Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter four: On Safeguards against the War Mania of Governments - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter four: On Safeguards against the War Mania of Governments - 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:
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
On Safeguards against the War Mania of Governments
We ought now to indicate some safeguards against the unjust or pointless wars which governments may undertake,  since, in the present state of society, those undertakings which are great evils in themselves also lead to all the other ills. But general maxims would be inadequate and reflections on constitutional limits which can be assigned to government would take us beyond the boundaries of this work.
Nothing is easier to judge in the light of reason than the measures of government in relation to war. Public opinion is always accurate enough in this matter because the interest of one and all speaks out loud and clear on this question. Everyone thinks war is a fatal thing. Everyone also feels that cowardly patience when foreigners hurt or insult us, inviting them to become doubly vainglorious and unfair, sooner or later brings the war we wanted to avoid, and that once hostilities have begun, arms cannot be put down until we have acquired solid safeguards for the future, since a shameful peace is only a cause of new wars with less favorable prospects. But just as public opinion is infallible on this question, so it is impossible to prescribe or determine anything in advance.
To say we must confine ourselves to defensive wars is to say nothing. It is easy for governments to insult or menace their neighbors to such an extent that they feel bound to attack, and in this case the guilty party is not the aggressor, but the one who, joining treachery to violence, forced the other to aggression. Thus defense can sometimes be only adroit hypocrisy while attack may become a legitimate defensive precaution. One can affirm that any war which national feeling disapproves of is unjust; but no means exist for ascertaining this national feeling. Governments alone have the floor. They can seize the press exclusively, and their creatures and writers, speaking in the name of a silent, repressed people, form a concert of artificial agreement which prevents real public opinion from making itself heard.
As for the nations which enjoy political freedom, we would probably find in the public discussions of political assemblies, in the consent to taxes or their refusal, in ministerial responsibility, means of checking abuses relating to war, in a way which, if not satisfactory, is at least generally useful and such as to prevent the worst excesses. Furthermore, we would find,  on close inspection, that these guarantees are too often illusory, that it is always easy for the executive power to start a war, that the legislative power is then forced to support it against foreigners the executive has provoked, that if, in propping up that executive, the legislature engages in censure, the enemy will be encouraged by this disagreement between the branches of government, that the armed forces will be less ardent in a war disapproved of by the nation’s representatives, that the people will cooperate less by way of pecuniary sacrifices, that the government, feeling itself accused, will bring to its operations less decisiveness, less certainty, less speed, that the hostile claims will get larger, that peace will become more difficult to conclude, simply because the war will have fallen under public disapprobation. I do not mean that there is no remedy for these drawbacks. On the contrary, I think it would be possible to indicate one, the seed of which is present in several nations, though it does not yet exist completely in any single one. We could not examine this issue here, however, without distorting this book totally. We have kept separate from it everything concerning political freedom, and we would find ourselves drawn by it into all the discussions about constitutions. For all questions of this sort hold tightly together. For a constitution to work in one respect, it has to do so for all the others.
You may believe that a representative assembly can stop the executive power in its military undertakings. For a representative assembly to impose its will on the executive power, however, it must derive its commission from a legitimate source, it must be armed with prerogatives and encircled with guarantees which put its independence beyond all danger. If it is armed with extensive prerogatives, it must also at the same time be contained in its acts and checked in its excesses, since an unrestrained assembly is more dangerous than the most absolute despot. Thus from whatever part of the circle you start, you will be forced to go around it entirely before arriving at a satisfactory result.
I will make one reflection only on political constitutions, because I am not aware that any such reflection has ever been made. Some modern writers claim that the institutions which limit and separate the powers are only misleading formalities which governments skillfully elude. Even if this were true, these formalities would still be useful. Governments obliged to elude them have less time to devote to foreign undertakings. They are  too busy at home to be looking outside for some meretricious occupation. Despots keep their subjects in far-off wars to distract them from domestic matters. People who want to enjoy some peace must give government something to do at home, so as not to be precipitated by its idleness and ambition into the calamities of war.
I will add that I am far from agreeing that the institutions protecting freedom are only worthless formalities. They give citizens a great feeling of their importance, a great enjoyment of this feeling, and a lively interest in the prosperity of the State. In this way, independently of their direct advantages, they are advantageous in creating and maintaining public spirit. This public spirit is the only effective guarantee. It is based in public opinion; it penetrates the offices of ministers; it modifies or stops their projects without their knowing. But take good note that this public spirit comes much more from the organization of government than from its actions. An absolute government under a virtuous despot can be very gentle without creating any public spirit. A limited government may, under a bad prince, be very vexatious despite its limits, yet for all that the public spirit will not be destroyed. But, I repeat: all these things are foreign to our topic.