The Rationale of Reward

Book I

Of Rewards in General

Chapter V


If it be proper to be frugal in the distribution of punishment, it is no less proper to be so in the distribution of reward. Evil is inflicted in both cases. The difference is, that punishment is an evil to him to whom it is applied---reward, to him at whose expense it is applied. The matter of reward, and the matter of punishment, spring from the same root. Is money bestowed as a reward? Such money can only arise from taxes, or original revenue---can only be bestowed at the public expense:---truths so obvious, that proof is unnecessary; but which ought on all occasions to be recollected, since, all other circumstances being equal, to pay a tax to a given amount is a greater evil than to receive it is good.

Rewards, consisting in honour, it is commonly said, cost nothing. This is, however, a mistake. Honours not only enhance the price of services; (as we shall presently see,) they also occasion expenses and burthens which cannot be estimated in money. There is no honour without pre-eminence: if, then, of two persons, for example, who are equal, one profits by being made the higher, the other suffers in at least equal proportion by being made the lower of the two. With regard to honours which confer rank and privileges, there are commonly two sets of persons at whose expense honour is conferred: the persons from amongst whom the new dignitary is taken, and the persons, if any, to whom he is aggregated by his elevation. Thus the greater the addition made to the number of peers, the more their importance is diminished---the greater is the defalcation made from the value of their rank.

The case is similar with reward to power. It is by taking away liberty or security, that power is conferred; and the share of each man is the less, the greater the number of co-partners in it. The power conferred in any case must he either new or old: if new, it is conferred at the expense of those who are subject to it; if old, at the expense of those by whom it was formerly exercised.

Exemptions given in the way of reward may appear at first sight but little expensive. This may be one reason why they have been so liberally granted by shortsighted sovereigns. It ought however to be recollected, that in the case of public burthens, the exemption of one increases the burthen on the remainder: if it be honourable to be exempted from them, it becomes a disgrace to bear them, and such partial exemptions at length give birth to general discontent.

The exemption from arrest for debt, enjoyed by members of parliaments are a reward conferred at the expense of their creditors. Exemptions from parish offices and military services are rewards conferred at the expense of those who are exposed to the chance of bearing them. The burthen of exemptions from taxes falls upon those who contribute to the exigencies of the state.

A privilege to carry on, in concurrence with a limited number of other persons, a particular branch of truce, is an exemption from the exclusion which persons in general are laid under with reference to that trade: the favour is shown at the expense of the persons who are sharers in the privilege.

If there be an instance in which any modification of the matter of reward could be conferred without expense, it will be found among those which consist in exemption from punishment. When an exemption of this sort is conferred, the expense of it, if there be any, is borne by those who are interested in the infliction of the punishment; that is, by those in whose favour the law was made, which the punishment was intended to enforce. But if, by the impunity given, the sanction of the laws be weakened, and crimes consequently multiplied, the pardon granted to criminals is dearly paid for by their victims.

The evil of prodigality is not confined to the diminishing the fund of reward: it operates as a law against real merit. If rewards arc bestowed upon pretended services, such pretended services enter into competition with real services, He succeeds best, who aims, not to entitle himself to the gratitude of the people, but to captivate the goodwill of him at whose disposal the fund of reward is placed. Obsequiousness and courtly vices triumph over virtue and genius. The art of pleasing is elevated at the expense of the art of serving.

What is the consequence? Real services are not performed, or they are purchased at extravagant prices. It id not sufficient that the price paid for them be equal to that of the false services: beyond this, there must be a surplus to compensate the labour which real services require. ``If so much is given to one who has done nothing, how much more is due to me, who have borne the heat and the burthen of the day?---if parasites are thus rewarded, how much more is due to my talents and industry?'', Such is the language which will naturally be employed, and not without reason, by the man of conscious merit.

It is thus that the amount of the evil is perpetually accumulating. The greater the amount already lavished, the greater the demand for still further prodigality; as in the case of punishment, the more profusely it has been dealt out, the greater oftentimes is the need of employing still more.

