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Benjamin Constant distinguished between the Liberty of the Ancients (“the complete subjection of the individual to the authority of the community”) and that of the Moderns (“where individual rights and commerce are respected”) (1816)

In this section of his essay Constant argues that the right to engage in commerce and the protection of property rights which makes this possible is one of the key factors which distinguished modern liberty from ancient liberty:

The effects of commerce extend even further: not only does it emancipate individuals, but, by creating credit, it places authority itself in a position of dependence. Money, says a French writer, ‘is the most dangerous weapon of despotism; yet it is at the same time its most powerful restraint; credit is subject to opinion; force is useless; money hides itself or flees; all the operations of the state are suspended’. Credit did not have the same influence amongst the ancients; their governments were stronger than individuals, while in our time individuals are stronger than the political powers. Wealth is a power which is more readily available in all circumstances, more readily applicable to all interests, and consequently more real and better obeyed. Power threatens; wealth rewards: one eludes power by deceiving it; to obtain the favors of wealth one must serve it: the latter is therefore bound to win.

This reserve on the part of authority, which is one of its strictest duties, equally represents its well-conceived interest; since, if the liberty that suits the moderns is different from that which suited the ancients, the despotism which was possible amongst the ancients is no longer possible amongst the moderns. Because we are often less concerned with political liberty than they could be, and in ordinary circumstances less passionate about it, it may follow that we neglect, sometimes too much and always wrongly, the guarantees which this assures us. But at the same time, as we are much more preoccupied with individual liberty than the ancients, we shall defend it, if it is attacked, with much more skill and persistence; and we have means to defend it which the ancients did not.

Commerce makes the action of arbitrary power over our existence more oppressive than in the past, because, as our speculations are more varied, arbitrary power must multiply itself to reach them. But commerce also makes the action of arbitrary power easier to elude, because it changes the nature of property, which becomes, in virtue of this change, almost impossible to seize.

Commerce confers a new quality on property, circulation. Without circulation, property is merely a usufruct; political authority can always affect usufruct, because it can prevent its enjoyment; but circulation creates an invisible and invincible obstacle to the actions of social power.

The effects of commerce extend even further: not only does it emancipate individuals, but, by creating credit, it places authority itself in a position of dependence. Money, says a French writer, ‘is the most dangerous weapon of despotism; yet it is at the same time its most powerful restraint; credit is subject to opinion; force is useless; money hides itself or flees; all the operations of the state are suspended’. Credit did not have the same influence amongst the ancients; their governments were stronger than individuals, while in our time individuals are stronger than the political powers. Wealth is a power which is more readily available in all circumstances, more readily applicable to all interests, and consequently more real and better obeyed. Power threatens; wealth rewards: one eludes power by deceiving it; to obtain the favors of wealth one must serve it: the latter is therefore bound to win.

As a result, individual existence is less absorbed in political existence. Individuals carry their treasures far away; they take with them all the enjoyments of private life. Commerce has brought nations closer, it has given them customs and habits which are almost identical; the heads of states may be enemies: the peoples are compatriots. Let power therefore resign itself: we must have liberty and we shall have it. But since the liberty we need is different from that of the ancients, it needs a different organization from the one which would suit ancient liberty. In the latter, the more time and energy man dedicated to the exercise of his political rights, the freer he thought himself; on the other hand, in the kind of liberty of which we are capable, the more the exercise of political rights leaves us the time for our private interests, the more precious will liberty be to us.

About this Quotation:

It is interesting to reflect on the context in which this essay was written. In 1816 Napoleon had been defeated for the second time, the economies of Europe had been wasted by 25 years of war, international commerce had been severely disrupted, millions of men had been under arms, hundreds of thousands had been killed or wounded, the French republican experiment had been brought to a close, and the monarchs were re-established in their thrones. In this climate Constant writes this important essay drawing a clear distinction between the liberty of the ancients (formal political liberties for some so long as all other freedoms were under the control of the state) and the liberty of the moderns (representative government, respect of individual rights, the rule of law, and the right to engage in commerce). The right to engage in commerce is central to this essay as Constant and other French liberals of the time believed that Europe had turned an historical corner and that it was entering a new “era of commerce and industry” and leaving behind it the “era of war and despotism” which had come to an ignominious end under Napoleon.

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