On Parliamentary Reform
[vol. 1, p. 480]
To M. Larnac, Deputy for the Landes
You have considered it appropriate to circulate a letter which I had the honor of sending you and your reply to it. I do not reproach you for this. No doubt you assumed that at the elections we would meet in opposing camps, and if my letter revealed to you a man who professed mistaken and dangerous opinions, you had the right to warn the general public. I allow that you took this decision with this sole preoccupation with the general interest in mind. Perhaps it would have been more fitting to choose between absolute silence and total publicity. You have preferred something that is neither of these, pompous yet hard to pin down scandalmongering about a letter of which I have not kept a copy and whose terms, consequently, I cannot explain nor defend. So be it. I have not the slightest doubt about the accuracy of the copyist responsible for reproducing it and that is enough for me.
However, sir, is this enough to achieve your aim, which is doubtless to enlighten the beliefs of the electors? My letter relates to a particular fact, followed by a political doctrine. I have scarcely touched on this fact, and this is simply explained, since I was addressing someone who was aware of the full circumstances. I sketched the doctrine as one can do in letter form. This is not enough detail for the general public, and since you have involved them in this matter, allow me to address them in my turn.
I find it too distasteful to introduce actual names into this debate to underline particular facts. Only the need to defend myself personally could make me decide to do this and I hasten to come to the major political question which is the subject of your letter, the conflicts of interest of a legislative mandate with work in the civil service.
I make it clear at the outset, I am not actually asking for civil servants to be excluded from the House; they are citizens and should be able to enjoy the rights of citizenship, but they should be admitted to it only as citizens and not as civil servants. If they wish to serve the nation over which the law reigns, they cannot be the executors of the law. If they wish to represent the general public which pays the government, they cannot be the salaried agents of that government. I consider that their presence in the Chamber be subordinated to a measure which I will indicate later; and I unhesitatingly add that, in my eyes at least, there are many more disadvantages in admitting them to the Chamber unconditionally than to excluding them unremittingly.
“Your thesis is truly immense (you say); if I were dealing a priori with the question of conflicts of interest, I would begin by castigating this tendency to suspiciousness, one which appears very illiberal to me.”
But sir, what is the body of our laws if not a series of precautionary measures against the dangerous tendencies of the human heart? What is the constitution? What are all these checks and balances and the counterbalancing of powers if not a system of barriers to possible and even fatal encroachments in the absence of any restraint? What is religion itself, at least in one of its essential aspects, if not a source of grace intended by Providence to remedy native and therefore foreseen weakness in our nature? If you would remove from our symbols, charters, and law codes all that which has been placed there by what you call suspicion and I call prudence, you would make the task of legislators very easy, but make the fate of men quite precarious. If you believe man to be infallible, burn the laws and charters. If you consider him to be fallible, in that case, when it is a matter of conflicts of interest or even a particular law, the question is not to know whether it is founded on suspicion but whether that suspicion is an impartial, reasonable, enlightened one, in other words on a prediction unfortunately justified by the indelible infirmity of men’s hearts.
This reproach made to suspicious tendencies has so often been directed against anyone who petitions for parliamentary reform that I feel obliged to repel it with some insistence. When we are very young and have just escaped from the atmosphere of Greece and Rome, where the university compels us to absorb our initial impressions, it is true that the love of liberty is too often mistaken in us with impatience in the face of any rules, of any government, and consequently with a puerile aversion to public office and civil servants. For my part, age and reflection have totally cured me of this aberration. I acknowledge that, except in instances of abuse, whether in public or private life, each person provides society with similar services. In one case, he satisfies the need for food and clothing, in another the need for order and security. I therefore do not take up arms against public office or suspect any civil servant individually. I have esteem for very many of them and I am a civil servant myself, although one of very modest rank. If others have pleaded the cause of conflicts of interest under the influence of a narrow and bitter jealousy or of an alarmist version of democracy, I can pursue the same goal without associating myself with these sentiments. Of course, without exceeding the boundaries of reasonable caution, it is permissible to take account of man’s passions or rather the nature of things.
However, sir, although public office and private industry have in common that both render similar services to society, it cannot be denied that they differ in one circumstance which it is essential to note. Each person is free to accept or refuse the services of private industry and receive them insofar as they suit him and to discuss their price. On the other hand, anything that concerns public office is regulated in advance by law and removed from our free will. It prescribes for us the quantity and quality we have to consume (pardon this rather too technical language) as well as the remuneration that will be attached. For this reason, it would seem that it is up to those for whom and at whose expense this type of service is established to approve at least the law which determines its particular purpose, its scope, and the salaries involved. If the field of hairdressing were regulated by law, if we left to wig makers the job of making the law, it is likely (and I would not at all wish to ruffle the feelings of wig makers, nor to display a tendency to illiberal suspiciousness but simply to base my reasoning on the knowledge we have of the human heart), it is likely, I repeat, that we would soon be inordinately well groomed, indeed to the point of tyranny and the emptying of our purses. In the same way, when the electors have laws passed which regulate the provision of public safety and the salaries thereby entailed, or those of any other governmental product, by civil servants who earn their living from this work, it would seem to me to be indisputable that these electors run the risk of being administered and taxed beyond all reasonable measure.
