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chapter six: On Ideas of Stability - 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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On Ideas of Stability
It is the same with ideas on stability as it is with those on uniformity. They are the source of the greatest and most troublesome mistakes.
There is no doubt that a certain degree of institutional stability may be desirable. There are advantages which develop only with time. Like freedom, habit is a natural need of man. Now, where all stability is lacking, habits cannot take birth. A man who lived fifty years in an inn, forever thinking he was due to leave next day, would learn  only the habit of having none. The idea of the future is an element in habit, no less necessary than the past. A nation which perpetually devoted all its strength to seeking political improvements would neglect all the improvements, individual, moral, and philosophical, which are obtained only through peace, and would sacrifice the end to the means. But for the very reason that institutions are means, they must naturally adapt to the times.
By a common enough misunderstanding, when an institution or a law no longer produces the good it once did, it is thought that to restore its former utility it must be established in what is called its old purity. But when an institution is useful, it is so because it chimes with contemporary ideas and enlightenment. When it degenerates or falls into disuse, it is because it chimes no longer. Its usefulness then ceases. The more you reestablish it in its original purity, the more you render it disproportionate with the rest of things.
The vagueness of words always misleads us. It has often been said that governments must conserve, but what they should conserve has not been said. People have not grasped that it should conserve only guarantees of freedom, of the independence of individual faculties and, to that end, of individual physical safety. The result is that governments have believed, or pretended to, that they must use the authority entrusted to them to conserve a certain body of opinions and practices, sometimes as they found them established, sometimes as people said they had once been. The trend of government has habitually in this sense been in the opposite direction to the nature and ends of the human race. The human race being progressive, everything opposing that progress is dangerous, whether or not the opposition is successful.
When opposition is effective, there is stagnation in human faculties, degradation, prejudice, ignorance, error, and consequently crime and suffering.
If on the contrary the static principle is not decidedly the stronger, there is struggle, violence, convulsions, and disasters.
Upheavals are rightly feared; but people go to the opposite extreme with exaggerated ideas of stability, and these ideas, opposing the progress of things, occasion a  reaction which produces upheavals. The best way of avoiding them is to fall in with the imperceptible changes inevitable in moral as in physical nature.
The exaggerated idea of stability comes from the desire to govern men by prejudices, to inspire in them just on one’s say-so an admiration for ancient things. I much esteem ancient things. I have said so more than once in this book. I esteem them because all interests share in them. Whenever an institution has lasted a long time, unless it has always been maintained by violence, there has been transaction between this institution and the interests having to coexist with it. This transaction itself has, however, modified the institution. This modification is precisely what makes it useful and applicable. To oppose this modification on the grounds of keeping the institution more intact is to take from what is old its most useful character and most precious advantage. The thinking of some writers in this respect is incomprehensible. “When it is impossible for an ancient law to achieve its purpose,” says one of them,15 “this is a clear indication . . . that the moral order contradicts this law too blatantly and, in this case, it is not the law, but mores which must be changed.” Who would not have believed that this author was going to say that the law should be changed? How, moreover, does one change mores?
The French Revolution filled many wise men and all peaceful ones with a great respect for and love of stability. The leaders of that Revolution had begun by declaring that everything must be destroyed, changed, re-created. Their successors had thought themselves no less mandated to proceed with arbitrary destructions and reconstructions. This constantly renewed operation must have led an unhappy, weary nation to want above all any kind of lasting State at all. Hence the admiration for certain peoples seemingly with no purpose save the imposition on the future of eternal institutions and the blocking of all change. This admiration has not always been thoughtful. Historians have sometimes been appreciative of these peoples for their intentions without examining whether they succeeded.
Nothing is more laughable in this respect than an article on China,  by a writer I have already cited.16 Having recognized that there has scarcely been a century without that empire undergoing civil wars, invasions, dismemberments, and conquests, and having admitted that these terrible crises exterminated entire generations each time, “honor,” he exclaims, “to the wise legislators and profound moralists” . . . who have kept all dangerous novelty away from China. And what would novelty have produced more unfortunate? It is true that he adds that these legislators had principles in mind more than people. This is just as Robespierre said: “let the colonies perish, rather than a principle.”
Men are inclined to enthusiasm, or to get drunk on certain words. Provided they repeat these words, the reality matters little to them. Two years of horrible and bloody servitude did not stop the French from dating their acts from the fourth year of liberty. A revolution, a change of dynasty, and two hundred thousand men massacred every hundred years do not discourage the panegyrists of China from vaunting the stability of that empire. This stability does not exist for the governed, since they are periodically slaughtered in huge numbers each time a usurper founds a dynasty. It does not exist for the governing class, since the throne is rarely in the same family for several generations. It does exist for institutions, however, and that is what our political writers admire. It is as if institutional stability were the sole end in view, regardless of human happiness, and the human race here on earth only as a means to this.
[16. ]Antoine Ferrand, op. cit., t. I, p. 456 (1803 edition): “There have been scarcely any centuries for four thousand years when that vast and beautiful empire has not been exposed to civil wars, invasions, conquests, and dismemberments. But it is just this which makes its moral stability most astonishing.” And on p. 457: “Honor must therefore be rendered to the wise legislators and profound moralists, who, in so to speak amalgamating China with its most ancient laws and morals, made them inseparable, and made of this amalgam the most powerful preservative against all dangerous novelty.”
[H. [Refers to page 339.]]Ferrand, Esprit de l’histoire, II, 153.