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De Lolme on Liberty as equality under the laws (1784)

The Swiss jurist Jean Louis De Lolme (1741-1806) argued that the right to vote was only a means of achieving true liberty, which was the right “quietly to enjoy the produce of (one’s) industry”:

What then is Liberty? Liberty, I would answer, so far as it is possible for it to exist in a Society of Beings whose interests are almost perpetually opposed to each other, consists in this, that, every Man, while he respects the persons of others, and allows them quietly to enjoy the produce of their industry, be certain himself likewise to enjoy the produce of his own industry, and that his person be also secure. But to contribute by one’s suffrage to procure these advantages to the Community,—to have a share in establishing that order, that general arrangement of things, by means of which an individual, lost as it were in the croud, is effectually protected,—to lay down the rules to be observed by those who, being invested with a considerable power, are charged with the defence of individuals, and provide that they should never transgress them,—these are functions, are acts of Government, but not constituent parts of Liberty.

This is not all; for though we should suppose that to give a vote is the essential constituent of liberty, yet, such liberty could only be said to last for a single moment, after which it becomes necessary to trust entirely to the discretion of other persons, that is, according to this doctrine, to be no longer free. It becomes necessary, for instance, for the Citizen who has given his vote, to rely on the honesty of those who collect the suffrages; and more than once have false declarations been made of them.

The Citizen must also trust to other persons for the execution of those things which have been resolved upon in common: and when the assembly shall have separated, and he shall find himself alone, in the presence of the Men who are invested with the public power, of the Consuls, for instance, or of the Dictator, he will have but little security for the continuance of his liberty, if he has only that of having contributed by his suffrage towards enacting a law which they are determined to neglect.

What then is Liberty? Liberty, I would answer, so far as it is possible for it to exist in a Society of Beings whose interests are almost perpetually opposed to each other, consists in this, that, every Man, while he respects the persons of others, and allows them quietly to enjoy the produce of their industry, be certain himself likewise to enjoy the produce of his own industry, and that his person be also secure. But to contribute by one’s suffrage to procure these advantages to the Community,—to have a share in establishing that order, that general arrangement of things, by means of which an individual, lost as it were in the croud, is effectually protected,—to lay down the rules to be observed by those who, being invested with a considerable power, are charged with the defence of individuals, and provide that they should never transgress them,—these are functions, are acts of Government, but not constituent parts of Liberty.

To express the whole in two words: To concur by one’s suffrage in enacting laws, is to enjoy a share, whatever it may be, of Power: to live in a state where the laws are equal for all, and sure to be executed (whatever may be the means by which these advantages are attained) is to be free.

Be it so; we grant that to give one’s suffrage is not liberty itself, but only a means of procuring it, and a means too which may degenerate to mere form; we grant also, that it is possible that other expedients might be found for that purpose, and that, for a Man to decide that a State with whose Government and interior administration he is unacquainted, is a State in which the People are slaves, are nothing, merely because the Comitia of ancient Rome are no longer to be met with in it, is a somewhat precipitate decision. But still we must continue to think, that liberty would be much more complete, if the People at large were expressly called upon to give their opinion concerning the particular provisions by which it is to be secured, and that the English laws, for instance, if they were made by the suffrages of all, would be wiser, more equitable, and, above all, more likely to be executed. To this objection, which is certainly specious, I shall endeavour to give an answer.

About this Quotation:

In his book on The Constitution of England (1784), which the Swiss lawyer admired very much, Jean Louis De Lolme attempted to counter the claims by an increasing number of French and American writers that the right to vote was the key to understanding what liberty was. He warns the supporter of voting that voting for a candidate was only the first step, that one then had to be very wary of what one’s representative did after the election (especially since candidates were notorious for making “false declarations”), that the senior politicians also had their own interests which they might pursue ahead of those of the electorate, that individuals voters often get “lost in the crowd” of all the other voters, and that too often voting ends up “degenerat(ing) to mere form”. True Liberty in De Lolme’s view was an early version of Spencer’s “Law of Equal Liberty”, namely “every Man, while he respects the persons of others, and allows them quietly to enjoy the produce of their industry, (is) certain himself likewise to enjoy the produce of his own industry.”

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