Obsessed by the idea that we are prey to illiberal suspiciousness, you add: “In periods of intolerance, we would have said to candidates, ‘You must not be either a Protestant or a Jew’; these days, we say, ‘Do not be a civil servant.’ ”
In that case we would have been absurd, whereas now we are being rational. Jews, Protestants, and Catholics, regulated by the same laws and paying the same taxes, are voted for by us as equals. How can a religious creed be a motive justifying exclusion for anyone among us? However, with regard to those who apply the law and earn a living from taxation, the prohibition against voting for them is not at all arbitrary. Administrative authority itself acts in accordance with this principle and thus demonstrates that it is common sense. M. Lacave-Laplagne does not have the accounts audited by the accountants. It is not him personally, it is the very nature of these two orders of functions that causes conflicts of interest. Would you not find it laughable for the minister to base it on religious creed, the length of the nose, or the color of hair? The analogy you offer is of this nature.
“I think that you need very serious, patently clear, and proven reasons for asking that an exception should be made of someone. In general, this idea is bad and retrograde.”
Do you mean to satirize the Charter? It lays down that anyone who does not pay five hundred francs of taxes should be excluded on the simple conjecture that anyone who is not rich is not independent. Am I not aligning myself with its spirit when, since I have only one vote to allocate and am obliged to reject all the candidates except for one, I include among those I reject one who perhaps has financial resources but who, since he has gained them from the minister, seems to me to be more dependent than if he had none?
“I am in favor of the progressive adage sunt favores ampliandi, sunt odia restringenda.”
Sunt favores ampliandi! Ah, sir, I very much fear that under this dispensation there are too many people. Be that as it may, I ask whether deputation has been created for the deputies or for the general public? If it is for the general public, show me how they benefit by delegating civil servants. I can well see that this tends to expand the budget, but not without restricting the resources of taxpayers.
Sunt odia restringenda! Useless functions and expenditure, these are the odia that need to be restricted. Tell me how, therefore, we can expect this of those who carry out the first and gobble up the second?
In any case, there is one point on which we agree. This is on the extension of electoral rights. Unless you classify these among the odia restringenda, you have to include them in the number of the favores ampliandi, and your generous aphorism tells us that electoral reform can count on you.
“I have confidence in the workings of our institutions (in particular, I dare say, in the one which is the subject of this correspondence). I believe it to be conducive to the production of morality. This condition of society lies essentially in the electors; it is summed up in its representatives, it passes through the votes of majorities, etc.”
This is certainly a most touching picture, and I like this morality which rises from the base to the summit of the edifice. I could trace a less optimistic picture and show the political immorality that descends from the summit to the base. Which of the two would be more true to life? What! The disorderly placement of the voting and execution of laws and the voting and control of the budget in the same hands produces morality? Logically, I have difficulty understanding this. Evidentially, I have even greater difficulty.
You invoke the adage Quid leges sine moribus? I am doing nothing else. I have not called the law to account but the electors. I have uttered the hope that they will get themselves represented by deputies whose interests are in harmony with and not in opposition to theirs. This is very much a matter of mores. The law does not forbid us to elect civil servants but it does not oblige us to do so either. I do not hide the fact that it would seem to me to be reasonable for it to contain a few precautions in this respect. In the meantime, let us take them ourselves: Quid leges sine moribus?
I said, “Whether right or wrong, it is a deep-seated idea of mine that deputies are the controllers of power.”
You jeered at the words whether right or wrong. So be it. I give way to you on this. Let us substitute this sentence: I may be mistaken, but I have the conviction that deputies are the controllers of power.
“What power?” you ask. Obviously executive power. You say: “I acknowledge only three powers: the king, the Chamber of Peers, and the Chamber of Deputies.”
If we return to abstract principles, I will be forced to differ in opinion from you, as I fundamentally acknowledge only one power: national power. All the others are delegated, and it is because executive power is delegated that the nation has the right to control it. And it is in order that this control is not derisory that the nation, in my humble opinion, would be wise not to place in the same hands both power and control. Assuredly it is free to do so. It is free to draw down on itself, as it does, various impediments and taxes. In this it seems to me unwise and even less wise to complain about the result. You think that I hold a serious grudge against the government; not at all, I admire it and find it very generous, when the general public is so obliging, to limit itself to a budget of 1.4 to 1.5 billion. For the last thirty years taxes have scarcely doubled. This is something to be surprised at and it should be acknowledged that the avidity of the taxman has remained well below the rashness of the taxpayers.
