The Rationale of Reward

Book I

Of Rewards in General

Chapter VIII


A reward is mischievous when its tendency is to produce offences, or to give birth to noxious dispositions.

To offer a reward to an individual as an inducement to him to commit an act prohibited by law, is to attempt to suborn him: the offence may be called subornation. Upon the present occasion, this illegal subornation is not the subject of consideration. the rewards of which we are about to speak, have a corruptive tendency, but do not possess the character of crimes; they are authorized by custom, sanctioned by the law, and given and received without disguise, without criminal intention: the evil is done with a pure conscience, and often with the public approbation. They are the result of erroneous conceptions, the effects of universal prejudice, or long-established habit, which, as Montaigne says, blunts the acuteness of the judgment.

The present is one of those extremely delicate topics, in respect of which it may be more prudent to put the reader in the path of truth, and leave him to travel by himself in quest of discoveries, than going through the subject in detail, to wound established opinions, or interfere with individual interests. Without restricting myself to any precise order, I shall therefore exhibit some few examples in which the mischievous tendency is too palpable to admit of denial, and I shall being with an incontrovertible maxim, which will furnish the criterion of which we are upon the present occasion in search for distinguishing good from evil:---

``Upon all occasions avoid bestowing anything in the shape of reward, which may tend to interfere with the performance of duty.''

According to this rule, a judge ought not to find himself interested in the prolongation of law proceedings---the minister of state in the promotion of wars---the superintendent in promoting expense---the moral preceptor in setting an example of insincerity---the man of letters in maintaining mischievous prejudices at the expense of truth. The more narrowly we scrutinize into the sources of public evils, the more thoroughly shall we be convinced that they ought to be attributed to the neglect of this fundamental rule.

In support of this maxim, it is not necessary to ascribe to men in general all extraordinary proclivity towards corruption: ordinary prudence and probity are sufficient to enable a mun to resist temptations to crimes, or to lend him to abstain from whatever is reputed dishonourable; but it requires somewhat more than ordinary honesty and prudence to be proof against the seductions of an interest that acts with continual energy, and whose temptations are not opposed either by the fear of legal punishment, or the condemnation of public opinion: to yield to such temptations, it is only necessary for him to follow in the beaten track, in which be will be cheered by the presence of a multitude of fellow-travellers, and encouraged by the example of his superiors. To resist these seductions, he must expose himself to the imputation of singularity---he must proclaim that he is better than others---he must condemn his colleagues and predecessors, and be bold enough to make an exhibition of his probity. Such magnanimity is not altogether unexampled, but we must not reckon upon prodigies. There are even some cases in which, by its secresy, this seductive interest is so much the more mischievous: it operates like a concealed magnet, and produces errors in the moral conduct against which there has been no previous warning. We have said that the legislator ought to endeavour to combine interest with duty; for a still stronger reason ought he to avoid as much as possible everything that yields to the public functionary a certain or a casual, a known or an unknown profit, resulting from the omission or violation of his duties: we now proceed to give a few examples.

In England, the superior judges, beside their ample salaries, which it would be improper to grudge them, receive certain fees which it is impossible not to grudge them; since it is from this source alone that they can generally be considered liable to corruption, and that so much the more easily, since they may be subject to its influence without themselves perceiving it. These fees are multiplied in proportion to the incidents of procedure, the multiplication of which incidents proportionably increases the expense and delay of obtaining justice. In one case, a judge receives nearly £4 for tying, for six months or a year, the hands of justice; and this in one of those cases in which indolence adds her seductions to those of avarice, and the whole is effected in the presence of no other witnesses than such as are urged onward by a still stronger interest to aggravate the abuse.

Another example from among a thousand. Under the Lord Chancellor, there are twelve subordinate judges called Masters in Chancery. When an account is to be taken before them, the following is the mode of procedure: The attorneys on the one side and the other ought to appear before the master, either alone, or in company with counsel, as may be convenient. First summons; nobody appears: second summons; nobody appears: at length, third summons; the parties appear, and the matter is put into train. Care, however, has been taken to allow only half an hour or an hour to each set of suitors. The parties are not always punctual: the matter is begun, the clock strikes, and then the matter is dismissed. At the following hearing it is necessary to begin again. All this is matter of etiquette. At each summons, the fees to the judges and the counsel are renewed. All the world must live. Extortion, it is said, is to be banished from the dwellings of finance. At some future day, perhaps, it will not be found a fitting guest for the Temple of Justice---it will be deemed advisable to chase it thence.

In England as elsewhere, it is asked, why lawsuits are eternal? The lawyers say it is owing to the nature of things. Other people say it is the fault of the lawyers. The above two little traits, which are as two grains of sand picked up in the deserts of Arabia, may assist the judgment as to the causes of delay in such procedures.

