Nineteenth Dialogue

Montesquieu: One can say that the creation of the budgetary system has involved all the other financial guarantees that are today shared by the well-regulated political societies.

Thus, the first law that was necessarily imposed by the economy of the budget mandated that the requested appropriations are in relation to the existing resources. This is an equilibrium that must constantly be rendered visible[1] by the real and authentic figures. To better assure this important result -- so that the legislator who votes on the propositions that are made to him does not submit too enthusiastically -- one has had recourse to a very wise measure. One has divided the general budget of the State into two distinct budgets: the budget of expenditures and the budget of collections, which must be voted upon separately, each one according to a special law.

In this manner, the attention of the legislator is obliged to concentrate, by turns and independently, upon the active and passive situations, and his determinations are not influenced in advance by the general balance of receipts and expenditures.

He scrupulously checks these two elements and, in the final analysis, it is from their comparison, their close harmony, that the general vote on the budget is born.

Machiavelli: All this is very good, but is it by chance that the expenditures are contained within an impassable circle by the legislative vote? Is this possible? Can a chamber prohibit a sovereign in power from unforeseen expenses by [passing] emergency measures, but without paralyzing the exercise of executive power?

Montesquieu: I see that this would inconvenience you, but I do not regret it.

Machiavelli: In the constitutional States, is not the faculty of using ordinances to set up supplementary or extraordinary appropriations between legislative sessions formally reserved by the sovereign?

Montesquieu: Yes, this is true, but on the condition that these ordinances are converted into law at the [next] meeting of the chambers. Their approval must intervene.

Machiavelli: I would not find it bad if they intervened once the expenses was made, so as to ratify what had already been done.

Montesquieu: I can believe that, but, unfortunately, one is not limited to this fact alone. The most advanced modern financial legislation prohibits departures from the normal provisions of the budget, other than by laws that set up supplementary and extraordinary collections. Expenditures can no longer be made without the intervention of legislative power.

Machiavelli: But then one could no longer even govern.

Montesquieu: It appears that one can. Modern States have reflected that legislative votes on the budget would end up being illusory if supplementary and extraordinary collections were abused; that expenditures must definitely be limited when resources are naturally limited; that political events cannot make financial actions vary from one instant to another; and that the recess of sessions is not so long that it is always impossible to provide usefully for them by extra-budgetary votes.

One has gone even further: the modern States have made things such that, once the resources are voted for this or that service, they can be returned to the treasury if they were not used; these States have thought that the government -- remaining within the limits of the allotted revenues -- should not use the funds assigned to one service to finance another; the government should not cover this one, expose that one, by the means of transferring funds from ministry to ministry through the use of ordinances; because any of these means would elude their legislative destination and, by an ingenious detour, return [the country] to financial despotism.

For that purpose, one has imagined what one calls the specialization of collections by headings ["line-item budgeting"] that is to say, that the vote on expenditures takes place according to special headings that only pertain to correlative services and that are of the same nature for all the ministries. Thus, for example, heading A includes expense A for all the ministries; heading B, expense B; and so forth. The result of this arrangement is that unused revenues must be annulled in the accounts of the various ministries and reported as receipts in the budget of the following year. I do not need to tell you that ministerial responsibility is the sanction of all these measures. That which forms the crowning [achievement] of the financial guarantees is the establishment of a chamber of accounting, a kind of court of cassation, tasked with permanently exercising the functions of jurisdiction and auditing of the accounts, the handling and use of public funds, even indicating the parts of the financial administration that can be bettered from the double point of view of expenditures and collections. These explanations will have to suffice. Do you not find that, with an organization such as this, absolute power would be quite obstructed?

Machiavelli: I am still dismayed by this financial foray. You have taken me from my weak side: I have told you that I understand little of these matters, but I would have -- you best believe it -- ministers who would know how to respond to all this and demonstrate the danger of the majority of these measures.

Montesquieu: Could you not do this yourself?

Machiavelli: Yes, indeed. To my ministers, the care of making beautiful theories: this would be their principal occupation. As for me, I would rather speak to you of finances as a statesman than as an economist. There is something that you too easily forget: of all political matters, those that concern finances most easily loan themselves to the maxims of The Prince. The States that have such methodically ordered budgets and such well-regulated official writings remind me of the merchants who have perfectly kept books and who finally come to ruin. Thus, which among your parliamentary governments have the largest budgets? Which one costs more dearly than the democratic republic of the United States or the royal republic of England? It is true that the immense resources of this second power are placed at the service of the deepest and best-understood politics.

Montesquieu: You have exceeded the question. What are you getting at?

Machiavelli: This: the regulations of the financial administration of the States have no relation to those of the domestic economy, which appear to be the type of your conceptions.

Montesquieu: Ah! The same distinction as between politics and morality?

Machiavelli: Yes, indeed. Is this not universally recognized, [and] practiced? Are not things the same today as they were in your times (which were much less advanced in this regard), and did not you yourself say that the States allow lapses in financial matters that would make the son of the most excessive family blush?

Montesquieu: It is true, I did say this, but if you can derive an argument that is favorable to your thesis, I would be really surprised.

Machiavelli: No doubt you would like to say that it is not necessary to avail oneself of what is done, but what must be done.

Montesquieu: Precisely.

Machiavelli: I would respond that it is necessary to want the possible and that what is universally done cannot not be done.

Montesquieu: In pure practice, I would agree.