You find the following thought vague: “The mission of deputies is to delineate the arena in which power should be exercised.” “This arena,” you say, “is clearly delineated; it is the Charter.”
I have to say that, in the Charter, I do not know of a single clause which relates to the question. It must clearly be the case that we do not understand each other, so I will endeavor to explain my thoughts.
A nation may be more or less subject to government. In France and under the dispensation of the Charter, there are a multitude of services which may leave the scope of private industry and be entrusted to public authority and vice versa. In past times, spirited arguments were held to find out in which of these two modes of activity the railway system would remain. Even more heated is the question concerning to which of these two education should belong. One day, perhaps, the same doubts will arise with regard to religions. There are countries, such as the United States, in which the state does not interfere and they are all the better for this. Elsewhere, in Russia or Turkey, for example, the contrary system has prevailed. In the British Isles, as soon as the conflict over freedom of trade is settled in favor of the latter, another conflict is in the offing in favor of the voluntary system in religious matters or the disestablishment of the established church. I mentioned freedom of trade; in our country, the government has made itself, through variations in tariffs, the regulator of industry. Sometimes it favors agriculture over manufacturing and sometimes manufacturing over agriculture, and it has even the singular pretension to make all the sectors of production prosper at the expense of each other. It is exclusively the government that operates the carrying of mail, the handling of snuff and tobacco, etc., etc.
There is therefore a division to be made between private activity and collective or governmental activity. On the one hand, many people are inclined to increase the attributions of the state indefinitely. The most eccentric visionaries, such as Fourier, come together on this point with the most practical of the men of state, such as M. Thiers. According to these powerful geniuses, the state must, under their supreme management, naturally, be the great administrator of justice, the great pontiff, the great teacher, the great engineer, the great industrialist, and the people’s great benefactor. On the other hand, many sound minds espouse the opposite view; there are even those who go so far as to want the government to be limited to its essential functions, which are to guarantee the security of people and property, to prevent and repress violence and disorder, to ensure for all the free exercise of their faculties and the proper reward for their efforts. It is already not without some danger, they say, that the nation entrusts to a hierarchically organized body the redoubtable responsibility for the police force. This is indeed necessary, but at least the nation should refrain from giving this body more jurisdiction over moral, intellectual, or economic life, if it does not wish to be reduced to the status of so much property or of a mere thing.
And it is for this reason that there is a Charter. And it is for this reason that in this Charter there is Article 15: “All tax laws must be first passed by the Chamber of Deputies.” For, note this well, every invasion by public authority into the field of private activity implies a tax. If the government claims that it will take over education, it will need paid teachers and therefore a tax. If it aspires to subjecting our moral life to some religion or other, it will need clergy and therefore a tax. If it has to operate the railways and canals, it will need capital and therefore a tax. If it has to make conquests in Africa and Oceania, it will need armies, a navy, and therefore a tax. If it has to weight the profits of various industries through the action of tariffs, it will need a customs service and therefore a tax. If it is responsible for providing work and bread for all, it will need taxes and even more taxes.
However, for the very reason that, according to our national law, the nation is not the property of its government and that it is for the nation and not the government that religion, education, industry, the railways, etc., exist, it is up to the nation, not the government, to decide which services should be entrusted to or removed from government. Article 15 of the Charter gives the nation the means to do this. It just needs to refuse a tax to acquire liberty by this very action.
But if it abandons to the state and its agents, to executive power and its instruments, the task of establishing this great divide between the fields of collective and private industry, if in addition it delivers Article 15 of the Charter to it, is it not likely that the nation will shortly afterward be administered to death, that an indefinite number of functions will be created to substitute forced service for voluntary service in each sector and also the taxes to finance these functions? And is it possible to perceive any end to this series of encroachments and taxes which are mutually necessary, for, without wishing to attack individuals nor exaggerate man’s dangerous leanings, can we not state that it is in the nature of any constituted and organized body to try to expand and absorb all forms of influence, power, and wealth?
Well, sir, the meaning of the sentence you found vague is this: when the nation nominates deputies, part of the mission it gives them is to circumscribe the government’s sphere of action, to establish the limits which this action must not exceed and to remove from it any means of taking over the liberties the nation intends to retain, through a perspicacious use of Article 15 of the Charter. It will inevitably fail in this objective if it abandons this restrictive power to the very people in whom there resides the force for expansion that needs to be contained and restricted. May you, sir, not find the commentary less clear than the text.
Finally, there is in my letter another sentence which must lead me into lengthy explanation, since it appears to have shocked you particularly and it is this:
“From the moment the deputies have the possibility of becoming ministers, it is a simple fact that those who are ambitious seek to carve themselves out a route to the minister’s position through systematic opposition.”
Here, sir, I am no longer blaming those who occupy office, but, on the contrary, those who seek it; not civil servants but clearly those who wish to supplant them. I hope that in your eyes this will be irrefutable proof that I am not imbued with any bitter jealousy of a particular individual or class.
