“Machiavellian”: NOT!

WSJ family values: lying to your kids and bullying your spouse. Whatever. Just don’t blame it on Machiavelli.

Lying to your kids and bullying your spouse? I can’t claim to know that Machiavelli would have been above it.

But bragging in public about how you lied to your children and bullied your spouse, so that they and everyone else knows you’re a liar and a bully, and your family is humiliated because all their friends know how little you value them and how easily you roll over them?

Not, I think, the advice the Florentine Secretary would have given to his Prince.

Recall his advice to always maintain the semblance of mercy, generosity, and good faith, even if the situation forces you to (temporarily) abandon the practice of those virtues.

I’ve never heard of Suzanne Evans before, and I hope to never hear of her again. But if this is the way the editors of the Wall Street Journal think people ought to treat their families, the paper’s political slant gets to be that much easier to understand.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com

31 thoughts on ““Machiavellian”: NOT!”

  1. Well, I don’t think I’d want to be in a relationship with someone who thinks ‘it is better to be feared than to be loved, if you cannot be both’.

    Machiavelli’s advice is fine under the assumption that you are an autocrat, but it doesn’t really address the question of whether autocracy is a good idea in the first place. I think the problem is that the authoritarian/’traditionalist’ right has an obsession with dominance, so they too never question the notion that someone is always ‘on top’ or ‘in charge’.

  2. Once more, it appears that someone did not get the joke about The Prince. Namely, that it was almost certainly satire – Machiavelli was a life-long supporter of Republican politics who wrote tons of books about them (as well as histories), and who despised the type of autocratic “rule by princes” politics that the Medici reign represented.

    1. Machiavelli’s relationship to The Prince was far more complicated than calling it satire can do justice to. In fact, it was probably meant entirely seriously. While he had a deep devotion to republicanism, he was even more deeply committed to the cause of Florence. While he opposed the return of the Medicis, once they were back in power he wanted them to succeed. He also wanted a job.

  3. I’m not sure where to start.

    First of all, raising four children (one of them with Down syndrome) while working full time is not easy. I’m somewhat sympathetic there.

    Second, given that her kids and husband can read the article and book (and at least her husband presumably will) I suspect there’s a fair bit of exaggeration and dramatization for effect going on.

    That said, even with these caveats, I still find the article appalling. If we can take the claims at face value, lots of what she did were quick fixes to parenting mistakes made earlier. I don’t mean this as an indictment, every parent makes mistakes — as they say, it’s not as though kids come with manuals; but some of the quick fixes she chose are likely to have deleterious effects down the road, may not even have persistent beneficial effects, and I wouldn’t roll them out as advice.

    The thing that I found most chilling, though, was her giving her husband the choice between a vasectomy and sex. Again, I suspect there’s exaggeration for effect going on (actually, I’m pretty sure). And it’s not that I can’t sympathize; it sucks that the only forms of contraception that are both reliable and reversible are available to women and may have unpleasant side effects (I found out the hard way that I have adverse reactions to some oral contraceptives myself). But the solution isn’t to bully the person you profess to love into having surgery, no matter how routine that surgery is. (And if it is, it might be a good idea to also book an appointment with a marriage counselor.)

    1. It’s pretty clear we’re not really getting the whole or the truthful story about much of anything, including her career and her household income. She is trying to finish her history dissertation, and yet is writing legal briefs from home? Does this mean she is or was a lawyer, and took years off to do a PhD? How did she support her two kids or their four kids while doing the PhD before starting the news job? And do we have any reason to think her job really is “full time” when she is doing it from home and is combining it with parenting four small kids and working on her dissertation? Isn’t it more likely, more feasible, that she’s effectively working part time, or freelancing? Not that either would be easy (just easier), but frankly I don’t trust a word this woman says.

      Then we see the story of the kids in the supermarket, and of the dinner to celebrate her daughter, and it’s clear the family has money, and is accustomed to money. I know a lot of people who can’t so casually throw away $40 amid their weekly shop, and even more tellingly the kids clearly aren’t previously used to considering whether an item might be too expensive; if she had been imposing a straitened budget on the household, they clearly would be so accustomed.

