Cyclopædia of Political Science, Political Economy, and the Political History of the United States

Edited by: Lalor, John J.
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New York: Maynard, Merrill, and Co.
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Includes articles by Frédéric Bastiat, Gustave de Molinari, Henry George, J. B. Say, Francis A. Walker, and more.
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CORRUPTION IN POLITICS. Montesquieu, as is well known, distinguishes three forms of government, the republican, monarchical and despotic; and, after having described their nature, he lays down the principle which is the essence of each of them. Thus, he attributes virtue to the republic, honor to monarchy, and fear to despotism.


—As nothing in this world can escape decay, Montesquieu rightly sought to discover how corruption is brought about, and how it manifests itself in each form of government.


—We quote, for the reader's convenience, the most salient passages of the eighth book of this author's immortal work, Esprit des Lois.


—Chap. I. "Corruption, in every form of government, almost always begins with the corruption of its principle."


—Chap. II. "The principle of democracy is corrupted, not only by the loss of the spirit of equality, but also by the assumption of too extreme an equality, whereby each one wishes to be equal to those whom he has chosen to command him. Then the people, unable to endure the power which they themselves confer, wish to do everything themselves; to deliberate for the senate, to enforce the laws for the magistrate, and to divest the judges of their power."


—Chap. VII. "The principle of monarchy is corrupted when the highest dignities are the marks of the first servitude, when the great are deprived of respect for the people, and made the vile instruments of arbitrary power. The corruption is still greater when honor and honors are made contradictory terms, and a man may be at the same time loaded down with infamy and dignities. It is corrupt when the prince changes his justice into severity; when, like the Roman emperors, he arms himself with a Medusa's head; when he assumes the threatening and terrible air which Commodus used to give to his statues."


—Chap. X. "The principle of the despotic form of government is always corrupt, because it is corrupt by its very nature. Other governments perish because particular accidents violate their principle; but a despotism perishes of its own innate viciousness, unless some accidental causes prevent its principle from working its own ruin."


—Chap. XI. "When the principle of a government is once corrupted, the best laws become bad, and are turned against the state: when its principle is sound, even bad laws have the effect of good ones, the strength of the principle draws everything with it."


—Our ideas differ but little from those of this illustrious author: except that events have crowded one upon another in the past hundred years as perhaps never before, and we have learned more in one century than our ancestors did in twelve or fifteen. We would distinguish only two elementary or simple forms of government, which may exist each alone, or in combination. In one of these simple governments the supreme power belongs to the people, to the mass of citizens; in the other, the supreme power is in the hands of an individual or a family, and the people have no share in it. The former is the republican form of government; the latter, absolute monarchy.


—We regard a very strong feeling of the dignity of the citizen as the only sure basis upon which a republic can be lastingly established. Love of country—it is thus that Montesquieu defines political virtue—moves mountains, but only when it is excited by danger. To fight the country's enemy it inspires strength and prompts to the greatest sacrifices. But most men are more easily led to make one immense effort of short duration than to endure a long, uninterrupted succession of very slight sacrifices. Love of country does not, therefore, suffice as a basis for a republic; and it would, moreover, be an act of injustice toward the other forms of government to consider them as deprived of the vivifying fire which bears the name of patriotism.


—Dignity, therefore, or self-respect, joined to the love of liberty, is the principle of republics, the soul of true democracy. Wherever this self-respect is wanting, equality, and even patriotism, will not prevent corruption; and we here take the word in its double acceptation of deterioration, which is the meaning generally given to it by Montesquieu, and of peculation, which is the sense in which it is more commonly used in our own day. Egoism, and the desire of gain (avarice, as Montesquieu calls it), are passions always alive in man; and, if he does not find a check to them in the tribunal of his own conscience, how can he resist temptation?


