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?