3. Previously to the year 1782, the emoluments of the paymaster of the army, whose duty as such consisted in signing, or knowing how to sign, his name, were considerably higher in time of war than in time of peace, being principally constituted of a percentage on the money expended in his department. This great officer, however, always found himself a member of parliament; and it is believed he was thus paid, not for signing, or knowing how to sign, his name, but for talking, and knowing how to talk. Upon a question of peace or war, the probity of this orator must have found itself in somewhat an awkward predicament, continually besieged as it must have been by Bellona with the offer of an enormous revenue, which was to cease immediately he suffered himself to be corrupted by Peace. When the question of economical reform was upon the carpet, this place was not forgotten. It was generally felt at that time, that so decided an opposition between interest and duty was calculated to produce the most pernicious consequences. The emoluments of peace and war were, therefore, equalized by attaching a fixed salary to the office, and the same plan was adopted with respect to various other offices.

In running over the list of functionaries, from the highest to the lowest, one cannot but be alarmed at the vast proportion of them who watch for war as for a prey. It is impossible to say to what a degree, by this personal interest, the most important measures of government are determined. It cannot be supposed that ministers of state, generals, admirals, or members of parliament, are influenced in the slightest degree by a vile pecuniary interest. All these honourable persons possess probity as well as wisdom, so that a trifle of money never can produce the slightest influence upon their conduct, not even the effect of an atom upon the immovable mass of their probity. The mischief is, that evil-minded persons are not convinced by their assertion, but continue to repeat, that---``The honesty which resists temptation is most noble, but that which flies from it is most secure.''[1]

4. In public and private works of all descriptions, it is customary to pay the architect a percentage upon the aggregate amount expended. This arrangement is a good one, when the sum to be expended is fixed: there is danger in the contrary case, since the greater the expense, the greater is the architect's pecuniary profit.

5. Veracity is one of the most important bases of human society. The due administration of justice absolutely depends upon it; whatever tends to weaken it, saps the foundations of morality, security, and happiness. The more we reflect on its importance, the more we shall be astonished that legislators have so indiscreetly multiplied the operations which tend to weaken its influence.

When the possession of the revenues, or other privileges attached to a certain condition of life, depends upon the previous performance of certain acts which are required at entering upon that condition, these privileges cannot fail to operate upon individuals as incentives to the performance of those acts: the effect produced is the same as if they were attached to such performance under the title of reward.

If, among the number of these acts, promises which are never performed are required under the sanction of an oath, these privileges or other advantages can only be regarded as rewards offered for the commission of perjury. If among the number of these acts, it be required that certain opinions which are not believed should be pretended to be believed, these advantages are neither more nor less than rewards offered for insincerity. But the sanction of an oath once contemned, is contemned at all times. Oaths may afterwards be observed, but they will not be observed because they are oaths.

In the university of Oxford, among whose members the greater number of ecclesiastical benefices are bestowed, and which even for laymen is the most fashionable place of education,---when a young man presents himself for admission, his tutor, who is generally a clergyman, and the vice-chancellor, who is also a clergyman, put into his hands a book of statutes, of which they cause him to swear to observe every one. At the same time, it is perfectly well known to this vice-chancellor and to this tutor, that there never has been any person who was able to observe all these statutes. It is thus that the first lesson this young man learns, and the only lesson he is sure to learn, is a lesson of perjury.[3]

Nor is this all: his next step is to subscribe, in testimony of his belief, to a dogmatical formulary composed about two centuries ago, asserted by the Church of England to be infallibly true, and by most other churches believed to be as infallibly false. By this expedient, one class of men is excluded, while three classes are admitted. The class excluded is composed of men who, either from a sense of honour, or from conscientious motives, cannot prevail upon themselves publicly and deliberately to utter a lie. The classes admitted consist---1. Of those who literally believe these dogmas; 2. Of those who disbelieve them; 3. Of those who sign them as they would sign the Alcoran, without knowing what they sign, or what they think about it. A nearly similar practice is pursued at Cambridge; and from these two sources the clergy of the Church of England are supplied.

Socrates was accused as a corruptor of youth. What was meant by this accusation, I know not. But this I know, that to instruct the young in falsehood and perjury, is to corrupt them; and that the benefit of all the other lessons they can learn can never equal the mischief of this instruction. {See Appendix (A.)}

6. It may be inquired, whether rewards or other advantages ought to be offered for the defence of any opinion in matters of theory or science, or any other subject upon which opinions are divided? {See Appendix (B.)} If the question be one of pure curiosity, the worst that can happen will be that the reward will be expended in waste. But if the opinion thus favoured happen to be a false one, and at the same time mischievous, the reward will be productive of unmixed evil. But whether it be a question of curiosity or use, if truth be the object desired, the chance of obtaining it is not so great as when the candidates for reward are allowed to seek it wheresoever it may be to be found. If error be to be defended, to offer a reward for its defence would be one, if not the only, method to be adopted. Who is there that does not perceive, that to obtain true testimony, it is inexpedient to offer a reward to the witness who shall depose upon a given side?---who does not know that the constant effect of such an offer is to discredit the cause of him who makes it? If then, anything be to be gained by such partiality, it can only be by error: truth can only be a loser by such partial reward.

