John Stuart Mill was convinced he was
living in a time when he would experience an explosion of classical
liberal reform because “the spirit of the age” had dramatically
In an essay which John Stuart Mill (1806 – 1873) wrote in 1831 at the age of 26 he confidently announces that “the spirit of the age” in which he lived would bring about revolutionary changes because men had suddenly “insisted on being governed in a new way”:
Each week we post a quotation about Liberty and Power which is taken from the collection of titles in the Online Library of Liberty. Its aim is to explore what key thinkers have to say about some aspect of man’s struggle for liberty against the individuals and institutions which sought to tax, regulate, control, enslave, conscript, or kill him. After eight years this collection of quotations provides a valuable resource which shows the diversity and richness of these texts. The topics and texts selected for the quotations reflect a number of factors: the arrival of new titles to go online, suggestions by colleagues, reaction to contemporary events, and a general exploration of the material. The quotations are organized by topic and the date of their first appearance of the quotation is provided to the right of its title. The passages in bold text are the extracts of the quotation which appeared on the front page of the OLL website.
At the end of 2012 there were 391 quotations in this collection covering 27 themes and two special topics.
Colonies, Slavery & Abolition | Economics | Education | Food & Drink | Free Trade | Freedom of Speech | Law | Liberty | Literature & Music | Money & Banking | Natural Rights | Odds & Ends | Origin of Government | Parties & Elections | Philosophy | Politics & Liberty | Presidents, Kings, Tyrants, & Despots | Property Rights | Religion & Toleration | Revolution | Science | Socialism & Interventionism | Sport and Liberty | Taxation | The State | War & Peace | Women's Rights
The full list of Quotations listed by theme can be found here </quotes/275>. Below is a sample of these:
For Presidents Day February 20, 2012 we compiled a selection of quotations about "Presidents, Kings, Tyrants, & Despots" from the Online Library of Liberty Collection. The lead quote was from Thomas Jefferson who feared that it would only be a matter of time before the American system of government degenerated into a form of “elective despotism” (1785). He warned that citizens should act now in order to make sure that “the wolf [was kept] out of the fold”:
Mankind soon learn to make interested uses of every right and power which they possess, or may assume. The public money and public liberty, intended to have been deposited with three branches of magistracy, but found inadvertently to be in the hands of one only, will soon be discovered to be sources of wealth and dominion to those who hold them… They [the assembly] should look forward to a time, and that not a distant one, when a corruption in this, as in the country from which we derive our origin, will have seized the heads of government, and be spread by them through the body of the people; when they will purchase the voices of the people, and make them pay the price. Human nature is the same on every side of the Atlantic, and will be alike influenced by the same causes. The time to guard against corruption and tyranny, is before they shall have gotten hold of us. It is better to keep the wolf out of the fold, than to trust to drawing his teeth and talons after he shall have entered.
The full quote can be found here </quotes/237>. The other featured quotes wre the following:
We selected 12 quotations from the collection of texts in the Online Library of Liberty which deal with the theme of "peace on earth and goodwill towards men" for the holiday season of 2012. A new quotation was posted on each of the 12 daysbeginning with Christmas day. We started with the source of the original quotation from the New Testament, the Gospel of Luke chapter 2 verse 14, "Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men," and then followed it with a new quotation each day. The quote for Christmas day itself comes from a letter by Jan Huss which was to be read out on Christmas Day to his supporters in Prague in 1412. Thereafter the quotes are in chronological order.
The quotations for the 12 Days of Christmas:
William Blackstone declares unequivocally that slavery is “repugnant to reason, and the principles of natural law” and
that it has no place in English law (1753)
There is some debate among historians whether or not Blackstone watered down his condemnation of slavery in later editions of his Commentaries as opinions polarised in England at the time of the Somerset case (1772). Nevertheless, in the edition we have online Blackstone has a two pronged set of arguments against slavery: firstly that traditional arguments in its favor are wrong (the right of capture in war, selling oneself into slavery); and secondly, that it historically has had no place in English law and that in fact “The law of England acts upon general and extensive principles: it gives liberty, rightly understood, that is, protection, to a Jew, a Turk, or a heathen, as well as to those who profess the true religion of Christ.” End of argument.
Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books. Notes selected from the editions of Archibold, Christian, Coleridge, Chitty, Stewart, Kerr, and others, Barron Field’s Analysis, and Additional Notes, and a Life of the Author by George Sharswood. In Two Volumes. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1893). Vol. 1 - Books I & II. Chapter: CHAPTER XIV.: OF MASTER AND SERVANT.
