Book 6, Chapter 09 : Of Pensions and Salaries

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Book 6, Chapter 09

Opinion as a Subject of Political Institution



Reasons by which they are vindicated. - Labor
in its usual acceptation and labor for the
public compared. - Immoral effects of the insti-
tution 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 super-
seded. Taxation. - Qualifications.

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 indeed it may be creditable to individuals to be willing to serve their country without a reward; but that it is a becoming pride on the 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 a 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 appearance and mode of living, to command respect both from their countrymen, and from foreigners; and that this circumstance will require an expense, for which it is the office of their country to provide.'1

Before this argument can be sufficiently estimated, it will be necessary for us to consider the analogy between labor in its most usual acceptation, and labor 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, while labor 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 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, beneficent, 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 labor in cultivating a field which must otherwise be employed in manufacturing a garment. The garment I propose to myself as the end of my labor. 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 neighbor 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 a consummate stranger to the dictates of general and impartial reason. He that is not influenced in his conduct by the real and inherent nature of things is rational to no purpose. Admitting that it is venial to do some actions, immediately beneficial to my neighbor, from a partial retrospect to myself, surely there must be other actions in which I ought to forget, or endeavor to forget myself. This duty is most obligatory in actions most extensive in their consequences. If a thousand men are to be benefited, I ought to recollect that I am only an atom in the comparison, and to reason accordingly.

These considerations may enable 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 functionary himself, amid 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 misrepresent his views.

Another consideration of great weight in this instance is that of the source from which salaries are derived: from public revenue, from taxes imposed upon the community. The nature of taxation has perhaps seldom been sufficiently considered. By some persons it has been supposed that the superfluities of the community might be collected, and placed under the disposition of the representative or executive power. But this is a gross mistake. The superfluities of the rich are, for the most part, inaccessible to taxation; the burthen falls, almost exclusively, upon the laborious and the poor. All wealth, in a state of civilized society, is the produce of human industry.2 To be rich is merely to possess a patent, entitling one man to dispose of the produce of another man's industry. Taxation therefore can no otherwise fall upon the rich but so far as it operates to diminish their luxuries. But this it does in a very few instances, and in a very small degree. Its genuine operation is to impose a new portion of labor upon those whom labor has already plunged deep in ignorance, degradation, and misery. The higher and governing part of the community are like the lion who hunted in concert with the weaker beasts. The landed proprietor first takes a very disproportionate share of the produce to himself; the capitalist follows, and shows himself equally voracious. Both these classes, in the form in which they now appear, might, under a different mode of society, be dispensed with. Taxation comes in next, and lays a new burthen upon those who are bowed down to the earth already. Who is there, allowed the choice of an alternative, and possessing the spirit of a man, that would choose to be thus fed, with the hard-earned morsel that, through the medium of taxation, is wrested from the gripe of the peasant?

Too much stress however is not to be laid upon this argument. There is no profession, there is perhaps no mode of life compatible with liberal and intellectual pursuits, that does not include in it a portion of inquiry. It is one of the evils of a corrupt state of society that it forces the most enlightened and the most virtuous unwillingly to participate in its injustice. It would be weakness, and not magnanimity, that should teach us to view these things with a microscopical scrupulosity; and to refuse to be useful because no usefulness is pure. The most important objection to emoluments flowing from a public revenue is built upon their tendency to corrupt the mind of the receiver, and the views of the spectators.

Let us proceed to consider the extent of the difficulty that would result from the abolition of salaries. The majority of persons nominated to eminent employments, under any state of mankind approaching to the present, will possess a personal fortune adequate to their support. Those selected from a different class will probably be selected for extraordinary talents, which will naturally lead to extraordinary resources. It has been deemed dishonorable Pensions and to subsist upon private liberality; but this dishonor is produced only by the difficulty of reconciling this mode of subsistence and intellectual independence. It is true that the fortunes of individuals, like public salaries, are merely a patent, empowering them to engross the produce of other men's labor. But large private fortunes cannot cease to exist till a spirit of sobriety and reflection, hitherto unknown, has been infused into the great mass of mankind. In the meantime the possessors of them are bound to consider of the best mode of disposing of their incomes for the public interest: and it would perhaps be difficult to point out a better than that here alluded to. By this method no new addition would be made to the burthens of the laborious; and the distribution would perhaps produce a better effect, than if it were made in douceurs and prizes to the more ordinary classes of mankind. As to the receiver, he, by the supposition, receives no more than his due; and therefore prejudice alone can represent him as degraded, or imbue him with servility. This source of emolument 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 what I deem necessary for the supply of my wants. He that listens to the dictates of justice, and turns a deaf ear to the suggestions of pride, will probably wish that the customs of his country should cast him for support on the virtue of individuals, rather than on the public revenue. That virtue may be expected, in this, as in all other instances, to 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, in whom civil policy has vested the means, assesses on himself, not which he endeavors 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, should, by liberal-minded men of the present day, be deemed impracticable. 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 honor will probably be his, not that fills an official situation, but that, from his closet, endeavors 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 vigor and disinterestedness of his character. The habits created by a frugal fare and a cheerful poverty, not hid as now in obscure retreats, but held forth to public view, and honored with public esteem, would speedily pervade the community, and auspiciously prepare them for still further 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, is scarcely to be considered as deserving a separate answer. The whole spirit of this inquiry is in direct hostility to such an objection. 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 honorable poverty? Who would not exclaim with the imperial minister when he viewed the spectacle, Men thus resolute and austere, are neither to be despised nor subdued? - 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 further 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 altogther [sic] to their level would have little resemblance to the fixing such a degradation upon offices that demand the most elevated character. 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 direct public necessity ought to be conscious, while he discharges it, of its true character. 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 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 simple scheme of political institution which reason dictates, we could scarely [sic] have any burthensome 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 have salaries, for a still further 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 of the office. Qualification in both kinds is a 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 may be of the highest order; but you have not enough of the means of luxuries and vise.' To the nonelector 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 this low, we will trample you yet lower; you shall not even be reckoned 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.'


1The substance of these arguments may be found in Burke's Speech on Oeconomical Reform.
2Book VIII, Chap. II.

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January 27, 2017 19:16:28 :
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September 23, 2017 10:08:49 :
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