      My best guess is that (1) she is likely not really, as she claims, “working full time”; and (2) her husband is bringing home an income that, together with hers, puts the household comfortably within The Wall Street Journal‘s demographic.

      1. As I said, I have my own serious doubts about the veracity of the story. But I don’t have any reason to doubt her claims that she is working full time: working partly or fully remotely is not all that uncommon in computer science and parts of academia (been there, done that), and it is an attractive option if you have children (mind you, it’s no sinecure, but removing a commute from your working day and being much more flexible with how to schedule your time helps, a lot).

        Also, my understanding (inferred from the context) was that both she and her husband had just one child each before; having a child while working on a Ph.D. (with an accompanying graduate assistant position) is perfectly doable, even if single.

        Of course, working full time AND finishing a Ph.D. AND having four children under eight would go a long way towards explaining parenting problems. I tend to think of myself as a pretty organized person, but I would find the prospect daunting (I could handle a full-time job and small children if needed, or a Ph.D. and small children, or a job and a Ph.D., but combining all three, something would have to give).

          1. I never blame my spellchecker; spelling has always been the least [1] of my problems, and the only [2] issue my spellchecker causes me is to occasionally lure me with Britishisms (when I configure it for British English and forget to switch it back to American English). I usually mess things up because my brain thinks one word while my fingers type another (especially when they start with the same letters); muscle memory is bad when combined with stream-of-consciousness writing, kinda like how alcohol and painkillers don’t mix. Or because I keep editing in a browser textarea rather than in a proper editor with printouts that I can proofread (usual pattern: add a phrase or word somewhere, and forget to remove the original version elsewhere, creating grammatical stew in the process).

            I also sometimes blame my being blonde when I can’t find a better excuse. 🙂

            And: to hyphenate or not to hyphenate, that is the question:
            Whether ’tis Nobler in the mind to suffer
            The Slings and Arrows of those grammar nazis
            Or to take Arms against prescriptivists …

            I’ll stop now. 🙂

            [1] Noting that “least” is relative and not a synonym for “not one”.
            [2] Not counting that writing German or French with English spellchecking (of either variety) enabled makes one feel like Moses, trying to part a sea of red squiggles; but that is self-inflicted (i.e., me being too lazy to switch language settings on those relatively rare occasions).

  4. The funny thing is that about half the stuff she does (quite possibly more, I don’t know much about rising kids) is seemingly perfectly unobjectionable, garden-variety stuff – giving the kids an allowance, for example (was she previously really trying to herd four small kids through a supermarket, on her own, planning to argue with each kid about each impulse on a case-by-case basis, with the kids supposedly being totally insensitive to price and to appropriateness? speaking as a non-parent, that sounds like insanity). But then she portrays each decision in the most heartless, aggressive manner possible, and throws in those other actions – like openly despising her son until his grades improved (and won’t he cheer to read this article when he’s a young adult), or the way she claims she handled the vasectomy.

    And the kicker is: the whole conceit is practically announced in the first paragraph to be an act, a pose, a gigantic lie. When the narrative starts, she’d already had two kids with her new husband, and yet for the purposes of narrative convenience she acts like their total of four kids and their cohabitation have all been suddenly dumped upon her. This was self-evidently a situation that had been, at the least, years in the making. But she needs to tell the story differently, just like she needs to come up with a manipulative explanation that can justify giving an allowance or rewarding good grades – she needs to twist everything until it fits a storyline that lets her proclaim her ruthlessness. That she’d ever want to do so, and that the Journal would be pleased to have her doing so, are the most telling of all.

    1. What Warren said.

      I think this article is b.s., sold by some person who saw an opportunity to absurdly embelish some simple items to make a fee from the WSJ. The bullshit is that ridiculous narrative about Machiavelli in her sudden discovery of parenting skills.

      1. She gave them a fixed sum of money to do their own shopping, rather than letting them “negotiate” her for each thing they wanted. Hmmm–that’s a well advised, and pretty standard, parenting technique.

