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PAPER X.: ON PUBLIC ACCOUNT KEEPING. - Jeremy Bentham, The Works of Jeremy Bentham, vol. 5 (Scotch Reform, Real Property, Codification Petitions) 
The Works of Jeremy Bentham, published under the Superintendence of his Executor, John Bowring (Edinburgh: William Tait, 1838-1843). 11 vols. Vol. 5.
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ON PUBLIC ACCOUNT KEEPING.
Complaints have of late been made, of the method at present pursued for making recordation, and appropriate publication, of the transactions of the several classes of functionaries, of whom the official establishment of the British government is composed; and of the pecumary and quasi-pecuniary transactions more particularly. By high authority, it has been pronounced inadequate, and ill adapted to its professed purpose. To this, by that same authority, a substitution has been proposed, and that in the character of a well-adapted and adequate one. It consists in simply substituting, to the method and phraseology at present employed, the method and phraseology, which is called sometimes the Italian, sometimes the double-entry mode or system; and the use of which is confined to the case in which pecuniary profit and loss are conjunctly presented to view.
Against this change, so far as regards the use of this peculiar and technical phraseology, I protest on two grounds:—1. That, instead of being conducive to, it is incompatible with, the design which, on this occasion, whether it actually be or no, ought to be entertained; namely, that of rendering the state of the accounts in question more effectually and extensively understood; 2. That, if introduced, it would of itself produce deterioration, to an unfathomable degree, in a form of government which assuredly stands not in need of any such change.
These evils will, when examined, be seen coalescing into use.
First, as to the design. What ought it to be? Answer, as above. To render the transactions in question as effectually understood as may be, and to that end as intelligible as may be, to those whose interests are at stake upon them; that is to say, in the first place, to the representatives of the people; in the next place, to the people themselves, constituents of those same representatives.
Now, then, in respect of intelligibility, what would be the effect of the introduction of this same Italian mode? So far from augmentation, it would be little less than destruction: and this, relation had as well to constituents as to representatives.
Method is one thing; phraseology is anther: 1. First, as to method: that, by means of it, any addition would be made to the number of those by whom the transactions in question would be understood, remains to be proved; no determinate reason for thinking so, have I anywhere been able to find. Whatsoever, if anything, this same addition would be, might it not, to equal effect and with equal conveniency, in every respect, be made, by the phraseology in use with everybody, as well as by that which is peculiar to merchants? With little or no hesitation I answer in the affirmative: at any rate, that which may be asserted without even the smallest hesitation is, that whatsoever may be the advantage derivable from the method, never can it compensate for the evil inseparably attached to the unintelligibility of the phraseology.
2. Next and lastly, as to the phraseology. To the whole community, with the exception of the single class designated by the appellation of merchants, this phraseology is utterly unintelligible: to all those for whose use it is, or ought to be, designed, by those by whom the substitution of it to that which is universally intelligible, is proposed: Members of Honourable House, and people without doors, included.
Of the number of those to whom it is unintelligible, compared with the number of those to whom it is intelligible, what is the amount? To any person whatsoever, the answer may be intrusted. Be it what it may,—say who can, that it will not suffice to ground the putting a decided exclusion upon the proposed change.
Now then for the other objection:—deterioration of the form of government. To a universally intelligible mode of giving expression, to the transactions of the functionaries of government, and in particular to the part which consists in the collection of the produce of the taxes, and the disposal made of it, substitute an almost universally unintelligible mode: what is the consequence? Answer—Exit Public Opinion: enter Darkness: such as that which forms the characteristic of absolute government. To Matchless Constitution may be substituted the government of Spain, Portugal, or Turkey: and this without responsibility, or danger in any shape, on the part of the authors of the change.
Obvious as these effects can scarcely fail to appear when once mentioned, to none of those persons by whom the subject has been taken into consideration do they appear to have presented themselves: neither to those by whom the change has been proposed, nor yet even to those by whom it has been opposed.
First, as to those by whom it has been opposed. These are—Messrs. Brooksbank and Beltz, two of the three commissioners for inquiry into the state of the public accounts. “A wide difference exists (say they) between the business and circumstances of a trader and those of a government department:” in the observation thus vague and unapplied consists the only objection made by them to the introduction of the Italian mode: of the distinction between method and phraseology, no intimation whatever is conveyed by it.