When by the display of extraordinary zeal and distinguished talents, a public functionary has rendered great services to his country,---to associate him with the crowd of ordinary subordinates, is to degrade him. He will feel in respect of the fund of reward, in the same manner as the disposer of it ought to have felt. He will consider himself injured, not only when anything is refused to him, but when anything is bestowed upon those who have not deserved it.

A profuse distribution of honours is attended with a double inconvenience: in the first place it deteriorates the stock; and in the next, it is productive of great pecuniary expense. When a peerage, for example, is conferred, it is generally necessary to add to it a pension, under the notion of enabling the bearer to sustain its dignity.

It is thus that the existence of an hereditary nobility tends to increase the price necessary to he paid in the shape of reward. Has a plebeian rendered such services to his country as cannot be passed by with neglect, the first operation is to distinguish him from men of his own rank, by placing him among the nobility. But without fortune, a peerage is a burthen; to make it worth having, it must be accompanied with pecuniary reward: the immediate payment of a large sum would be too burthensome; posterity is therefore made to bear a portion of the burthen.

It is true, posterity ought to pay its share in the price of services of which it reaps a share of the advantage. But the ame benefit might be procured at a lew expense: if there were no hereditary nobility, personal nobility would answer every purpose. Among the Greeks, a branch from a pine tree, a handful of barley,---among the Romans, a few laurel leaves, or ears of corn,---were the rewards of heroes.

Fortunate Americans! fortunate on so many accounts, if to possess happiness, it were sufficient to possess everything by which it is constituted, this advantage is still yours!---Preserve it forever: bestow rewards, erect statues, confer even titles, so that they be personal alone; but never bind the crown of merit upon the brow of sloth.

Such is the language of those passionate admirers of merit who would gladly see a generous emulation burning in ull ranks of the community---who consider everything wasted which is not employed in its promotion. Can anything be replied to them? If there can, it can only be by those who, jealous of the public tranquillity as necessary to the enjoyments of luxury, and more alarmed at the folly which knows no restraint than at the selfishness which may be constrained to regulate itself, would have, at any price, a class of persons who may impose tranquillity upon those who can never be taught.

In some states the strictest frugality is observed in the distribution of rewards: such in general has been the case under republican governments; though it is true, that even in democracies, history furnishes instances of the most extravagant prodigality and corruption. The species of reward bestowed by the people upon their favourites with the least examination, is power---a gift more precious and dangerous than titles of honour or pecuniary rewards. The maxim, Woe to the grateful nation! is altogether devoid of meaning, unless it be designed as a warning against this disposition of the people to confer unlimited authority upon those who for a moment obtain their confidence.

After having said thus much in favour of economy, it must not be denied that specious pretences may be urged in justification of a liberal use of rewards.

That portion of the matter of reward which is superfluously employed it is said, may be considered as the fund of a species of lottery. At a comparatively small expense, a large mass of expectation is created, and prizes are offered which every man may flatter himself with the hope of obtaining. And what are all the other sources of enjoyment, when put in competition with hope? But can such reasons justify the imposition or continuance of taxes with no other view than that of increasing the amount of tho disposable fund of reward? Certainly not. It would be absurd thus to create a real evil---thus to pillage the multitude of what they have earned by the sweat of their brow, to multiply the enjoyments of the wealthy. In a word, whatever may be thought of this lottery, we must not forget that its prizes must be drawn before we can obtain any useful services. To the individual himself, active is more conducive to his happiness than idle hope: the one develops his talents, the other renders them obtuse; the first is naturally allied to virtue, the second to vice.