      2. She rewarded her kids for excellent school performance. (Note that there is no mention of punishment for less excellent performance.) Hmmm–that’s a well advised, and pretty standard, parenting technique.

      3. She told a “little white lie” to gain a benefit for both herself and her kids. Hmmm–That may not be a recommended approach, but it surely is a pretty standard parenting technique. And if it is done to create a net gain to both the parents and the kids, I wouldn’t criticize my kids for using it with their kids.

      4. She switched from an ad hoc negative reinforcement regimen to a well-defined, mild but effective, consistent regimen. Hmmm–that’s a well advised, and pretty standard, parenting technique.

      Well sumbich. She didn’t need Machiavelli. Strip away all that b.s., and she could have read Dr. Spock.

      P.S. The mindset of this person, assuming it’s true, is the way she dealt with her husband. This is not someone I’d choose for a friend.

  5. The English poet and critic Al Alvarez claimed to have had an epiphany when he first read Herbert Yardley’s classic The Education of a Poker Player, a guide to percentage poker play embedded in a romanticized memoir of an adventurous life. He hadn’t realized there are people who routinely think in terms of the odds and expected payoffs from different courses of conduct. You don’t need Macchiavelli to start.

  6. Mark, I’m starting to figure out that your posts need to be read backwards. In this case, the flippant-looking little throwaway remark in the last sentence is the real point.

    “It’s the sadism, stupid.”

  7. “You know you’re not supposed to leave the house without asking,” I said sternly. She nodded in acknowledgment. “Then you’re getting a half-hour timeout in your room,” I announced. “And from now on, whenever you choose to break this rule, that is what you will get. Every. Single. Time.” Then I slowly closed the door and walked away.

    I hear that modest punishment, swift and certain, can both improve behavior and lessen the cost of punishment on all parties involved!

    1. First, a caveat: She wrote this in the context of dealing with a child with Down syndrome. Something that I, thankfully, don’t have to deal with. It’s not something I envy, and it’s something that I’d cut her a lot of slack for, even if she did something wrong.

      However, in general, punishment is something that you have to be extremely careful with in an educational context. Note that when Mark is talking about punishment, such as in the context of HOPE, it’s about correcting criminal behavior or the root causes of criminal behavior.

      Briefly, reinforcement strategies are generally more (much more!) successful at teaching desirable behavior than using punishment. Not only is reinforcement generally better and more reliable than punishment in creating lasting effects (if you punish, you have to do it reliably and consistently, reinforcement does not have that problem); punishment also easily creates resentment or hostility (which makes it much harder for your children to trust you) and induces behavior to game punishment avoidance by other undesirable behavior, such as deception (which, if successful, can then rapidly become persistent through negative reinforcement).

      In short, punishment needs to be used with extreme caution; negative punishment (withholding good things) is generally less dangerous than positive punishment (bad things happen), but neither is really something that should be done routinely. If you do use punishment, it needs to be fair, and you need to make sure your child understands that. And, for heavens sake, don’t use corporal punishment (i.e., hitting your child).

      To be clear, it doesn’t seem to be that she did anything wrong in this particular case (modulo the general doubts regarding the veracity of her tale); however, I would strongly caution against using the approach as a general principle (and never because it’s Macchiavellian — this would be screwed up in too many ways to count). What Mark has been talking about are people where the normal educational process has completely broken down and where punishment may be the only way to correct their behavior, usually because they’re stuck in a reinforcement loop (physical addiction or other external factors) that makes them keep coming back to doing things that are harmful for themselves and others.

  8. I have been struck by how much lying appears in modern TV advertisements. It is, of course, done for comic effect but there is hardly ever any comic punishment for the liar. The world of truth and justice is not restored at the end of the 30 seconds. This strikes me as a fairly new trend and I DON’T LIKE IT. Earlier ages regarded lying as the worst of sins.

    On Macchiavelli, a few years ago I saw “The Mandrake” , his play in which a priest and a virtuous wife are corrupted by clever schemers and in which, at the end, everyone is enveloped in a sweet happiness.

