Front Page Titles (by Subject) 5: Cicero - Economic Liberalism, vol. 1 The Beginnings
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5: Cicero - William Dyer Grampp, Economic Liberalism, vol. 1 The Beginnings 
Economic Liberalism (New York: Random House, 1965). vol. 1 The Beginnings.
Part of: Economic Liberalism, 2 vols.
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The error cannot be laid to Cicero. For his observations on the exchange process and on other matters, his economic and political ideas seem to me to be the most interesting in Stoicism—interesting for the great variety of problems they cover, for the detail in which they often are presented, and for the direct manner in which they are expressed. His philosophy was an impressive effort to apply the tenets of Stoic morality to the social behavior of men. His political and economic views are best understood in relation to the other elements of his philosophy.
THE PLACE OF REASON
Like all of the Stoics, Cicero believed that the differentia of man was his power of reason, but Cicero was unique in the uses to which he put the idea. He made it the ethical and psychological foundation of society. Other Stoics made reason the informing power in man’s relation to nature and to himself; the later Stoics, like Epictetus and Aurelius, made it the power that guided the relations among individuals. Cicero made reason the central element in a relatively complete theory of society. He used the idea to explain how a social system came to be established, with government, economic organization, and other institutions, to explain why men conduct themselves as they do in their relations with each other; and to explain how they ought to conduct themselves.
His conception of what was included in the reasoning faculty was, as one may imagine, more extensive than that of his predecessors. Moreover, Cicero was interested in man’s similarity to animals as well as his differences. He said that man in common with the beasts has the instinct of self-preservation. From the traits of man in their entirety, Cicero deduced six particular characteristics of behavior. They were the desire to associate with others “in the common bonds of speech and life,” or gregariousness; and closely allied was the inclination to form companies and “public assemblies”; the inherent affection of the individual for his children; the desire to provide materially for them and for himself; the interest in truth; and the desire to seek out order, moderation and beauty in the visible world.17 Of these characteristics, gregariousness seems to be the most difficult to infer from either the human or animal traits of man, particularly as Cicero says elsewhere that it is not related to self-preservation. Nor does it seem to be a derivative of reason, unless he was thinking of the same sort of thing as the seventeenth-century philosophers were when they said man could exercise his reason only in communication with others. However this may be, gregariousness interested Cicero as much as any of the characteristics. It is essential to his social philosophy and if it is not inferable from his postulates it can be taken as an independent trait.
Cicero made it the origin of societies. They come into existence because men shun loneliness and find happiness in associating with each other as friends, as members of groups formed for a particular purpose, as citizens living under the laws of the state, and (most important) as self-conscious beings aware of certain universal characteristics uniting each of them to all of the others.
THE CONCEPTION OF NATURAL LAW
The desire that brings men together however does not guarantee that their government will be moral or even that there will be a government at all. What makes government possible is the reasoning faculty of men—not their gregariousness. By reason men discover the natural law. It is the force that rules the universe and themselves as one element of it. By acting reasonably they can create a society that reproduces (or tries to reproduce) the order, wisdom, and benevolence of nature.
Cicero’s conception of natural law is significant. It was an application of the Stoic doctrine of universal governance to the common relations among men, to their secular activities and especially those directed toward acquiring wealth and those centering about political power. What Cicero tried to do was to bring together the accumulated knowledge of how men ought to conduct their social relations and to make it consistent with the Stoic conception of natural law. To be sure, there was nothing unique in looking to nature for guidance in worldly conduct. It had been done before, more logically and with greater resplendence, by the Greeks, especially by Plato. But the Greek philosophers were more interested in ideal constructions, and their counsels of perfection were a little too true to be good. Although Cicero’s ideas when taken separately were less original and when placed together were not always consistent, they nevertheless were important. His effort must be appraised in relation to the influence of other doctrines. That is, it should be judged by the effect it and other doctrines had on men in the business (both ordinary and extraordinary) of living. The effect of his ideas was, I think, considerable, particularly when later ages are taken into account.
