The Rationale of Reward

Book II

Rewards Applied to Offices

Chapter IX


If it be desirable that the public servants should be contented with small salaries, it is more desirable that they should be willing to serve gratuitously, and most desirable that they should be willing to pay for the liberty of serving, instead of being paid for their services. Such is the simple but conclusive train of argument in favour of the venality of offices, abstractly considered.

Such an arrangement is attended with another advantage. A sum laid out in the purchase of an office renders the purchaser responsible in a higher degree than he would be, were he to receive a salary equal to, or even exceeding in amount, the interest of the money he has paid. The loss of a salary paid by the public, is merely the cessation of so much gain; the loss of an office which has been purchased, is the positive loss of so much capital which the individual has actually possessed. The impression produced upon the mind by these two species of loss is widely different. The cessation of a gain is generally much less severely felt, than a loss to a corresponding amount. The gain which depends upon external circumstances is always precarious---it cannot be reckoned upon with certainty; on the other band, if an individual have purchased an office with his own capital, he looks upon it as absolutely his own; it comes to be regarded as a certain, fixed, and permanent source of revenue, and as identified with his original property, upon which be has always reckoned.

When a man purchases an office, it may be fairly presumed that he possesses appropriate aptitude for the discharge of its duties. Are there pecuniary emoluments attached to an office,---the office may be accepted for the sake of these emoluments. Are there no pecuniary emoluments,---the office can be desired only on account of its duties, or of the natural rewards of honour and power which are inseparable from it. Such, at least, is the ordinary state of things. it is, however, possible that such an office might be desired as a means of obtaining some hidden profit prejudicial to the public: but this would be a particular case, whose existence ought to be established by proof.

It is not by names alone that we can determine whether it be most advantageous for the public, that offices should without emoluments be given away, or when with emoluments should be sold: this question can only be determined by an accurate account, exhibiting the balance of the sums paid and received. If, however, there be any offices without emoluments, for which purchasers can be found,---were it possible to sell purely honorary appointments, offices connected with public pomp and show, it would be entirely consistent with good economy: it would be to convert a tax upon honour, unfelt by any one, but established in favour of the purchasers, into hard cash. A tax would thus be levied upon vanity. The gain would be real, though the bargain, like that of the Lapland sorcerers, were only for bags of wind.

As it respects offices of which the emoluments are fixed, the question of economy is simple: the amount of the emoluments does not differ from a perpetual rent. But when an office is sold, the profits of which, whether received from the public or levied upon individuals, are uncertain in amount, this uncertainty causes a presumption against the economy of the bargain: it is disadvantageous to the public to be subject to uncertain expenses, and it is not probable that these uncertain profits will sell for so large a price as would willingly be paid for a salary equal to their average amount.

Again, as to emoluments derived solely from individuals. These are a species of tax often created and alienated at the same time in favour of the office. The general presumption cannot but be unfavourable to taxes imposed under such circumstances. In former times, when the science of political economy was in its cradle---when taxes and the methods of collecting them were little understood---governments have frequently thus alienated large branches of the public revenue: tempt by an immediate supply, they either did or would not regard the extent of the sacrifices they made. The history of French finance is replete with instances of this kind. The customs of Orleans, which were originally purchased by a Duke of Orleans for 60,000 francs, afterwards yielded to his posterity a yearly revenue of more than 1,000,000 francs.

The venality of offices in that kingdom had an exceedingly complex, and consequently exceedingly vicious, system. The offices conferring hereditary nobility especially mischievous, since this nobility a multitude of exemptions. They paid no taxes. Hence every creation of nobility was a tax, equal in value to the exemption granted, thrown upon those who continued liable to pay them.

Should the price for which an office is sold form a part of the emoluments of the head of the office, and not be received by the public, this would make no difference in the question of economy as respects giving and selling. That the produce of the sale is afterwards wasted, is an accident unconnected with the sale. The emoluments received by the head of the department may be too large or not: if not too large, the public gains by the operation; since, in suppressing the sale, it would be necessary to increase his emoluments by other means: if too large, the excess might be made applicable to the public service.

The Sale of Offices considered with respect to particular departments.

Public opinion is at present adverse to the sale of public offices. It more particularly condemns their sale in the three great departments of war, law, and religion. This prejudice has probably arisen from the improper use to which it has sometimes been applied; but whether this be the case or not, the use of the word venal, seldom if ever but in an odious and dysolgystic sense, has tended to preserve it.

