Friday, May 18, 2012

The Original Cato of Government Corruption

In  Cato's Letters no. 17 (8 February 1721), John Trenchard seeks to warn readers about how liberty has been subverted in other countries.  He hopes that his readers will recognize such schemes and show due diligence in resisting them.

"It may therefore be of service to the world, to shew what measures have been taken by corrupt ministers, in some of our neighbouring countries, to ruin and enslave the people over whom they presided; to shew by what steps and gradations of mischief nations have been undone, and consequently what methods may be hereafter taken to undo others: And this subject I rather choose, because my countrymen may be the more sensible of, and know how to value the inestimable blessing of living under the best prince, and the best established government in the universe, where we have none of these things to fear."

First,  corrupt government ministers will  dream up public projects to make themselves and their allies wealthy.

"They will be ever contriving and forming wicked and dangerous projects, to make the people poor, and themselves rich; well knowing that dominion follows property; that where there are wealth and power, there will be always crowds of servile dependents."

Second, they will seek to impoverish the people. Poverty will make the people compliant as the government officials usurp powers not granted to them by the Constitution. When people become subject to the arbitrary will of their rulers, Trenchard calls it slavery.

"and that, on the contrary, poverty dejects the mind, fashions it to slavery, and renders it unequal to any generous undertaking, and incapable of opposing any bold usurpation."

Third, corrupt government ministers will loot the public treasury for the benefit of their friends

"They will squander away the publick money in wanton presents to minions, and their creatures of pleasure or of burden, or in pensions to mercenary and worthless men and women, for vile ends and traitorous purposes."

While in the introduction to his letter, Trenchard alludes to corruption in other countries and expresses thanksgiving that Britain has been spared, the following month in letter 20 he laments corruption has come to Britain. Corruption in eighteenth century terms referred to the king or his ministers selling offices and awarding military offices and pensions of various kinds to Parliamentarians in return for their support of the King's program. Trenchard warns that

"Publick corruptions and abuses have grown upon us: Fees in most, if not in all, offices, are immensely increased: Places and employments, which ought not to be sold at all, are sold for treble values: The necessities of the publick have made greater impositions unavoidable, and yet the publick has run very much in debt; and as those debts have been increasing, and the people growing poor, salaries have been augmented, and pensions multiplied; I mean in the last reign, for I hope that there have been no such doings in this."

The evils of such actions by the government, he argues, far exceed the evils of singular actions by common criminals.

"There is no analogy between the crimes of private men and those of publick magistrates: The first terminate in the death or sufferings of single persons; the others ruin millions, subvert the policy and oeconomy of nations, and create general want, and its consequences, discontents, insurrections, and civil wars, at home; and often make them a prey to watchful enemies abroad."

While we fill our prisons with thousands of offenders, we fill our public offices with politicians who inflict far more damage to the body politic. 

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