The effect is apparent in many ways. Cicero held that men could determine the meaning of virtue by the use of reason, or, more generally, that by the use of their reflective power they could discover the laws that should direct their social relations and their individual conduct. “True law is right reason in agreement with nature,” he said, and again: “Law is intelligence.”18 Some eighteen centuries later Montesquieu wrote that “Law in general is human reason”19 —and the similarity was more than verbal: Their language had the same meaning. Like his successors in the Enlightenment, Cicero used the word “man” to mean not a few or a class of rational beings but all men. As the reasoning faculty was implanted in each of them, each could learn how to conduct himself in accord with natural law—not everyone with complete success, but well enough to take his place as a member of the human community with equal rights, privileges, and dignity. Cicero’s doctrine emphasized the behavior of individuals in their relations with each other, as early Stoicism did not. He meant his moral standards to apply to everyone. It cannot be said of him as Matthew Arnold said of other Stoics that they laid upon man a “burden well-nigh greater than he can bear.”20
Natural law as a universal code of behavior was an idea common to the Stoic writers. It was expressed as explicitly by Marcus Aurelius as by Cicero. Aurelius said:
If our intellectual part is common, the reason also, in respect of which we are rational beings, is common: if this is so, common also is the reason which commands us what to do, and what not to do, if this is so, there is a common law also; if this is so, we are fellow-citizens; if this is so, we are members of some political community; if this is so, the world is in a manner a state.21
But Cicero was different from the other Stoics in refusing to consider his social philosophy complete once its principles had been set down. In the Meditations of Marcus Aurelius there are many such persuasive passages as that above, but one would have to read closely indeed to find any guidance for ordinary conduct. Such conduct usually is pedestrian, but that can make it more, not less, important.
THE ORDER OF OBLIGATIONS
Cicero stated there were four cardinal virtues—truth, righteousness, spirituality, and order. He said that man’s highest duty was to the gods, his second to the state, his third to his parents. It was the second obligation, however, that he wrote most about. In the same work in which obligations are classified (Of Moral Duties), he said, unguardedly, the “duty which is connected with the social obligation is the most important duty.”22 This inconsistency is not important in itself but for what it reveals to have been his greatest interest. This interest is apparent throughout his writings. In an excursus on the value of learning, he objected to Plato’s statement that the philosopher shuns those things for which common men are most avid. Cicero contended that such an attitude led to a neglect of duty by the very men from whom most must be expected. The philosophers, he said, “hampered by their pursuit of learning . . . leave to their fate those whom they ought to defend.”23 The things for which most men are avid are those to which their self-interest leads them, especially such objects as political power and wealth, and the philosopher cannot be indifferent to them.
One would think that because man’s first responsibility is to the gods he should cultivate spiritual knowledge. But Cicero said that an understanding of society was more important because practical results would follow from the understanding. Actually he does hardly more than to acknowledge the priority of spiritual obligations. Having done that, he quickly passed to social duties and made them in fact paramount.
The “chief end” of all individual conduct, he said, should be the development of social well-being, which consists of making “the interest of each individual and of the whole body politic identical.”24 Men can do this by making natural law their guide. It enables them to form the ideal government. one that combines the best features of monarchy, aristocracy, and democracy. Cicero rejected each of them separately because he thought each in itself had decisive shortcomings. A democracy, because it is subject to license, cannot maintain enough authority. The others are inclined to excessive authority. “There should be a supreme and royal element in the State, some power ought also to be granted to the leading citizens, and certain matters should be left to the judgment and desires of the masses,” he said.25 The ideal government, then, was one that distributed power among the three major political groups in society—royalty, aristocracy, and the people—in order that the chief ends of government could be served. They were liberty, equality, and stability.
It is useful even at this early point to compare Cicero’s political ideas with those of classical liberalism. In the classical age, the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, the great objects of government were liberty and authority, and there was no explicit reference to equality. The slogan of fraternity during the French revolution was equalitarian, but equality is not necessarily liberal. It can be an expression of political idealism. In France it had elements of both. The authority of which Hume wrote in his political essays was quite similar to Cicero’s conception of stability. The ideas of freedom in the two periods were somewhat different but not radically so. Equality in the liberal sense was not expressly urged in the later period, but the idea of equality was accepted in the sense of all persons being equally endowed with rights—so fully, in fact, that the very absence of any express reference to it was a mark of its universal endorsement. The classic liberals also endorsed a political structure that distributed power among the same three groups which Cicero said should have it. The idea eventually developed into the tripartite structure of government, such as that established by the American Constitution. During the Enlightenment it was called one of the grandest inventions of the human mind.
