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Ancient and modern

Why Cicero would have liked shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander

At least one person on the Labour front bench seems to recognise that the state must protect property

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

3 October 2015

8:00 AM

Heidi Alexander, Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow health secretary, has emphasised how important it is ‘to weave into [Labour’s] language, our narrative and our political mission a fundamental respect for taxpayers’ money, something that is clearly missing given our current reputation for profligacy’. Cicero would be cheering her on.

Cicero’s de officiis (‘On Duties’) was composed in 44 bc, the year in which he was assassinated on Marc Antony’s orders. The work, the second to be printed in the Gutenberg revolution after the Bible, was immensely influential during the Renaissance and Enlightenment. In it, he envisaged a community bound by partnership (societas) and trust, whose leaders obeyed the law and had the common good at heart, and in which gloria was won not by military achievements but by winning the respect of one’s fellow men. In pursuit of that vision, he was the first major political thinker to argue that the primary purpose of the state was the protection of private property: ‘It is the proper function of the state and its citizens to ensure for everyone the free and undisturbed guardianship of their possessions.’


Cicero’s argument was based on the principle of harmony and impartial justice for all, which was undermined if the state identified individuals from whom property was taken away to be given to others. The result would be a state divided rather than united. He concluded: ‘Those, then, whose office it is to look after the interests of the state will refrain from that form of liberality which robs one man to enrich another. Above all, they will use their best endeavours that everyone shall be protected in the possession of his own property by the fairness of the law and the courts, that the weak shall not be oppressed because of their situation, and that envy shall not stand in the way of the rich.’

Cicero’s view of the integrity of the state saw no contradiction between private property and ‘caring for the whole body of the people rather than protecting one part and neglecting the rest’. Corbychev might take some persuading, though.


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