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The Brilliance of Constant

January 9, 2004

2003 was, as most years are, a mixed bag for freedom in the world. But for those who believe that ideas matter, one of the year's brightest spots was the publication of an English translation of Benjamin Constant's 1810 Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments by Liberty Fund

Largely informed by the Scottish Enlightenment, Constant argued for the ideas of classical liberalism in France, defending every aspect of freedom as an organic whole.  And those key arguments are presented in Principles of Politics.  Further, Dennis O'Keefe's fine translation (the first ever English translation of the entire book) shows Constant to be one of the most insightful, erudite, and quotable students of liberty I have ever read.

There is so much excellent material in Principles of Politics that a brief review could not do it justice.  However, the following excerpt from Book XV: The Outcome of Preceding Discussion Relative to the Action of Government, and Book XVII: On the True Principles of Freedom presents its central theme vividly in Constant's own words:

 

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 tall these, had people been left to themselves, less bad and more good would have happened...

 

The governing class create duties for themselves to extend their prerogatives.  Overobliging agents of the nations, they constantly assault its freedom, that is to say, the means of happiness nature has given it, and they do this in the name of rendering it happy...Governments must watch out that nothing trammels our diverse faculties, but must not permit them to take a hand therein.  What would the inhabitants of a house say if the guards they had placed at the gates to stop any strangers from intruding and to calm down any domestic disturbance, gave themselves the rights to control the actions of those inhabitants and to prescribe them a way of life, under the pretext of preventing those intrusions and disturbances...?

 

The 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.

 

The use of penal laws then becomes the most culpable abuse of the right to punish. Rather than extend this terrible right, we should strive to restrain it. Instead of multiplying the number of crimes, we should reduce it...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.

 

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.

 

Principles of Politics merits a space on the bookshelf of every lover of liberty (And Liberty Fund, recognizing its importance, has made it available for a heavily subsidized $12 in paperback).  In it, Constant deals with political authority, law, freedom of thought and religion, property, taxation, war, and more, with liberty as his cornerstone, earning Sir Isaiah Berlin's description of him as Athe most eloquent of all defenders of freedom and privacy.

 

 

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