Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter three: Are Governors Necessarily Less Liable to Error Than the Governed? - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter three: Are Governors Necessarily Less Liable to Error Than the Governed? - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Are Governors Necessarily Less Liable to Error Than the Governed?
It is easy to affirm that light has to come from elevated places and that an enlightened government must lead the masses. Writing these words, one is conceiving government as an abstract being, made up of all that is finest, most learned, and wisest in a nation. But this idea of government which people devise for themselves contains a confused sense of historical period and a petitio principii. Historical eras are confused in that such people do not distinguish barbarous nations from civilized ones. No doubt when some clan possessing only the crudest notions indispensable to physical survival comes, by way of conquest or any other means, under a government which acquaints it with the first elements of civilization, then the members of that government are more educated than those they govern. Thus we can hold Cecrops, if he existed, more enlightened than the Athenians, Numa than the Romans, Mahomet than the Arabs. But to apply this thinking to a civilized society seems to me a great error. In such a society, there are many who become enlightened, it is true, only with the greatest difficulty, working, as they do in the nature of things, in mechanical occupations. The governors are incontestably superior to them. There is also an educated class, however, of which the governors are a part, and only a very small part. The comparison must not be made between the uneducated classes and the governing group, but between the governors and the educated class. The latter must instruct and direct the rest of the nation. But we must distinguish its influence as enlightened from that of a fraction of itself as the government. When the question is posed in this way, it involves a petitio principii to attribute to governments the superiority of enlightenment. It jumps over without examining a prime difficulty which occurs in the formation of governments. Governments can be formed in three ways: by heredity, by election, and by force. We say nothing of this last way. In practice it is not likely to be attacked, because it has the advantage of being able to impose silence. Neither, however, would one take it into one’s head to justify it in principle.
 When hereditary monarchy rested on divine right, the very mystery which sanctioned this theocratic institution was able to invest the monarch with superior enlightenment, like some gift from heaven. We find just this attitude in the memoirs written by Louis XIV.6 Nowadays, however, when governments rest on purely human bases, this religious justification is not admissible. Heredity presents us only with a succession of governors brought up to power, and our experience of what results from the two elements of chance and flattery is almost too abundant. Election gives governments the sanction of popular opinion. Is this sanction, however, a guarantee of an enlightenment exclusive to those invested with power? The writers who claim so describe a most singular circle. When someone allows himself some doubt on the excellence of the governing group, the people’s choice seems to them an unanswerable reply to these insulting doubts. In this part of their intellectual schema the people are therefore infallible. Let anyone demand, however, the same people’s right to look after their own interests and opinions, and such writers will say this control belongs to the government. This second part of the schema declares the people incapable of proceeding on their own, without falling into error after error. Thus by some prodigy or other  an ignoble, ridiculous, degraded, and stupid rabble, which cannot behave itself, and which needs endless guidance, suddenly becomes enlightened for a unique and unrepeatable moment, in which it can appoint or accept its leaders, before immediately falling back into blindness and ignorance. The people, as first Machiavelli and later Montesquieu show, almost always make good choices as to specific officeholders. But the very arguments of these writers demonstrate that if we are to make sure that the people’s choice is a good one, the duties they confer have to be very definitely circumscribed, confined within precise limits. “The people,” says Montesquieu,7 “are admirable when it comes to choosing those on whom they have to confer some part of their authority. They know very well that a man has often been to the wars, with such and such a success. They are thus very capable of electing a general. They know that a judge is assiduous, that many people leave his courtroom very pleased with him and that he has not been convicted of corruption. They are well able to elect a senior magistrate therefore. Say they have been struck by the opulence and wealth of a certain citizen. That equips them to make him a town councillor. They have only to make their mind up for reasons they cannot be ignorant of and with regard to self-evident facts.” It will be seen that all the examples M. de Montesquieu rests on, apply only to the functions of political authority kept to a strict minimum. It is the same with what Machiavelli says.8 Men, he observes, although liable to get things generally wrong, do not get them wrong in their particulars. But to ask the people to appoint the government, if its members do anything more than punish crimes and repel invasions, if, that is, such governors arrogate to themselves jurisdiction over public opinion, over enlightenment, over unimportant