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An Enquiry Concerning Political Justice

By William Godwin



Reasons by which they are vindicated. -- Labour in its usual acceptation and labour for the public compared. -- Immoral effects of the institution of salaries. -- Source from which they are derived -- Unnecessary for the subsistence of the public functionary -- For dignity. -- Salaries of inferior officers -- May also be superseded. -- Taxation. -- Qualifications.
{673} An article which deserves the maturest consideration, and by means of which political institution does not fail to produce the most important influence upon opinion is that of the mode of rewarding public services. The mode which has obtained in all European countries is that of pecuniary reward. He who is employed to act in behalf of the public, is recompensed with a salary. He who retires from that employment, is recompensed with a pension. The arguments in support of this system are well known. It has been remarked, 'that it may indeed be creditable to individuals to be willing to serve their country without a reward, but that it is a becoming pride on the {674} part of the public to refuse to receive as an alms that for which they are well able to pay. If one man, animated by the most disinterested motives, be permitted to serve the public upon these terms, another will assume the exterior of disinterestedness, as a step towards the gratification of a sinister ambition. If men be not openly and directly paid for the services they perform, we may rest assured that they will pay themselves by ways ten thousand times more injurious. He who devotes himself to the public, ought to devote himself entire: he will therefore be injured in his personal fortune, and ought to be replaced. Add to this, that the servants of the public ought by their appearances and mode of living to command respect both from their own countrymen and from foreigners; and that this circumstance will require an expence for which it is the duty of their country to provide1.'

Before this argument can be sufficiently eliminated, it will be necessary for us to consider the analogy between labour in its most usual acceptation and labour for the public service, what are the points in which they resemble and in which they differ. If I cultivate a field the produce of which is necessary for my subsistence, this is an innocent and laudable action, the first object it proposes is my own emolument, and it cannot be unreasonable that that object should be much in my contemplation {675} while the labour is performing. If I cultivate a field the produce of which is not necessary to my subsistence, but which I propose to give in barter for a garment, the case then becomes different. The action here does not properly speaking begin in myself. Its immediate object is to provide food for another; and it seems to be in some degree a perversion of intellect, that causes me to place in an inferior point of view the inherent quality of the action, and to do that which is in the first instance benevolent, from a partial retrospect to my own advantage. Still the perversion here, at least to our habits of reflecting and judging, does not appear violent. The action differs only in form from that which is direct. I employ that labour in cultivating a field, which must otherwise be employed in manufacturing a garment. The garment I propose to myself as the end of my labour. We are not apt to conceive of this species of barter and trade as greatly injurious to our moral discernment.

But then this is an action in the slightest degree indirect. It does not follow, because we are induced to do some actions immediately beneficial to others from a selfish motive, that we can admit of this in all instances with impunity. It does not follow, because we are sometimes inclined to be selfish, that we must never be generous. The love of our neighbour is the great ornament of a moral nature. The perception of truth is the most solid improvement of an intellectual nature. He that sees nothing in the universe deserving of regard but himself is {676} a consummate stranger to the dictates of immutable reason. He that is not influenced in his conduct by the real and inherent natures of things, is rational to no purpose. Admitting that it is venial to do some actions immediately beneficial to my neighbour from a partial retrospect to myself, surely there must be other actions in which I ought to forget, or endeavour to forget myself. This duty is most obligatory in actions most extensive in the consequences. If a thousand men be to be benefited, I ought to recollect that I am only an atom in comparison, and to reason accordingly.

These considerations may qualify us to decide upon the article of pensions and salaries. Surely it ought not to be the end of a good political institution to increase our selfishness, instead of suffering it to dwindle and decay. If we pay an ample salary to him who is employed in the public service, how are we sure that he will not have more regard to the salary than to the public? If we pay a small salary, yet the very existence of such a payment will oblige men to compare the work performed and the reward bestowed; and all the consequence that will result will be to drive the best men from the service of their country, a service first degraded by being paid, and then paid with an ill-timed parsimony. Whether the salary be large or small, if a salary exist, many will desire the office for the sake of its appendage. Functions the most extensive in their consequences will be converted into a trade. How humiliating will it be to the {677} functionary himself, amidst the complication and subtlety of motives, to doubt whether the salary were not one of his inducements to the accepting the office? If he stand acquitted to himself, it is however still to be regretted, that grounds should be afforded to his countrymen, which tempt them to misinterpret his views.

Another consideration of great weight in this instance is that of the source from which salaries are derived: from the public revenue, from taxes imposed upon the community. But there is no practicable mode of collecting the superfluities of the community. Taxation, to be strictly equal, if it demand from the man of an hundred a year ten pounds, ought to demand from the man of a thousand a year nine hundred and ten. Taxation will always be unequal and oppressive, wresting the hard earned morsel from the gripe of the peasant, and sparing him most whose superfluities most defy the limits of justice. I will not say that the man of clear discernment and an independent mind would rather starve than be subsisted at the public cost: but I will say, that it is scarcely possible to devise any expedient for his subsistence that he would not rather accept.