Sir William Blackstone (1723-1780), the great English jurist, in his Commentaries of the Laws of England (1753) believed that slavery was "repugnant to reason, and the principles of natural law" and thus had no standing under English law:
I. As to the several sorts of servants: I have formerly observed(a) that pure and proper slavery does not, nay, cannot, subsist in England: such, I mean, whereby an absolute and unlimited power is given to the master over the life and fortune of the slave. And indeed it is repugnant to reason, and the principles of natural law, that such a state should subsist anywhere. The three origins of the right of slavery assigned by Justinian(b) are all of them built upon false foundations.(c) As, first, slavery is held to arise “jure gentium,” from a state of captivity in war; whence slaves are called mancipia, quasi manu capti. The conqueror, say the civilians, had a right to the life of his captive; and, having spared that, has a right to deal with him as he pleases. But it is an untrue position, when taken generally, that by the law of nature, or nations, a man may kill his enemy: he has only a right to kill him, in particular cases: in cases of absolute necessity, for self-defence; and it is plain this absolute necessity did not subsist, since the victor did not actually kill him, but made him prisoner. War is itself justifiable only on principles of self-preservation; and therefore it gives no other right over prisoners but merely to disable them from doing harm to us, by confining their persons: much less can it give a right to kill, torture, abuse, plunder, or even to enslave, an enemy, when the war is over. Since therefore the right of making slaves by captivity depends on a supposed right of slaughter, that foundation failing, the consequence drawn from it must fail likewise. But, secondly, it is said that slavery may begin “jure civili;” when one man sells himself to another. This, if only meant of contracts to serve or work for another, is very just: but when applied to strict slavery, in the sense of the laws of old Rome or modern Barbary, is also impossible. Every sale implies a price, a quid pro quo, an equivalent given to the seller in lieu of what he transfers to the buyer: but what equivalent can be given for life and liberty, both of which, in absolute slavery, are held to be in the master’s disposal? His property also, the very price he seems to receive, devolves ipso facto to his master, the instant he becomes his slave. In this case therefore the buyer gives nothing, and the seller receives nothing: of what validity then can a sale be, which destroys the very principles upon which all sales are founded? Lastly, we are told, that besides these two ways by which slaves “fiunt,” or are acquired, they may also be hereditary: “servi nascuntur;” the children of acquired slaves are jure naturæ, by a negative kind of birthright, slaves also. But this, being built on the two former rights, must fall together with them. If neither captivity nor the sale of one’s self, can by the law of nature and reason reduce the parent to slavery, much less can they reduce the offspring.
Upon these principles the law of England abhors, and will not endure the existence of, slavery within this nation; so that when an attempt was made to introduce it, by statute 1 Edw. VI. c. 3, which ordained, that all idle vagabonds should be made slaves, and fed upon bread and water, or small drink, and refuse meat; should wear a ring of iron round their necks, arms, or legs; and should be compelled, by beating, chaining, or otherwise, to perform the work assigned them, were it never so vile; the spirit of the nation could not brook this condition, even in the most abandoned rogues; and therefore this statute was repealed in two years afterwards.(d) And now it is laid down,(e) that a slave or negro, the instant he lands in England, becomes a freeman; that is, the law will protect him in the enjoyment of his person, and his property. Yet, with regard to any right which the master may have lawfully acquired to the perpetual service of John or Thomas, this will remain exactly in the same state as before: for this is no more than the same state of subjection for life, which every apprentice submits to for the space of seven years, or sometimes for a longer term. Hence too it follows, that the infamous and unchristian practice of withholding baptism from negro servants, lest they should thereby gain their liberty, is totally without foundation, as well as without excuse. The law of England acts upon general and extensive principles: it gives liberty, rightly understood, that is, protection, to a Jew, a Turk, or a heathen, as well as to those who profess the true religion of Christ; and it will not dissolve a civil obligation between master and servant, on account of the alteration of faith in either of the parties: but the slave is entitled to the same protection in England before, as after, baptism; and, whatever service the heathen negro owed of right to his American master, by general not by local law, the same, whatever it be, is he bound to render when brought to England and made a Christian.