Up to now, I have dealt with the question of the eligibility of civil servants to become deputies and, adopting the taxpayers’ point of view, I have tried to prove that they could scarcely (to use the expressions you quote with such insistence) hand over control to those being controlled without risking both their wealth and liberty.
The passage I have just quoted leads me to discuss the eligibility of deputies for public office and envisage the relationship of this wide-ranging question with government itself. In this way, the loop of the forms of conflicts of interest will come full circle.
Yes, sir, I regard the eligibility of deputies for public office, in particular in government, as essentially destructive of all effectiveness, stability, and consistency of governmental action. I do not think it possible to imagine a combination more adverse to the interests of the monarch and those who represent him or a pillow more lumpy for the king’s head or those of his ministers. Nothing in the world seems more likely to me to arouse the spirit of partisanship, fan the flames of factions, corrupt all the sources of information and publicity, distort the action of the tribune and press, mislead public opinion after having aroused it, hinder administration, foment national hatred, provoke external war, wear out and scorn those in government, discourage and corrupt those being governed, and, in a word, throw out of alignment all the springs of the representative system. As far as I am concerned, I know of no social plague that compares with this. Since this side of the question has never been discussed or even noticed by the partisans of parliamentary reform, as far as I know, since in all their draft laws, if Article 1 raises the principle of conflicts of interest, Article 2 swiftly creates exceptions in favor of governments and their ministries, embassies, and all of what are known as high political positions, I am obliged to develop my thoughts at some length.
Above all, I must reject your preemptively seeking to define my argument out of court. You state that my case contradicts the Charter. Not at all. The Charter does not prohibit a conscientious deputy from refusing a portfolio or prudent electors from selecting candidates from those who renounce this illogical pluralism. If it is not farsighted, it does not prohibit us from being farsighted. That having been said, I continue:
One of the predecessors of the current prefect of the Landes did me the honor of paying me a visit. The elections were close and conversation turned naturally to conflicts of interest and in particular on deputies’ noneligibility for government office. Like you, the prefect was astonished that I dared to profess a doctrine which appeared to him, as to you, to be excessively rigid, impractical, etc.
I told him: “I think, sir, that you would do justice to the General Council of the Landes by acknowledging that you found a highly independent spirit there with no personal and systematic opposition. The measures you put forward are examined on their own merit. Each member votes for or against, depending on whether he considers them good or bad. Each person takes account of the general interest as he perceives it and perhaps local or personal interest, but there is no one who can be suspected of rejecting a useful proposal from you just because it comes from you.”
“Never,” said the prefect, “has the notion crossed my mind.”
“Well, let us imagine that a regulation in the following terms were to be introduced into the law governing these councils: ‘If a measure proposed by the prefect is rejected, he will be dismissed. The Council member who raised the opposition will be appointed as prefect and he will be able to distribute all the leading positions, such as general tax collection, the management of direct and indirect contributions, etc., in the département to his chance companions.’
“I ask you, is it not probable or even certain that such an article would completely change the spirit of the Council? Is it not certain that this Chamber, in which independence and impartiality currently reign, would be transformed into an arena of intrigue and faction? Is it not likely that ambition would be fueled in line with the sustenance offered it? And whatever good opinion you have of the virtue of Council members, do you think that they will avoid succumbing to this test? In any case, would it not be highly imprudent to attempt this dangerous experiment? Can we doubt that each of your proposals would become a battlefield of personal strife, that they would no longer be examined for their relevance to the public good but solely from the point of view of the opportunities they would create for the parties? And now, you surely agree that there are newspapers in the département. It is clear that belligerent militants would not fail to attract them to their cause and their entire polemics would be infused with the passions engulfing the Council. And when election day arrives, corruption and intrigue, fanned by the flames of attack and defense, will know no limits.”
“I confess,” said the prefect to me, “that in such a state of affairs, I would not wish to retain my office, even for twenty-four hours.”
Well, sir, is not this fictional constitution of a general council which so frightened a prefect the genuine constitution of the Chamber? What difference is there? Just one. The arena is vaster, the theater higher, the battlefield wider, the feeding of passion more exciting, the prize for the combat more coveted, the questions used as the text or pretext for the combat more burning, more difficult, and therefore more apt to mislead the sentiments and judgment of the multitude. It is disorder organized on the same model but on a vaster scale.
Men have filled their minds with politics, that is to say, they have dreamed of grandeur, influence, wealth, and glory. Suddenly the winds of election blow them into the legislative enclosure, and what does the constitution of the country say to them? To one it says: “You are not rich. The minister needs to swell his ranks; all the positions are in his gift and none of them is forbidden to you by law. The decision is yours.” To a second it says: “You feel you have talent and daring. There is the ministerial bench. If you remove them, the place is yours. The decision is yours.” To a third: “Your soul is not up to this level of ambition but you promised your electors to oppose the government. However, there is still an avenue to the region of power open to you; here is a party leader, link your fortune to his.”
