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The Right and Capacity of the People to judge of Government

November 6, 2006

Tomorrow, November 7, Americans go to the polls. But by the time they get there, they have been bombarded by massive campaigns of self-interested obfuscation, misrepresentation and outright lies by those seeking political power. To combat the intentional confusion that results, and the liberties such confusion erodes, we must frequently be reminded of the need "to maintain and expose the glorious principles of liberty, and to expose the arts of those who would darken or destroy them."

One useful place to turn is that quote's source — Cato's Letters. Cato, pseudonym for John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon, wrote in the London Journal in the 1720s, reflecting the ideas of John Locke. According to Ronald Hamowy, "Its arguments against oppressive government and in support of the splendors of freedom were quoted constantly … [and] frequently served as the basis of the American response to the whole range of depradations under which the colonies suffered." And at election time, the letter where that quote appears (#38, The Right and Capacity of the People to judge of Government) is of particular importance to revisit. Consider the following excerpt (spelling and punctuation modernized):

"The world has, from time to time, been led into such a long maze of mistakes, by those who gained by deceiving, that whoever would instruct mankind must begin with removing their errors…"

"[Liberty is] but little encouraged…there being, in all places, many engaged, through interest, in a perpetual conspiracy against them…oppressors and deceivers mutually aiding and paying constant court to each other. Wherever truth is dangerous, liberty is precarious."

"[The science of] government concerns us most, and is the easiest to be known, and yet is the least understood. Most of those who manage it would make the lower world believe that there is…difficulty and mystery in it, far above vulgar understandings; which…is direct craft and imposture: Every ploughman knows a good government from a bad one, from the effects of it: he knows whether the fruits of his labor be his own, and whether he enjoy them in peace and security: And if he does not know the principles of government, it is for want of thinking and enquiry, for they lie open to common sense; but people are generally taught not to think of them at all, or to think wrong of them."

"What is government, but a trust committed…to [those] who are to attend upon the affairs of all, that every one may, with the more security, attend upon his own? A great and honorable trust; but too seldom honorably executed; those who possess it having it often more at heart to increase their power, than to make it useful; and to be terrible, rather than beneficent. It is therefore a trust, which ought to be bounded with many and strong restraints, because power renders men wanton, insolent to others, and fond of themselves. Every violation therefore of this trust…ought to meet with proportional punishment; and the smallest violation of it ought to meet with some, because indulgence to the least faults of magistrates may be cruelty to a whole people…"

"Honesty, diligence, and plain sense, are the only talents necessary for the executing of this trust; and the public good is its only end: As to refinements and finesses, they are often only the false appearances of wisdom…and oftener tricks to hide guilt and emptiness; and they are generally mean and dishonest: they are the arts of jobbers in politics…playing their own game under the public cover…small wicked statesmen, who make a private market of the public, and deceive it, in order to sell it."

" … public ministers and public enemies have been the same individual men."

"Public truths ought never to be kept secrets … Every man ought to know what it concerns all to know … every private man upon earth has a concern in [government], because in it is concerned, and nearly and immediately concerned, his virtue, his property, and the security of his person: And where all these are best preserved and advanced, the government is best administered … "

"Ill governments…are jealous of private virtue, and enemies to private property…There will be but little industry where property is precarious…"

"Good government does, on the contrary, produce great virtue, much happiness … And to say that private men have nothing to do with government is to say that private men have nothing to do with their own happiness and misery."

"What is the public, but the collective body of private men…And as the whole ought to be concerned for the preservation of every private individual, it is the duty of every individual to be concerned for the whole, in which he is included."

"In truth, our whole worldly happiness and misery (abating for accidents and diseases) are owing to the order or mismanagement of government … he who says that private men have no concern with government, does…tell us, that men have no concern in that which concerns them most; it is saying that people ought not to concern themselves whether they be naked or clothed, fed or starved, deceived or instructed, and whether they be protected or destroyed: What nonsense and servitude in a free and wise nation!"

"It is the eternal interest of every nation that their government should be good; but they who direct it frequently reason a contrary way and find their own account in plunder and oppression…"

The insights of Cato's Letters were widely echoed by our founding fathers in seeking to defend their liberty. But under the repeated onslaught of the vast cornucopia of political proposals that erode liberty, especially during campaign season, we need to be reminded of what separates a good government from a bad one — "whether the fruits of his labor be his own, and whether he enjoy them in peace and security." How have incumbents done on that score? Is there reason to believe that current challengers would do better? Or is the only real hope to prevent government from those actions which violate that standard, so that no politician from any party can abuse us?

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