Kirzner defines economics as the reconciliation of conflicting ends given the existence of inescapable scarcity (1960)
2010 is the 50th anniversary of the publication of this path-breaking book by Israel Kirzner on The Economic point of View (1960). Kirzner was a student of the great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises and he brings to the study of what economics actually is a much needed historical perspective. By examining the evolution of what economists thought they were studying he is able to show what was far too often a certain narrowness of perspective, focusing on a single issue such as wealth, trade, or welfare. The great insight of the Lionel Robbins in England and Ludwig von Mises in Austria and then America was the need to make the discipline of economics much more abstract and general by focusing on the nature of human action itself in order to understand the deeper reasons for exchange in a world of inevitable scarcity.
Israel M. Kirzner, The Economic Point of View: An Essay in the History of Economic Thought, ed. with an Introduction by Laurence S. Moss (Kansas City: Sheed Andrews McMeel, 1976). Chapter: Twentieth–Century Economic Points of View.
The Austrian economist Israel Kirzner (b. 1930) argues that to understand economics as the investigation of a particular aspect of society, such as wealth or welfare, is mistaken. Rather it is the study of much more general and abstract matters such as conflicting ends and the inescapable scarcity of means:
Fraser has classified definitions of economics into Type A definitions and Type B definitions. Type A definitions consider economics as investigating a particular department of affairs, while Type B definitions see it as concerned with a particular aspect of affairs in general. The specific department singled out by Type A definitions has usually been wealth or material welfare. The aspect referred to in Type B definitions is the constraint that social phenomena uniformly reveal in the necessity to reconcile numerous conflicting ends under the shadow of an inescapable scarcity of means.
During the twentieth century two distinct trends are visible in the definitions of the economic point of view. On the one hand, a transition from Type A to Type B definitions has been vigorously carried forward. On the other hand, there has been a pronounced movement toward the denial of any distinctly economic point of view whatsoever, and the consequent conviction that all attempts to present such a point of view with clarity must be a waste of time.
It will be seen in subsequent chapters that the classification of definitions of the economic point of view into Types A and B is far from an exhaustive one. The voluminous literature since the turn of the century dealing with the problem of definition reveals, indeed, the entire range of formulations that are discussed in this essay. Nevertheless, it remains true that the most outstanding development in the history of the problem is the switch from the search for a department of human affairs to which the adjective “economic” applies, to the search for the appropriate aspect of affairs in which economic concepts are of relevance. (It should be noticed that almost all the numerous formulations of the specific point of view of economic science are considered by their authors, not as describing a new science, but as offering a more consistent characterization of the existing discipline.) The emergence of the Type B definitions is reflected in a considerable body of literature on the continent as well as in the English–speaking countries. Type A definitions are treated in the second chapter of this essay, and the transition to Type B definitions is traced in the sixth chapter. Type B definitions are associated especially with the name of Professor Robbins, whose work of 1930 has had an outstandingly stimulating effect on all subsequent discussions.
The final chapter of this essay traces the further development, in recent decades, of this trend away from the association of economics with specific “ends” or a specific department of human affairs. In this development the work of Robbins has been consistently pursued to what appears to the writer to be the most adequate solution of the problem. The developments described in this final chapter are made up of the contributions of several eminent economists, including Mises and Knight. These writers in no way constitute a “school,” and although in this essay the developments of the final chapter are described as “praxeological” (following Mises’ terminology), it is not to be understood that all the writers cited in that chapter fully subscribe to what is here called the praxeological outlook. It is maintained, however, that the consistent and refined development of the ideas first brought to a focus in the Type B definition constitutes a distinct contribution to the history of the problem. The path–breaking work of Mises in this regard has a significance that, in the writer’s opinion, has not been sufficiently recognized because it has not yet been brought into historical perspective.
The ex-slave Frederick Douglass reveals that reading speeches by English politicians produced in him a deep love of liberty and hatred of oppression (1882)
It is no wonder that slave owners did whatever they could to prevent slaves from learning to read. As Frederick’s Douglass’ autobiography shows he was able to put words and ideas to his love of freedom and his hatred of oppression by reading English authors like Sheridan and politicians like Pitt. As he eloquently states because of his reading and thinking “Light had penetrated the moral dungeon where I had lain.” Many other slaves read the Bible and found stories of the Israelites’ oppression by the Egyptians just as inspiring and relevant to their condition.
Frederick Douglass, The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass: From 1817-1882, written by himself; with an Introduction by the Right Hon. John Bright, ed. John Lobb (London: Christian Age Office, 1882). Chapter: CHAPTER XI.: GROWING IN KNOWLEDGE.
