Machiavelli On Listening

In 1505, Machiavelli advised leaders to let a few trusted advisors tell them the truth when answering specific questions in private, but to never let anyone advise them in public, especially at those people’s own initiative:

There is no other way of guarding oneself from flatterers except letting men understand that to tell you the truth does not offend you; but when every one may tell you the truth, respect for you abates.

Therefore a wise prince ought to hold a third course by choosing the wise men in his state, and giving to them only the liberty of speaking the truth to him, and then only of those things of which he inquires, and of none others; but he ought to question them upon everything, and listen to their opinions, and afterwards form his own conclusions. With these councillors, separately and collectively, he ought to carry himself in such a way that each of them should know that, the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred; outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions. He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt. (more)

Machiavelli was very smart and insightful on such subjects. So I’m reluctant to disagree with him. But his advice seems to tell leaders never to listen to prediction markets, and I’m not quite ready to give up on that idea yet. So what I want now is to better understand Machiavelli’s advice: why exactly should leaders not let themselves be seen as listening to public advice others initiate?

Some possible theories:

  1. Advice givers are higher status that advice receivers, and leaders must seek maximal status.
  2. There are standard embarrassing truths and audiences take one’s ability to keep people from voicing them as a costly signal of dominance.
  3. If people can influence you by telling you things, they will spend too much effort trying to do so, at the expense of other useful activities.
  4. What else?
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  • Accepting advice from just anyone demonstrates a lack of discrimination in quality of advice. Not everyone has wise things to share. Being selective and only hearing out advice in private demonstrates that you are discriminating and that you take advice seriously enough to make it a somewhat sanctified private activity.

  • Norris Krueger

    Wouldn’t a prediction market be a trusted adviser? A trusted human adviser could still speak in public but only the prince would know that this person’s advice is being taken?

    The prince needs to get the best possible advice; that requires getting a diverse set of advice. Candor, especially where there is serious disagreement, is promoted by privacy. (So it may also protect the advice-givers.Example: A devil’s advocate is often very useful, but they tend to get hated if others know it.)

    The prince’s job isn’t to be brilliant & all-knowing… but to do the smart things. To process the advice and to take responsibility for the decision.

  • Robert Koslover

    I once worked for a company where if a manager revealed that he/she did not understand how to proceed, and was seeking advice, then that manager would soon be perceived as exceptionally weak/ineffective. I think that in such an environment, your quotes from Machiavelli apply.  Most people (think of sheep, since we are all much like sheep, most of the time) seek leaders who exude total confidence.  I guess it is like the animal kingdom. The lead animal is followed by others; he/she does not seek to follow others.  You simply cannot remain the leader if you are a follower.

  • Brandon

    Simple: Machiavelli’s goals and the goals of prediction markets diverge.

    Prediction markets’ goal is to be correct. For a prince in Machiavelli’s world, the goal was to remain in power. Those two often correlate a lot, but not perfectly. You can handle being wrong occasionally if you are more feared/respected. 

  • Fadeway

    Accepting different advice, particularly after declaring an opinion, is a sign of cluelessness/uncertainty. Changing the course, particularly due to someone else, is like saying “I was wrong, but we can still fix this”. A monarch obviously wants to exude absolute confidence and decisiveness.

  • Hamilton

    “But his advice seems to tell leaders never to listen to prediction markets…”

    Or, rather, his advice is to never listen to public prediction markets, but rather only prediction markets he or she creates among participants the leader chooses.

    “If people can influence you by telling you things, they will spend too
    much effort trying to do so, at the expense of other useful activities.”

    How about, “If people can influence you by telling you things, then you are not the leader. The leader is the person telling you things”? Which is probably just a reinterpretation of (1).

    • Exactly. 

      According to my interpretation of Machiavelli’s passage, a leader may follow prediction markets only so long as he does not appear to the public to be doing so. 

