LATELY — 10 June 2012

Selling Commissions

A little while ago this blog published a post summarising Plato’s arguments against books and writing (taken from Harper’s). A seemingly indefensible position, you’d think–but Plato had a few more arguments in favour of this than I would have guessed possible.

In a similar way, I recently came across a Wikipedia article on the sale of Army commissions. Until 1800 or so, most European armies allowed the purchase of ranks–and the British Army in particular was especially keen on this system. Again, it seems that this system would have little to recommend it, but Wikipedia advises:

  • It preserved the social exclusivity of the officer class.
  • It served as a form of collateral against abuse of authority or gross negligence or incompetence. Disgraced officers could be cashiered by the crown (that is, stripped of their commission without reimbursement).
  • It ensured that the officer class was largely populated by persons having a vested interest in maintaining the status quo, thereby reducing the possibility of Army units taking part in a revolution or coup.
  • It ensured that officers had private means and were unlikely to engage in looting or pillaging, or to cheat the soldiers under their command by engaging in profiteering using army supplies.
  • It provided honourably retired officers with an immediate source of capital.

How common was it for commissions to be awarded on merit?