—History would furnish us abundance of facts, if we wished to cite examples of this truth. We might speak of the Dutch republic, or the men in power in it, all of whom, except four (two of whom were the two de Witts), accepted the gold of Louis XIV., knowing that that monarch proposed to invade their native country. The frugality which reigned in Switzerland, the extreme simplicity of the mode of life of this people, did not prevent the descendants of the conquerors of Morgarten and Sempach, the sons of those who, in 1551, voted a law forbidding the canvassing of bailiwicks, or the offices which were merely honorary—these Swiss, we say, afterward went so far as to sell unblushingly, in full assembly, to the highest bidder, the judgeships and other lucrative employments of the country when divided into cantons. Zschocke, who relates this fact in his Histoire de la lutte et de la destruction des républiques democratiques de Schuytz, Uri et Unterwalden, also relates that they put up at auction even the highest offices of the republic, as that of Landammann, the highest country magistrate in some Swiss cantons; and when some few dared to protest against this abuse, the people expressly decreed, in 1680, that whoever criticised it should pay a fine of a hundred crowns, and should be deprived of the right of citizenship. (p. 99)


—We refrain from looking for acts of corruption in modern republics, especially in the United States, for fear of too abundant a crop We merely desire to demonstrate that virtue (in the sense in which it is used by Montesquieu) does not prevent a democracy from becoming corrupt—Besides, in citing the example of Switzerland, we have been enabled indirectly to refute Macchiavelli, who seems to believe that a people once corrupted can not be regenerated; for we can not find in Switzerland to-day the abuses which reigned there two centuries ago. It proves, moreover, that Montesquieu also was deceived, as may be seen by referring to the passages which we have quoted above.


—Thus we see, that, in popular governments, corruption in all its forms begins below, or, rather, with the masses of the population: there can here be no question of corrupters. If, later on, the governing part of the nation exerts an evil influence on the part that is governed, it is because the former proceeds from the latter, and returns to it, "dips into it again," and becomes a more perfect expression of its defects as well as of its good qualities.


—In a monarchy, on the contrary, we may suppose a line of demarcation clearly drawn between the sovereign and his subjects; but that the prince may exercise a corrupting influence is none the less admissible. The servility of subjects certainly is not calculated to inspire the sovereign with much moderation in the use of his authority, but it is evident that absolute power generally precedes servility.


—But if the monarch is powerful for evil, because men choose their models from among those in high stations, he is able also to do good, and put an end to corruption, at least in a certain measure. To the general corruption of morals he should oppose the purity of his own life, and should know how to prevent peculation by good laws, and by a policy as just and liberal at home, as it is honest and dignified abroad.


—If corruption of morals, especially among those who are invested with power, may be met with under both the simple forms of government, might it not be possible to find a combination which would unite the essential principles of each of them in such a manner that one would serve as a check upon the other, and thus prevent any deterioration? Able minds have considered it possible, and to this end have extolled constitutional government. There is reason to believe that this form of government delays, if it does not put an end to, corruption of morals, and abolishes or lessens acts of peculation.


—Everybody knows, for instance, that the ministers of Charles II. and those of queen Anne made no scruple of selling the secrets of their sovereigns to Louis XIV.! It is known that projected attacks were betrayed by the minister of war, and failed by reason of his treason! A little later minister Walpole became a corrupter, but even then men hardly dared to accept a foreign bribe. Walpole tried his influence upon the members of parliament. These facts very soon became of rare occurrence.


—Publicity greatly aids morality in free governments. Corruption could not long withstand the attacks made upon it in parliament, in the press, and in pamphlets. Publicity is the best means of inspiring self-respect, which is the surest safe-guard against the strongest temptations.


—We have yet to refer to the question raised in some treatises on the law of nations (Martens, Klüber), whether or not it is permissible to corrupt the ministers, ambassadors, generals or subjects of an enemy. It has even been asked whether it is allowed to use corruption among friendly nations. But as we condemn corruption when practiced in the camp of an enemy, we need not say what we think of the attempt to inflict this injury upon an ally. We know, that notwithstanding all we can say, more than one will, in practice, continue to use money as an auxiliary; but, no matter how vain our endeavors, we can not but contend against abuse. Corruption is always and in all cases a crime in him who corrupts as well as in him who is corrupted.


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