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A Few Thoughts about Freedom, with an Assist from Benjamin Constant

September 29th, 2013 - 12:16 pm

Constant might have been writing in the ’teens of this century rather then the ‘teens of the 19th.

These elements are prejudices to frighten men, egoism to corrupt them, frivolity to stupefy them, gross pleasures to degrade them, despotism to lead them; and, indispensably, constructive knowledge and exact sciences to serve despotism the more adroitly.

Sound familiar?  Constant ends on an upbeat note:

It would be odd indeed if this were the outcome of forty centuries during which mankind has acquired greater moral and physical means: I cannot believe it. I derive from the differences which distinguish us from antiquity totally different conclusions. It is not security which we must weaken; it is enjoyment which we must extend. It is not political liberty which I wish to renounce; it is civil liberty which I claim, along with other forms of political liberty.of political liberty. Governments, no more than they did before, have the right to arrogate to themselves an illegitimate power.

I would like to share Constant’s incredulity and, hence, his optimism. On alternate Tuesdays, I almost do.  Constant put a lot of store by the liberty power of what he called “commerce.” Surely, the extension of trade brings with it an equal extension of liberty. Well, yes. But also, not always.  Whether Constant is right in his prognostications I do not know.  I feel sure, however, that his diagnosis is correct:

The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily. The holders of authority are only too anxious to encourage us to do so. They are so ready to spare us all sort of troubles, except those of obeying and paying! They will say to us: what, in the end, is the aim of your efforts, the motive of your labors, the object of all your hopes? Is it not happiness? Well, leave this happiness to us and we shall give it to you.

That’s exactly what we have to worry about.

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Top Rated Comments   
I’m not sure how I had escaped this brilliant speech all these years...
Is that an invitation to guess that there's something solid behind Bertie Wooster's bow tie, or a mystery in the air in Colorado Springs that isn't the residue of smoke and ashes?
Tempting...but no.

More important:
If like me you prize quotes from relatively obscure dead thinkers, something to stick on the fridge and help you through the mean years ahead, better to start with Frédéric Bastiat, an upscale contemporary of M. Constant who was less 'nuanced' and a whole lot wittier (thank God!):

When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, [in] time they will create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that sanctifies it.

He said that more than 150 years ago, well before the Federal Register reached 70,000 pages, but it's hard to think of a better description of today's mess -- though we now have to deal with millions of troughers and cowardly lions who are rotten and everywhere..

Violence lies ahead if you truly want to restore our country. Waffling into the wind won't do it. Time to define your roles, gentlemen.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Sorry - can't resist the obvious comment. It's all typically Roger-very-lucid, but I'm confused as to which "ayatollahs and imams" you refer - the ones in Tehran, London, or the White House?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All Comments   (14)
All Comments   (14)
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http://pjmedia.com/rogerkimball/2013/09/29/a-few-thoughts-about-freedom-with-an-assist-from-benjamin-constant/2/?show-at-comment=282729#comment-282729
I cant imagine a better description of the crony capitolism that exists in this country than Bastiat's quote. He would have been appalled by the bailouts of the large banks and the antics of the Koch Brothers as they buy their legislators. It is a shame that we can't read his thoughts on the current situation.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Again the Koch brothers, when Soros is far worse. Mostly the only thing the Koch brothers want is to be left alone to make money with manufacturing. The real bandits are the ones that flock to obama, to get gov handouts, like the bankers, wall street, and the green cronies..
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
What would he say about the likes of Bloomberg and Corzine, directly buying public offices?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
In the ancient world, Constant says, "All private actions were submitted to a severe surveillance".

We once had, not too long ago, a type of surveillance that worked to curtail egregious personal behavior - it was called morality. Through an unspoken understanding of what was acceptable personal behavior and what was not, society was able to discourage citizens from engaging in activities that were destructive to both the society as a whole and the individual. This sort of self-regulation worked until the unholy alliance of commercial culture and unbridled individuality in the '60s created the comfortable, gentle new kind of totalitarianism which prevails now. The culture of totalitarian individuality has homogenized us to a point where what is original and unique, particularly in the arts, is seen as a threat to commerce because those qualities can't be manufactured or mass-produced.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"...The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily...." We, in the US, have given up our 'right to share political power' piecemeal. The acceleration came when we bought into the Cold War. Suddenly the realization that we have lost our entire Constitution is upon us and this country is in a bad way. I hope we find out voices very soon. http://coldwarwarrior.com/
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
The constitution aimed to split the hair between civic and individual liberty with the republican form of government, aided as it ought to have been, by Article V, the 9th and 10th amendments and lo, the power of the jury to nullify along with the power of the grand jury to corral. That is how we can retether the beast of civic liberty gone native.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
All true, and all almost entirely irrelevant in the political system now practiced in the US. The issue is, how, short of bloody constraint, do we get back to these principles?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
I’m not sure how I had escaped this brilliant speech all these years...
Is that an invitation to guess that there's something solid behind Bertie Wooster's bow tie, or a mystery in the air in Colorado Springs that isn't the residue of smoke and ashes?
Tempting...but no.

More important:
If like me you prize quotes from relatively obscure dead thinkers, something to stick on the fridge and help you through the mean years ahead, better to start with Frédéric Bastiat, an upscale contemporary of M. Constant who was less 'nuanced' and a whole lot wittier (thank God!):

When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men in a society, [in] time they will create for themselves a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that sanctifies it.

He said that more than 150 years ago, well before the Federal Register reached 70,000 pages, but it's hard to think of a better description of today's mess -- though we now have to deal with millions of troughers and cowardly lions who are rotten and everywhere..

Violence lies ahead if you truly want to restore our country. Waffling into the wind won't do it. Time to define your roles, gentlemen.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
"I would like to share Constant’s incredulity and, hence, his optimism. On alternate Tuesdays, I almost do. Constant put a lot of store by the liberty power of what he called “commerce.” "

I put great store in this document called the Constitution, and in the eventual recognition of its 10th amendment's full meaning. I hear one prominent idiot couldn't tell it from an inkblot, and surely would have direly been unable to fulfill his duties, had the Peter Principle fully fallen on him.

"The danger of modern liberty is that, absorbed in the enjoyment of our private independence, and in the pursuit of our particular interests, we should surrender our right to share in political power too easily. The holders of authority are only too anxious to encourage us to do so. They are so ready to spare us all sort of troubles, except those of obeying and paying!"

When the national government is held to solely do what a super-majority has commanded it to do, and the states' police power is dissolved to solely what genuinely republican government produces
--what the 10th would do if it were honored--then that obviates most questions of obeying and paying, doesn't it?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Borking lives, as it ought.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Well no. Borking is lying outrageously about a nominee to prevent their success. Telling the truth about Bork's indefensible, grotesque opinions should have stopped him if nominated, and knowing the truth of his opinions should have kept him from being nominated.

Thomas has the correct view of stare decisis and deference to the legislature.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
At the risk of talking politics or religion, I'll mention politics and religion.

I am of the wing of Christian thought that insists that modern history will worsen and end in increasing warefare and ultimately the apocalypse, which will be interrupted from destroying humanity only by Jesus Christ's return. And we don't really need "ayatollahs and imams" for this, but they sure help. Look at Jeremiah 18:18 if you wish, and compare with the western world leaders today.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Sorry - can't resist the obvious comment. It's all typically Roger-very-lucid, but I'm confused as to which "ayatollahs and imams" you refer - the ones in Tehran, London, or the White House?
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Don't forget the "ayatollahs, imams" and voodoo priests in Congress.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
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