In England, reasons, or at least pretexts, have been found for the arbitrary disposal of rewards, which would not exist under an absolute monarchy. The constitution of parliament gives occasion to the performance of services of such a nature as cannot be acknowledged, but which in the eyes of many politicians are not the less necessary. A certain quantity of talent is requisite, it is said, to save the political vessel from being upset by any momentary turbulence or whim of the people. We must possess a set of Mediators interested in maintaining harmony between the heterogeneous particles of our mixed constitution; a species of Drill Serjeants is required for the maintenance of discipline among the undulating and tumultuous multitude. There must be a set of noisy Orators provided for those who are more easily captivated by strength of lungs than by strength of argument; Declaimers for those who are controuled by sentimentalism; and imaginative, facetious, or satirical Orators, for those whose object it is to be amused; Reasoners for the small number, who yield only to reason; artful and enterprising men to scour the country to obtain and calculate the number of votes: there must also be a class of men in good repute at court, who may maintain a good understanding between the head and the members. And all this, they say, must be paid for---whether correctly or not, does not belong to our present discussion.

It may be further said, that the matter of reward, besides being used for reward, may be used as a means of power,---and that in a mixed constitution like ours, it is necessary to maintain a balance among its powers. Certain creations of peers therefore, for example, which could not be justified, if considered as rewards, may be justified as distributions of power. There is at least something in this which deserves examination; but its examination here would be out of place.

Want of economy in the distribution of rewards may also be attempted to be justified, by comparing the sum so expended with the expense incurred in the carrying on of a war. I advise every one who has projects upon the public money, to employ this argument in preference to every other: when one calculates the immense sum expended during a single campaign, either by land or sea; when we reflect on the millions that vanish in sound and smoke, all other profusion sinks into insignificance. When we behold the treasures of a nation flowing away in such rapid torrents, can any great indignation be felt against those who, by art, or obsequiousness, or court favour, detach from the mass a single drop or a small stream for their own benefit? If the people so readily lend themselves to the gratification of political passions---if they part so freely with their gold and their blood, for the momentary gratification of their vengeance or their passion for glory,---can it be expected that they will murmur at the pomp they covet, and the few insignificant favours which their prince bestows? Will they be supposed so mean as to be niggard with pence and lavish with millions?

This mode of comparison is not new to courts: it ought to have been familiar to Louis XIV. if it be true, as there is reason for believing, that the building of Versailles cost two thousand millions of livres. In respect of expense, this was more than equal to a war: but at least it was expended without bloodshed, there was no interruption of trade; on the contrary, it gave vigour to industry, and shed lustre over the arts. What a fortunate source of comparison to the advocates of absolute monarchy!

There is yet another mode of estimating the justness of any public expenditure---another source of comparison somewhat less agreeable to the eyes of courtiers. Compare the amount of the proposed expenditure with an equal portion of the produce of the most vexatious and burthensome tax. In this country, for example, let the comparison be made with the produce of the tax on law proceedings, whose effect is the placing of the great majority of the people in a state of outlawry. The option lies between the abolition of this tax and the proposed employment of its produce. They thus become two rival services. It is a severe test for frivolous expenses, but it is strictly just. How disgraceful does wasteful luxury appear in the budget, when thus put in competition with the good whose place it occupies, or the evil of which it prevents the cure!

From these observations the practical conclusion is, that the matter of reward being all of it costly, none of it ought to be thrown away. This precious matter is like the dew: not a drop of it falls upon the earth which has not previously been drawn up from it. All upright sovereign therefore gives nothing. He buys or he sells. His benevolence consists in economy. Would you praise him for generosity? Praise also the guardian who lavishes among his servants the property of his pupils.

The most liberal among the Roman Emperors were the most worthless; for example, Caligula, Claudius, Nero, Otho, Vitellius, Commodus, Heliogabalus, and Caracalla: the best, as Augustus, Vespasian, Antoninus, Marcus Aurelius, and Pertinax, were frugal. (Esprit des Lois, liv. v. ch. xviii.)

A most important lesson to sovereigns: it warns them not to value themselves upon the virtue of generosity---in short, not to think that in their station generosity is a virtue. If not a strictly logical argument, it is, however, a popular and persuasive induction:---``Esteem not yourselves to be good princes for a quality in which you have been outstripped by the worst.''

[RR, Book I, Chapter IV] [RR, Book I, Chapter VI]