Cato and the Origins of Government

Thomas Gordon and John Trenchard, aka Cato, covered a lot of ground in three years, but several themes kept-emerging, and would sound familiar to students of early American political thought. This post will cover Cato’s musings on the origins of civil society, and the purposes for which man consents to be governed by others.

There are certainly echoes of John Locke in Cato’s writings, though neither Gordon or Trenchard delve as deeply into the concept of the state of nature as does Locke or even Hobbes. But Cato sees the origins of government in Lockean terms. In the 11th letter, Cato (here Gordon) writes*:

Salus populi suprema lex esto: That the benefit and safety of the people constitutes the supreme law, is an universal and everlasting maxim in government; It can never be altered by municipal statutes: No customs can change, no positive institutions can abrogate, no time can efface, this primary law of nature and nations. The sole end of men entering into political societies, was mutual protection and defence; and whatever power does not contribute to those purposes, is not government, but usurpation.

This minimalist interpretation of the origins of political society is certainly in accord with a Lockean conception of government. Yet Cato concedes that governments may retain the power to punish transgressions which are not statutorily unlawful. Rogues may devise ways to violate “the laws of God and nature” that nations do not have the foresight to prevent. Nations should not be powerless to punish these transgressions, as England’s legislature has done, though only in extraordinary circumstances. “Jove’s thunderbolts were only launched against such as provoked the thunderbolts of Jove.”

Nonetheless, punishing transgressors of the law is the primary purpose for which governments are instituted, a sentiment repeated in the 20th letter: “Parcere subjectis & debellare superbos; to pay well, and hang well, to protect the innocent, and punish the oppressors, are the hinges and ligaments of government, the chief ends why men enter into societies.”

Considering the limited aims of government, personal liberty is at a maximum in Cato’s conception of civil society. In future posts we’ll look more closely at Cato’s views on freedom of speech and religion, but for now we’ll just look at the principles Cato lays down, best expressed in letter 62:

By Liberty, I understand the Power which every Man has over his own Actions, and his Right to enjoy the Fruit of his Labour, Art, and Industry, as far as by it he hurts not the Society, or any Members of it, by taking from any Member, or by hindering him from enjoying what he himself enjoys. The Fruits of a Man’s honest Industry are the just Rewards of it, ascertained to him by natural and eternal Equity, as is his Title to use them in the Manner which he thinks fit: And thus, with the above Limitations, every Man is sole Lord and Arbiter of his own private Actions and Property.–A Character of which no Man living can divest him but by Usurpation, or his own Consent.

The entering into political Society, is so far from a Departure from his natural Right, that to preserve it was the sole Reason why Men did so; and mutual Protection and Assistance is the only reasonable Purpose of all reasonable Societies. To make such Protection practicable, Magistracy was formed, with Power to defend the Innocent from Violence, and to punish those that offered it; nor can there be any other Pretence for Magistracy in the world. In order to this good End, the Magistrate is intrusted with conducting and applying the united Force of the Community; and with exacting such a Share of every Man’s Property, as is necessary to preserve the Whole, and to defend every Man and his Property from foreign and domestick Injuries. These are the Boundaries of the Power of the Magistrate, who deserts his Function whenever he breaks them. By the Laws of Society, he is more limited and restrained than any Man amongst them; since, while they are absolutely free in all their Actions, which purely concern themselves; all his Actions, as a publick Person, being for the Sake of Society, must refer to it, and answer the Ends of it.

This is perhaps an even more libertarian conception of government than Locke’s. Indeed, later on this letter Cato develops a very narrow view of permissible governmental action.

And it is as foolish to say, that Government is concerned to meddle with the private Thoughts and Actions of Men, while they injure neither the Society, nor any of its Members. Every Man is, in Nature and Reason, the Judge and Disposer of his own domestick Affairs; and, according to the Rules of Religion and Equity, every Man must carry his own Conscience. So that neither has the Magistrate a Right to direct the private Behaviour of men; nor has the Magistrate, or any body else, any manner of Power to model People’s Speculations, no more than their Dreams. Government being intended to protect Men from the Injuries of one another, and not to direct them in their own Affairs, in which no one is interested but themselves; it is plain, that their Thoughts and domestick Concerns are exempted intirely from its Jurisdiction: In Truth, Mens Thoughts are not subject to their own Jurisdiction.

