Cato and the Limits of Democracy

As has been established, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon were passionate defenders of liberty, and prefigured the American revolutionaries in many ways. Another way they would prefigure the revolutionaries is the manner in which they tempered their libertarian ardor with expressed reservations about the limits of human reason. Like the Framers, they did not embrace the sort of full-throated democracy that would seemingly flow from their liberalism. Writing as Cato, they discussed the problem with “passion,” employing language that would be echoed six decades later by Madison and Hamilton.

Cato writes early on about how the passions can dupe men into acting against their better interests. In the sixth letter, Cato talks about the causes of the South Sea bubble:

Self-love beguiles men into false hopes, and they will venture to incur a hundred probable evils, to catch one possible good; nay, they run frequently into distracting pains and expences, to gain advantages which are purely imaginary, and utterly impossible.

Were the passions properly balanced, men would act rationally; but by suffering one passion to get the better of all the rest, they act madly or ridiculously.

This idea that the passions lead men to act irrationally would become a recurring theme throughout the letters. In the 22nd letter, Cato writes:

From the present spirit of this nation, it is still further evident to me, what I have always thought, that the people would constantly be in the interests of truth and liberty, were it not for external delusion and external force. Take away terror, and men never would have been slaves: Take away imposture, and men will never be dupes nor bigots. The people, when they are in the wrong, are generally in the wrong through mistake; and when they come to know it, are apt frankly to correct their own faults.

This is a common sentiment, and another one which would be echoed to some degree by the Framers. The average man is essentially good, but is apt to being gullibly deceived and to act against their better interests. In this way he is unlike powerful men, who are driven by baser motives. This is an idea that Cato repeats in the 24th letter:

The people have no bias to be knaves; the security of their persons and property is their highest aim. No ambition prompts them; they cannot come to be great lords, and to possess great titles, and therefore desire none. No aspiring or unsociable passions incite them; they have no rivals for place, no competitor to pull down; they have no darling child, pimp, or relation, to raise: they have no occasion for dissimulation or intrigue; they can serve no end by faction; they have no interest, but the general interest.

The same can rarely be said of great men, who, to gratify private passion, often bring down publick ruin; who, to fill their private purses with many thousands, frequently load the people with many millions; who oppress for a mistress, and, to save a favourite, destroy a nation; who too often make the publick sink and give way to their private fortune; and, for a private pleasure, create a general calamity. Besides, being educated in debauchery, and pampered in riot and luxury, they have no sense of the misfortunes of other men, nor tenderness for those who suffer them: They have no notion of miseries which they do not feel. There is a nation in Europe, which, within the space of an hundred years last past, has been blessed with patriots, who, void of every talent and inclination to do good, and even stinted in their ability for roguery, were forced to be beholden, for most of the mischief which they did, to the superior arts and abilities of humble rogues and brokers.

Cato pits the common man against their rulers, judging the former to be basically good at heart and the latter to be true knaves.

This does read as though Cato is trying to have it both ways. Man is basically good and wise, but is also prone to being led into error. But if man is so easily deceived, then that doesn’t necessarily speak well of his innate judgment. It also seems a bit like flattery. The readers of these letters would assume they are among the good folk Cato is describing here. It’s those others who are rascals. We see this down to our age, where it’s always someone else who is a bad person – not the intended audience.

Nonetheless, if Cato writes glowingly of mankind here, he takes a turn to the pessimistic side in the 31st letter. For what it’s worth, Gordon wrote (or principally wrote) these particular letters. In the 31st letter, he would definitively take the “men are not angels” line of argument. He begins the letter thusly:

The study of human nature has, ever since I could study any thing, been a principal pleasure and employment of mine; a study as useful, as the discoveries made by it are for the most part melancholy. It cannot but be irksome to a good-natured man, to find that there is nothing so terrible or mischievous, but human nature is capable of it; and yet he who knows little of human nature, will never know much of the affairs of the world, which every where derive their motion and situation from the humours and passions of men.

It shews the violent bent of human nature to evil, that even the Christian religion has not been able to tame the restless appetites of men, always pushing them into enormities and violences, in direct opposition to the spirit and declarations of the gospel, which commands us to do unto all men what we would have all men do unto us. The general practice of the world is an open contradiction and contempt of this excellent, this divine rule; which alone, were it observed, would restore honesty and happiness to mankind, who, in their present state of corruption, are for ever dealing treacherously or outrageously with one another, out of an ill-judging fondness for themselves.

In the course of seven letters we’ve gone from “man is basically good” to human nature is generally wicked. And it is this very wickedness that necessitates the creation of human laws.

The truth is, and it is a melancholy truth, that where human laws do not tie men’s hands from wickedness, religion too seldom does; and the most certain security which we have against violence, is the security of the laws. Hence it is, that the making of laws supposes all men naturally wicked; and the surest mark of virtue is, the observation of laws that are virtuous: If therefore we would look for virtue in a nation, we must look for it in the nature of government; the name and model of their religion being no certain symptom nor cause of their virtue. The Italians profess the Christian religion, and the Turks are all infidels; are the Italians therefore more virtuous than the Turks? I believe no body will say that they are; at least those of them that live under absolute princes: On the contrary, it is certain, that as the subjects of the Great Turk are not more miserable than those of the Pope, so neither are they more wicked.

