Montesquieu’s Quips on Corruption

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Not forty years after publication of Montesquieu’s great work, The Spirit of the Laws, our framing statesmen would combine their experiences with Montesquieu’s (and others) philosophy, and draft a Constitution. A central component of its structure is the prevention of corruption through the division of powers. Montesquieu regularly touched on the various ways monarchies and republics degenerate into despotisms; what follows are some of my notes from Montesquieu that dealt with the corruption of republics.

When law is suspended in popular government, it can only happen from the corruption of the republic, and the state is certainly undone.

It is not the young people that degenerate; they are not spoiled till those of maturer age are already sunk into corruption.

A very bad Roman law allowed magistrates to accept small gifts. This eventually corrupted the magistrates as the value of the gifts grew. In republics, where virtue reigns, the compensation of the state consist in public attestations of virtue. A general rule is that great rewards in republics are proof of corrupted principles, and are a sign of their decline. Honor no longer has the same force, nor the title of citizen has the same weight in a republic.

In what kind of government are censors necessary? They are necessary in republics where virtue is not only destroyed by criminality, but slowly through omissions, neglects, a certain coolness in the love of country, bad examples, and seeds of corruption. Whatever does not openly violate but elude the laws, does not subvert but rather weaken them, ought to fall under the influence and inquiry of the censors.

In Machiavelli’s Florence, liberty was lost because the people were not the judges in a body of high treason cases. The eight judges were corrupted. The few are corrupted by the few. Political interest prevails in some measure over the civil.

There are two sorts of corruption. First, when the people do not observe the law. Second, when the people are corrupted by the laws, which is an incurable evil.

Once corrupted, the Romans chased luxury. When the world is immersed in corruption, bid farewell to virtue.

In republics, women are free by the laws and restrained by manners; luxury is banished thence, and with it corruption and vice.

The principle of despotic government (fear) is corrupt, so the government is subject to continual corruption. It is ruined by its own intrinsic imperfections, not accidents.

There are very few laws which are not good, while the state retains its principles. It is not the liquor, but the vessel that is corrupted.

When once a republic is corrupted, there is no possibility of remedying any of the growing evils, but by removing the corruption and restoring its lost principles.

While Rome preserved her principles, the senatorially derived judiciary was without abuse. Once corrupted, it didn’t matter from where her judges were derived.

When morals were corrupted, the more power they were possessed of, the less prudent was their conduct. The people of Rome eventually became their own tyrants and slaves. They lost the strength of liberty and fell into the weakness and impotency of licentiousness.

Conquered nations are generally degraded and corrupted before being conquered. A nation so corrupt as to be incapable of reform would not lose much by being remolded.

Consider a continuous legislature, with replacement of members only when they died. Once the body is corrupted, there is no hope of return. However, when legislatures succeed one another (all new members), there is hope for reform in subsequent sittings. If it was always the same body, “the people upon seeing it once corrupted would no longer expect any good from its laws; and of course they would either become desperate or fall into a state of indolence.”

The English will eventually lose their liberty, just as Rome, Sparta, Carthage. It will perish when the legislative power is more corrupt than the executive.

A state may be altered in two different ways: either by amendment of, or by corruption of the constitution. If it has preserved its principles and the constitution changes, this is owing to its amendment; if upon changing the constitution its principles are lost, this because it has been corrupted.

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