Idiots and Lunaticks indeed, who cannot take Care of themselves, must be taken Care of by others: But whilst Men have their five Senses, I cannot see what the Magistrate has to do with Actions by which the Society cannot be affected; and where he meddles with such, he meddles impertinently or tyrannically. Must the Magistrate tie up every Man’s Legs, because some Men fall into Ditches? Or, must he put out their Eyes, because with them they see lying Vanities? Or, would it become the Wisdom and Care of Governors to establish a travelling Society, to prevent People, by a proper Confinement, from throwing themselves into Wells, or over Precipices; Or to endow a Fraternity of Physicians and Surgeons all over the Nation, to take Care of their Subjects Health, without being consulted; and to vomit, bleed, purge, and scarify them at Pleasure, whether they would or no, just as these established Judges of Health should think fit? If this were the Case, what a Stir and Hubbub should we soon see kept about the established Potions and Lancets? Every Man, Woman, or Child, though ever so healthy, must be a Patient, or woe be to them! The best Diet and Medicines would soon grow pernicious from any other Hand; and their Pills alone, however ridiculous, insufficient, or distasteful, would be attended with a Blessing.

It’s easy to see why the Cato Institute may have chosen its name. Essentially, according to Cato, as long as a man is not harming anyone else, government should not interfere in his actions. Considering this narrow prescription, governments that step outside of their lawful authority become illegitimate. Circling back to the 59th letter, Cato writes:

All governments, under whatsoever form they are administered, ought to be administered for the good of the society; when they are otherwise administered, they cease to be government, and become usurpation. This being the end of all government, even the most despotick have this limitation to their authority: In this respect, the only difference between the most absolute princes and limited magistrates, is, that in free governments there are checks and restraints appointed and expressed in the constitution itself: In despotick governments, the people submit themselves to the prudence and discretion of the prince alone: But there is still this tacit condition annexed to his power, that he must act by the unwritten laws of discretion and prudence, and employ it for the sole interest of the people, who give it to him, or suffer him to enjoy it, which they ever do for their own sakes.

Man is naturally born in a state of liberty, and he cannot alienate this freedom by consent. The magistrate has a narrow scope under which he can punish.

The right of the magistrate arises only from the right of private men to defend themselves, to repel injuries, and to punish those who commit them: That right being conveyed by the society to their publick representative, he can execute the same no further than the benefit and security of that society requires he should. When he exceeds his commission, his acts are as extrajudicial as are those of any private officer usurping an unlawful authority, that is, they are void; and every man is answerable for the wrong which he does. A power to do good can never become a warrant for doing evil.

This is, once again, a fairly Lockean conception of government. We enter into civil society and convey to the magistrate the right to punish transgressors of the law – those who violate the property and personal rights of others. Beyond this, the magistrate’s power is quite constrained.

This brings us to the precipice of a central question: what recourse do citizens have if the magistrate exceeds his rightful authority? Cato’s answer to this question is one which would reverberate decades later in colonial America, and we’ll address that in the future as well. In the meantime, observe what Cato has to say on restraining the natural impulse of magistrates to exceed their authority in letter 60:

The only Secret therefore in forming a Free Government, is to make the Interests of the Governors and of the Governed the same, as far as human Policy can contrive. Liberty cannot be preserved any other Way. Men have long found, from the Weakness and Depravity of themselves and one another, that most Men will act for Interest against Duty, as often as they dare. So that to engage them to their Duty, Interest must be linked to the Observance of it, and Danger to the Breach of it. Personal Advantages and Security, must be the rewards of Duty and Obedience; and Disgrace, Torture, and Death, the Punishment of Treachery and Corruption.

Cato will repeat this theme frequently in his letters. If rulers govern for their own sake, and care only for their own gain, then they will be prone to abusing their authority. As long as magistrates are concerned primarily with the common good, then the governed will have less to fear.

What’s notable about these letters and their conceptions of the origin of government is how much they presage the Framers. It is impossible not to hear echoes of Publius in these words, or in the words quoted further up above regarding “checks and restraints appointed and expressed in the constitution itself.”