Religion can’t even tame man’s base passions, so laws become necessary. Note the language here: “the making of laws supposes all men naturally wicked.” David Hume would expresses almost the exact same sentiment years later in writing that all men should be supposed to be knaves (though it’s important to remember that David Hume never says that all men are knaves, a distinction often forgotten when writing about Hume). Hume, of course, would have a tremendous influence on Madison and Hamilton in their respective views of human nature, and all of these writers in turn sound very much like Cato.

Cato continues in this vein:

Of all the passions which belong to human nature, self-love is the strongest, and the root of all the rest; or, rather, all the different passions are only several names for the several operations of self-love. Self-love, says the Duke of Rochefoucauld, is the love of one’s self, and of every thing else for one’s own sake: It makes a man the idolater of himself, and the tyrant of others. He observes, that man is a mixture of contrarieties; imperious and supple, sincere and false, fearful and bold, merciful and cruel: He can sacrifice every pleasure to the getting of riches, and all his riches to a pleasure: He is fond of his preservation, and yet sometimes eager after his own destruction: He can flatter those whom he hates, destroy those whom he loves.

Man is driven by self-love into a lack of compassion and empathy for others. In turn, men will treat each other basely based on this lack of other-regard.

It fills me with concern, when I consider how men use one another; and how wretchedly their passions are employed: They scarce ever have proper objects for their passions; they will hate a man for what he cannot help, and what does them no harm; yet bless and pray for villains, that kill and oppress them.

In the 44th letter, Cato (still Gordon) would return to this theme, arguing that men are ruled by passions and not reason. It isn’t reason that drives men to do good, he writes, but self-interest and fear.

The good that they do to another, they do not because it is just or commanded; nor do they forbear mutual evil because it is unjust or forbid: But those things they do out of choice or fear, and both these center in themselves; for choice is pleasure, and fear is the apprehension of pain. So that the best things that men do, as well as the worst, are selfish; and self-love is the parent of moral good and evil.

Cato continues in this letter to outline the ways men act out of self-interest and fear rather than reason. This is why so many seem to act against principle: they are motivated by things other than human reason. If men were actuated by reason, we would not witness so many seemingly contradictory actions and behavios.

Cato here represents the tensions which have always existed in liberal philosophy. Like John Locke before them and the Framers after them, Gordon and Trenchard believe just enough in the innate goodness of man to argue for a liberal social order wherein the people are afforded wide latitude to live life free of coercion. Yet they dial back this laudatory rhetoric, citing self-love and irrationality as for why men behave foolishly and wickedly. Because of this basic irrationality, pure democracy is just as non-viable alternative as absolute monarchy.

This seeming contradiction – man is basically good but also wholly irrational – is one of the guiding philosophies of the Framers. It could be summed up thusly: man is generally good, but is an imperfect animal often guided less by reason than their passions. Left to his own devices, man is usually a force for good. But because of this tendency towards irrationality, he should not be given absolute power, either as a member of the demos or as an autocratic ruler. Society should allow for humans to flourish as they will, but there should be enough safeguards in the constitutional order to mitigate the ill-effects of human irrationality.

Whether or not one agrees with this approach, it is impossible not to see Gordon and Trenchard as clear influences on the thought of the framers of the American constitiution.

The Libertarian Cato

In the previous posts I explored Gordon and Trenchard’s writings regarding the origins of government and the justifications for revolution. In this post I’ll examine what I would describe as their more libertarian writings. Cato’s musings on freedom of speech and freedom of conscience are perhaps the most important in reference to the American founding.

Cato consistent advocates a broad grant of freedom to speak one’s mind. Freedom of speech, Cato would write in the 15th letter, is essential to free government:

Without freedom of thought, there can be no such thing as wisdom; and no such thing as publick liberty, without freedom of speech: Which is the right of every man, as far as by it he does not hurt and control the right of another; and this is the only check which it ought to suffer, the only bounds which it ought to know.

This sacred privilege is so essential to free government, that the security of property; and the freedom of speech, always go together; and in those wretched countries where a man cannot call his tongue his own, he can scarce call any thing else his own. Whoever would overthrow the liberty of the nation, must begin by subduing the freedom of speech; a thing terrible to publick traitors.

Later on in the same letter, Cato would write that “freedom of speech is the great bulwark of liberty.” A free society would die if it did not grant citizens the ability to speak without fear of censorship or imprisonment. Tyrants feared the pens of great thinkers, and tyranny flourished where these great minds were shut up.

Rulers have stifled this essential liberty by contending that they are often libeled. Cato argues that a good ruler need not fear libel, writing at the conclusion of his 32nd letter:

The best way to escape the virulence of libels, is not to deserve them; but as innocence itself is not secure against the malignity of evil tongues, it is also necessary to punish them. However, it does not follow that the press is to be sunk, for the errors of the press. No body was ever yet so ridiculous to propose a law for restraining people from travelling upon the highway, because some who used the highway committed robberies.

