Front Page Titles (by Subject) chapter three: On Ideas of Uniformity - Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
chapter three: On Ideas of Uniformity - 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 Ideas of Uniformity
M. de Montesquieu, who in his admirable work grasped almost everything, in a short chapter condemns the ideas of uniformity, but in few words, without enlargement and more by way of drawing the reader’s attention to the subject rather than himself analyzing and exploring it more deeply.
“There are,” he says,3 “certain ideas of uniformity which sometimes lay hold of great minds, witness their appeal to Charlemagne, but infallibly enthuse small ones. These find in them a type of perfection they recognize, because it is impossible not to detect it in them: the same concentration on public order, the same measures in commerce, the same laws in the State, the same religion throughout. Is this always to the good, however, without exception? Is the evil of change always less than the evil of having to endure? Might not the greatness of genius consist in knowing in which cases uniformity is needed and in which cases differences?”
If the author of The Spirit of the Laws had appealed to history, he would easily have shown that absolute uniformity is in several circumstances contrary to the nature both of men and things.
It is clear that different portions of the same people, placed in circumstances, brought up in customs, living in places, which are all dissimilar, cannot be led to absolutely the same manners, usages, practices, and laws, without a coercion which would cost them more than it is worth. The small advantage of offering a smooth surface over which the lofty eye of government can freely stray, without encountering any inequality which offends it or obstructs its view, is only a puny compensation  for the sacrifice of a host of sentiments, memories, local tastes, out of which individual happiness, that is to say, the only real happiness, is composed. The chance which submits to the same government diverse local peoples does not in any way alter the inner mentality of each member of these. The series of ideas, from which their moral being has gradually been formed since their infancy, cannot be modified by a purely nominal, external arrangement, most of the time independent of their will, which has nothing in common with their ways, the private and real source of their griefs and pleasures.
It is by sacrificing everything to exaggerated ideas of uniformity that large States have become a scourge for humanity. To renounce that idealist perfection would be to retain for the large States many of the advantages of small ones and combine these with the advantages deriving from greater size.
For morality, justice, peace, a certain kind of happiness, and all natural affections, small States are preferable to large ones. For external security, which is the guarantee of private happiness, for national independence, without which a State is the plaything or victim of its neighbors, for the enlightenment which is the strongest barrier against oppression, large States have huge advantages over small ones. The mix of economic and political organization being much more varied in these adds greatly to everyday experience. Prejudice dies sooner. The kind of abuse which is reformed swiftly and almost spontaneously in a large State can be kept going forever in a country enclosed within narrow limits. It is because the Roman empire had conquered three-quarters of the world that slavery was destroyed. If that empire had been divided into a multitude of independent States, none would have given the lead with the abolition of slavery, since the immediate advantage to its own detriment this would have given its neighbors would have struck each one of them.4 There are acts of justice capable of enactment only simultaneously and which therefore never happen, because if they happen partially, the most generous become temporarily victims of their generosity.
In recognizing the advantages of large States, however, one must not underestimate their multiple and terrible drawbacks. Their  size requires an activism and force at the heart of government which is difficult to contain and degenerates into despotism. The laws come from a point so far from those to whom they are supposed to apply that the inevitable effect of such distance is serious and frequent error. Local injustices never reach the heart of government. Placed in the capital, it takes the views of its surrounding area or at the very most of its place of residence for those of the whole State. A local or passing circumstance thus becomes the reason for a general law, and the inhabitants of the most distant provinces are suddenly surprised by unexpected innovations, unmerited severity, vexatious regulations, undermining the basis of all their calculations, and all the safeguards of their interests, because two hundred leagues away men who are total strangers to them had some inkling of agitation, divined certain needs, or perceived certain dangers.
I am not even sure whether in terms of prestige, that noble motive of human action, large countries are not fatal. Today small States are scorned as too restrictive a field of action. But a very populous society puts an almost insurmountable barrier in the way of personal distinction. To win the admiration of one’s fellow citizens one must uplift the mass of the people. The larger the country, the heavier that mass. Therefore we see in overlarge countries a small State forming at the center. That small State is the capital. All ambitions go there to vent themselves. Everywhere else is immobile, inert, becalmed.
