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