Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter fifteen: On Laws Which Favor the Accumulation of Property in the Same Hands - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter fifteen: On Laws Which Favor the Accumulation of Property in the Same Hands - 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.
On Laws Which Favor the Accumulation of Property in the Same Hands
The property laws can be of two kinds. They can be intended to favor its accumulation and perpetuate it in the same hands, the same families or individual classes. Such is the origin of lands declared inalienable, of the exempting of certain classes from taxation, of entailments, of primogeniture—in sum, of all the feudal or noble customs.
This legal system, taken in all its extent and the severity it had in the past throughout Europe, takes away from property its true character and greatest advantage. It makes it a privilege. It disinherits the class finding itself without property. It transforms passing chance, which the next moment would have put right, into a permanent injustice. If the country is commercial and industrious, this system of property undermines it, because it forces individuals in commerce or industry to seek refuge or property in a more hospitable country. If the country is purely agricultural, this system brings in the most oppressive despotism. A terrible oligarchy forms. The peasants are reduced to the condition of serfs. The landowners themselves are corrupted by the improprieties which benefit them. They develop a ferocious, almost savage mentality. They need for their perpetuation to banish all enlightenment, to repel all improvement in the poor man’s lot, to oppose the formation of that intermediary class which, bringing together the advantages of education and the absence of prejudices which the privileged condition entails, is among all peoples  the depository of just ideas, of useful knowledge, of impartial opinion and the hopes of humanity.
Today there are few countries where this system continues in its entirety; but almost everywhere we find vestiges of it, not without drawbacks. Such laws, when they are only partial, have, indeed, a new disadvantage. The group forbidden to acquire certain properties is angry at this exclusion, which is anyway always accompanied by other humiliating distinctions, since one abuse never stands alone. The excluded group takes advantage of what it possesses to demand the rights it is denied. It encourages discontent and exaggerated opinions in all nonproprietors. It prepares troubles, struggles, and revolutions to which everybody afterwards falls victim.
In the countries where these oppressive laws continue in undiminished rigor, it has been claimed, as always in such cases, that the classes they oppress recognize the advantages therein. It has been said that serfdom, a natural consequence of this system of property, was felicitous for the peasants and examples were given. Nobles one could suspect of hypocrisy and who should at least be accused of lack of foresight, have offered their vassals freedom. This is to say that they proposed to men brutalized by ignorance, without energy or capability or ideas, that they leave their fields and cabins, to go freely with their infirm parents and children of tender years, in search of a subsistence they had no means of procuring. These vassals preferred their chains, from which it was concluded that serfdom was agreeable. What, however, does such experience show? What we knew, that for men to be given freedom, they must not have been degraded to a subhuman condition by slavery. Then, freedom is doubtless only an illusory and deadly gift, just as the daylight becomes sorrowful for him whose view is enfeebled by the shadows of a dungeon. This truth holds for all types of servitude. Men who have never known freedom’s advantages may well enthusiastically submit to the yoke:  reject their sheepish and deceptive witness. They have no right to make depositions in so holy a cause. As to freedom, listen to those ennobled by its blessings. Only they should be heard, only they consulted.36
I would add that all governments today are working, commendably, to eliminate the last traces of this barbarous legislation. Alexander I is one prince in particular who seems to have brought to the throne the love of humanity and justice and who puts his renown not to driving his people back into barbarism but to preparing them by instruction for freedom, encouraging on his vast lands the freeing of the serfs and the dissemination of landownership.37
The thing about the inalienability of goods is something common to everything human. Its intention was reasonable in the era which gave it birth; but the institution has outlived its usefulness. When there was no public justice and force was the sole guarantee against robbery, this force being found only in sizeable properties, which provided numerous vassals ready to defend their master, the inalienability of property was a means of security. Today, when social conditions are quite different, this inalienability is an evil for agriculture and pointless to boot. The owner of very large properties inevitably neglects a large proportion of his property. As Smith says in The Wealth of Nations, Book III, Ch. 2, to convince oneself of this, one need only compare big estates which have stayed in the same family continuously since the days of feudal anarchy, with the small holdings surrounding them. What is true of States is true of properties. Excessive smallness deprives them of the most efficient means of improvement. Excessive size  makes them liable to careless management, haste, and negligence.38
He who wants to sell proves he lacks the means or motivation for improvement. He who wants to buy proves he has will and means. Entailments and all types of inalienability force the former to keep that which is a burden on him and prevent the latter acquiring what would be advantageous to him. To society this is a double loss, since amelioration of property constitutes national wealth.
We must observe, in finishing this section, that the order of ideas has forced us to invert the facts. It was not at all by way of laws forbidding the wider distribution of property that the feudal oligarchy was established, but by conquest. It was then that this oligarchy, to perpetuate itself, had recourse to these prohibitive laws. Thus it would be wrong to fear a like result from proprietorial government. This government, when it rests on the principles established above,39 will stay true to them because proprietors have no interest in replacing the legitimate enjoyment they are assured of by property they know they can guard, if they so choose, by impediments which would add nothing to their enjoyment and offend their wishes. Proprietorial government has nowhere produced a feudal one; rather, feudal government has corrupted proprietorial government.
[36. ]For once, Constant agrees with Rousseau, who declared in his Discours sur l’origine et les fondements de l’inégalité parmi les hommes: “It is not, therefore, by the degradation of enslaved peoples that the natural disposition of man for or against servitude should be judged, but by the huge efforts made by all free peoples to guarantee themselves against oppression . . . I feel that it is not for slaves to reason on freedom.” Oeuvres complètes, éd. cit., t. III, pp. 181–182.
[37. ]On the reform projects of Alexander I, see the letter from F.-C. de La Harpe to the Emperor on 16 October 1801, in Correspondance de Frédéric-César de La Harpe et Alexandre Ier, published by Jean-Charles Biaudet and Françoise Nicod, t. I, 1785–1802, Neuchâtel, La Baconnière, 1978, pp. 316–330.
[38. ]Adam Smith, op. cit., t. II, p. 421. “There are still today, in each of the United Kingdoms, these great estates which have remained, without interruption, in the same family, since the time of feudal anarchy. One only has to compare the present state of these domains with the possessions of neighboring small proprietors, to judge, without other argument, how little such extensive holdings are favorable to progressive cultivation.”
[39. ]In Ch. 14 of this same Book X, On the Action of Government on Property.