Freedom from Blog

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Friday, October 13, 2006

Kiss Me Cato

At Political Animal Kevin Drum takes up the case recently made by Markos for the "libertarian Democrat." Whereas Kos sees opportunities for Dems to attract the "Cato" crowd as a result of Bush's authoritarian policies, Drum suggests, quite rightly, that most modern libertarians remain too ideologically obsessed with tax cuts and laissez-faire to act upon the civil liberties issues that might bring them into the Dem camp. At FFB, we've discussed the "South Park Republicans" before here.

Interestingly, I have yet to see anyone in the discussion mention the original "Cato"--not the Roman statesman, but the English columnists (John Trenchard and Thomas Gordon) whose pen name, appropriated by the Cato Institute, gave primal inspiration to the Murray Rothbard and the founders of the American "libertarian" movement. As it turns out, if you actually bother to read him, the real "Cato" was emphatically a "libertarian Democrat," one now spinning in his (their) grave(s) about how libertarianism has sold its soul.

Take this quote as a good starting place:“O Companies, Companies! ye bane of honesty, and ruin of trade; the market of [stock-] jobbers, the harvest of managers, and the tools of knaves, and of traitors!” (1995, 72) Can't get much farther away than that from the unabashedly pro-corporate sensibilities of the Cato Institute.

Trenchard and Gordon wrote Cato's Letters, a weekly series of 144 incendiary newspaper columns for the London Journal, between 1720 and 1723. The occasion for their outrage was the South Sea Bubble, a massive scandal involving corporate power and influence that combined many of the features of Enron and Haliburton. The South Sea Company was a trading company with private stockholders, chartered by parliament and given monopoly privileges over trade with Spanish South America. The SSC was formed to help manage England’s public debts, run up through royal military adventures. Debt certificates were convertible to company stock. Although the company produced nothing of value, its stock rose through speculation, artificially pumped up by the company’s officers and the public officials they had bribed. When the bubble burst, the directors fled the country to escape the consequences of their mismanagement. Cato called for unrestrained vengeance: “what we can have of them, let us have; their necks and their money” (1995, 50).

Cato’s Letters is a work of synthetic genius. Although their ideas are not always original, Trenchard and Gordon create a seamless merger of Machiavelli’s republicanism, John Locke’s liberalism, and Algernon Sidney’s anti-authoritarian populism. The result is an impassioned defense of the industrious individual fighting against corporate privilege and the forces of “tyranny.” As Gordon writes in his “Preface” to the 1724 edition, “Let us therefore. . . brand those as enemies to human society, who are enemies to equal and impartial liberty” (1995, 12).

Note the emphasis on EQUAL, a driving concern for Cato, who didn't believe that freedom could coexist with imbalances of economic power. Following James Harrington, Cato rages against the "money-monsters" (204) and advocates "agrarian laws," i.e., massive inheritance taxes on the lands of the wealthy as a way to maintain a rough equality. As Gordon writes, "A free people are kept so, by no other means than an equal distribution of property;. . . the first seeds of anarchy are produced from hence, that some are ungovernably rich, and many more are miserably poor" (44). Corrupt and self-interested elites are "ever conniving and forming wicked and dangerous projects, to make the people poor, and themselves rich; well knowing that dominion follows property. . . . They will engage their country in ridiculous, expensive, fantastical wars, to keep the minds of men in continual hurry and agitation, and under constant fears and alarms" (124-5). I'm not sure I could pen a better summary of the Bush years.

What did "freedom" mean for Cato? Trenchard asserts that “a free trade, a free government, and a free liberty of conscience, are the rights and blessings of mankind” (653). For Cato, however, the freedoms of conscience take priority over all others: “Whigs think all liberty to depend upon freedom of speech, and freedom of writing. . . there is often no other way left to be heard by their superiors, nor to apprize their countrymen of designs and conspiracies against their safety” (721). Restricted speech is the hallmark of tyranny, since absolutists always promote “abject sycophancy and blind submission” (115). If you have freedom of conscience, all else will follow in its wake: prosperity, public virtue, and a government as good as its people. This is a key difference between Cato and the Cato Institute. For the former, economic liberty derives its energy from civic equality and civil liberty, NOT vice versa.

Historian Forrest McDonald credits Cato with having invented the free speech ideology of the American founding, arguing that this was never a primary political objective prior to the 1720s. The language of the First Amendment, especially concerning the right to "petition for redress of grievances," comes straight out of Cato's Letters, which was, by some counts, the most cited work of political philosophy during the American Revolution. Interestingly, although it is generally assumed that this amendment reflects the "liberal" or Lockean aspects of the American founding, Cato actually develops his arguments on free speech NOT from Locke but from Machiavelli.

In particular, Cato rests his analysis on Machiavelli's contention that "the people" are more honest and trustworthy than "the nobles." In an extended analysis of "libel," Gordon writes that, "Machiavel says, Calumny is pernicious, but accusation beneficial, to the state;. . . states have suffered or perished for not having, or for neglecting, the power to accuse great men who were criminals, or thought to be so" (229). This does not sanction all attacks, however: "There are some truths not fit to be told. . . . But this doctrine holds true as to private or personal failings; and it is quite otherwise when the crimes of men come to affect the public" (228). In other words, Cato would love Michael Moore and despise Ken Starr. Cato maintains that the truly dangerous libels are not those of the people against their leaders, but of the leaders against their people. For example, if someone were to blame the weak will of the American people for losing the wars in Vietnam or Iraq, rather than assigning responsibility to the failed policies of failed leaders, that would be a "libel." Cato also likes to say that leaders who sap and betray the people's natural liberties are guilty of "treason" (230).

Finally, Cato develops an argument concerning what we now call the "right to privacy." But, again, Cato develops this argument from Machiavellian republicanism, not Lockean liberalism. For Machiavelli, the fundamental difference between the people and the nobles is that the latter want only to oppress, the former NOT to be oppressed. Cato translates this as a right to be left alone to enjoy the fruits of one's labor in privacy and comfort: "Happiest of all men, to me, seems the private man. . . . He who can live alone without uneasiness,. . . enjoys such high felicity as the wealth of kingdoms and the bounty of kings cannot confer" (2).

Put it all together, and Cato looks a lot more like a partisan Democrat than a corporate libertarian. Cato's Letters are the missing link between Machiavellian and Jacksonian democracy. Funny how unexpectedly things turn out when you actually know a little history.


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