actions, over property, over industry, in a word, over everything, then the people are no longer being asked to pronounce on the particular but on the general. The people’s choice, when it is a free one and the times are untroubled, speaks in favor of the particular talent of the man to whom it entrusts a specific task. The people appreciate a judge by his judgments, a general by his victories. When, however, it comes to indefinite power, bearing on things which are vague, or arbitrary, or without clear limits, the people’s choice proves nothing. In such a situation they do not have anterior facts or self-evident facts on the basis of which to make up their mind. The people’s choice naturally destines  men of the educated class to political office. But there is no chance that these representatives of the people will be intellectually superior to the rest of their class. Their opinions will be at the level of ideas in the widest circulation. For this very reason they will be excellent at maintaining the society, at negative protection. They will be useless at leadership. For upholding and conserving purposes, the general level suffices. Leadership demands something higher. If you suppose, says Condorcet in the first of his Five Commentaries on Public Education (page 55), that the government is more enlightened than the mass, you must also suppose it less enlightened than lots of individuals.9 We will add that the qualities which lend authority to a government founded on popular choice are always more or less mutually exclusive of those other qualities particularly relevant to the spread of enlightenment. To gain the confidence of the great mass of the people calls for tenacious ideas, a one-sidedness in opinion, a positive way of seeing things and acting, more force than finesse, and greater quickness in grasping the whole picture than subtlety in discerning the details. These things are excellent for purposes of repression and surveillance, for everything in the functions of government which is set, established, or precise. But carried over to the world of intelligence, opinion, enlightenment, or morality, they have about them something primitive, inflexible, and coarse, which goes against the aim of improvement or the perfecting of things one has in view. There is one other thought which must not escape us. There is something about power which more or less warps judgment. Force is far more liable to error than  weakness is. Force finds resources in itself. Weakness needs thought. All things equal, it is always likely that the governors will have views which are less just, less sound, and less impartial than those of the governed. Suppose there are two equally enlightened men, one in power, the other a plain citizen. Do you not feel that the first, endlessly called upon to act, more or less compromised in his actions, in a more exposed position, will have less time to reflect, more reason to persist, and thus more chance of mistakes than the second, who can reflect at leisure, is not pledged to any line, has no reason to defend a wrong idea, has compromised neither his power, nor safety, nor self-esteem, and who finally, if he does embrace that wrong idea passionately, has no way of making it prevail? The chances of mistakes by government ministers are not a reason for putting in doubt the need for the functions of government, in matters of security, internal or external. These functions being a proven necessity, an authority must at all cost be set up to exercise them and run the risk of its mistakes. These are anyway not very dangerous. There is nothing simpler than the questions on which these functions of government call it to pronounce. To preserve the State from enemy invasions, the law must decree that responsible agents will keep an eye on the movements of foreigners and that a body of men will be ready to move at a given signal. To maintain good internal order the law must lay down that particular crimes will be followed by particular punishments. To defray the costs of these two objectives, the law must decree that each citizen will supply the public funds with a given proportion of his wealth. These functions demand from government only the common intelligence and enlightenment vouchsafed by the upbringing of most of the educated class. It is not the same with the numberless, unlimited functions which the government must assume when it exceeds these limits. It is at once less necessary that these new functions should be fulfilled, more difficult to do them well, and more dangerous if they are done badly. They do not have the same  sanction as the necessary functions. Utility is their only claim. Now, this utility rests only on the supposed superior qualities of the governors over the governed. When the only thing we have shown is that this superiority is doubtful, this constitutes for me an irrefutable objection to these functions. Terminology has been behind most false ideas. Impersonal verbs have misled political writers. They thought they were saying something when they said there has to be direction of men’s opinions. One must not abandon men to their erratic minds. There has to be an impact on thought. There are opinions men can usefully take advantage of in order to deceive others. But these words—there has to be, one must, one must not—do not these refer to men too? You would think the talk were about another species. All the sentences which deceive us here, however, come down to saying: men must control the views of men. Men must not leave other men to their erratic thoughts. Men can usefully exploit opinions in order to deceive men. Impersonal verbs seem to have persuaded our philosophers that there is something else besides men in governing groups.