In his biography, the ex-slave Frederick Douglass recalls how a book of speeches by famous English authors and politicians inspired in him a love of liberty:
When I was about thirteen years old, and had succeeded in learning to read, every increase of knowledge, especially anything respecting the Free States, was an additional weight to the almost intolerable burden of my thought—“I am a slave for life.” To my bondage I could see no end. It was a terrible reality, and I shall never be able to tell how sadly that thought chafed my young spirit. Fortunately, or unfortunately, I had earned a little money in blacking boots for some gentlemen, with which I purchased of Mr. Knight, on Thames street, what was then a very popular school-book, viz., “The Columbian Orator,” for which I paid fifty cents. I was led to buy this book by hearing some little boys say they were going to learn some pieces out of it for recitation. This volume was indeed a rich treasure, and every opportunity afforded me, for a time, was spent in diligently perusing it. Among much other interesting matter, that which I read again and again, with unflagging satisfaction, was a short dialogue between a master and his slave. The slave is represented as having been recaptured in a second attempt to run away; and the master opens the dialogue with an upbraiding speech, charging the slave with ingratitude, and demanding to know what he has to say in his own defence. Thus upbraided, and thus called upon to reply, the slave rejoins that he knows how little anything that he can say will avail, seeing that he is completely in the hands of his owner; and with noble resolution, calmly says, “I submit to my fate.” Touched by the slave’s answer, the master insists upon his further speaking, and recapitulates the many acts of kindness which he has performed toward the slave, and tells him he is permitted to speak for himself. Thus invited, the quondam slave makes a spirited defence of himself, and thereafter the whole argument for and against slavery is brought out. The master is vanquished at every turn in the argument, and appreciating the fact, he generously and meekly emancipates the slave, with his best wishes for his prosperity. It is unnecessary to say that a dialogue with such an origin and such an end, read by me when every nerve of my being was in revolt at my own condition as a slave, affected me most powerfully. I could not help feeling that the day might yet come, when the well-directed answers made by the slave to the master, in this instance, would find a counterpart in my own experience. This however, was not all the fanaticism which I found in the Columbian Orator. I met there one of Sheridan’s mighty speeches, on the subject of Catholic Emancipation, Lord Chatham’s speech on the American War, and speeches by the great William Pitt, and by Fox. These were all choice documents to me, and I read them over and over again, with an interest ever increasing, because it was ever gaining in intelligence; for the more I read them the better I understood them. The reading of these speeches added much to my limited stock of language, and enabled me to give tongue to many interesting thoughts which had often flashed through my mind and died away for want of words in which to give them utterance. The mighty power and heart-searching directness of truth penetrating the heart of a slave-holder, compelling him to yield up his earthly interests to the claims of eternal justice, were finely illustrated in the dialogue; and from the speeches of Sheridan I got a bold and powerful denunciation of oppression and a most brilliant vindication of the rights of man. Here was indeed a noble acquisition. If I had ever wavered under the consideration that the Almighty, in some way, had ordained slavery, and willed my enslavement for His own glory, I wavered no longer. I had now penetrated to the secret of all slavery and all oppression, and had ascertained their true foundation to be in the pride, the power, and the avarice of man. With a book in my hand so redolent of the principles of liberty, with a perception of my own human nature, and the facts of my past and present experience, I was equal to a contest with the religious advocates of slavery, whether white or black,—for blindness in this matter was not confined to the white people. I have met many good religious coloured people at the South, who were under the delusion that God required them to submit to slavery, and to wear their chains with meekness and humility. I could entertain no such nonsense as this; and I quite lost my patience when I found a coloured man weak enough to believe such stuff. Nevertheless, eager as I was to partake of the tree of knowledge, its fruits were bitter as well as sweet. “Slaveholders,” thought I, “are only a band of successful robbers, who, leaving their own homes, went into Africa for the purpose of stealing and reducing my people to slavery.” I loathed them as the meanest and the most wicked of men. And as I read, behold! the very discontent so graphically predicted by Master Hugh had already come upon me. I was no longer the light-hearted gleesome boy, full of mirth and play, as when I landed in Baltimore. Light had penetrated the moral dungeon where I had lain, and I saw the bloody whip for my back, and the iron chain for my feet, and my good, kind master, he was the author of my situation. The revelation haunted me, stung me, and made me gloomy and miserable. As I writhed under the sting and torment of this knowledge, I almost envied my fellow slaves their stupid indifference. It opened my eyes to the horrible pit, and revealed the teeth of the frightful dragon that was ready to pounce upon me; but alas, it opened no way for my