of many governments, it is vital that CEOs constantly have their leadership style in mind, and avoid creating a toxic culture of fear in their workplace.