Next and lastly, as to those by whom the change has been proposed. Not without sincere regret is it, that, on this occasion, and for such a purpose, I hold up to view a production on so many other accounts so highly estimable as the work entitled “Financial Reform, by Sir Henry Parnell, Baronet, M. P.” late chairman of the committee on finance. Pure, once (p. 196,) purest, twice (pp. 192 and 197:)—in these two words are contained all the arguments I can find in that work, in favour of this same phraseology. “Mr. Abbot’s proposal is,” he says, p. 194, “to establish the Italian system in its purest form; and to those persons who are practically acquainted with the Italian system of accounts, the reasons on which Mr. Abbot founds his opinion of its being applicable to all official accounts, cannot but be,” he says, p. 173, “completely satisfactory.”*
“Applicable?” Unquestionably. But what is that to the purpose? Just nothing Applicable means capable of being applied. But, of the truth of this proposition what need of opinion from that gentleman or anybody else, to make us fully satisfied? Applicable, or not applicable with advantage?—that is the question. And, to that question answer has not been given by Mr. Abbot; answer has been given here.
That, of the desire of these so highly intelligent and well-informed statesmen above-mentioned, unintelligibility on the part of the subject-matter in question, and ignorance, next to entire, on the part of the persons in question, were not amongst the objects—I, who write this, am altogether satisfied. But of the desire of those by whom the recommendations made by the committee over which he [Sir Henry Parnell] presided were set at nought, and the existence of that same committee cut short, were or were not these among the objects? Relieved should I be from an anxiety eminently painful, were it, in this paper, consistent with sincerity, to answer in the negative.
“To bring forward a motion for the emolument of the persons in question” was, according to Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer (if the account of the debate is to be believed,)† “treating them” (it should perhaps have been placing them) “in an invidious point of view:”—and, in effect, he, accordingly, on that same occasion, did what depended on him towards preventing their being placed in that same point of view.
But these same persons—who were they? Answer—“Members,” says he, “of the Privy Council,”—“a body composed of the Council of the Sovereign;” and afterwards, “the first judge in the land was included in it.”—Prodigious! And so, in the opinion of this member of the Cabinet Council, be the man who he may, the servants of the crown have but to obtain the placing of him in a situation which affords them the means of putting into his pocket an indefinitely large portion of the produce of the taxes,—this done, nobody but themselves is to be informed of the amount of it. What the amount is of the booty thus determined to be screened from detection, the right honourable guardian of the public purse has not informed us. But if the imputation couched under the word invidious be all that he objects to, a sure and easy receipt for the wiping it off is at his command. It consists—in the giving publicity to the information in question, in the instance of every public functionary without distinction.
In and by the original committee on finance, of which the late Charles Abbott, afterwards Speaker, and not long ago ennobled by the title of Lord Colchester, was chairman, extensive were the disclosures of this sort made; and, as far as appeared, in endeavours to narrow them. This was in the years 1797-1798. Thirteen or fourteen years after, came the committee on finance, of which the chairman was the still living Mr. Henry Banks, the Lord Eldon of Honourable House. From the report made by that committee, no possibility was there of learning the aggregate of the emoluments received, in the instance of any one of the functionaries occupying the situations mentioned in it: so exquisite was the ingenuity by which the deed of darkness was accomplished.
In the eyes of the right honourable persons in question, is the imputation of harbouring this same design of darkness regarded as matter of importance?—is the clearing themselves of it considered by them as an object worth their regard? The means at their command are most effectual.
For and during many years in the latter part of the last century, for the use of the directors of the life-insurance company called the Amicable Society, was annually published, in conjunction with an almanac, a list of the situations of which the official establishment was composed, with the emolument attached to each in the shape of salary. At present, in the annual publication intituled the Royal Calendar, of these situations, or at any rate the greatest part of them, a list is published; but of emolument in the shape of salary, or in any other shape, in no such publication, or in any other publication, is any mention to be found.
Now, then, by order of some one of the constituted authorities, let a complete list be published of all those several situations, with the amount of the aggregate of the emolument respectively attached to them: and to the columns in which these aggregates are inserted, let there be added another, exhibiting the total of the emoluments received by the functionary in question, from all public sources taken together; with numeral figures, expressive of the pages in which the several situations, with their respective masses of emolument, are presented to view.
Against the proposition for throwing the light of day upon this part of the den of Cacus, the only argument adduced by the right honourable gentleman is composed of the word invidious. In the import of this same word the idea of distinction is included. Do away the distinction—set fire to the gas—illuminate uno flatu the whole den, as above proposed—extinguished is this argument. Some dictionary, dead or living, he will have to turn over for another such.
