Time for Reflection: Cicero, Liberality and Katrina

by Mario Rizzo


Some time ago I came across this quotation from Marcus Tullius Cicero (106 – 43 BC), the Roman orator, senator, philosopher and opponent of the dictatorship of Julius Caesar. I have a picture of stone bust of him both in my office and my home. (Yes, I like him.)  

There are, though, many especially those greedy for renown and glory, who steal from one group the very money they lavish upon another. They think that they will appear beneficent towards their friends if they enrich them by any method whatsoever. But that is so far from being a duty that in fact nothing could be more opposed to duty. We should therefore see that the liberality we exercise in assisting our friends does not harm anyone. Consequently, the transference of money by Lucius Sulla and Gaius Caesar from its lawful owners to others
ought not to be seen as liberal: nothing is liberal if it is not also just.    
ON DUTIES, Bk.1. XIV. 43   

I was reminded of the quotation when I read an article by Edward Glaeser, the Harvard economist, about “small government egalitarianism.” While I have few disagreements with Glaeser’s thesis that small government can be of benefit to the poor and middle class, I do wonder about the implicit ethical framework of those conservative libertarians who want to appear compassionate. (I am not a politician so I am not concerned about the political rhetoric of small-government advocacy – I leave that to others.) For example, I completely agree with Glaeser that giving Katrina victims checks would have been better than the program that was established and badly administered. Yet I believe that the nation is so caught in the welfarist box that any thinking outside of that box may be annoying to some. So let me allow Cicero to take the heat (he has already taken a lot worse) and speak to us about generosity, compassion or what he calls “liberality.”





3 thoughts on “Time for Reflection: Cicero, Liberality and Katrina

  1. Mario,

    This is from William Graham Sumner, whom Amity Schlaes quotes in her recent book about the Great Depression, _The Forgotten Man_:

    “As soon as A observes something which seems to him to be wrong, from which X is suffering, A talks it over with B, and A and B then propose to get a law passed to remedy the evil and help X. Their law proposes to determine what C shall do for X, or in the better case, what A, B, and C shall do for X…. What I want to do is to look up C. I want to show you what manner of man he is. I call him the Forgotten Man. Perhaps the appellation is not strictly correct. He is the man who never is thought of…. He works, he votes, he generally prays — but he always pays.”

  2. Sandy,

    Interestingly, Sumner is himself a forgotten scholar.

    At some point A coerces C for X but then C coerces A for Y, and Y coerces A for Z, etc. So that the net result is that we have all been exploited for something or other. This is not an “offsetting” process but a compounding process of rent seeking and degradation of individual responsibility. To find some simple lines of exploiter and exploiter becomes near impossible. And this only makes matters worse because then people don’t easily see what going on; everyone then simply wants his share of the common pie.

  3. Yes, Mario, interventionism tends eventually to make each of us both exploited and exploiter, though not to the same degree. If I remember correctly, Mancur Olson, or maybe it’s just common sense, argues that this process can continue until the costs of the cumulative interventions, dispersed though they may be, eventually overwhelm the “concentrated benefits,” even on a per capita basis. Then public choosers have an incentive to cast off the yoke of interventionism.

    For Hayek, when A coerces C for X, this reduces the security of C, who then has a greater incentive to coerce Y to protect her own interests, which in turn reduces Y’s security, and so on. In Mises’s terms, this can go on until the “reserve fund” — ie, private wealth that public choosers can appropriate to fund interventionism — is exhausted, which is similar to Olson’s analysis.

    To my way of thinking, the regulation and redistribution that constitute the interventionist process also tend to distort the operation of the market process, the cumulative effect of which is to make it impossible to intervene piecemeal long before the reserve fund runs out — eg, food will rot in the fields and people go hungry for want of transport, which may be standing idle elsewhere. In your words, “people don’t easily see what’s going on.”

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