Cicero (unlike the Enlightenment) was not explicit about how each of the three groups would be represented or about how much power each would have. He said repeatedly that the ends of government could be secured only by distributing power, but he was vague about just what kind of political structure would do that. He did say society always should follow the principle that the greatest number should not have the greatest power. This eliminates the danger of popular liberty degenerating into turmoil, but in itself doesn’t restrain the authority of the magistrate and counsels, which could be enlarged into tyranny. (That did happen in Cicero’s own lifetime, and he was one of the victims)
The ideal government clearly needs the most able men in society. Cicero urged men to look on politics as their principal duty, and he disliked intellectual effort that was not in some way connected with it. He said the ideal statesman combined virtue with political expertise.26 He had to be a philosopher, but he had also to be a great administrator. Cicero gave the closest attention to the statesman—to his qualifications, his duties and relations with others, to his power for good or evil. He said there are certain men who are meant by nature to rule, because they are strong in virtue and ability to administer. In a naturally ordered society, their ability would be recognized and they would naturally come into places of power. How they use power is important. Their conduct forms the morality of the state of course, but they do more. By their position they influence the purely private behavior of individuals and its morality. Cicero said there was something even more immoral than men in high office departing from virtue, thereby injuring themselves, others, and defying nature’s will. What is worse is that those outside government imitate the wicked in it, and in the end society itself is corrupted. The baleful influence of bad governors is an idea that has been repeated down the ages. Jefferson often expressed it, and in his letters there are numerous references to Cicero.27 His opposition to Hamilton and the leading Federalists was partly a personal one. He did not object to them only because he disliked their politics. He feared their habits would be adopted by the mass of people, who in turn would become just as bad. The idea, incidentally, does not flatter the common man in whom Jefferson, according to most commentators, had great faith.
Cicero did not profess any such faith. He placed his faith in leaders, instead, and about them he wrote most. He did comment on such matters as the powers of the governed, the meaning of law, the purpose of government, and the legitimacy of revolution. But he did not write of them so carefully nor so eloquently and his exact views on these matters are conjectural. He believed that the purpose of politics should be to make the interests of each individual identical with those of the state. One might infer that Cicero was a political idealist—that his doctrine assumed there is such a thing as a social will, or purpose or interest, independent of the will of the individual and superior to it. (To put the matter in a more familiar way, political idealism holds that the state is more important than the individuals comprising it.) Actually, Cicero’s assertion is misleading when taken by itself; when it is interpreted in the light of other statements in his political philosophy it has a meaning opposite to idealism. In his essay on the perfect state, which he called The Republic (after his “beloved” but often contrary Plato), Cicero said there was nothing men longed for more than liberty.28 In another place he wrote: “Freedom suppressed and again regained bites with keener fangs than freedom never endangered.”29 (The remark, incidentally, is a prototype of a Ciceronianism.) Now freedom happens to have many meanings, and when men say they believe in it they are not saying they agree with each other. “Freedom” in the vocabulary of politics has no rival for ambiguity and emotive power, except “democracy,” “authority,” “justice,” “right,” and most of the other important words used in political discourse. What Cicero meant by freedom was similar to what the word came to mean in the writings of the classic liberals. What he meant by political freedom is implied in his remarks on the meaning of law and of equality. What he meant by economic freedom is perfectly explicit and is consistent with its meaning in classical economics.
FREEDOM, EQUALITY, AND LAW
Cicero said that the law which governs society must affect all persons in the same way, because “rights that were not open to all alike would be no rights.”30 The idea of equality before the law was a strict deduction from earlier Stoicism. As nature gave all men reason and meant them to use it to discover virtue, so nature meant that all men should be equal and that virtue should have the same meaning to all of them. Cicero did not believe that the reasoning faculty was equally strong in all men. He said the weak in virtue were born to follow the strong. But he did believe that each man was capable of finding his place in society, and that all men stood in the same position before the law. Although not all individuals should have equal power in making or administering the law, all should have the same rights and duties before it.