On the present occasion,—after what has been said on the subject of unintelligibility, is it worth while to say anything more of that same branch of art and science (for science I see it called) to which the attribute of purity has so unhappily been ascribed? Of fiction, and nothing else, is it composed: of a tissue of misrepresentations—of departures from truth—and these not merely useless, but much worse than useless. To things, relations all along ascribed, of which things are not susceptible: to persons, relative situations in which, on the occasion in question, these same persons are not placed. Wine is said to be debtor to cloth. To what use this absurd falsehood? What explanation of anything does it give? To what human being, who has not been drenching himself with this and the kindred falsehoods for weeks or months, can it present any idea, unless it be an illusive one, unless it be translated into the vulgar tongue? True it is, that, had this locution been originally applied to the presenting to view the ideas annexed to it by the professors of this art-and-science,—it might have served as well for the purpose as does the correspondent part and parcel of the vulgar tongue: but, having once been fixed in the habit of being applied to so different a purpose, thence comes the confusion, and the useless difficulty which stands opposed to all endeavours to understand it.
So much for confusion-spreading proposition: now (to speak in logical language) use for a delusive term. Enter waste-book, cum totâ sequelâ suâ:—waste-book, a book composed of paper the value of which is that of waste-paper. To an unadept mind, what other idea than this is it in the nature of this appellation to suggest? Yet is this one book the corner-stone, on which the truth and usefulness of all the others rest:—a book, error in which infects with correspondent error all the rest:—the original, of which, though in different forms, all those others are but copies. Call this book the original book, those others the derivative books, the delusion vanishes. Call this book the chronological,—those others the logical books, the matter being traced in different orders, according to the different purposes,—a further instruction is afforded.
It is one of the branches of that art-and-science, which teaches how to make plain things difficult. A curious and not altogether uninstructive parallel, is that which might be made between this regular and technical mode of account keeping (for by both these epithets do I see it honoured) and the technical and regular system of judicial procedure. It would show to what a degree, by the leading-string held by blind custom, without any additional one tacked on by sinister interest, aberration from the rule of right is capable of being effected. Of this phraseology, if any use it have, the use consists in giving brevity to the mode of expression. Analogous is the use, in this case, to that of short-hand, as a substitute to ordinary hand,—to that of arithmetical notation as a substitute to ordinary orthography,—and to that of algebraic, as a substitute to arithmetical, notation. But small, in comparison, is the utmost service which, in this character, can be rendered by it: and on this ground, not on an imaginary one, by those who teach it, should the usefulness of it be placed.
In my Constitutional Code—to wit, in the already published volume of it—may be seen a section, in which, in the compass of sixty-eight pages, what is designed for an all-comprehensive set of books, for the exhibition of the accounts, pecuniary and quasi-pecuniary, of any government whatsoever, is presented to view. But for the bulk of it, it would have been included in this present miscellany. Official establishments, which it embraces in its view, are—not only those of this country, but those of any other country whatsoever.
To any attention, bestowed upon it by the only persons from whose attention to it any good to the community would ensue,—two objections there are, to the potency of which the author is duly sensible. No title had he, having the effect of a warrant from authority, for the undertaking of it. Instead of the £1600 a-year, or some such matter, from all the members of the community taken together,—16s. from each of such of them as may vouchsafe to purchase it, is the remuneration he will receive from it: by which remuneration, in the case of this work, as in the case of almost all others by which he has endeavoured to render his labours useful to his own country and mankind,—his profits will, to a large amount, be left on the minus side.
Two objections there are, to its being regarded as worth the 16s. by those with whose title to receive money out of the taxes, Mr. Chancellor of the Exchequer is so effectually satisfied, by the consideration of the quantity thereof so received by them. Two objections, and each of them an unconquerable one. No such remuneration will be offered; and, were it offered, no such remuneration,—nor any remuneration, other than that which would be afforded by the acknowledgment of the usefulness of the work,—would be received.
But, let but a title, such as that of privy councillor, or were it even no other than that of commissioner, with £1600 a-year, or some such matter, be added to it—oh what a treasure it would be! Multiply the £1600 by ten,—multiplied by the same number would be the value of the work! Multiply it by a hundred,—the value would be multiplied an hundred-fold! Multiply it by 10,000, its value would outstrip that of Holy Writ;—and prostrate before it would lie the whole population of the cabinet, accompanied and sanctified by his Grace of Canterbury, and all those other paragons of piety, whose regard for that same Holy Writ is manifested by the fineness of their sleeves, and the Tyrian dye of their servants’ liveries. Included are all these propositions, in that mathematical axiom, which is the key-stone of Matchless Constitution—Aptitude isasopulence.*∗*
[* ]Session of 1830. House of Commons Report, No. 159. “Copy of a letter from Mr. Abbot, late one of the commissioners,” &c.
[† ]Morning Chronicle, May 15,—debate of May 14.
[*∗* ]Since the proof of this sheet came in, a royal calendar has been taken in hand, of so recent a date as the year 1808; and in it are seen names of official situations, with salaries annexed, as in the case of the almanack mentioned in page 385. What was the year in which this mention of salaries was for the first time omitted, and what the state of the administration in that same year, may be curious enough subjects of inquiry.