  • Carl

    Machiavelli doesn’t say leaders should avoid being “seen to listen” to unsolicited advice.  He says that men should “fear” to give a prince unsolicited advice. 

    Fear is the key.  Subjects must fear a prince enough to obey without question (according to Machiavelli).  So, a prince must react publicly to unsolicited advice with anger and punishment – thus maintaining the necessary fear.

    If a prediction market were created in such a way that the prince could control which questions were asked, there is no reason it couldn’t exist in such a regime.  But, the prince must be certain to harshly persecute anyone who dares to disagree with his interpretation of the results.

  • First notice that Machiavelli is particularly focused on who’s allowed to tell the Prince the truth, and the concern with guarding him against flatterers.

    Now consider that the truth about the Prince might be that he’s just emptied the treasury paying back favors to the people who helped put him in power and getting into a war that didn’t serve the nation’s interest and was incompetently planned to boot.

    It may be in the interest of the prince to realize what happened (as opposed to being misled by flatterers into thinking things are going brilliantly), and try to correct for the errors. But it’s also probably in his interest to avoid having too many other people realize what happened.

    Or, just notice how rare it is for a politician to ever admit they were wrong. And realize that this is probably not because they’re stupid, but because the incentives they face favor rarely admitting you’re wrong.

  • John Maxwell IV

    How do prediction markets fare vs democracy on this issue?

    BTW, it might be that for prediction markets to be successful, it’s not necessary to institutionalize them as the governing force of a corporation, government, etc.  Instead, it might be sufficient to just legalize them and let them exist and become widespread and become easy to set up.  If they prove very useful, then leaders will soon look foolish whenever they *ignore* the prediction markets, and institutionalization will likely follow. 

  • Makaveli

    A prince may be seen to attend to prediction markets, but only if he has also been seen to act against their advice; for if the sovereign’s role is merely to do at all times what the prediction markets advise, then he may be replaced without loss to his country, and undoubtedly some of his retinue will seek to do just that.

  • Russell Wallace

    The less legitimate your claim to power, the nastier you have to be about holding onto it. Machiavelli’s target audience were monarchs at best and totalitarian dictators at worst; in that sort of environment, having people tortured to death for saying the wrong words in the wrong context was (and in some countries still is) par for the course. A politician in a stable democracy or an executive in a well-run company is on far more solid ground and can afford to be a lot more straightforward.

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  • Mjrharris

    Public advice can easily become an opposition policy platform.

  • DW


    A single advisor like likely to be biased. Public statements introduce more bias (grandstanding and the like).

    This interpretation is obviously consistent with prediction markets’ effectiveness, though I believe alternative #1 is relevant as well.

  • Nothanks

    I don’t think prediction markets provide advice.  You may observe the state of a prediction market to reveal what others think is likely, but it is not providing advice per se.

  • Whenever a leader follows a prediction market the leader profits from not informing the public that he used the prediction market for his decision. 

    That way nobody will bribe the prediction market to show wrong results. 

  • A lot of advice is probabilistic.  A plan may succeed, or it may fail. Even if you accept only the 90% probability advice, and reject only the 10% probability advice, there will inevitably be cases where you were wrong. Your opponents will remember them selectively and use them against you. Especially accepting a wrong advice (a good probabilistic advice that randomly turned out wrong) will make you seem weak and easy to manipulate. For a ruler, such an image could be fatal, because other strong people would predict their fall, which can be a self-fulfilling prophecy.

  • Scott Messick

    I think Machiavelli just correctly realized that in his time there was no public source of information anywhere near as good as prediction markets.  I’d wager “expert” predictions were of even lower quality than today (and fewer were available).

  • AmagicalFishy

    I interpreted Machiavelli’s suggestion very differently. It doesn’t seem concerned specifically with [the 16th century equivalent of] prediction markets or even political decisions in general. I take it as a very broad statement that amounts to this: As their leader, people should respect you enough to hold their tongue—much in the same way a small boy would hold his tongue when addressing his father.

