Corporate Bodies

Inigo Thomas on MPs' Expenses and Hazlitt

The parliamentary crisis, the Guardian said two weeks ago, can be compared to the crisis that led to the reform of Parliament in 1832. Last week, the Guardian said: 'In the end, we need a new politics more than we need a new government.' What does this mean? That MPs, when they appear on TV or write editorials in newspapers, must radiate the right moral tone, just as their American counterparts do every Sunday on Meet the Press or in the pieces they write for the op-ed page of the New York Times? Making the UK more like the USA appears to be the assumption behind this clamour for change, as if the further Americanisation of institutions and practices were always for the good. If only Britain were more like the US – two wholly elected legislative chambers! two-year-long presidential election contests! the money! the expense! – the better off we would all be?

And what is it with this fixation with dates? At the end of May, it's all about 1832. Last month, the threat of a flu crisis led some to say that it was about to be 1918 all over again. Not that long ago, those who wanted the US and the UK to rush to war in Iraq, and who compared Saddam Hussein to Hitler, said there simply couldn't be another 1938. Maybe it will soon be 1066 once more, or 1642, 1688, 1945 or 1968.

Or how about 1822? This was the year Hazlitt wrote 'On Corporate Bodies', an essay about the shortcomings of those who place their faith in the power of political systems only to do good and who believe that officials, in a perfect political system, will do no wrong. Does Hazlitt's essay explain the constitutional crisis of 2009? No, but it takes a sceptical view of those who believe in perfect politics, with perfect politicians, all humming harmoniously in a perfect political system:

Corporate bodies are more corrupt and profligate than individuals, because they have more power to do mischief, and are less amenable to disgrace or punishment. They feel neither shame, remorse, gratitude, nor goodwill. The principle of private or natural conscience is extinguished in each individual (we have no moral sense in the breasts of others), and nothing is considered but how the united efforts of the whole (released from idle scruples) may be best directed to the obtaining of political advantages and privileges to be shared as common spoil. Each member reaps the benefit, and lays the blame, if there is any, upon the rest. The esprit de corps becomes the ruling passion of every corporate body, compared with which the motives of delicacy or decorum towards others are looked upon as being both impertinent and improper. If any person sets up a plea of this sort in opposition to the rest, he is overruled, he gets ill-blood, and does no good: he is regarded as an interloper, a black sheep in the flock, and is either sent to Coventry or obliged to acquiesce in the notions and wishes of those he associates and is expected to co-operate with. The refinements of private judgment are referred to and negatived in a committee of the whole body, while the projects and interests of the Corporation meet with a secret but powerful support in the self-love of the different members. Remonstrance, opposition, is fruitless, troublesome, invidious; it answers no one end; and a conformity to the sense of the company is found to be no less necessary to a reputation for good-fellowship than to a quiet life. Self-love and social here look like the same; and in consulting the interests of a particular class, which are also your own, there is even a show of public virtue. He who is a captious, impracticable, dissatisfied member of his little club or coterie is immediately set down as a bad member of the community in general, as no friend to regularity and order, as 'a pestilent fellow,' and one who is incapable of sympathy, attachment, or cordial co-operation in any department or undertaking.