The law so created was absolute. Being derived from nature, it was unchangeable. Being absolute, it was superior to the opinions or wishes or caprice of the heads of state. It governed them just as it governed the people. In these ideas there was a rudimentary conception of the rule of law—namely, that the state is created by law and limited by it. The opposite view is that the state makes the law and has unlimited powers. Cicero did not develop the idea of the rule of law in any detail, in fact, did no more than intimate or hint at it. Yet the hints were important, affecting as they did much of what he had to say about government.
They were disclosed in his ideas about equality, which for his time were extreme. He wrote of the universality of law and of the power of the people to safeguard their rights under it. He declared that the power was beyond dispute and he defended the overthrow of tyrants both as a right of the people and as a moral duty. This was not a defense of violence as a usual method of politics. It was a declaration that the power of government derives ultimately from the governed. The declaration seems to contradict the rule that the greatest number in a state never should have the greatest power. That rule, however, prescribed the distribution of power in a naturally ordered state. The right of revolution applies to a state that is not so ordered and is the ultimate recourse of a people who have no other means of obtaining for themselves the objects for which a state is established. If other means were available, Cicero was opposed to violence. He was, of course, even more strongly opposed to it in a society which respected law. “In a state which has a fixed and definite constitution,” violence is in complete opposition to justice and law and is wholly unsuitable to civilized men, he said.31
Cicero’s views on law and revolution are interesting. They were a forecast of the principles of the political theory of the Enlightenment. They were influential in their own day also. But as practical as he tried to make them, they could not manage certain problems. One was how the abuses of government should be removed and the rulers corrected. If the rulers exceed their proper power, they usually do not admit it nor do they invite discussion about how they can improve. Those opposed to an unjust government do not all of them have the same view of how it should be changed. The disagreement within the opposition may be as great as that between it and the government. The very critical problem—which Cicero does not illuminate—is how to know when political changes can be made by the rational method of discussion leading to agreement, including the agreement to disagree, and when the disagreement is so basic that it can be removed only by coercion or some other kind of force.
People inclined to rebellion never have had difficulty in discovering a violation of their rights. When the Americans decided to separate from Great Britain, they presented the world with a bill of particulars in the form of the Declaration of Independence. The principles it embodied were important, but they were not the only cause of the revolution. In the dynastic changes of England in the seventeenth century, men were never at a loss to find good reasons for their conduct. Cicero himself knew the ways of revolution and participated in conspiracies to overthrow Caesar, always with reasons sufficient to himself. I am not here expressing the common view that in politics the act prompts the idea and the idea rationalizes the act. If this were true, it would apply as much to the person making such a statement as it would to those he is making the statement about. What I wish to indicate is the difficulty of knowing when a political problem can be, or could have been, settled by agreement and, on the other hand, when it is so divisive that the only point on which the contesting groups can agree is that they must fight it out. Even “fighting it out” is not an unambiguous decision, because that can mean many things, from majority voting through the spectrum of coercion to physical violence.