    Think of a person who values brutal, uncensored, uncurved honesty. If she’s rude, you should have the right to tell her. If she’s offending you, you should have the right to tell her. If she’s not doing enough of one thing or another, if she’s not presenting herself appropriately, if she’s not lenient enough or too lenient, or if she’s getting angry over something she shouldn’t be getting angry about—you should have the right to tell her. If you think those pants make her look fat, tell her. If you think she’s too trusting, tell her. If you think she’s too harsh, tell her. Etc.

    A flatterer is someone who would… well… flatter you. The only way to guard against this is by telling people that flattery will get them nowhere—but instead speak the cold, hard truth. Flattery is thus useless, and the otherwise flatterer is free to speak his/her mind as he/she sees fit. After a while, especially from someone who doesn’t have a very positive opinion of you, being able to consistently speak the “cold, hard truth” diminishes respect for the position of power itself.  

    The solution to the dilemma of whether or not one should allow the public to speak freely their truths towards you or be constantly buttered up by flatterers is—get a close group of advisers who will speak the cold, hard truth. In this case, “the more freely he shall speak, the more he shall be preferred.” 

    King Lear’s Jester, if you would.

    I don’t see this as being concerned with “advisers” and “advising” in the same way prediction markets are concerned with advising. 

  • Faze

    Maybe this ties in with Robin’s long-ago <a href=";post on why CEO’s pay so much for advice from outside consultants. The CEO can’t afford to appear to be getting this advice from inside counselors, because he then has to share status with those counselors. The outside consultants come and go.

  • chepin

     Machiavelli was trying to persuade Lorenzo de Medici to think differently about taking advice or not. So he was smart enough to advise receive advice without going against a dogmatic truth of those times where a leader must do the opposite.

  • The prince may want to conceal certain material facts or goals from the general public, which are relevant to a decision. Arguments for a course of action may appear strong based on publicly known facts. If the prince openly ignores this advice, the prince may appear foolish or be forced to implicitly reveal their true goal. For example, suppose the prince has a peace treaty with a neighboring state, but secretly plans to betray them soon. An advisor says, now that we are at peace, we should reduce the size of our army. Oops.

    Decision markets similarly have the potential to expose hidden agendas when their recommendations are sometimes ignored.

    The prince may want to train people not to question or argue with orders, to produce better compliance. Advice to the prince can also inform others that the prince’s action is not in their interest, which will make them less cooperative.

  • adrianratnapala

    Re #3:  “If people can influence you by telling you things…”.

    Then people might assume that you are already under the spell of powerful lobbies.  A large class of middle-powered class merchants and bureaucrats with no opportunity for such lobbying have better reason  to support you if they think you are serving the public good as you see it.

    This logic applies in contemporary democracies too.

  • A Prince in Machiavelli’s day had to demonstrate his superiority. Rather like Vladimir Putin or Mussolini, the leader has to be better than everybody at everything, or at least portray himself that way. So a Prince couldn’t be seen to be listening to advisors because he’s supposed to be wiser than they are. 

    (But of course Machiavelli and Cosimo de Medici knew perfectly well that you need advice, so this is how to get it without seeming to.)

  • Silent Cal

    “…Outside of these, he should listen to no one, pursue the thing resolved on, and be steadfast in his resolutions. He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt.”
    Here, it sounds like Machiavelli is concerned with the ruler being too persuadable—that is, unable to listen without being subject to irrational levels of influence, except perhaps by resolving not to be influenced at all. I’m not entirely sure what it means to be overthrown by flatterers, but there’s no reason a rational listener would be “so often changed by varying opinions” as long as he got a broad sample before making up his mind the first time. If he’s unable to defend against silver tongues, though, then this would be a serious risk.

    (The top paragraph seems more concerned with status.)

  • Sternhammer

    I think your #1 is right.  

    Villam Bur’s point persuades me as well.  

    I logged on to make the same point that Mjrharris made first.  Damn you, Mjrharris for thinking of it first.  

