Edmund Burke asks a key question of political theory: quis custodiet ipsos custodes? (how is one to be defended against the very guardians who have been appointed to guard us?) (1756)

Edmund Burke

Found in A Vindication of Natural Society

In a youthful essay, which may or may not be satirical, Edmund Burke criticizes all forms of government intervention, or what he calls “artificial society”:

I have defended Natural Religion against a Confederacy of Atheists and Divines. I now plead for Natural Society against Politicians, and for Natural Reason against all three. When the World is in a fitter Temper than it is at present to hear Truth, or when I shall be more indifferent about its Temper; my Thoughts may become more publick. In the mean time, let them repose in my own Bosom, and in the Bosoms of such Men as are fit to be initiated in the sober Mysteries of Truth and Reason. My Antagonists have already done as much as I could desire. Parties in Religion and Politics make sufficient Discoveries concerning each other, to give a sober Man a proper Caution against them all. The Monarchic, Aristocratical, and Popular Partizans have been jointly laying their Axes to the Root of all Government, and have in their Turns proved each other absurd and inconvenient. In vain you tell me that Artificial Government is good, but that I fall out only with the Abuse. The Thing! the Thing itself is the Abuse!

There is a debate among scholars on whether or not Burke wrote this as a serious piece of political theory or as a satire. If the former, then it is youthful piece which is far more radical in its implications than his later writings. If the latter, then one can dismiss the content of the essay as an amusing attempt to push questioning of the legitimacy of the state too far. Whether or not it was intended as satire, Burke, perhaps unwittingly, asks a very pertinent question in this quotation: who is to guard us from the mistakes or worse of those whose task it is to guard us? Or, in the Latin, Quis custodiet ipsos custodes?