Front Page Titles (by Subject) 18.: Parliamentary Conflicts of Interest - The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics
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18.: Parliamentary Conflicts of Interest - Frédéric Bastiat, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics 
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics, translated from the French by Jane and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Jacques de Guenin and Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation editor Dennis O’Keeffe (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011).
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Parliamentary Conflicts of Interest
[This letter and the next one were sent to La Sentinelle des Pyrénées,
We draw the attention of our readers to the following letter, which has been sent to us by one of our friends from the département of the Landes. This letter seems to us to envisage from an accurate viewpoint the current composition of our Chamber of Deputies, to which so many people bring just one preoccupation, that of climbing the greasy pole to power.
The Chamber has been presented for the third time with a huge question: the incompatibility of civil service functions with the function of a deputy or rather the inaccessibility of high positions to members of the National Assembly. Would you be willing, sir, to open the columns of your journal to a few reflections on this most serious matter? Above all, I would like to identify the class of readers to which these are addressed.
Two ideas are embossed on the July flag, and it will forever give shade to two major political parties, one which prefers to devote itself to the word freedom and the other which has made itself the principal defender of public order.
Parliamentary reform forms a natural part of the views of the Progressive Party. “How is it,” they say, “that public freedoms are not in danger when they are entrusted to men whose existence is at the mercy of the authorities? How can we count on the independence of deputies who are civil servants when an independent vote may lead to their ruin? Is it wise to put men in the position where they have to choose between their interest and their duty? Besides, if we hand over the purse strings to the hands that take from the contents of the purse, should we expect the purse to be well managed? If we entrust the right to create positions of power to those who will be occupying them, should we not fear that the number of these will increase unreasonably? And what is the extension of the field of civil service functions if not a restriction of the field of private activity, in other words a restriction of freedom itself? Is it reasonable to expect deputies who are engineers, customs officers, or members of the university staff to hand back to us the freedom to oversee major public works, the freedom to trade, and the freedom of education?”
From the Progressives’ point of view, these ideas seem to me to be too clear and obvious for it to be worth my while developing them. I would therefore like to address the Conservatives and examine with them whether public order is not as concerned with parliamentary reform as freedom itself, whether the principal cause of the instability they deplore and which rightly worries them is not the easy access to positions of power of those who control power.
What is the Chamber, as it is constituted at the present time? An arena in which the parties, or rather cliques, combat each other for public power. To lay siege to ministerial portfolios and to defend them, that is the sole business of parliamentary tactics.
A deputy comes to the Palais Bourbon. What is the attractive image that meets his gaze? It is power, flanked by its shining cortege of wealth, authority, influence, reputation, and consideration; I would be happy if these assets did not undermine his stoic virtue, but even if this man has no ambition, he has at least an idea which he wants to have accepted and it will not be long before he seeks advancement, if not in his own individual interest at least in the interest of his political beliefs. Our constitution has made power accessible to him and our parliamentary customs show him two avenues for achieving it. One is easy and regular: he just has to give his allegiance to a government and he will be rewarded with a good position for his pains. The other is steep and rough, but it leads higher and suits powerful ambitions; he must attack the government, place obstacles in its path, hinder its administration, decry its actions and make it unpopular, whip up the press and public opinion against it until at length, with the assistance of those who have hitched themselves to his star, he finally achieves a majority for a day and enters into the council of the crown as a victor.
But the conflict does not abate for all that; the roles merely change. He who was a defender the day before becomes an assailant in his turn. On leaving his position, he discovers the weapons that were used against him and takes control of them; it is his turn to make pompous speeches, seek popularity, paint a picture of France being shamefully propelled toward an abyss, revive in the depths of people’s souls the ancient love of freedom and national independence and mislead them if necessary, and finally turn all these powerful missiles against his enemy. For his enemy, the aggressor of yesterday, is now on the defensive. All he can do is to struggle painfully against constantly renewed attacks and abandon attention to business to devote himself wholeheartedly to parliamentary conflict. His fragile majority soon escapes him. To achieve it he did not bargain with promises; to retain it, he has to be able to avoid bargaining with demands. Little by little the cliques distance themselves and go to swell the ranks of the besieging coalition. In this way, as with the famous routs in our military celebrations, power is taken over and retaken perhaps up to twenty times in the space of ten years.
Is this order? Is this stability? And yet I challenge anyone to accuse me of having drawn a fanciful picture. These are facts, this is history, and even our constitutional history is nothing other than a narrative of conflicts like these.
And can it be otherwise? Our constitution can be summed up in these words: “Power is in the hands of deputies who know how to take hold of it. Those of them who are clever enough to seize the majority from the government will become ministers and will distribute all the high positions in the army, the treasury, the law, and the bench to their followers.”
Is this not indeed a species of organized war, anarchy, and disorder? In another article, I will examine how parliamentary reform might change this order of things.
