Mises Wire

The Wisdom of Cato’s Letters

Americans are coming into the home stretch of the 2020 election campaigns. The constant media drumbeat of why we must vote has begun, but without any noticeable mention that voting without being informed cannot advance what our Constitution called the “General Welfare.” And the campaigns themselves have largely been filled with promises of using government power to deliver targeted voters something for nothing, rather than central, logically prior issues, such as what the legitimate powers of government are.

In dealing with the avalanche of politicking we are about to suffer from, where even phone blocking can’t keep politicos at bay, returning to that central issue is important, because most of the campaigns consist largely of violating the answer that our founders proposed. Consequently, that makes the almost 300-year-old Cato’s Letters—perhaps the greatest influence on their views on this question (or as Ronald Hamowy, put it, the most “immense authority” about issues such as “the natural restraints on government”)—worth returning to today. In particular, John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon’s sixtieth letter, “All Government Proved to be instituted by men, and only to intend the General Good of Mankind,” can bring us back to the fact that, as John Adams put it, to “nip the shoots of arbitrary power in the bud is the only maxim which can ever preserve the liberties of any people.”

Consider just a brief part of Cato’s Letters’s efforts to “maintain and expose the glorious principles of liberty, and to expose the arts of those who would darken or destroy them,” particularly the centrality of limiting the power of government to the powers men can legitimately delegate to it.

  • “Government…can have no power, but such as men can give, and such as they actually did give, or permit for their own sakes: Nor can any government be in fact framed but by consent…no man can give to another what is none of his own.”
  • “Nor has any man in the state of nature power…to take away the life of another, unless to defend his own, or what is as much his own, namely, his property. This power therefore, which no man has, no man can transfer to another.”
  • “Nor could any man…have a right to violate the property of another…as long as he himself was not injured by that industry and those enjoyments. No man therefore could transfer to the magistrate that right which he had not himself.”
  • “No man in his senses…[would] give an unlimited power to another to take away his life, or the means of living…But if any man…parted with any portion of his acquisitions, he did it with the honest purpose of enjoying the rest with greater security, and always in subservience to his own happiness, which no man will or can willingly and intentionally give away to any other whatsoever.”
  • “The nature of government does not alter the natural right of men to liberty, which is in all political societies their due.”
  • “All history affords but few instances of men trusted with great power without abusing it, when with security they could…For these reasons, and convinced by woeful and eternal experience, societies found it necessary to lay restraints upon their magistrates or public servants, and to put checks upon those who would otherwise put chains upon them…the power and sovereignty of magistrates in free countries was so qualified, and so divided into different channels, and committed to the direction of so many different men, with different interests and views, that the majority of them could seldom or never find their account in betraying their trust in fundamental instances.”
  • “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.”
  • “When the deputies thus act for their own interest, by acting for the interest of their principals; when they can make no law but what they themselves, and their posterity, must be subject to; when they can give no money, but what they must pay their share of; when they can do no mischief, but what must fall upon their own heads in common with their countrymen, their principals may then expect good laws, little mischief, and much frugality. Here therefore lies the great point…in forming the constitution, that the persons entrusted and representing, shall either never have any interest detached from the persons entrusting or represented, or never the means to pursue it…Here every man concerned saw the necessity of securing part of their property, by putting the persons entrusted under proper regulations.”

One of America’s most famous founders, Patrick Henry, said that “No free government, or the blessings of liberty can be preserved…but…by a frequent recurrence to fundamental principles.”

Cato’s Letters provides just such fundamental principles. And letter 60’s reminder that government can’t be given powers by people who do not have those powers to give might be one of the best ways to inoculate yourself against the political siren songs we are about to be immersed in.

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