Is Stupidity a Solution to Political Retaliation?

Niccolo Machiavelli

Florence, Italy

Dear Niccolo,

I hope you have recovered from the 500th Anniversary celebrations last month. The Prince remains vital to an understanding of politics throughout the world.

Here is a question occasioned by James B. Stewart’s article in today’s New York Times, entitled Dangers of Giving In to Revenge.

Is stupidity a solution to political retaliation?

Mr. Stewart “was initially perplexed by what appears to have been a ham handed effort by Gov. Chris Christie’s aides and his appointees at the Port Authority of New York and New Jersey to retaliate against Fort Lee’s mayor, Mark Sokolich, by tying up traffic at the George Washington Bridge, which connects Fort Lee to Manhattan.”


“If retaliation is what it was, it would have worked only if the supposed offender knew he was being punished and why.”

But, according to Randal Picker, a professor at the University of Chicago Law School and co-author of “Game Theory and the Law,” who is quoted in the article “If you are a politician with a desire to punish opponents and get away with it, you want to work in the world of observable but not verifiable actions. That would mean that your opponents would understand what you are doing, which is important if you actually want them to obey upfront so that you don’t have to punish them later, but also you want to use a punishment where a third party can’t be sure that you have acted for illegitimate reasons. That way you can get away with it and not pay a legal price for it.”

Revenge begins to look a bit delicate if it has to be known to the victim without looking bad in the press.

What if the target of the desired revenge is unusually stupid? Wouldn’t that increase the level of ham handedness required to make him notice? Then what about the press?

Poor Bridget Kelly. Retaliating against Mayor Sokolich must not have been easy.

Niccolo, would you suggest that a politician today be unusually stupid to insulate himself from political retaliation?

It appears to be the accepted strategy.

One Response to “Is Stupidity a Solution to Political Retaliation?”

CHughey, January 20, 2014 at 4:34 pm said:

Seems that the target could feign obliviousness, leaving the revenge-seeker unsure of whether his message has been received. This could also increase the ham-handedness of the effort, or inspire further, increasingly obvious attempts. But this would require a bit of acting; actually being stupid would be, at least, the more honest approach.


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