Meanwhile the difficulty under this head is by no means insuperable. The majority of the persons chosen for public employment, under any situation of mankind approaching to the present, will possess a personal fortune adequate to there support. {678} Those selected from a different class, will probably be selected for extraordinary talents, which will naturally lead to extraordinary resources. It has been deemed dishonourable to subsist upon a private liberality; but this dishonour is produced only by the difficulty of reconciling this mode of subsistence and intellectual independence. It is free from many of the objections that have been urged against a public stipend. I ought to receive your superfluity as my due, while I am employed in affairs more important than that of earning a subsistence; but at the same time to receive it with a total indifference to personal advantage, taking only precisely what is necessary for the supply of my wants. He that listens to the dictates of justice and turns a deaf ear to the dictates of pride, will wish that the constitution of his country should cast him for support on the virtue of individuals, rather than provide for his support at the public expence. That virtue will, in this as in all other instances, increase, the more it is called into action. 'But what if he have a wife and children?' Let many aid him, if the aid of one be insufficient. Let him do in his lifetime what Eudamidas did at his decease, bequeath his daughter to be subsisted by one friend, and his mother by another. This is the only true taxation, which he that is able, and thinks himself able, assesses on himself, not which he endeavours to discharge upon the shoulders of the poor. It is a striking example of the power of venal governments in generating prejudice, that this scheme of serving the public functions without salaries, so common among the ancient republicans, {679} should by liberal minded men of the present day be deemed impracticable. It is not to be believed that those readers who already pant for the abolition of government and regulations in all their branches, should hesitate respecting so easy an advance towards this desirable object. Nor let us imagine that the safety of the community will depend upon the services of an individual. In the country in which individuals fit for the public service are rare, the post of honour will be his, not that fills an official function, but that from his closet endeavours to waken the sleeping virtues of mankind. In the country where they are frequent, it will not be difficult by the short duration of the employment to compensate for the slenderness of the means of him that fills it. It is not easy to describe the advantages that must result from this proceeding. The public functionary would in every article of his charge recollect the motives of public spirit and benevolence. He would hourly improve in the energy and disinterestedness of his character. The habits created by a frugal fare and a chearful poverty, not hid as now in obscure retreats, but held forth to public view, and honoured with public esteem, would speedily pervade the community, and auspiciously prepare them for still farther improvements.

The objection, 'that it is necessary for him who acts on the part of the public to make a certain figure, and to live in a style calculated to excite respect,' does not deserve a separate answer. The whole spirit of this treatise is in direct hostility to this objection. {680} If therefore it have not been answered already, it would be vain to attempt an answer in this place. It is recorded of the burghers of the Netherlands who conspired to throw off the Austrian yoke, that they came to the place of consultation each man with his knapsack of provisions: who is there that feels inclined to despise this simplicity and honourable poverty? The abolition of salaries would doubtless render necessary the simplification and abridgment of public business. This would be a benefit and not a disadvantage.

It will farther be objected that there are certain functionaries in the lower departments of government, such as clerks and tax-gatherers, whose employment is perpetual, and whose subsistence ought for that reason to be made the result of their employment. If this objection were admitted, its consequences would be of subordinate importance. The office of a clerk or a tax-gatherer is considerably similar to those of mere barter and trade; and therefore to degrade it altogether to their level, would have little resemblance to the fixing such a degradation upon offices that demand the most elevated mind. The annexation of a stipend to such employments, if considered only as a matter of temporary accommodation, might perhaps be endured.

But the exception, if admitted, ought to be admitted with great caution. He that is employed in an affair of public necessity, ought to feel, while he discharges it, its true character. {681} We should never allow ourselves to undertake an office of a public nature, without feeling ourselves animated with a public zeal. We shall otherwise discharge our trust with comparative coldness and neglect. Nor is this all. The abolition of salaries would lead to the abolition of those offices to which salaries are thought to be necessary. If we had neither foreign wars nor domestic stipends, taxation would be almost unknown; and, if we had no taxes to collect, we should want no clerks to keep an account of them. In the simplest scheme of political institution which reason dictates, we could scarcely have any burdensome offices to discharge; and, if we had any that were so in their abstract nature, they might be rendered light by the perpetual rotation of their holders.

If we had no salaries, for a still stronger reason we ought to have no pecuniary qualifications, or in other words no regulation requiring the possession of a certain property, as a condition to the right of electing or the capacity of being elected. It is an uncommon strain of tyranny to call upon men to appoint for themselves a delegate, and at the same time forbid them to appoint exactly the man whom they may judge fittest for the office. Qualification in both kinds is the most flagrant injustice. It asserts the man to be of less value than his property. It furnishes to the candidate a new stimulus to the accumulation of wealth; and this passion, when once set in motion, is not easily allayed. It tells him, 'Your intellectual and moral qualifications {682} may be of the highest order; but you have not enough of the means of luxury and vice.' To the non-elector it holds the most detestable language. It says, 'You are poor; you are unfortunate; the institutions of society oblige you to be the perpetual witness of other men's superfluity; because you are sunk thus low, we will trample you yet lower; you shall not even be reckoned in the lists for a man, you shall be passed by as one of whom society makes no account, and whose welfare and moral existence she disdains to recollect.'


1. The substance of these arguments may be found in Mr. Burke's Speech on Oeconomical Reform.