These are radical words: perhaps more radical than Locke, and certainly more radical than Hobbes. This is a libertarian vision of government in which the sovereign authority is extremely constrained, and where checks and limits of said authority are ingrained in the constitution. Hobbes would not have countenanced such a limit on the sovereign’s authority, whereas Cato has made clear that abuses of the sovereign authority justify revolution. But more on that next time.

* The text I am using has kept much of Cato’s original grammatical structure.

Origin Story

It’s time explain the man behind my blogging name, as well the inspiration for the blog’s title.

Cato the Younger’s full name was Marcus Porcius Cato Uticensis – but his friends just called him Cato. He was a Roman citizen born in the final century before Christ. He was a well-educated stoic who fought in the war against Spartacus, and who later served as a tribune. His fame, though, stems from his opposition to Julius Caesar. He was one of the leading voices calling for Caesar’s removal as preconsul, and unsuccessfully commanded forces in the civil war to beat back Caesar. Cato wound up in Utica, and in 46 BC committed suicide.

Cato’s name has passed through history as symbol of republicanism and opposition to tyranny. Several founding fathers used his name as a pseudonym writing political tracts in the pre-revolutionary era, and by anti-Federalists opposing the constitution.

The “letters” from Cato that inspired the name of this blog, however, were written by John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon. The two men were “country” Whigs who wrote about corruption, the dangers of tyranny, freedom of religion, and other “libertarian” values.

Gordon and Trenchard wrote a series of 144 letters published in The Independent Whig from 1720-1723 under the name “Cato.” The original impetus for their letters was the bursting of the South Sea bubble and the financial crisis it precipitated. Thus their first few letters focused on the corruption of the English government, and attacked the speculators and financiers who imperiled the country’s finances through their backroom bargaining.

But the letters move beyond this subject into fierce polemics concerning basic premises of political philosophy. They delve into Lockean natural rights theory, but move beyond Locke into hearty defenses of civic republicanism. As I will discuss in later posts, they are both very concerned about civic virtue, thus contra Patrick Deneen, they promoted a brand of liberalism that was not at all indifferent to public morality. They were also low Church Protestants who wrote savagely of the Catholic Church – or rather the Papist sect, and I will also delve into that in later posts as well.

So why should we care? Many who have studied the foundations of American political thought, including Forrest McDonald, have written of the influence Cato’s Letters had on the founding generation. While the influence of this or that thinker on early American political thought is often overstated – never more so than with John Locke – it is difficult to avoid the conclusion that Americans were indeed widely influenced by Cato, aka Gordon and Trenchard. Even though Gordon and Trenchard were themselves influenced by Locke, as already alluded to, they go beyond Locke and establish what I would term a brand of liberal civic republicanism, emphasizing the importance of property rights, freedom of speech, the right of revolution – and even the limits thereof.

Therefore, I think examining Cato’s Letters provides a clear distillation of both English and American republican thought in the 18th century. The next several posts will summarize the key elements in these letters, and what their influence on American thought means for our country’s origins.

On the Death of Liberalism

Last week I finally had the opportunity to read Patrick Deneen’s Why Liberalism Failed, a book that had been on my “to read” list for several months now.

Understand that Deneen’s critique includes classical liberalism – the liberalism of our Framers and which has influenced many on the right today.

I’m not going to write a critique of the book. National Review has published several reviews of and rebuttals to the book, and Jonah Goldberg wrote a comprehensive G-File on the subject (and was also on a panel with Deneen a couple of weeks back debating the topic). I agree with most of the critical takes on Deneen, and would add only a few sparing thoughts.

The book is a bit disappointing, frankly. I expected to disagree with much of Deneen’s argument, but expected, based on the hype, a more thorough and systematic argument than Deneen presented. Deneen’s treatment of the subject was shockingly shallow. He seemed content to make sweeping generalizations about the thinkers he cited, as though he assumed that those generalizations were self-evidently true. For instance he writes of the “utopianism” of the liberal enlightenment tradition. He makes no distinction between French and Scottish/British enlightenment writers. But has anyone who has seriously studied the works of, say, David Hume, ever considered him a utopian?

Furthermore, Deneen makes the same mistake other critics of the Framers make: assuming theirs is a sort of value-less liberalism unconcerned with virtue. Thomas West’s Theory of the American Founding is a good rebuttal to this theory (not to Deneen directly), as is the David French review I linked above.