Then, invariably, this muddle of mutual accusations begins, these outrageous efforts to attract the power of transitory popularity to one’s side, this ostentatious display of unachievable principles when one is on the attack and abject concessions when one is on the defensive. These are just traps and countertraps, mines and countermines. You can see the most disparate elements forming alliances and the most natural alliances dissolving. People bargain, stipulate, sell, and buy. Here the party spirit enters into a coalition, there subterranean ministerial cunning causes another to fail. Any event that arises, even if it bears in its wake general conflagration, is always seized upon by the assailants if it offers ground on which the boarding ladders can rest. The public good or general interest is just words, pretexts, or means. The essential point is to draw from a question the power which will help one party to overthrow the government and walk over the body. Ancona, Tahiti, Syria, Morocco, fortifications, or visiting rights are all good pretexts. All that is needed is the proper arrangements for putting them into practice. At this point we are drenched in the eternal stereotyped lamentations; internally, France is suffering, anxious, etc., etc.; externally, France is humiliated, scorned, etc., etc. Is this true, is it untrue? No notice is taken. Does this measure bring us into conflict with Europe? Does it oblige us to maintain five hundred thousand troops on constant alert? Will it stop the march of civilization? Will it create obstacles for future administrations? This is not what it is all about; just one thing is of interest, the fall and the triumph of two names.
And do not think that this sort of political perversity pervades only base souls in the Chamber, those hearts consumed by low ambition or the prosaic lovers of highly paid positions. No, it also and above all attacks elite souls, noble hearts, and powerful intellects. To quell and subdue them, it just has to awaken in the secret depths of their consciences, in place of the following trivial thought: You will achieve your dreams of wealth, another no less attractive: You will achieve your dreams of public good.
We have a remarkable example of this. There is not in France a man’s head on which as many accusations, verbal abuses, and flagrant insults have been heaped as on that of M. Guizot. If the language used by the parties contained bloodier epithets than turncoat, traitor, or apostate, they would not have been spared him. However, there is one reproach that I have never heard formulated or even insinuated against him, that of having used parliamentary success to boost his personal wealth. I acknowledge that he pushes probity to the point of self-sacrifice. I accept that he will never seek personal triumph other than the better to ensure the triumph of his principles. This is, moreover, a form of ambition that he has formally admitted.
So, we have seen this austere philosopher and man of principle in opposition. What did he do there? Everything that might suggest a thirst for power. For example, he displayed democratic views that are not his own, he adopted a mantle of fierce patriotism of which he does not approve, he caused embarrassment to his country’s government, he contrived obstacles to the most important negotiations, he fomented coalitions, and he formed leagues with any individuals, even enemies of the throne, provided that they were enemies of some minister. Being out of office, he opposed matters he would have supported within office. He supported the direction of the batteries of Ancona against M. Molé, just as M. Thiers directs the batteries of Morocco against him. In short, he conjured up a ministerial crisis with all his determination and might and deliberately created for his own future government the difficulties that result from such precedents. That is what he did, and why? Because in the Charter there is an Article 46, a tempting serpent which told him:
“You will be equal to the gods; achieve power, by whatever route, and you will be the savior of the country!” And so the deputy, beguiled, made speeches, set out doctrines, and carried out acts which his conscience condemned, but he said to himself: “This is necessary to reach office; once I have reached it, I will adopt once more my genuine philosophy and true principles.”
Is there any need for further examples? My God, the history of the war for portfolios is the entire history of parliament.
I am not attacking anyone in particular; I am attacking the institution. If the prospect of power is offered to deputies, it is impossible for the Chamber to be other than a battlefield.
Let us see what is happening in England. In 1840 the government was on the point of bringing about free trade. However, there was one man in the opposition, imbued with the doctrines of Smith, a man who couldn’t sleep at the thought of Canning’s and Huskisson’s glory, who wished at all costs to be the instrument of this vast revolution. It was going to be accomplished without him. What did he do? He declared himself the protector of protection. He aroused every shred of ignorance, prejudice, and egoism in the country. He rallied the terrified aristocracy and aroused the popular classes who were so easy to mislead. He combated his own principles in Parliament and on the hustings. He ousted the reforming government. He came to office with the express mission of closing the ports of Great Britain to foreign goods. As a result, a deluge of ills, unprecedented in the annals of history and which the Whigs had hoped to avert, swamped England. Production stopped; inactivity desolated both town and country, escorted by its two faithful satellites, crime and illness. Everyone with intellect or heart rose up against this frightful oppression and Mr. Peel, in betrayal of his party and the majority, came to Parliament to admit: “I made a mistake, I was wrong, I renounce protection and give my country free trade.” No, he was not mistaken. He was as much of an economist in 1840 as he was in 1846. But he wanted glory and for that he delayed the triumph of truth, through countless calamities, for six years.
