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The Government as Public Trust—One Roman Emperor Showed It Is Feasible

RGNStPauls“A public office is a public trust”—common saying, but do we really believe it?

The American Founders did.  Most of them agreed that public officials should be held at least to the standards imposed on private trustees and other fiduciaries—maybe even higher standards, since government officials can do more damage than private fiduciaries. (A fiduciary—from Latin words meaning “confidence” and “faith”— is someone entrusted with the property or affairs of another.) The Founders often referred to public officials as the “trustees,” “agents,” “guardians,” or “servants” of the public. (In those days the legal term “servant” referred to an employee in a job not involving a lot of discretion.)

But in modern America public officials are not held to anywhere near the legal standards imposed on private trustees and other fiduciaries. The corporate corruption some on the Left justifiably complain about pales by comparison to common political behavior.

I learned this when I was active in Montana politics in the 1990s. The incumbent Republican governor had helped to orchestrate several major tax increases. To assuage public dissatisfaction, he traveled the state giving the same written speech in different places. I got a copy of the speech.

In it, he claimed his administration was so frugal they’d cut the current budget by $30 million dollars—a fair amount in a lightly-populated state like Montana. Trouble was, a summary from his own budget office showed that the budget actually had risen by several hundred million. Among private fiduciaries, misrepresenting dollar figures that way is a serious offense, and can be prosecuted as common law or statutory fraud. In public affairs, it just helps you get re-elected—as this particular governor was.

Could we impose higher standards on government officials?  Some claim it is not really practical to do so.

But history says otherwise. The Roman emperor Trajan (98-117 C.E.) ruled so well, he obtained lasting fame as one of five successive “good emperors.” In an article published several years ago, I surveyed Trajan’s governing style, and concluded that his reputation is merited: to a very great extent, government during his reign really was a public trust.

I also showed that America may be better positioned to impose fiduciary standards on government than the Romans were. But it requires the will to do so.

Rob Natelson