As I said, though, this is not a critique of the book per se. Rather, I’d like to focus on a couple of aspects of the book that fascinate me. First of all, Deneen’s critique of liberalism, root and branch, is a common one in both left-wing and right-wing Catholic circles. Anthony Annett, who used to blog under the handle Morning’s Minion, routinely disparaged the pernicious influence of liberal thought (or what he perceived liberal thought to be) on modern Catholic political thinking. R.R. Reno indirectly attacked the liberal tradition in his (really wide of the mark) critique of Jonah Goldberg’s Suicide of the West.

Michael Brendan Dougherty also notices this trend:

Why have we come to this point? Some Catholic political thinkers — Patrick Deneen comes to mind — have energetically argued that this is the inevitable outcome of liberalism itself. That political liberalism makes false promises, holding out the possibility of liberty and pluralism but ultimately demanding conformism. Predictably enough, a subset of younger Catholics are re-evaluating the work of their co-religionist elders who made various terms of peace with liberalism, men such as Michael Novak and George Weigel. Like the English thinkers G. K. Chesterton and Hillaire Belloc, the younger, more-radical thinkers turn to Catholic social teaching or to the popes for guidance on political and economic matters. Some, calling themselves integralists, say that it’s past time to give up arguing for our claims under the guise of natural law. Instead, we should make our claims unabashedly for the social kingship of Christ.

MBD urges that instead of liberalism being at fault, these Catholics need to take a closer look inside the Church.

Catholics operate a massive portion of the U.S. health-care industry, a significant part of the nation’s university system, and a vital part of its charitable foundations. But Catholic citizens have socially conformed themselves to the American norms set by Protestant faiths. Catholic birth and divorce rates have, respectively, moved toward Protestant norms. In their catechisms, many Protestant denominations have accepted abortion and homosexuality as moral goods. And many prominent Catholic personalities — even those with imprimaturs of Catholic bishops — are urging Catholics to do likewise. This phenomenon practically invites the public authority to test the commitment of Catholics to their distinct set of doctrines.

And here then is another modest suggestion. The more urgent need for the Church’s liberty in the United States may not demand an attempt to transcend 500 years of a mistaken political philosophy. Instead it may be a matter of looking at a decades-long problem of disaffection and apostasy. The Church also suffers from a massive scandal of immorality and criminality among its prelates. These crimes, so long unaddressed by higher authorities in the Church, manifestly call into question not just the Church’s commitment to its doctrines but its fitness to lead so many civic institutions and to control so many resources. Are America’s Catholic bishops conducting themselves “as worthy members of the community?” And if not, can we expect their religious liberty to remain sacrosanct?

If the Church recovered its vigor and its authority internally, then the neighbors with whom it lives peaceably, and among whom we do so many good works, would be less inclined to test our commitments, or our patience. The social Kingship of Christ may proceed to impose duties upon all nations, but it begins with the words: Physician, heal thyself.

I think MBD is largely correct, but I would also emphasize the almost strawman-like mischaracterization of what classical liberalism is as being a detriment to serious Catholic engagement with the philosophy. As long as Catholic writers of both the left and right treat this sort of liberalism as a kind of hedonistic, amoral philosophy unconcerned with civic virtue, then I don’t think we can have a meaningful conversation about topic.

I’m also intrigued by Deneen’s argument that individualism can lead to statism/authoritatrianism, because I think he has a much stronger case here (although he never quite develops it as much as he could have). I’ve posited that Jeffersonian style individualism naturally progresses to statism. Though Jefferson had an appreciation for civic virtue, his basic philosophy eschewed many of the traditional components of society, including the concept of abiding by perpetual constitutions. When Jefferson’s radical conception of perpetual revolution is married to his extreme libertarian ethos, it’s no surprise when a rootless society emerges in which individuals are left isolated, dependent primarily on the government as a source of moral guidance.

The problem, again, is that Deneen takes his axe and swings it wildly against all forms of classical liberalism. He takes no notice of the significant differences in the liberalism of Jefferson on one hand, and Madison and Hamilton on the other. This inability to distinguish between the fine contours of different strands of liberalism mars what could have otherwise been a valuable contribution to political dialogue. Alas.