Machiavelli: And I have some idea that, if we would balance the accounts, as you say, my government -- absolute, as it would be -- would cost less dearly than yours. But let us leave aside this dispute, which is without interest. You are truly quite deceived if you believe that I would be distressed by the perfection of the financial systems that you have explained to me. I rejoice with you about the regularity of tax collection[2] and the completeness of it; I rejoice -- quite sincerely -- about the exactitude of the accounts. Thus, you believe that, for the absolute sovereign, it would be a question of putting his hands into the State's coffers, of personally handling public funds. This luxury of precautions is truly puerile. Is the danger really here? Once more: so much the better if the funds would be collected, moved and circulated with the miraculous precision that you have advertised. I exactly reckon [compte] to make all of these marvels of accountability [comptabilite], all these organic beauties of financial matters, serve the splendor of my reign.

Montesquieu: You have the vis comica.[3] What is more surprising to me in your financial theories is the fact that they are in formal contradiction with what you said in The Prince, in which you rigorously recommend, not just economy in financial matters, but avarice, as well.[4]

Machiavelli: If you are surprised, you are wrong, because -- in this point of view -- the times are no longer the same, and one of my most essential principles is to accommodate myself to the times. Let us return and, I beseech you, leave a little to the side what you have told me of your chamber of accounting. Does this institution belong to the judiciary?

Montesquieu: No.

Machiavelli: Thus it is a purely administrative body. I suppose that it is perfectly irreproachable. But the good advances when this body has verified all the accounts! Can it prevent the appropriations from being voted upon, the expenditures from being made? Its verificatory decrees do not inform us about anything more of the situation than the budgets. It is a chamber for recording without remonstrance; it is an ingenious institution; let us not speak of it; I would maintain it such as it is, without worry.

Montesquieu: You would maintain it?! Thus you would count upon touching other parts of the financial organization?

Machiavelli: I imagine that you would not doubt this. After a political coup d'Etat, is not a financial one inevitable? Should I not use my all-powerful position for this, as for the rest? What magic virtue would preserve your financial regulations? I am like a giant in some story,[5] whom the pygmies have tied down while he slept; upon rising, he breaks these bounds without even perceiving them. The day after my ascension, voting upon the budget would not even be a question; I would decree it, extraordinarily; I would dictatorially set up the necessary appropriations and I would have them approved by my Council of State.

Montesquieu: And you would continue in this way?

Machiavelli: No. Starting the following year, I would return to legality, because I do not intend to destroy [anything] directly, as I have already told you several times. One has regulated [matters] before me; I would regulate in my turn. You have spoken to me of the vote on the budget through two distinct laws: I consider this to be a bad arrangement. One would make a better accounting of the financial situation when one votes for the budget of collections and the budget of expenditures at the same time. My government would be a laboring government; the precious time needed for public deliberations would not be lost in useless discussions. Thenceforth, the budgets of collections and expenditures would be included in a single law.

Montesquieu: Good. And the law that prohibits supplementary appropriations other than by the preliminary vote of the chamber?

Machiavelli: I would abrogate it. You will understand why.

Montesquieu: Yes.

Machiavelli: It is a law that would be inapplicable under any regime.

Montesquieu: And the specialization of appropriations, the vote according to headings?

Machiavelli: It would be impossible to maintain them: one would no longer vote upon the budget of expenditures by heading, but by ministry.

Montesquieu: This appears to me as big as a mountain, because voting according to ministry would only provide a total for examination in each case. This would be like using a bottomless barrel instead of a sieve to sift through the public expenditures.

Machiavelli: This is not exact, because each appropriation, proposed en bloc, would present distinct elements or headings, as you call them. One could examine them if one wanted, but one would vote for them according to ministry, with the option of transferring funds from one heading to another.

Montesquieu: And from ministry to ministry?

Machiavelli: No, I would not go as far as that; I would remain within the limits of necessity.

Montesquieu: Your moderation would be accomplished. Do you believe that these financial innovations would not throw the country into a state of alarm?

Machiavelli: Why would it be more alarmed by this than by my other political measures?

Montesquieu: Because these would touch everyone's material interests.

Machiavelli: Oh! These would be very subtle distinctions.

Montesquieu: Subtle? I find this word well chosen. Do not engage in any subtlety yourself, and simply say that a country that cannot defend its liberties cannot defend its money.

Machiavelli: Why would one complain, since I have conserved the essential principles of public rights in financial matters? Are not taxes regularly established and regularly collected? Are not appropriations regularly voted upon? Is not everything here, as elsewhere, supported by the base of popular suffrage? No, no doubt my government would not be reduced to indigence. The people who acclaimed me [their king]: not only would they easily tolerate the splendor of the throne, but they would want it, they would seek it in a prince who is the expression of their power. They would really hate only one thing: the wealth of their equals.

Montesquieu: You could not escape; you would not be at the end; I would reign you in with the inflexible hand of the budget. Whatever you say, its very organization would repress the development of your power. It is a framework that one could exceed, but one only exceeds it at one's risk and peril. The budget would be published; one would know its elements; it would remain a barometer of the situation.

Machiavelli: Let us finish this point, since you wish to.

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[1] Note the insistence on visual perception. See note [2] below.

[2] The French word used here, perception, means both "tax collection" and sensory "perception."

[3] Latin for "comic talent."

[4] Author's note: Chapter XVI. [Translator's note: As translated by Angelo M. Codevilla: "[I]f he is prudent he must not worry about the reputation of miser: because with time he will be considered even more liberal, when it is seen that because of his parsimony his income suffices him, that he can defend himself against whomever makes war on him, and that he can undertake enterprises without weighing down the peoples; by which token he comes to use liberality towards all those from whom he does not take, who are infinite, and miserliness toward all those from whom he does not give, who are few."]

[5] Jonathan Swift, Gulliver's Travels (1726).