We can reply to those who want to subject the intelligence of the many to that of the few what a famous Roman said to his son when the latter proposed to take a town, with the sacrifice of three hundred soldiers. Would you care to be one of this three hundred? And it should also be added that it is not certain that the town will be taken.10
[6. ]Mémoires de Louis XIV écrits par lui-même, composés pour le Grand Dauphin, son fils et adressés a ce Prince . . . , edited and published by J. L. M. de Gain-Montagnac, Paris, Garnery et H. Nicolle, 1806, 2 vol. Constant comes back to these Mémoires later on (especially pp. 391–393). They had appeared in February 1806 (as is shown by an order by Napoleon to Cambacérès on 24 February 1806, Correspondance de Napoléon Ier . . . , Paris, 1862, t. XII, p. 117). On 27 March Constant writes to Claude Hochet: “This morning I began the Mémoires of Louis XIV. I find it very hard to believe that it can all be his. There are sentences of the man of letters type. Although I am still on the thirtieth page only, I have already noticed several, among others one on the finer points of the love of glory, where there is an if I may be so bold as to say and an affectation which absolutely smack of the writer, not of the king. I do not call into question the authenticity of the Mémoires but their organization and modern editing. The theory of despotism expounded in them rather well, rests as always on the petitio principii these gentlemen always use. They assume the only alternative is between the despotism of a single man and that of several and they conclude that the former is better. No doubt, but we could have neither the one nor the other.” Benjamin Constant and Madame de Staël, Lettres à un ami. Cent onze lettres inédites à Claude Hochet, published and with an introduction and notes by Jean Mistler, Neuchâtel, La Baconnière (1949), pp. 116–117. Constant’s Journal intime records the reading of the Mémoires of Louis XIV on 28 March 1806 (and not the 27th, as the letter to Hochet suggests). Contrary to what Alfred Roulin thought (Benjamin Constant, Oeuvres, Paris, Gallimard, 1957, p. 1531, n. 2 of p. 568), Benjamin had indeed read the text of these Mémoires and not just the extracts which appeared in the Mercure de France.
[9. ]Constant is interpreting rather than quoting Condorcet’s thought here. Here is the text he is referring to, Bibliothèque de l’homme public, 2e année, t. I, Paris, Boisson, 1791, p. 55: “There is all the more reason government must not give its opinions as the basis of instruction, in that it cannot be regarded as attaining the level of the best minds of the century in which it operates. The holders of power will always be at a more or less great distance from the point arrived at by those intelligences destined to raise the body of enlightenment. Even were some men of genius to be numbered among those who exercise power, they could never attain, at all times, a preponderance which would permit them to apply in practice the results of their meditations. This trust in a deep thought whose direction one cannot discern, this willing submission to talent, this homage to fame, all cost too much in terms of self-esteem to become, at least for long, lasting sentiments, rather than a sort of forced obedience due to pressure of circumstances and reserved for times of danger and strife.”
[10. ]Hofmann failed to find the source of this anecdote.
Ed. cit., p. 533. The last sentence quoted by Constant has been displaced. In the original it comes immediately after the first sentence: “The people . . . a part of their authority.” Moreover, he has replaced the word “things” in the last sentence by “reasons” (French “motifs”).
Machiavelli, Discours sur la première décade de Tite-Live. Constant in fact quotes the actual title of Ch. 47: Que les hommes, quoique sujets à se tromper dans les affaires générales, ne se trompent pas dans les particulières. Machiavelli, Oeuvres complètes, text presented and annotated by Edmond Barincou, Paris, Gallimard, 1952, p. 480 (Bibliothèque de la Pléiade).