There are therefore very few deputies whom the prospect of positions and portfolios does not cause to swerve from the line of rectitude in which their constituents hope to see them walk. It would not be so bad if the harm did not go beyond the walls of the Palais Bourbon! But, as you know, sir, the two armies who dispute power carry their battlefield outside. The warlike masses are everywhere; only the leaders are in the Chamber and it is from there that they issue orders. They are fully aware that, to reach the center of the fort, they have to conquer the outer works, the newspapers, popularity, public opinion, and electoral majorities. It is thus fatal for all these forces, to the extent that they enroll under the banner of one of the line commanders, to become imbued and permeated with the same insincerity. Journalism, from one end of France to the other, no longer discusses the measures; it pleads their cause and not from the point of view of whether they contain good or evil points in themselves but from the sole viewpoint of the help they can temporarily provide to one or the other leader. It is well known that there are few eminent journalists whose future will not be affected by the outcome of this portfolio war. What policy is the prime minister pursuing in Texas, Lebanon, Tahiti, Morocco, or Madagascar? It does not matter. The progovernment press has a single motto, È sempre bene; while the opposition press espouses what the old woman in the satire had written on her petticoat for us to see: Argumentabor.
It would need a more experienced pen than mine to recount all the harm done in France by the partisan press, who (mark my words, this is the core of my thesis) disseminate their views solely to serve a particular deputy who wants to become a minister. You have access to the king, sir, I don’t like to involve him in these discussions. However, I am able to say, since this is the opinion held by Europe, that he has contributed to maintaining world peace. But perhaps you have witnessed what sweat in the form of moral exertions is needed to wrench out of him this success worthy of the acclaim of nations. What is the reason for all this sweat, these problems, this resistance to such a noble task? Because at a given moment, peace was not supported by public opinion. And why was it not supported? Because it did not suit certain newspapers. And why did it not suit certain newspapers? Because it was unwelcome to a particular deputy. And why finally was it unwelcome to this deputy? Because peace was the policy of the ministers, and therefore war was necessarily that of those deputies who wished to become ministers. Indubitably, this is the root of the evil.
Shall I make mention of Ancona, the fortifications of Paris, Algiers, the events in 1840, visiting rights, tariffs, anglophobia, and so many other questions in which journalism led public opinion astray, not because it was itself led astray but because this was part of a coldly premeditated plan whose success was of importance to a particular ministerial alliance?
I prefer to quote here the admissions that were themselves proclaimed by journalism in the most widely distributed of its outlets, La Presse (17 November 1845).
“M. Petetin describes the press as he sees it, as he prefers to dream it. In all good faith does he believe that, when Le Constitutionnel, Le Siècle, etc., attack M. Guizot, when in turn Le Journal des débats confronts M. Thiers, these broadsheets are campaigning uniquely on philosophical grounds, for truth as provoked by the interior needs of conscience? To define the press in these terms is to paint it as one imagines it, not as it really is. It does not cost us anything to state this, since while we are journalists, we are less so by vocation than by circumstance. Every day we see newspapers in the service of human passion, rival ambition, ministerial alliances, parliamentary intrigue, and political calculations of every hue, the most violently opposed and the least noble, and we see them closely involved in this. However, we rarely see them in the service of ideas, and when by chance a newspaper happens to espouse an idea, this is never on its own merits, it is always as a ministerial instrument with which to defend or attack. He who is penning these lines is speaking from experience. Every time he has attempted to draw journalism out of the rut of party politics and introduce it to the field of ideas and reforms, to the path of wholesome applications of economic science to public administration, he found himself alone and had to acknowledge that outside the narrow circle traced by the assembled letters of four or five names, there was no possibility of discussion. There was no policy. What good does it do to deny this evil? Does it stop it existing? When newspapers do not ally themselves with special interests, they ally themselves with passions and when these are themselves examined closely, in the majority of cases these passions are merely selfish interests. This is the truth of the matter.”
What, sir, are you not scandalized, not appalled by this terrible admission? Or do you still have some doubt as to the cause of a situation so fraught with humiliation and peril? It is not I who am speaking. It is not a misanthropist, a republican, or a seditionist. It is the press itself that has unveiled its secret and is telling you to what depths this institution whose morality inspires such confidence in you has reduced it. The place where laws are supposed to be debated has been transformed into a battlefield. The destiny of the country, war and peace, justice and iniquity, order and anarchy count for nothing, absolutely nothing in themselves; they are instruments of combat that are taken up and put down according to one’s own imperatives. What does it matter that at each turn of this impious struggle upheaval is experienced throughout the country? It has scarcely returned to calm when the armies change position and the combat is once more engaged with even more fervor.