``He who has bought the right of judging will sell judgment'', is the sort of reasoning in use upon this subject. Instead of an argument, it is only an epigram. The members of the French parliaments were judges, and they purchased their places; it did not by any means follow that they were disposed to sell their judgments, or that they could have done so with impunity. The greater number of these parliaments were never even suspected of having sold them. Countries may however be cited, in which the judges sell both justice and injustice, though they have not bought their places. The uprightness of a judge does not depend upon these, but upon other circumstances. If the laws be intelligible and known---if the proceedings of the judges are public---if the punishment for injustice surpass the profit to be reaped from it, judges will be upright, even though they purchase their offices.

In England, there are certain judicial offices which the judges sell--sometimes openly, sometimes clandestinely. The purchasers of these offices extract from the suitors as much as they can: if they had not purchased their places, they would not have endeavoured to extract less. The mischief is, not that this right of plundering is sold, but that the right exists.

In the English army, the system of venality has been adopted. Military commissions, from the rank of ensign to that of lieutenant colonel, are sold, with permission to the purchasers to re-sell them. The epigram upon the judges is not applied here. The complaint is, that the patrimony of merit is invaded by wealth. But it ought to be recollected, that in this career the opportunities for the display of merit do not occur every day. It is only upon extraordinary occasions that extraordinary talents cart be displayed; and when these occur, there can be no difficulty, even under this system, of bestowing proportionate and appropriate rewards. Besides, though the patrimony of merit should by this means be invaded by wealth, it would at the same time be defended from favouritism---a divinity in less esteem even than wealth. The circumstance which ought to recommend the system of venality to suspicious politicians is, that it diminishes the influence of the crown. The whole circle over which it extends is so much reclaimed from the influence of the crown. It may be called a corruption, but it serves as an antidote to a corruption more to be dreaded.

It is the sale of ecclesiastical offices which has occasioned the greatest outcry. It has been made a particular sin, to which has been given the name of simony. In the Acts of the Apostles, we are informed that at Samaria there was a magician named Simon, to whose gainful practices an immediate stop was put by the preaching and miracles of Philip, one of the deacons of the church of Jerusalem, who had been driven to Samaria by persecution. Simon, therefore, regarding Philip as a more fortunate rival, enrolled himself among the number of his proselytes, and when the apostles Peter and John came down from Jerusalem, and by the laying on of their hands communicated to the disciples the gift of the Holy Ghost, Simon, desirous of possessing something more than the rest, offered to them money, saying, ``Give me also this power, that on whomsoever I lay hands, he may receive the Holy Ghost.'' Upon which Peter severely reprimanded him; and the magician, supple as he was intriguing, asked forgiveness---and thus his history closes. It is nowhere said that he was punished.

Upon the strength of this story, the Roman Catholic church has converted the act of buying or selling ecclesiastical benefices into a sin; and the English law, copying from the Catholic church, has constituted such an act a crime. As the Roman Catholic church, among Catholics, is infallible, as to them it must have decided rightly when it declared such acts to be sinful. Our subject, however, leads us only to the consideration of the legal crime: and between this crime and the offence of Simon Magus, there is nothing in common. Presentation to a living, and the reception of the Holy Ghost, are not the same things. If it be the object of this law to exclude improper persons, more direct, simple, and efficacious means might be employed: their qualifications might be ascertained by public examinations; their good conduct by the previous publication of their names, with liberty to all the world to object against them. Their moral and intellectual capacity being thus proved, why should they not be allowed to purchase the employment, or to discharge it gratuitously? An idiot once admitted to priest's orders, may hold an ecclesiastical benefice; but were a man gifted like an apostle to give five guineas to be permitted to discharge the duties of that benefice, he would be borne down by the outcry against the simony be had committed.

What, then, is the effect of these anti-simoniacal laws? A priest may not purchase a benefice for himself; but his friend, whether priest or layman, may purchase it for him: He may not purchase the presentation to a vacant benefice; but he may purchase the right of presentation to a benefice filled by a dying man, or by a person in good health who will have the complaisance to resign. and receive it again with an obligation again to resign whenever his patron requires it. In reading these self-styled anti-simoniacal laws, it is difficult to discover whether they are intended to prohibit or to allow the practice of simony. Their only real effects are to encourage deception and fraud. Blackstone complains of their inexecution: be did not perceive that a law which is not executed is ridiculous.

[RR, Book II, Chapter VIII] [RR, Book II, Chapter X]