One wishes that Cicero had generalized about the motives which placed him in opposition to Caesar and prompted him to plan revolution. But he didn’t, and his political doctrine is less useful than it could have been. The usefulness it does have is not always apparent, particularly when the doctrine is reduced to its leading principles. They were that the state comes into being because of the gregarious nature of men, that its purpose is to secure for them liberty, equality, and peace through a distribution of power maintained by the rule of law, that statecraft is the highest form of knowledge and statesmanship is the most honorable duty one can perform, both leading to the ideal government in which the interest of each individual and of all individuals are in harmony. Reduced to these elements, the doctrine looks quite as much a counsel of perfection as the political philosophies of the Greeks, Stoic and non-Stoic alike. It actually was not, because through his writings there runs a current of qualification that moderates what otherwise would be doctrinaire. One qualification should be set down because it is the most important and is typical of Cicero’s practical attitude. In Of Moral Duties, he said the two fundamental rules of government were the protection of the individual and the conservation of the common interest (which was one way in which he expressed his belief in liberty, equality, and authority). He then added that these rules should not always be respected, because there could be circumstances in which more harm would be done by respecting than by breaking them. In other words, the perfection of statecraft to which philosophy is directed may be set aside by the statesman if his sense of the situation tells him to. In a logical view, this is hopeless, but we cannot help being disarmed—and impressed—when he says, “the essential nature of the commonwealth often defeats reason.”32
THE STATE AND THE ECONOMY
In his writing on government, there are observations on the relationship between the state and the economy. His other writings examine economic conduct in other of its ethical aspects. He said the principal function of the state in economic affairs ought to be the protection of an individual’s property.33 This implies he believed private property was consistent with natural law. The belief was radically different from the view of property held by the early Stoics. They believed all property should be held in common, an idea which they said was a decree of nature. The idea was frequently expressed by non-Stoic Greek and Roman philosophers. Whatever were the motives for it, one of its effects was a utopian disregard for economic problems. The idea that the best is the enemy of the good is dangerous. It can excuse opportunism just as much as it can direct one to sensible compromises. But it does describe why the early philosophers, Stoic and others, did not have as much influence in economic affairs as they should have had. They insisted that economic conflict be eliminated by a method that most of society was not prepared to use—communal property. As a result, economic affairs fell into the management of other people who had less right and less ability to look after them.
Cicero adhered to the early Stoic view to the extent of admitting that private property was not established by nature. Property became private, he said, through long occupancy, through conquest, and by processes of law. Once property passed into the possession of the individual it was his alone and inviolable.34 Cicero did say there once was a natural and original community of property. But the statement was less important than his insisting upon the sanctity of property which had become private. Upholding it was the “chief purpose” of the state, he said in writing of the economic functions of government. He was opposed to communal ownership and also to any action of the state which arbitrarily altered the distribution of property. Of a proposal to distribute property equally, he said there could be no “more ruinous policy.” He of course was even more strongly opposed to action which deprived an individual of his property by violence or fraud. Such acts were in violation of justice, which itself, he declared, was a natural law. Hence he managed in the end to give private property a foundation in nature.35
In declaring the state should protect the property of the individual, Cicero meant something more than that the state should make wealth secure. He meant also that the state should guarantee the individual a “free and undisturbed control” of it.36 The distinction is important. Men of wealth frequently have learned, to their cost, that a state which promises to safeguard their property still may deprive them of the freedom to use it in their own interest (the lesson in this century being provided by Hitler to those businessmen who welcomed him as a savior from communism). Cicero’s views on property were something of a declaration for laisser faire, although neither he nor the economic liberals of a later age believed in an unrestrained freedom to acquire and use wealth. The kind of qualifications which the later liberals made are explained in other chapters of these volumes and need not be given here. Cicero’s qualifications are noted below. In the setting of Stoic doctrine, they are less important than the principle of economic freedom itself.
For consider how radical a departure he made from the Stoic conception of economic behavior: The founders of the school turned away from such conduct, believing it was irrational and hence unreal. Epictetus took it up hesitantly, indicating at some points an approval of material self-interest, at others a disapproval. The conclusions to be drawn from his remarks can be confusing and mischievous. Aurelius, with obvious reluctance, approved of economic freedom, saying it was harmless if men tried to acquire material goods in a manner consistent with “the reason which is common to gods and men.”37 Cicero declared forthrightly that men were motivated by the desire for material gain and that this trait must be accepted as a fact when rules are made for governing them. He did not approve of acquisitiveness in all of its manifestations, but neither did he condemn it in principle (as moralists usually have done).
His position is similar to that of Adam Smith. Smith believed material self-interest (which is not the only kind) could work great injury to society and to the individual himself, but he also believed it could produce great individual and social benefits. Moreover, he regarded the motive as so deeply rooted in man’s nature that its expression could not be prevented. Cicero said that most men treasure things only for their material value and “recognize nothing as good in our life unless it is profitable,” and he warned against the evil which avarice could create.38 But recognizing the undesirable aspects of material self-interest was not a condemnation of it. Indeed at one point he explicitly approved of the desire for material gain: he said it was a trait which derived from the natural reason in every individual.39 Cicero’s departure from the early Stoics consisted in his acceptance of self-interest as natural and real, in his interest in examining the kind of conduct it produces, and in offering ethical direction for such conduct.