    But he was so pithy, perhaps I can gain a tiny bit of status by expanding.  The general public doesn’t know what it wants.  They can overhear the advice, realize that it serves the community’s interests (or their own factional interests) and want it followed.  But the leader’s interests are different from those of the community, and now he has to surpress/massacre/demonize that group to follow his own preferences, which he wouldn’t need to do absent the public advice.  

  • “Telling the truth” is essentially a euphemism for expressing disagreement. As you’ve pointed out, disagreement is disrespect. Letting everyone tell the leader the truth is allowing public disrespect.

    A prediction market is a collection of personal opinions, agreements and disagreements, and inviting and accepting their determinations would be tantamount to listening to the free expression of disrespect.

  • We can make this simpler, in order to better understand it: What is power but the ability to set a course of action and induce others to follow it, either by their own free will or by compulsion?

    The leader who allows the opinions of others to determine his own action hands to that other a portion of his power. Now it is not his will that is worked upon the world, but the advice-giver’s, through him. He is merely the vessell. This is the fundamental truth that underlies all the reasons you posit — that is why being seen to be swayed by advice could cause one to lose status, could prompt one’s followers to spend all their time scheming to change your mind. If they can just talk you into it, they can get what they want.

    Machiavelli, being what you might call fairly bright, of course realizes the flip side of this problem — no human is omniscient. There’s lots of times when seeking out outside information sources and perspectives can improve decision making. Thus his counsel is not to never listen to anybody, but to never be seen to be listening to anybody.

  • Muga Sofer

    On the one hand, you don’t have to admit you use prediction markets in public.

    On the other hand, Machiavelli didn’t know about prediction markets anyway.

  • NotSoAnonymous

    All three of your points are guesses at his intent when he says exactly why, “He who does otherwise is either overthrown by flatterers, or is so often changed by varying opinions that he falls into contempt.” The first part is the typical groupthink (or worse the straight up “yes, man” type) scenario that has shown to cause havoc in business, government, and other groups. The second part quickly describes a wishy-washy leader, the type no one would want to follow.
    He also sets the context to which his advice applies: “a wise prince,” the kind that apparently holds courts, likely the fancy, royal kind.

    As to whether this applies at all to your needs, you’ll have to ask yourself if the context applies. Are you in a situation similar to that of a prince? And second, are the consequences those that could happen in your situation?

    If you are responsible for a part of other people’s lives that they perceive as important, then you could potentially be qualified as a prince.

    Let’s say that you are making an important decision that affects others based on prediction markets. Would you appear wishy-washy? Only if you announce conflicting decisions while the market is turbulent, switching your position every few days. If you wait until it is done or at least likely one way or the other, then you can take that information along with information from other sources,  and make one decision, wrong or right. You might be wrong, but your people are less likely to want someone else as a leader.

  • This reminds me of a line I saw in a recent Tetlock article about a giant “World in 2025” type forecast with lots of vaguely worded probability-terms, and how the writers may be legitimately reluctant to assign quantitative probabilities, since if they say a well-calibrated 75%, they’ll be wrong 1 time in 4 and then the politicians will be all like, “You were WRONG!”

    My immediate thought was that the writers ought to assign log-odds instead, i.e. say “+2 bits credibility” instead of “80% probability”.  Since politicians can’t do math, they would be unable to translate into probabilities, and the writers would be safe.

    (The section explaining the “+2 bits” language should also say, “An event assigned +2 bits credibility should fail to occur around 1 time in 5” and always be phrased in terms of the exception rather than the rule.)

  • NickW

    The presumption is you’re only allowed to give bad, unpleasant and controversial news in private. Andy You could even send an unflattering photo. Andy Card violated this on 9/11 when he publicly whispered into Bush’s ear at that Florida school.

    What about good or pleasant news? Do the same restrictions apply? I’d reckon the counselors would compete to be the one to deliver good news, as those counselors usually found favor.