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Benjamin Constant's Birthday Today


As we know from the Mises Calendar, today is the birthday of Benjamin Constant (1767)

It is a congressional election year, and beggar thy neighbor policies will be proposed for the government at an even faster rate than usual. As a result, we face a vast array of potential new regulations that will circumscribe individual freedom into an ever-smaller domain, backed by bogus "general welfare" arguments. However, those devoted to freedom have a powerful weapon to use to resisting those regulatory assaults on both logic and liberty.

That weapon is Benjamin Constant's Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments. In it, Constant argues for the ideas of classical liberalism, and defends every aspect of freedom as an organic whole, which earned him Sir Isaiah Berlin's description as "the most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy." The prattle and pablum we hear every day from various would-be "public servants" makes it particularly timely to consider his insights in that area.

"The principles of economic freedom...on which the felicity of civil society and the security of citizens are based...in moral terms decide the issue in favor of freedom..."

"Society having no political prerogatives over individuals except when these prevent them harming each other, likewise economic activity, unless taken to be injurious, is subject to no such jurisdiction. But one man's economic activity cannot hurt his peers, as long as he does not invoke in favor of his own activity and against theirs, help of another sort. It is in the nature of business to struggle against rivals, by way of perfectly free competition and efforts to attain intrinsic superiority. All other types of means it might try to use constitute not economic activity but oppression or fraud. Society would be in the right, indeed, even obliged, to stop this. From this right which society possesses, however, it follows not at all that it has the right to use against the economic activity of one person, in favor of another's, means which it must forbid equally to all."

"What is a business privilege? It is the use of the power of political authority to pass to some men advantages which it is the aim of society to guarantee to everyone...This is manifestly injustice in principle...doubtless some value accrues to these few. It is value of the kind, however, which goes with all spoilation...the vast majority of the nation is excluded from the benefit. There is therefore uncompensated loss for this majority...Finally, the means which government must use to keep the privilege going and forcibly keep people not privy to it from competing are inevitably oppressive and vexatious. Once again, therefore, the entire nation suffers a loss of freedom. Thus we have...real losses which this type of prohibition entails, and compensation for these losses is reserved for a mere handful of privileged people."

"...freedom always ends up producing, uncontaminated by any evil, the same good we might strain to force into place by way of privileges bought at a very harmful cost...if there existed a branch of industry which could not be developed except by our bringing in privileges, then its drawbacks are such for the morals and freedom of the nation that no advantage would compensate for them."

"The interest of buyers is a much safer guarantee of the quality of production than arbitrary regulations...It is bizarre to imagine the public a bad judge of the workers it employs and to think that government, with so much else to do, will be better informed as to what dispositions must be made in order to appraise their merits."

"Experience has everywhere pronounced against the alleged value of this mania for regulation."

"Obstacles are put in competition's way by unjust regulations. Then people want to restore equilibrium by equally unjust regulations, ones which have to be maintained by punishments and harsh controls."

"There is no case of a nation which was not industrious having been made forcibly so by government. There is a very good reason for this. The government which forces men toward any end whatsoever is an arbitrary and vicious government and can do nothing well. As for industrious nations, it suffices to leave each individual perfectly free in the deployment of his capital and his labor. He will discern better than any government the best use he can make of them."

"...under freedom's dispensation, personal interest is the most enlightened, constant, and useful ally of the general interest..."

"Competition remedies everything, because personal interest cannot stop competition when the government allows it."

"If we compared...we would be pleased at how little ill comes to us from nature, and we would tremble at the ill which comes to us from men."

"...get men used to not regarding violation of property as a resource. Then they will seek and find other ones."

"Prohibitions in the matter of industry and commerce, like all other prohibitions and more than all the others, put individuals at odds with the government...Not only do commercial prohibitions create artificial crimes, but they encourage the committing of these crimes by the profit which they attach to the fraud which is successful in deceiving them."

"The demands addressed to government by those in trade, to prevent competition...could be translated thus: allow us alone to buy or sell such and such an object, so that we can sell it to you dearer."

"...the general interest is only the joining of all private ones. It is the joining of all these interests, however, by the cutting off of that part of each one which hurts the others...by basing their prohibitive measures on the blindness or harmful tendency of special interest, [governments] constantly institutionalize the calculation of special interest as rules of their public conduct."

"In industry, prohibitions are the type of arbitrary measure which some men can use against others...they seek to seize control of arbitrary regulations. They almost never protest against prohibitions in general, but strive to have them put to their advantage."

"Each manufacturer...claims freedom. Each...preaches persecution."

"Men arrange their calculations and their habits according to regulations, which then become as dangerous to revoke as they are troublesome to maintain."

"..government, once it has arrogated to itself the right to intervene in the affairs of business...often appeals to force."

"Is it salutary that the government should attach to itself certain groups of those it governs by handouts which...are intrinsically arbitrary? Is it not to be feared that these groups, seduced by immediate and positive advantage, might become indifferent to violations of individual freedom or justice? One would then be right to think of them as suborned by government."

"Our only resource is in freedom and justice. Why do we always delay seizing it as long as possible?"

"...government intervention in questions of production is equally harmful whether it orders something or forbids the same thing."

"What must government do then? Stay out of it...There are numerous circumstances when it can do good only by not acting at all...A thousand arguments and facts...supply ever stronger evidence for this principle."

"In a country where the government hands out assistance and compensation, many hopes are awakened. 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."

"...respect the natural course of things...let everyone be free to seek his own happiness, without hurting other people's..."

"The basis of growth...is security and calm. The basis of security and calm is justice and freedom."

"Commerce...is sustained only by justice. It rests on equality. It prospers in peace."

"We have surveyed almost all the matters on which government, exceeding the limits of strict necessity, can take action on grounds of alleged utility. We found that in all these, had people been left to themselves, less bad and more good would have happened..."

"...governors are those guards, put in place by individuals who come together precisely so that nothing shall trouble their peace of mind or upset their doings. If the governors go further, they become themselves a source of trouble and upset."

"...it is not a crime in man to want to manage himself by his own lights, even when the government finds them imperfect. It is a crime in government, however, to punish individuals because they do not adopt as their interest what seems so to other men...when, after all, each person is the judge in the last resort. To subordinate individual wishes to the general will, without absolute necessity, is gratuitously to set up obstacles to all our progress. Individual interest is always more enlightened on what concerns it than collective power, whose fault is the sacrificing to its purposes, without care or scruple, of everything which opposes it. It needs to be checked and not to be encouraged."

Benjamin Constant not only saw the inherent failures of government regulation and intervention, but he also traced them back to their source--their infringement on people's freedom: "To increase the force of collective authority is never other than giving more power to some individuals. If the wickedness of man is an argument against freedom, it is an even stronger one against power. For despotism is only the freedom of one or a few against the rest..."

"Freedom is a power only in the sense that a shield is a weapon. So when one speaks of the possible abuses of the principles of freedom, such an expression is inaccurate. The principles of freedom would have prevented anything under the heading of the abuses of freedom. These abuses, whoever their author, taking place always at the expense of another's freedom, have never been the consequences of these principles, but rather their reversal."

Benjamin Constant recognized that government restrictions on economic freedoms were "as pointless as they were unfair.” But he also realized that "as competition is a thing which speaks for itself and no one sings its praises to government, governments despise and misunderstand its advantages."

As another political campaign threatens to leverage that misunderstanding into further restrictions on liberty, those insights, based in the logic of liberty, are as valuable as ever.

Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University. He is the author of The Apostle of Peace: The Radical Mind of Leonard Read.


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