It is commonly said, that no nation in the world would allow such papers to come abroad as England suffers; which is only saying, that no nation in the world enjoys the liberty which England enjoys. In countries where there is no liberty, there can be no ill effects of it. No body is punished at Constantinople for libelling: Nor is there any distinction there between the liberty of the press, and the licentiousness of the press; a distinction ever to be observed by honest men and freemen.

Honest rulers don’t have to fear a malignant press, and should suffer the slings and arrows lest they suppress a fundamental right. Well at least the Framers understood the truth of this concept. 

In the 81st and 82nd letters, Cato would employ similar logic in arguing for the rights of religious dissenters. First of all, many of the religious dissenters, especially the Quakers, have no desire to hold ecclesial power – after all, they don’t even have any priests. The Episcopal Establishment would therefore have nothing to fear in granting such groups liberty to worship. Others, like the Presbyterians, are too small in number to threaten the Established Church. These dissenting sects merely want to govern themselves, and pose no threat to the established order.

While this may not seem like a very principled argument for religious freedom, Cato consistently pushes back against the Episcopal Establishment. I’ll cover more about Cato and religion in another post, but both Gordon and Trenchard themselves were not members of the established church, and would certainly oppose efforts to force conformity.

If freedom of speech and religion are vital natural rights, what mechanisms can ensure a liberty-loving government protective of those rights? In the 61st letter, Cato would lay out a few essential principles which should sound familiar to American ears: frequent elections and rotation in office.

So that I can see no means in human policy to preserve the publick liberty and a monarchical form of government together, but by the frequent fresh elections of the people’s deputies: This is what the writers in politicks call rotation of magistracy. Men, when they first enter into magistracy, have often their former condition before their eyes: They remember what they themselves suffered, with their fellow-subjects, from the abuse of power, and how much they blamed it; and so their first purposes are to be humble, modest, and just; and probably, for some time, they continue so. But the possession of power soon alters and vitiates their hearts, which are at the same time sure to be leavened, and puffed up to an unnatural size, by the deceitful incense of false friends, and by the prostrate submission of parasites. First, they grow indifferent to all their good designs, then drop them: Next, they lose their moderation; afterwards, they renounce all measures with their old acquaintance and old principles; and seeing themselves in magnifying glasses, grow, in conceit, a different species from their fellowsubjects; and so by too sudden degrees become insolent, rapacious and tyrannical, ready to catch at all means, often the vilest and most oppressive, to raise their fortunes as high as their imaginary greatness. So that the only way to put them in mind of their former condition, and consequently of the condition of other people, is often to reduce them to it; and to let others of equal capacities share of power in their turn: This also is the only way to qualify men, and make them equally fit for dominion and subjection.

A rotation therefore, in power and magistracy, is essentially necessary to a free government: It is indeed the thing itself; and constitutes, animates, and informs it, as much as the soul constitutes the man. It is a thing sacred and inviolable, where-ever liberty is thought sacred; nor can it ever be committed to the disposal of those who are trusted with the preservation of national constitutions: For though they may have the power to model it for the publick advantage, and for the more effectual security of that right; yet they can have none to give it up, or, which is the same thing, to make it useless.

These two concepts thus go hand-in-hand. Frequent elections and rotation in office will mitigate the potentially negative consequences of office-holders being stuck in the same position for years and years. These ideas would be echoed years later, perhaps more so by anti-Federalists, who felt the terms of Congressmen were far too long.

In letter number 70, Cato would turn to the notion of mixed forms of government, and would contend that mixed forms of government were essential to preserve liberty.

All men desire naturally riches and power; almost all men will take every method, just or unjust, to attain them. Hence the difficulty of governing men, and of instituting a government equally proper to restrain them and protect them; and hence the insufficiency of simple forms of government, to provide for the happiness and security of societies. An arbitrary prince will quickly grow into a tyrant; the uncontrolled dominions of the nobles will as certainly produce oligarchy, or the tyranny of a few; that is, pride, combination, and rapine in the sovereigns, and misery and dejection in the many; and the unrestrained licentiousness of the multitude will beget confusion and anarchy. To provide against these certain and eternal evils, mixed forms of government were invented; where dominion and liberty are so equally tempered, and so mutually checked one by another, that neither of them can have interest and force enough to oppress the other.

In language that would be echoed in another famous, pseudonymous letter, Cato lays out the advantages of this mixed form of government:

The nature and reason of this sort of government, is to make the several parts of it control and counterpoise one another; and so keep all within their proper bounds. The interest of the magistracy, which is the lot and portion of the great, is to prevent confusion, which levels all things: The interest of the body of the people, is to keep people from oppression, and their magistrates from changing into plunderers and murderers; the interest of the standing senate, which is, or ought to be, composed of men distinguishable for their fortunes and abilities, is to avoid ruin and dissolution from either of these extremes: So that, to preserve liberty, all these coordinate powers must be kept up in their whole strength and independency.

One might say ambition is to counteract ambition.

It is clear from the letters I’ve discussed thus far that the themes Cato touches upon would resonate for our liberty loving founders. In the next post, I’ll look at some letters which temporize this libertarian streak to some degree, and also in a way which would resonate years later in America.