A Constant Companion of Liberty
[Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments • By Benjamin Constant • 1815.]
Nowhere does one find such clear and lucid expositions and defenses of human liberty as those found among the French classical liberals of the 19th century, a group that included Jean-Baptiste Say, Frédéric Bastiat, Charles Dunoyer, Charles Comte, Gustave de Molinari, Paul Leroy-Beaulieu, Émile Faguet, and Yves Guyot, to name a few. Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) was one of the brightest stars in this constellation of thinkers.
The great tragedy is that, up until recently, few of Constant's works were available in English. During World War II, his The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation (1814) appeared in an abridged translation. His novel, Adolphe, has also been translated. But the few essays of his that appeared in English during his lifetime seem never to have been reprinted in the 20th century.
Only in 1988 did Cambridge University Press publish a volume of his Political Writings; it contained a new and complete translation of The Spirit of Conquest and Usurpation and his superb 1819 lecture, "The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with That of the Moderns." That volume also included an abridged translation of Constant's 1815 treatise, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments.
Now Liberty Fund of Indianapolis has published a new and full translation of Principles of Politics that contains all of Constant's extended appendices, in which he elaborates on the principles of individual freedom, civil liberties, economic liberalism, and the role of government.
Principles of Politics was written in the immediate aftermath of Napoleon's rule over France and much of Europe. It is a defense of all forms of freedom against despotism. Constant considered natural rights to be a foundation for liberty superior to Bentham's utilitarianism. "Right is a principle; utility is only a result," Constant said.
Say to a man: you have the right not to be put to death or arbitrarily plundered. You will give him quite another feeling of security and protection than you will by telling him: it is not useful for you to be put to death or arbitrarily plundered.
Yet, in fact, Constant's arguments for freedom and limitations on government are both rights based and utilitarian (or consequentialist). He asks us to think not only of the inherent rightness of freedom, but also of its positive effects and the harm from its abridgment. It is not possible to summarize and do justice to all of his analysis. But some of his themes can at least be touched on.
He warned of the "proliferation of laws" that go far beyond the protection of life, liberty, and property. This proliferation generates disrespect, avoidance, and corruption, which undermine the legitimacy of and obedience to all laws, including those law meant to secure freedom. Similarly, Constant warned of laws passed to prevent potential crimes, which can lead to arbitrary arrest, imprisonment without due process of law, and brutal treatment simply because some bureaucratic enforcer might conjure up suspicions in his own mind.
This led Constant to point out the dangers of all government restrictions on freedom of speech, written expression, and religion. Censorship creates a society of hypocrites who utter what the government wants, while their minds harbor different thoughts and beliefs. Furthermore, the very ideas that the government wishes to repress become the focal point of underground fascination for those wanting to read the forbidden words. The government's banning of some religious faiths while sponsoring or subsidizing others results in a growing number of people revolting against all religious belief under the compulsion of having to give allegiance to a theology not of their own choosing. Thus it can throw all religion into disrepute — the opposite of what the proponents of a state-sponsored faith want to achieve.
What is required is establishment of an impartial rule of law. This means an independent judiciary, due process for all, and elimination of cruel and unusual punishments. Constant also emphasized the need for securing and protecting private-property rights, which not only guarantee freedom but also foster a peace of mind that enables a spirit of savings and investment, and supports a society of voluntary, mutual consent in all human associations.
Inconsistent, therefore, with protecting private property and freedom of individual decision making are all privileges, protections, and subsidies that benefit some at the expense of others. Central to Constant's criticism of all government interventionism is his awareness that no regulator has the wisdom, ability, or disinterestedness to succeed at it. "How will the government judge, for each province, at a huge distance, and remote from others, circumstances which can change before knowledge of them get to it?" he asked.
How will it stop fraud by its agents? How will it guard itself against the danger of taking a momentary blockage for a real dearth, or a local difficulty for a universal disaster? … The men most lively in recommending this versatile legislation do not know how to go about it when it comes to the means of carrying it out.
Constant also pointed out that such interventions in the market "create artificial crimes [and] encourage the committing of these crimes by the profit which they attach to the fraud which is successful in deceiving them." It also corrupts the whole political process and undermines the spirit of enterprise and the desire for freedom. "In a country where the government hands out assistance and compensation, many hopes are awakened," Constant warned.
Until such time as they have been disappointed, men are bound to be unhappy with a system which replaces favoritism only by freedom. Freedom creates, so to speak, a negative good, although a gradual and general one. Favoritism brings positive, immediate, personal advantages. Selfishness and short-term views will always be against freedom and for favoritism.
Constant was also fearful of war, and the rationales for it, as a threat to freedom. In the wake of revolutionary France's wars of "liberation" throughout Europe, he explained that such foreign interventionism undermines the very cause for which it is undertaken.
To give a people freedom in spite of itself is only to give it slavery. Conquered nations can contract neither free spirits nor habits. Every society must repossess for itself rights which have been invaded, if it is worthy of owning them. Masters cannot impose freedom. For nations which enjoy political freedom, conquests have furthermore, beyond anything else we might hypothesize, this most clearly insane feature, that if these nations stay faithful to their principles, their triumphs cannot help but lead to their depriving themselves of a portion of their rights in order to communicate them to the conquered.
Almost 200 years have passed since Benjamin Constant penned his Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments. But its insights and arguments still ring true for our own time.