This practice is attended with another and more manifest inconvenience: it is that of causing opinions to be professed which are not believed---of inducing a truculent exchange, not only of truth, but of sincerity, for money. I do not know if governments ought even to permit individuals to offer rewards upon these conditions. To establish error, to repudiate truth, to suborn falsehood;---these, in a few words, are the effects of all rewards established in favour of one system to the exclusion of all others.

7. Charity is ever an amiable virtue; but if injudiciously employed, it is liable to produce more evil than good. Hospitals inconsiderately multiplied, regular distributions of provisions, such as were formerly made at the doors of many convents in Spain and Italy, tend to habituate a large proportion of the people to idleness and beggary. A reward thus offered to indolence, impoverishes the state and corrupts the people. Luxury (and I annex to this word whatever meaning, except that of prodigality, people choose to give to it) luxury, that pretended vice so much reprobated by the envious and melancholic, is the steady and natural benefactor of the human species; it is a master who is always doing good, even when he aims not at it; he rewards only the industrious. Charity is also a benefactor, but great circumspection is required that it may prove so.

8. There is another manner in which reward may be mischievous: by acting in opposition to the service required---when, for example, the emoluments attached to an office are such as to afford the means and temptation not to fulfil the duties of it. In such a case, what may appear a paradox is not the less a great truth: the whole does less than a part; by paying too much, the sovereign is less effectually served. But this subject belongs naturally to the head of salaries.

9. Whatever weakens the connexion between punishments and offences, operates in proportion as an encouragement to the commission of offences. It has the effect of a reward offered for their perpetration, for whether the inducement to commit offences be augmented, or the restraining motives debilitated, the result in both cases is the same.

Thus, a tax on justice is an indirect reward offered for injustice. The same is the case with respect to all technical rules by which, independently of the merits, nullities are introduced into contracts and into procedure---of every rule that excludes the evidence of a witness, the only depository of the fact upon which depends the due administration of justice. In a word, it is the same with every thing that tends to loosen the connexion between injury and compensation, between the violation of the law and punishment.

If we open our eyes, we shall behold the same legislators establishing rewards for informers, and taxes and fees upon law proceedings: they desire that the first should induce men to render them services of which they stand in need, whilst the latter tend to weaken the natural disposition which is felt to render these same services. At the threshold of the tribunal of justice are placed a bait and a bugbear: the bait operates upon the few---the bugbear upon the multitude.

10. There are cases in which, to avoid greater inconvenience, it has been found necessary to dispose of the matter of reward in such manner as that it shall operate as a reward for the most atrocious crime; yet, in spite of the force of the temptation, this crime is almost unexampled. I allude to the rule established with respect to successions. Happily, whatever may be the force of the seductive motives in this case, the tutelary motives act in full concert with all their energy. There are many men who for a trifling personal benefit, for an advance in rank, or even to gratify their spleen, would without scruple use their utmost exertions to produce a war that would cost the lives of two or three hundred thousand of their fellow creatures; while among these men there would not be found perhaps one, who, though he were set free from the dread of legal punishment, could be induced, for a much greater advantage, to attempt the life of a single individual, and still less the life of parent whose death would put him in possession of a fortune or a title.

But though laws cannot be framed for its complete removal, nothing which can be done without inconvenience ought to be left undone, towards the diminution of this danger. The persons most exposed to become its victims, are those who are necessarily placed under the controul of others, such as infants and women. It is under the guidance of this principle, that our laws in some cases have selected as guardians those persons upon whom no interest can devolve in the way of succession. Under the laws of Sweden, precautions of the same description are observed; and it has been elsewhere shown that this consideration furnishes one of the arguments in favour of the liberty of divorce.

Contracts relating to insurance furnish another instance of the same danger. These contracts, in other respects so beneficial, have given birth to a new species of crime. A man insures a ship or a house at a price greatly beyond its value, with the intention of setting fire to the house or causing the ship to be lost, and then, under pretence of compensation for the loss of which he is the author, claims the money for which the insurance is made. Thus one of the most beneficial inventions of civilized society is converted into a premium for dishonesty, and a punishment to virtuous industry. Had the commission of this crime been attended with less risk, or been less difficult to conceal, this most admirable contrivance for softening inevitable calamities must have been abandoned.

[RR, Book I, Chapter VII] [RR, Book I, Chapter IX]