  9. Just a side-note: I think Machiavelli once mentioned needing to occasionally hit a woman to bring her to heal, taming the shrew. I think Machiavelli was progressive and insightful for his time but, like many men of his era, had a vicious patriarchical streak…

    1. Not perzackly.

      From The Prince, Ch. XXV:

      Fortune is a woman, and if you wish to keep her under it is necessary to beat and ill-use her; and it is seen that she allows herself to be mastered by the adventurous rather than by those who go to work more coldly. She is, therefore, always, woman-like, a lover of young men, because they are less cautious, more violent, and with more audacity command her.

      1. Well, not necessarily patriarchical, but definitely sexist! I have never read the plays so perhaps they are truly more insightful view of women than this missive above…

    2. Indeed. What is interesting is that, in his plays, he takes a remarkably enlightened approach to his female characters relative to his time (emphasis on the “relative”) while he is far more conventional in his attitudes in his political writings.

  10. I smell an Amy Chua — write explosive article in WSJ, get everyone angry, go on talk shows, do book tour. Let’s not fall for it again.

          1. Quadruple bingo, if that is a legitimate term. Nothing to see here folks. Ignore ignore ignore.

  11. Seems like much ado about nothing if you ask me. The usual parenting/relationship advice exaggerated and packaged to look like Machiavelli.

    -Sibling rivalry has some positive aspects to it
    -Your kids don’t need to know everything about your adult life, so if keeping something from them makes managing them easier, feel free to not disclose it
    -Set limits for your kids (and everyone else for that matter) or they will keep pushing for more.
    -modest, swift, and certain punishment is the most effective corrective
    -withholding sex will get you lots of favors

    OK, that last one’s a stretch, but I can definitely imagine having a tongue in cheek conversation that went exactly that way. That may not stop the sex from happening, but it also may cause the vasectomy to happen. Couples banter like this all the time.

    Wife: No, we are NOT having another kid! In fact, before you even think of getting into this bed, you’re getting snipped!
    Husband: OK, no problem, I’ll make the appointment right after we finish.
    Wife: No! I insist!
    Husband [ignoring her]: Sure, honey, now lift your tush up, so I can get these pants off.
    Wife [lifting tush]: OK, but you promise you’ll call tomorrow!
    Husband: I promise

    Seems like faux outrage to me, if anyone is actually pretending to be outraged in the first place.

    1. I’m curious about how you know, “couples banter like this all the time.”

      My ex- is my ex- in part because during the last rough patch she decided that birth control went from an “our” problem to a “your” problem When I opted for condoms rather than a vasectomy, she pulled the same deal Ms Evans claims to have done. I countered with an offer to get a vasectomy if she got a tubal ligation. She said we only need one, not both. I replied that if my options were being closed off, I wanted hers treated similarly. She then announced that was not fair.

      1. I didn’t say “ALL couples banter like this.” If it doesn’t work for you, that’s fine. But it does work for plenty of us. I know I do with my wife, and it’s a perfectly pleasurable part of giving someone you love the business.

        If you feel like viewing the author as a jerk, that’s fine. So long as she’s married I’m willing to defer to the husband’s point of view rather than my own. If he’s happy and unharmed by her threatening to withhold sex unless he gets cut, that’s fine by me. If he’s not, and they get divorced, well then she’ll probably need to re-write this article. I’ll take the optimistic viewpoint and assume they’re happy until I see evidence to the contrary.

      2. I replied that if my options were being closed off, I wanted hers treated similarly. She then announced that was not fair.

        From a straight evolutionary standpoint her position makes sense.
        Should the marriage fail, her future success in a male-dominated world is elevated closer to par by not having tied tubes.

        As far as the article goes: The lady obviously had an book title pop into her head, — “Machiavelli for Moms”. And yes I agree with all involved, that’s a slick sell. Judge a book’s potential by its title. She then backfilled from there. The article in the WSJ naturally followed. It is of course, all bullshit. But what was it Friedman said the other day about us having to create our own jobs?

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