One could guard against most of these drawbacks by abjuring ideas of conformity or at least by restricting them to a very few objects. The government of a large country must always partake somewhat of the nature of federalism. The rules in this respect are very simple and all start from the principle which is the basis of this book. The management of the affairs of everybody belongs to everybody, that is, to the government instituted by everybody. What touches only a minority should be decided by that minority. What relates only to the individual must be referred only to the individual. It cannot be said too often that the general will is no more worthy than the individual one, when it steps  outside its jurisdiction. Suppose a nation of twenty million souls, split between a number of communes. In each commune, each individual will have interests which concern only him and which should consequently not fall under the jurisdiction of the commune. Others will concern, as well as him, all the people in the commune, and his other interests will be within the communal jurisdiction. These communes, in their turn, will have interests which are their internal business only and other interests which concern the whole society. I appreciate that I am jumping the intermediary stages. The first will be within the competence of the communal legislation, the latter of the general. Uniformity is admissible only for the latter.
Notice that under the idea of interests I include habits. Nothing is more absurd than to claim one can violate men’s habits on the pretext of better directing them in terms of their interests. Their prime interest is happiness, and habits form an essential part of their happiness.
If governments observed these rules, large States would be a better solution in several respects and would cease to be an evil in several others. The capital would cease to be a unique center, destructive of any other centers. It would become a link between diverse centers. Patriotism would be reborn, the patriotism which cannot exist save by attachment to local interests, mores, and customs. Just as man’s nature struggles obstinately, though almost always unsuccessfully, against the no less obstinate errors of government, so one sees this kind of patriotism, the only real kind, reborn from its ashes, once the government stays its hand for an instant. The magistrates of the smallest communes will be delighted to embellish them; their inhabitants will find pleasure in everything which gives them even the deceptive sense of corporate identity and of being brought together by individual links. One feels that if they were not stopped in the development of this innocent inclination, there would soon form in them a kind of communal pride, so to speak, pride in the town and province; and this sentiment would be singularly  favorable to morality. It would also be singularly favorable to the love of the metropolis itself, which would seem the protector and tutelary deity of all the little fatherlands living in the shelter of its power, instead of what it is today, their implacable adversary and ever threatening enemy. How bizarre that those who called themselves ardent friends of freedom have worked relentlessly to destroy the natural basis of patriotism, to replace it with a false passion for an abstract being, for a general idea deprived of everything which strikes the imagination and speaks to memory! How bizarre that to build an edifice, they have begun by crushing and reducing to powder all the materials they needed to use. They almost designated by numbers the different parts of the empire they claimed to be regenerating, as they did so designate the legions intended to defend it, so greatly did they seem to fear that some moral idea might manage to link itself to what they were instituting and upset the uniformity which seemed to them so beautiful and desirable. This strangeness is explained, however, when we reflect that these men were drunk with power. Local interests and memories contain a principle of resistance which government allows only with regret and which it is keen to uproot. It makes even shorter work of individuals. It rolls its immense mass effortlessly over them, as over sand. These individuals furthermore, detached from their native soil, with no contact with the past, living only in a swift-moving present and thrown like atoms on a monotonous plain, take no interest in a fatherland they nowhere perceive and whose totality becomes indifferent to them, because their affection cannot rest on any of its parts. In these large countries where local interests, customs, and habits, treated with contempt, are constantly sacrificed to what are called general considerations, “patriotism,” as M. de Pauw says, “would be a figment of the imagination even if these states were not governed in so despotic a way that no interest could be known there save that of the despot himself.”5 
[B. [Refers to page 322.]]Book XXIX, Ch. 18.
[ D. [Refers to page 326.]]Recherches sur les Grecs, I, 81.
Here is the exact text of Cornelius de Pauw at the point indicated by Constant: “The condition in which Greece was placed made the abolition of slavery there impossible; for it would have been necessary for all the republics in that part of the world to be in exact agreement. . . . And as long as they did not free the helots who were the basis of their power, the other states could not give liberty to the slaves who were equally the basis of theirs.”