I am, sir, your obedient servant
In a previous letter, I endeavored to point out the vice that is degrading our national representation. With regard to freedom, handing over positions to those who finance them, and with regard to order, handing over the reins of government to those who overturn it, these are concepts, as I have said, whose twin danger leaps to the eye. I would add that this line of reasoning is borne out by experience. If the limits of a journal allowed this, I would now tell the tale of our countless ministerial crises; with Le Moniteur in my hand, I would compare M. Thiers, the chairman of the council, with M. Thiers, the leader of the opposition; and M. Guizot, the instigator of the coalition, with M. Guizot, the minister of foreign affairs. We would see whether these assaults on ministerial portfolios, these formal sieges that we call questions to the government, reintroduced several times a year, are motivated by a love of the public good or a thirst for power. We would see whether or not this determination to overturn in order to rebuild retreats in the face of any contingency, whether it does not welcome auxiliaries to the point where a general conflagration becomes likely, and whether this is not provoked where necessary. We would finally see whether this constant struggle, not of opinions but of rival ambitions, is not overshadowed by risk, which, while weakening the country, causes it in the profoundest peace to be forever ready for war.
There are, however, several objections to parliamentary reform.
Ambition, it is said, is innate in the hearts of men, and reform will not uproot it.
Faith probably cannot destroy ambition, but it can destroy what gives it sustenance.
The members of general councils are sons of Adam just as the deputies are; why then does ambition not give rise to the same crises in these councils as it does in the Chamber? Solely because it finds nothing to feed on.
But if you introduce into the law that governs them an article with the following wording:
“If the prefect loses his majority in the General Council, he will be replaced by the leader of the opposition, who will distribute to his followers all the leading positions in the département, the headships of financial services, general and individual tax collecting, and seats on the bench and in the public prosecutor’s department. These new civil servants will continue to be members of the Council and will retain their positions until a new majority snatches these from them.”
I ask you, will a disposition like this not transform these deliberating bodies that are now so calm into hotbeds of intrigue and cliques? Will it not remove any spirit of continuity from the administration and any freedom of action from the prefect, and in sum all stability from the authority?
And what reason do we have for thinking that what would cause trouble in the sphere of the prefecture does not throw the governmental sphere into disarray? Is it because the stage is larger or because the passions whipped up by more powerful bait grow with more energy on it?
The objection having been voiced against reform that human ambition is an irremediable ill, reform is rejected because ambition in the Chamber is not even admissible.
Support for this reform, it is said, would be a condemnation of parliament; it would be a calumny pronounced against itself and would imply that there existed base passions in this Assembly that should not have access to it. In a word, it would be a law of suspects.43
In the first place, however, I do not see that the fact that the law declares two functions incompatible by nature must sully those who occupy them. Mayors cannot be national guards, judges do not participate in juries, and nobody has heard it said that in these instances of incompatibility there is any form of personal discredit wished upon them by the law.
All that might be said is that the law takes account of the incurable and incontrovertible weaknesses in human nature.
And, to tell the truth, is the entire structure of the law anything other than a set of precautions taken against the weakness and perversity of mankind? We require guarantees from ministers and from the king, and the charter is merely a series of obstacles put in the path of possible encroachments and rivalries in the major offices of the state. And would society not be allowed to require the most rational of guarantees from its direct representatives?
It has to be agreed that parliamentary reform, as understood by the absolute prohibition for any civil servant to achieve national representation, presents two major disadvantages.
The first is that it restricts the rights of election and eligibility.
The second is that it lessens the consultative experience of the nation.
Would it not be dangerous in fact, at least in the current state of our legislative structure, to exclude magistrates, financiers, soldiers, and sailors from an assembly that is principally concerned with legislation, finance, and military and naval organization? Would a reform like this have any chance of being accepted?
This being so, does the problem consist not in setting out particular exclusions but in establishing general guarantees?
It may be formulated in these words:
“Placing the representatives of the nation in a situation in which they have no personal interest in giving their allegiance to a government or in overturning it.”
If it is true that a well-phrased question is halfway to being resolved, a law that satisfies this double requirement should not be difficult to find.
It is not in my brief to go further and I will end this by noting that M. de Sade is far from facing up to the problem. He does not seem to have even noticed it. What is he proposing? To forbid deputies from taking up civil service appointments . . . except for ministries, embassies, general departments, etc.
He thus accepts that high positions must continue to arouse the cupidity of the nation’s representatives, that they can continue to dispute the possession of power among themselves, even if the conflict reduces this power to shreds. But it is precisely in this that the danger lies. And can we embellish with the title of parliamentary reform a measure that, while it restricts the domain of a few minor ambitions, leaves the way open to ambitions that throw the world into disarray?
I am, sir, your obedient servant.
[43 ]The lois de suspects (law of suspects), passed 12 August 1793 and enlarged by the decree of 17 September 1793, made way for the Terror phase of the Revolution. Directed at first toward the nobility, it allowed the immediate arrest of suspects, without cause or proof of a crime.