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Cato's Letters on the "Loveliness and Advantages" of Political Liberty

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When I first discovered Cato’s Letters, it had a profound influence on me. Even after spending years of serious reading and growth on my belief in liberty, I knew nothing about them from my educational training and little more from my reading to that point. Not only did I find a wealth of wisdom there, I also found that many of our founders’ ideas and inspirational words that I had discovered also traced back to them.

Because of its insights into liberty and government, every election, seemingly with an ever increasing gap between government as we suffer through it today and America’s founding ideas and ideals, makes me revisit Cato’s Letters’s gold mine of inspiration. I am reminded of Cato the Younger, whose dedication to liberty and republican principles led him to implacably oppose Julius Caesar. I am brought back to Locke’s Second Treatise on Government, whose ideas, particularly that the scope of legitimate state action only reaches to defending people’s lives, liberties, and estates, which Cato’s Letters laid out and defended. It rekindles my appreciation for how much its defense of people’s freedoms was "unmatched for its breadth and vigor in the literature of the period," as Ronald Hamowy put it. And its importance, which he characterized "as the basis of the American response to the whole range of depredations under which the colonies suffered," during which "Its arguments against oppressive government and in support of the splendors of freedom were quoted constantly and its authors were regarded as the country’s most eloquent opponents of despotism," is impressed upon me again.

Given the unprecedented extent to which politicians have promised to violate the principles espoused in both Cato’s Letters and our founding in the latest presidential campaign, I have turned to it earlier than usual this year. And in my reading, I came to a decision about what my favorite letter is. It is number 62: "An Enquiry into the Nature and Extent of Liberty; with Its Loveliness and Advantages, and the Vile Effects of Slavery." Given the issues and stakes involved this year, I think the following excerpts, in the order in which they were originally presented, are worthy of special attention.

  • "By liberty, I understand the power which every man has over his own actions, and his right to enjoy the fruits of his labor, art and industry, as far as by it he hurts not the society, or any members of it, by taking from any member, or 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 by his own consent."
  • "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 who offered it; nor can there be any other pretense for magistracy in the world. In order to this good end, the magistrate is entrusted 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 domestic injuries. These are the boundaries of the power of the magistrate, who deserts his function whenever he breaks them…all his actions, as a public person, being for the sake of society, must refer to it, and answer the ends of it."
  • "It is a mistaken notion of government, that the interest of the majority is only to be consulted…otherwise the greater number may sell the lesser, and divide their estates among themselves; and so, instead of a society, where all peaceable men are protected, become a conspiracy of the many against the minority."
  • "It is…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 domestic affairs[,]…[s]o that neither has the magistrate a right to direct the private behavior of men[,]…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 domestic concerns are exempted entirely from its jurisdiction."
  • "But while men have their five senses, I cannot see what the magistrate has to do with actions by which society cannot be affected; and where he meddles with such, he meddles impertinently or tyrannically."
  • "Let people alone, and they will take care of themselves, and do it best; and if they do not, a sufficient punishment will follow their neglect, without the magistrate’s interposition and penalties…[S]uch busy care and officious intrusion into the personal affairs, or private actions, thoughts and imaginations of men, has in it more craft than kindness; and is only a device to mislead people, and pick their pockets, under the false pretense of the public and their private good."
  • "True and impartial liberty is therefore the right of every man to pursue the natural, reasonable, and religious dictates of his own mind; to think what he will, to act as he thinks, provided he acts not to the prejudice of another; to spend his own money himself, and lay out the produce of his labor his own way; and to labor for his own pleasure and profits, and not for others who are idle, and would live…by pillaging and oppressing him, and those that are like him."
  • "Civil government is only a partial restraint put by the laws of agreement and society upon natural and absolute liberty."
  • "Magistracy, among free people, is the exercise of power, for the sake of the people…Free government is the protecting of the people in their liberties by stated rules: Tyranny is a brutish struggle for unlimited liberty to one or a few, who would rob all the others of their liberty, and act by no rule but lawless lust."
  • "The love of liberty is an appetite so strongly implanted in the nature of all living creatures, that even the appetite of self-preservation…seems to be contained in it; since by liberty they enjoy the means of preserving themselves, and of satisfying their desires in the manner which they themselves choose and like best."
  • "Where liberty is lost, life grows precarious, always miserable, often intolerable. Liberty is to live upon one’s own terms; slavery is to live at the mercy of another."
  • "This passion for liberty in men, and their possession of it, is of that efficacy and importance, that it seems the parent of all the virtue."
  • "Servants of the state…have no more power to do evil than one of themselves, and are void of every privilege and superiority, but to serve them and the state."
  • "Indeed liberty is the divine source of all human happiness. To possess, in security, the effects of our industry, is the most powerful and reasonable incitement to be industrious: And to be able to provide for our children, and to leave them all that we have, is the best motive to beget them. But where property is precarious, labor will languish. The privileges of thinking, saying and doing what we please, and of growing rich as we can, without any other restriction, than that by all this we hurt not the public, nor one another, are the glorious privileges of liberty; and its effects, to live in freedom, plenty, and safety."
  • "All civil happiness and prosperity is inseparable from liberty."

In number 62 alone, Cato’s Letters deals with the inherent connection between liberty and justice; the distinction between better defending preexisting inherent rights and the creation of new rights for some at the necessary expense of others’ rights, which is tyranny; how that requires a strictly constrained role for government; the fact that democracy is not the highest political principle, but primarily useful only insofar as it advances and protects liberty; and more. And when we remember that it was "the most popular, quotable, esteemed source of political ideas in the colonial period," according to historian Clinton Rossiter, it is worth revisiting in order to learn, with its authors, how better to "maintain and expose the glorious principles of liberty, and to expose the arts of those who would darken or destroy them."


Gary Galles

Gary M. Galles is a Professor of Economics at Pepperdine University and an adjunct scholar at the Ludwig von Mises Institute. He is also a research fellow at the Independent Institute, a member of the Foundation for Economic Education faculty network, and a member of the Heartland Institute Board of Policy Advisors.

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