Finally, do I have to demonstrate the existence of partisan spirit, this insidious worm, this devouring cancer which draws its life and strength from the eligibility of deputies for executive power, within the electoral college? I am not speaking here of opinions, passions, and political errors. I am not even speaking of the faintheartedness or venality of certain consciences; it is beyond the power of the law to make men perfect. I am targeting only the passions and vices which directly result from the cause I am discussing, which is linked to the portfolio war engaged in within the Chambers and waged over the entire range of the newspapers. Is it really so difficult to calculate its effect on the electoral body? And when, day after day, the tribune and press make a point of preventing anything but false glimmers, false judgments, false quotations, and false assertions reaching the public, is it possible to have any confidence in the verdict pronounced by the grand national jury thus misled, circumvented, and impassioned? What is it called upon to judge? Its own interests. Never does anyone speak of these to it, for ministerial battle is waged at Ancona, Tahiti, in Syria, wherever the public is not to be found. And what does it know of what is going on in these far-off regions? Only what it is told by orators and writers who, on their own admission, do not utter a single word either orally or in writing that is not inspired by the intense desire for personal success.
And then, suppose I wished to raise the veil that covers not only the errors but the turpitudes of the electoral urn! Why does the elector ensure that his vote is so valued, require it to be sought, and consider it as a valuable object of commerce? Because he knows that this vote contains the fortune of the fortunate candidate who is soliciting it. Why, for his part, is the candidate so flexible, so crawling, so generous with his promises, and so little concerned with any shred of dignity? Because he has ulterior motives, because the position of deputy is a stepping-stone for him, because the constitution of the country enables him to see in the distance, should he succeed, intoxicating prospects, positions, honors, wealth, power, and this golden cloak which hides all shame and absolves all base acts.
So, where are we now with all this? Where are the electors now? How many of them dare to remain and show themselves to be honest? How many will honestly deposit a ballot in the urn which faithfully expresses their political beliefs? Oh! They would be afraid of being seen as idiots and dupes. They are careful to trumpet loudly the bargain they have made of their vote and they will be seen to deposit their own ignominy at the door of the church rather than to cast doubt on their deplorable cunning. If there are still a few virtues that have survived this major shipwreck, these are negative virtues. They believe nothing, hope for nothing, and keep themselves from being contaminated, in the words of some poet or another:
- A calm indifference
- is the surest of virtues.
They let things happen, that is all. In the meantime, ministers, deputies, and candidates sink under the burden of promises and undertakings. And what is the result? This. The government and the Chamber change roles. “Do you wish to let me dispose of all jobs?” say the deputies. “Do you wish to let me decide on the laws and the budget?” reply the ministers. And each abandons the office for which he is responsible for one which does not concern him. I ask you, is this representative government?
But it does not stop there. There are other things in France than ministers, deputies, candidates, journalists, and electors. There is the general public, thirty million men who are being accustomed to being counted for nothing. They do not see this, you may say, and proof of this is their indifference. Ah, do not become confident in this seeming blindness. While they do not see the cause of the evil, they see its effects, the budget constantly increasing, their rights and titles trampled underfoot, and all favors becoming the price of electoral bargains from which they are excluded. Please God that they learn to link their suffering to its true cause, for irritation is growing in their hearts. They are seeking the means of enfranchising themselves and woe to the country if they make a mistake. They are seeking, and universal suffrage is taking hold of all minds. They are seeking, and communism is spreading like wildfire. They are seeking, and while you are drawing a veil over the hideous wound, who can count the errors, the theories, or illusions in which they think they have found a remedy for their ills and a brake against your injustices?
In this way, everyone is suffering from a state of affairs so profoundly illogical and vicious. However, if the full extent of the evil is appreciated somewhere, it must be at the summit of the social scale. I cannot believe that such statesmen as M. Guizot, M. Thiers, or M. Molé can be in contact with all these turpitudes for so long without having learned to recognize them and calculate their terrifying consequences. It is not possible for them to have been in turn in the ranks, facing systematic opposition, assailed by personal rivalry, and forced to struggle against artificial obstacles placed in their way by the urge to topple them, without saying to themselves that things would be different, administrative authority would be more steady, and the task of government much lighter if deputies could not become ministers.
Oh! If ministers were to deputies what prefects are to general councillors, if the law eliminated in the Chamber those prospects which foment ambition, I consider that a calm and fruitful destiny would be open to all the elements of the social body. The depositories of power might well still encounter errors and passions but never these subversive alliances for which any means are permitted and whose only aspiration is to overthrow one cabinet after another with the support of a fallacious and transitory unpopularity. Deputies could not have interests other than those of their constituents. Electors would not be made to prostitute their votes to selfish views. The press, freed from any links with leaders of parties which would no longer exist, would fulfill its proper role of enlightening public opinion and providing it with a mouthpiece. The people, wisely administered with consistency and economy, and who are happy or who cannot hold the authorities responsible for their sufferings, would not let themselves be beguiled with the most dangerous utopias. Finally the king, whose thoughts would no longer be a mystery to anyone, would hear during his lifetime the judgment that history reserves for him.
