Monday, April 30, 2012

Cato on Traders and Traitors

As Parliament investigated all the sordid details of the South Sea Company scandals,  John Trenchard in  installment no. 12 of Cato's Letters called for treason charges against the perpetrators of the bubble. He argued that just as any disloyal magistrate or general commits treason when they attempt to destroy a commonwealth in wartime, so to do those  who squander the wealth of their fellow citizens and destroy a nation's public credit:

"An attempt to destroy the chief magistrate of a commonwealth, or the general of an army in the field, or the governor of a town during a siege, are certainly treasons every where; because in such attempts, when they succeed, are often involved the ruin of states. They also are doubtless guilty of high treason, who, being entrusted with the wealth, security, and happiness of kingdoms, do yet knowingly pervert that trust, to the undoing of that people whom they are obliged, by undeserved rewards, as well as by all the ties of religion, justice, honour, and gratitude, to defend and protect."

" 'Tis the same, if any number of men, though in a lesser trust, or in no trust at all, should deliberately and knowingly destroy thousands of their fellow-subjects, and overturn the trade and publick credit of the nation, to enrich themselves and their accomplices."

He devoted most of the essay defending the historic right of Parliament to initiate treason charges and praised Parliament for its investigation.

"I observe with pleasure the noble spirit shewn by our legislature, to punish, with an exemplary severity, the murderers of our credit, and the publick enemies of our liberty and prosperity. This revives every drooping heart, and kindles joy in every face, in spite of all our miseries. And this brings terror, trembling, and paleness upon the guilty; to see death and destruction pursuing them close, and besetting them hard on every side. They are in the circumstances and the agonies of the guilty Cain, who justly feared that every man whom he met would kill him, though there was no law then in being against murder."

Trenchard's call for treason charges may have been extreme and perhaps even  a perversion of the law, but it does stand as an enlightening contrast to modern thinking. When irresponsible traders working for our investment banks created a housing bubble that collapsed in 2008, ruining many citizens and the nation's credit, our government did not explore treason charges.

Our government gave them money!!!

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