Cato’s Letter #38: The Right and Capacity of the People to Judge of Government

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In this letter dated July 22nd 1721, Cato explained that the world is regularly lead into mistakes by people who profit from them. If the people were properly apprised of the truth, no one would live in slavery. There are lessons here for early 21st century America.

In most nations there is neither the light of truth nor liberty. Where they exist, they are inseparable. Destroy one and the other follows. In these nations we find tyranny and deception, ignorance and slavery joined together, such that “Wherever truth is dangerous, liberty is precarious.”

Among sciences, Cato regards political science as the easiest to learn, yet the least understood. Those who practice it would have the rest of the world believe it is a mystery beyond the skill of those not entrusted to it. Yet the ploughman knows good government from bad, and “He knows whether the fruits of his labor are his own, and whether he enjoys them in peace and harmony.”

Government is trust committed by all to the few, so that the many may attend to their affairs secure in property and personal safety. This trust is often dishonorably executed for the purpose of increasing power and wealth. It is therefore a trust which ought to be bound with many and strong restraints, because power renders men wanton, insolent to others, and fond of themselves. Every violation of this trust ought to meet with proportional punishment. Indulgence of the most minor faults of magistrates may be cruelty to a whole people.

Honesty, diligence, and plain sense are the only talents necessary for executing this trust; the public good is its only end.

Politicians will apply refinements and finesses to trick the populace, make a private market of the public, and hide their guilt in order to sell it. There have been times and countries when public ministers and public enemies have been one and the same men. What a melancholy reflection this is, that the most terrible and mischievous foes to a nation should be its own magistrates! In every enslaved country, this is their woeful existence.

The farmer Cincinnatus left his plow, saved Rome, and returned to his poverty. He didn’t attempt to remain at the head of Roman affairs, raise a fortune and settle himself in power. As he came to command with universal consent, he resigned it with universal applause. Government in those days was not a trade. Instead of later turning to demagogues and emperors, it is a pity Rome didn’t turn back to farmers instead.

On the other hand, some say it is not the business of private men to meddle with government. Whoever says this, doesn’t know what he’s talking about. Such a cant was never heard in England but when liberty and the constitution were attacked. At this point in his letter, Cato becomes angry and dances on the heads of oppressors from all ages. Telling the average man to sit down and shut up is to show malignancy of heart and baseness of nature. Whoever utters it is incapable of a place or credit in a free country. It only exposes the arts of those intent upon destroying liberty, of “pronouncing a doom upon our constitution.”

Every man has a concern with government; it is his right to know what his government does. When government proceedings are kept secret, count on the rise of evil men. Cato states as a truism that the people take on in sympathy the nature and morality of their government. Public men are the patterns of the private. Whatever are the virtues and vices of the governors quickly becomes the virtues and vices of the governed.

As government becomes ill and subsists by corruption, it becomes jealous of private virtue and an enemy to private lives, liberties and estates. Such government cannot be secure while anything good or valuable is likewise secure. There can be but little industry where property is precarious, and little honesty where virtue is dangerous.

When free and virtuous, Rome and Greek city-states were happy and prosperous. In Cato’s day they were kept in ignorance, chains, and vileness; they were pitiful deserts.

Such is the difference between free and unfree government. To say that private men have nothing to do with government is to deny them the choice between happiness or misery. Since only informed men will avoid misery, it is the duty of all to remain informed and educated in public matters. Only then can they recognize and shun pretenders who claim to act for the public interest.

When all is said and done, our worldly happiness or misery owes to the order or mismanagement of government. To say private men ought not to concern themselves is to say they shouldn’t concern themselves with food, clothing, or shelter. What nonsense to a free and wise nation!

It is the eternal interest of every man that their government should be good. They who direct the nation frequently find their own way in plunder and oppression. While the public voice is pretended to be declared, by one or a few, for vile and private ends, the public knows nothing until they feel the terrible effects of it.

Outside of the regular parliamentary process, Cato’s ‘every man’ was entitled by the 1689 English Bill of Rights, by petition and address to the king for redress of “public grievances and mismanagements.” The difference between free and enslaved countries is here, that in the former, their magistrates must consult the voice and interest of the people. In the latter, the private will, interest, and pleasure of the governors are the sole end motives of their administration.

Cato concludes this is the difference between the private men of England and the slaves of Turkey. Absent the concern of private men with their government, magistrates eventually become bashaws and all men become slaves.

So, which shall it be? Free government or slavery?

Article V while we can.

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*John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, Edited by Ronald Hamowy, Volume I. Cato’s Letters: Essays on Liberty, Civil and Religious, And other Important Subjects. Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1995. No. 38.