Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter five: That Rousseau's Error Comes from His Wanting to Distinguish the Prerogatives of Society from Those of the Government - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
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chapter five: That Rousseau’s Error Comes from His Wanting to Distinguish the Prerogatives of Society from Those of the Government - Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments 
Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003).
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That Rousseau’s Error Comes from His Wanting to Distinguish the Prerogatives of Society from Those of the Government
Rousseau distinguished the prerogatives of society from those of government.31 This distinction is admissible only when the word “government” is understood in a very restricted sense. Rousseau, however, took it in its widest sense, as the bringing together, not only of all properly constituted powers but of all the constitutional ways individuals have for contributing among themselves, in expressing their individual wills, to the formation of the general will.32 According to these stipulations, any citizen  who, in England, elects his representatives, or any Frenchman who, under the Republic, voted in a primary assembly, should be regarded as involved in government. Once the word “government” is taken in this way, any distinction between its prerogatives and those of society itself is rendered illusory and can become in practice an incalculable danger. Society cannot itself exercise the prerogatives bestowed on it by its members. Therefore it delegates them. It sets up what we call a government. From then on any distinction between society’s prerogatives and those of government is an abstraction, a chimera. For on the one hand, if society had a legitimate authority greater than the one it delegated, the part it did not delegate would, by reason of its not being exercisable, be effectively void. A right one cannot exercise oneself, nor delegate to others, is a right which does not exist. On the other hand, the recognition of such rights would inevitably entail the disadvantage that those in whom the delegated part had been invested would inexorably contrive to have the rest delegated to them too. An example will clarify my point. I assume that we recognize—it has often been done—that society has a right to expel a minority part of itself which has given it deep offense. No one attributes this terrible prerogative to the government, but when the latter wants to grab it, what does it do? It identifies the unfortunate minority, at once outlawed and feared, with all life’s difficulties and dangers. It then appeals to the nation. It is not as its prerogative that it seeks to persecute, on mere suspicion, wholly innocent individuals. But it quotes the imprescribable prerogative of the whole society, of the all-powerful majority, of the sovereign nation whose well-being is the highest law. The government can do nothing, it says, but the nation can do everything. And soon the nation speaks. By this I mean that a few men, either low types or madmen, or hirelings, or men consumed with remorse, or terror-struck, set themselves up as its instruments at the same time as they silence it, and proclaim its omnipotence at the same time as they menace it. In this way, by an easy and swift maneuver, the government seizes the real and terrible power previously regarded as the abstract right of the whole society.
There really is a prerogative—when we are speaking abstractly—that the society does possess and does not delegate to the government, namely the right to change the organization of the government itself. To delegate this right would set up a vicious circle, since the government could use it  to transform itself into a tyranny. But this very exception confirms the rule. If society does not delegate this prerogative, neither does it exercise it itself. Just as it would be absurd to delegate it, so it is impossible to exercise it and dangerous to proclaim it.
The people, Rousseau observes, are sovereign in one respect and subject in another.33 In practice, however, the two cases are confused. It is easy for powerful men to oppress the people as their subjects, to force them to manifest in their sovereign role the will which these powerful men are dictating. To achieve this, all that is needed is that the individual members of society be terror-struck and then that a hypocritical homage be rendered to the society en masse.
Thus one can recognize as society’s only those rights which the government can exercise without their becoming dangerous. Sovereignty being an abstract thing and the real thing, the exercise of sovereignty, that is to say, the government, being necessarily delegated to beings of a quite different nature from the sovereign, since they are not abstract beings, we need to take precautionary measures against the sovereign power, because of the nature of those who exercise it, as we would take them in the case of an excessively powerful weapon which might fall into unreliable hands.
[31. ]This criticism could be leveled also at Thomas Paine, who, in Common Sense, says: “Some writers have so confounded society with government as to leave no distinction between them.” Ed. cit., p. 69.
[32. ]It is hard to see to which passage Constant is referring, since in Du contrat social, Livre III, Ch. 1 (éd. cit., p. 396), Rousseau defines government as: “an intermediate body established between the subjects and the sovereign for their mutual dealings, charged with the execution of the laws, with the maintenance of liberty, both civil and political [. . .] I therefore call the legitimate exercise of executive power Government or supreme administration and the man or body charged with carrying out that administration the Prince or magistrate.” See Hoffman’s thesis, Seconde Partie, Ch. 2, pp. 322–323 and n. 53.
[33. ]“. . . each individual, contracting, so to speak, with himself, finds himself involved in a double relationship; namely as a member of the sovereign in relation to private individuals, and as a member of the society in relation to the sovereign.” Du contrat social, Livre I, Ch. 7, éd. cit., p. 362.