I am not unaware, sir, of the objections that may be made to parliamentary reform. There are disadvantages to it. But, my goodness, everything has its disadvantages. The press, civil liberty juries, and the monarchy have theirs. The question is never to see whether a reformed institution has disadvantages, but whether that institution without reform does not have even greater ones. And what calamities might emanate from a Chamber of taxpayers that are not equal to those which are disseminated over the country by a Chamber of ambitious deputies who are fighting each other for the possession of power?
It is said that such a Chamber would be too democratic, driven by passions that are too popular. It would represent the nation. Is it in the nation’s interest to be badly administered, invaded by foreigners, such that justice is not rendered?
The strongest objection, unceasingly repeated, is that the Chamber would lack enlightenment and experience.
There is a lot to say on this subject, However, if the exclusion of civil servants gives rise to dangers, if it appears to violate the rights of honorable men who are also citizens, if it circumscribes the liberty of electors, would it not be possible, while opening the gates of the Palais Bourbon to the agents of government, to circumscribe their presence with precautions dictated by the most elementary prudence?
You are not expecting me to formulate a draft law at this point. However, I consider that public good sense would approve a measure drafted in terms of this sort:
“All French citizens, without distinction of profession, are eligible (except for exceptional cases in which a high official position would imply direct influence on voting, such as that of prefect, etc.).
“All deputies would receive suitable, uniform remuneration.
“Elected civil servants would resign their functions for the period of their mandate. They would not receive payment. They may neither be dismissed nor promoted. In a word, their life in the administration would be totally suspended and start again only once their legislative mission has expired.
“No deputy may be called upon to fill a public position.”
Finally, far from admitting, as Messrs. Gauguier, Rumilly, Thiers, and others have done, that exceptions would be made on the principle of conflict of interest in favor of ministries, embassies, and all those functions known as political positions, it is exactly those that I wish to exclude, mercilessly and in the first place, since it is clear to me that it is the aspiring ambassadors and ministers who upset the world. Without wishing in the least to offend the leaders of parliamentary reform who put forward exceptions like these, I dare to say that they do not perceive or wish to perceive the millionth part of the evils that result from the eligibility of deputies for public office, that their so-called reform does not reform anything, and that it is just an underhand measure, one that is limited, with no social purchase, dictated by a narrow sentiment of base and unjust jealousy.
But, you say, what about Article 46 of the Charter? I have no answer to this. Is the Charter made for us or are we made for the Charter? Is the Charter the final expression of human wisdom? Is it a sacred Koran descended from heaven, whose effects may not be examined however disastrous they may be? Should we say: Let the country perish rather than change a comma in the Charter? If this is so, I have nothing to say, other than: Electors! The Charter does not forbid your using your vote for deplorable purposes, but it does not order you to do so either. Quid leges sine moribus?
In ending this all too long letter, I should reply to what you tell me of your personal position. I will refrain from doing so. You consider that the reform, if it takes place, cannot affect you since you do not depend on responsible power but in fact on irresponsible power. Good for you! The legislature has decided that this position does not lead to legal incapacity. It is up to the electors to decide whether this does not constitute the clearest imaginable form of moral incapacity.
I am, sir, your faithful servant.
On 28 March 1831, Bastiat was appointed a justice of the peace of Mugron County.
“Favors ought to be extended; disagreeable things ought to be restricted.”
Reference to a proposed electoral reform intended to widen the electorate by lowering the required level of tax payment and admitting candidates exercising certain professions previously restricted.
“What are laws without customs?”
In order to stop disturbances in the papal states, Pope Gregory XVI called upon Austria for assistance. On 28 June 1832, Austrian troops entered Bologna, Italy. For reasons of diplomatic balance, a French garrison was sent to the seaport of Ancona, about 120 miles southeast of Bologna. The garrison remained in Ancona until 1838.
In 1842 Tahiti was a French protectorate. Following incidents with English ships, Admiral Dupetit-Thouars transformed it into a territory of “direct sovereignty.” This created tension between London and Paris. The latter disavowed the admiral on 24 February 1844.
France supported Mehmet Ali, pasha of Egypt, over Syria, part of the Ottoman Empire. England and Russia supported the sultan.
A brief conflict arose between France and Morocco in 1844 because Morocco refused to sign the Treaty of Tangiers, allowing cruisers of the signatory states to control merchant ships in order to ascertain the absence of slaves. This “right of search” did not fail to raise trouble between France and England for a while, as English cruisers, outnumbering those of other nations, exerted a de facto policing of the seas.
In 1844 the U.S. Congress accepted the entrance of Texas into the Union. The French and English governments had advised the Texas governor against it.
“It is always good.”
“I shall prove it.”
See note 27, p. 371.