THE CONCEPTION OF THE MARKET
The liberal element in his doctrine is revealed in part in his conception of the economic function of government and also is disclosed in his observations on exchange, a point on which he was unique, as I have stated above. Cicero saw in the market a method of providing for the material welfare of society and (by implication) a method of organizing economic activity. He wrote that “by giving and receiving, by mutual exchange of commodities and conveniences, we succeed in meeting all our wants.”40 A characteristic liberal view is that the relatively unlimited freedom of individuals to buy and sell is a means of enhancing the real income of the economy as well as of the individuals engaging in exchange. This is one feature of the liberal justification of exchange—that it makes for material welfare. The other is that the freedom to buy and sell is one of the prerogatives of the individual. Cicero’s defense of exchange rested upon both of these points: Exchange is proper, he said, because men ought to be free to engage in it and because it satisfies our material wants. But he did not urge unlimited freedom in the use of property, nor did he believe all kinds of economic activity had the same ethical value.
He placed occupations in order of their honor. Leading all others was agriculture, than which “none is better, . . . , none more profitable, none more delightful, none more becoming a freeman.” It was followed by the learned professions: medicine, architecture, and teaching. In the third rank was trade, if conducted on a large scale and without misrepresentation. Last came the vulgar and demeaning occupations: food mongers, entertainers, small merchants, workers and mechanics, usurers, and tax gatherers.41 His remarks on trade are especially interesting. He believed that the seller was obligated to inform the buyer fully of the product and that this duty more probably would be respected by a merchant who conducted a large business. Of the activities of the small tradesman, he was highly critical, and wrote of the two kinds of sellers very much as Smith did. The latter praised the activity of large merchants and despised “the sneaking arts of underling tradesmen.”
Cicero did not explain the exchange process completely and of course he is not to be taken literally when he wrote that by free trade we satisfy “all our wants.” Such an explanation did not come until eighteen centuries later in the period of the classical economists. It would be pointless to measure him by their achievements. Yet there was a striking similarity between his ideas and theirs. Just how direct and immediate was Cicero’s influence is the kind of question that can never be answered completely. It is apparent from the works of the economic and political liberals that Cicero was read during the Enlightenment and often quite carefully.
Cicero’s achievement is even more remarkable when his ideas are compared to those that usually ruled ancient society, not simply because his were in advance of their age—much originality has consisted in making a novel mistake as well as in finding a new truth—but because they disclosed a superior understanding of some of the mechanical and ethical aspects of economic procedure. His achievement is enhanced when we observe that for many centuries little was added to what he had written. Indeed, his work seems to have been forgotten, and the philosophers who deigned to look at economic conduct fell into the old errors which it was his achievement to have corrected, if only for a time.
 Cicero De officiis, trans. C. W. Keyes, i, 4.
 Cicero De legibus, trans. C. W. Keyes, i, 6.
——— De re publica, trans. C. W. Keyes, iii, 22.
 Baron de Montesquieu, The Spirit of the Laws, trans. Thomas Nugent; rev. J. V. Prichard (New York, 1900), I, 7.
 Arnold, op. cit., p. 272.
Meditations, iv, 4.
De officiis, i, 43.
Ibid., i, 9.
Ibid., iii, 6.
De re publica, i, 45.
Ibid., v, passim.
De legibus, i, 14.
The Writings of Thomas Jefferson, ed. Albert E. Bergh (Washington, 1907), VIII, 398, 401; X, 56-57; XIV, 489.
De re publica, i, 27.
De officiis, ii, 7.
Ibid., ii, 12.
De legibus, iii, 18.
De re publica, ii, 33.
De officiis, ii, 22.
Ibid., i, 7.
Ibid., ii, 21; iii, 5.
Ibid., ii, 22.
Meditations, vii, 53.
 Cicero Of Friendship, trans. E. S. Shuckburgh.
De officiis, i, 7.
Ibid., i, 4.
Ibid., ii, 4.
Ibid., i, 42.