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Cicero on the need for politicians to place the interests of those they represent ahead of their own private interests (1st century BC)

For 2,000 years, ever since the roman lawyer Cicero (106-43 BC) warned politicians in “On Moral Duties” to serve the interests of those they represent ahead of their own private interests, politicians have done the very opposite. We had to wait until the development of the Public Choice school of economics in the late 20th century to explain why this would be the case:

… [L]et those who are to preside over the state obey two precepts of Plato, — one, that they so watch for the well-being of their fellow-citizens that they have reference to it in whatever they do, forgetting their own private interests; the other, that they care for the whole body politic, and not, while they watch over a portion of it, neglect other portions. For, as the guardianship of a minor, so the administration of the state is to be conducted for the benefit, not of those to whom it is intrusted, but of those who are intrusted to their care.

  1. In fine, let those who are to preside over the state obey two precepts of Plato, — one, that they so watch for the well-being of their fellow-citizens that they have reference to it in whatever they do, forgetting their own private interests; the other, that they care for the whole body politic, and not, while they watch over a portion of it, neglect other portions. For, as the guardianship of a minor, so the administration of the state is to be conducted for the benefit, not of those to whom it is intrusted, but of those who are intrusted to their care. But those who take counsel for a part of the citizens, and neglect a part, bring into the state an element of the greatest mischief, and stir up sedition and discord, some siding with the people, some with the aristocracy, and few being equally the friends of all. From this cause arose great dissensions among the Athenians, and in our republic it has led not only to seditions, but also to destructive civil wars. Partiality of this kind, a citizen who is substantial and brave, and worthy of a chief place in the state, will shun and abhor, and will give himself wholly up to the state, pursuing neither wealth nor power; and he will so watch over the entire state as to consult the well-being of all its citizens. Nor will he expose any one to hatred or envy by false accusation, and he will in every respect so adhere to justice and right as in their behalf to submit to any loss however severe, and to face death itself rather than surrender the principles which I have indicated. Most pitiful in every aspect is the canvassing and scrambling for preferment, of which it is well said by the same Plato, that those who strive among themselves which shall be foremost in the administration of the state, act like sailors who should quarrel for a place at the helm. The same writer exhorts us to regard as enemies those who bear arms against us, not those who desire to care for the interests of the state in accordance with their own judgment, as in the case of the disagreement without bitterness between Publius Africanus and Quintus Metellus.

About this Quotation:

For a couple of thousand years it was clear to those who observed the behavior of politicians that they acted quite differently from the promises they made to their supporters or those they represented. They might mouth the pious sentiments all politicians do of “serving the public interest” or putting “the needs of the people first” or “sacrificing their own interests” in order to promote “the common good”. It was obvious to the roman lawyer and politician Cicero that the endemic political corruption he saw around him in the late Roman Republic violated the precepts of moral duty which philosophers like Plato had advocated. He reminded his contemporaries of these precepts but to no avail. We had to wait until the 1960s before the American economists Gordon Tullock and James Buchanan explored the institutional and motivational reasons why all politicians and bureaucrats would tend to behave this way.

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