escape. I wished myself a beast, a bird, anything rather than a slave. I was wretched and gloomy beyond my ability to describe. This everlasting thinking distressed and tormented me; and yet there was no getting rid of this subject of my thoughts. Liberty, as the inestimable birthright of every man, converted every object into an asserter of this right. I heard it in every sound, and saw it in every object. It was ever present to torment me with a sense of my wretchedness. The more beautiful and charming the smiles of nature, the more horrible and desolate my condition. I saw nothing without seeing it, and I heard nothing without hearing it. I do not exaggerate when I say it looked at me in every star, it smiled in every calm, breathed in every wind, and moved in every storm. I have no doubt that my state of mind had something to do with the change in treatment which my mistress adopted towards me. I can easily believe that my leaden, downcast, and disconsolate look was very offensive to her. Poor lady! She did not understand my trouble, and I could not tell her. Could I have made her acquainted with the real state of my mind and given her the reason for it, it might have been well for both of us. As it was, her abuse fell upon me like the blows of the false prophet upon his ass; she did not know that an angel stood in the way. Nature made us friends, but slavery had made us enemies. My interests were in a direction opposite to hers, and we both had our private thoughts and plans. She aimed to keep me ignorant, and I resolved to know, although knowledge only increased my misery. My feelings were not the result of any marked cruelty in the treatment I received; they sprang from the consideration of my being a slave at all. It was slavery, not its mere incidents I hated. I had been cheated. I saw through the attempt to keep me in ignorance. I saw that slaveholders would have gladly made me believe that they were merely acting under the authority of God in making a slave of me and in making slaves of others, and I felt to them as to robbers and deceivers. The feeding and clothing me well could not atone for taking my liberty from me. The smiles of my mistress could not remove the deep sorrow that dwelt in my young bosom. Indeed, these came in time but to deepen my sorrow. She had changed, and the reader will see that I had changed, too. We were both victims to the same overshadowing evil, she as mistress, I as slave. I will not censure her harshly.
Bastiat, the 1830 Revolution, and the Spilling of Wine not Blood (1830)
Bastiat participated directly in two revolutions during his lifetime: the first one when he was 29 during the three “Glorious Days” in July 1830 which overthrew the repressive monarchy of Charles X and installed Louis Philippe as a constitutional monarch, and the second in February 1848 when the July Monarchy was in turn overthrown and the Second Republic founded. This letter to his friend Félix describes the role Bastiat had in winning over the officers of the garrison in the town of Bayonne in south west France who were torn between their oath to the old king and their support for the political principles promised by the new régime. At some risk to his own life if the revolution had failed, Bastiat persuaded the officers to throw their weight behind the revolution after an evening of drinking and singing political songs. As he wittily notes, “I was expecting blood but it was only wine that was spilt.” It is interesting to note also that they were singing the songs of the liberal poet Pierre Béranger who had spent two periods in prison during the 1820s for opposing the régime. He wrote several volumes of best-selling poems and songs which criticised and made fun of the repressive policies of the restored Bourbon monarchy and the Church. Bastiat was able to persuade Béranger to join his Free Trade Society in 1846 and sat with him in the Chamber to which they were both elected in April 1848.
Frédéric Bastiat, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics, translated from the French by Jane and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Jacques de Guenin and Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation editor Dennis O’Keeffe (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011). Chapter: 18.: Letter to Félix Coudroy.
The young Frédéric Bastiat helped tip the balance in the garrison of the city of Bayonne during the 1830 Revolution. With a combination of his wit and charm, copious servings of the local red wine, and the singing of political songs by the liberal poet Béranger, he was able to persuade the officers of the garrison to support Louis Philippe and the constitutional monarchists:
Letter to Félix Coudroy, Bayonne 5 August 1830
Other people had had the same idea as I, and by dint of shouting and repetition it became general. But what could we do when we were unable to deliberate and agree, nor make ourselves heard? I withdrew to reflect and conceived several projects.
The first, which was already that of the entire population of Bayonne, was to display the flag and endeavor, through this movement, to win over the garrison of the chateau and the citadel. This was done yesterday at two o’clock in the afternoon, but by old people who did not attach the same significance to it as Soustra, I, and a lot of others, with the result that this coup failed.
I then took my papers of authorization to go to the army encampment to look for General Lamarque. I was relying on his reputation, his rank, his character as a deputy and his eloquence to win over the two colonels and, if need be, on his vigor to hold them up for two hours and present himself at the citadel in full military dress, followed by the National Guard with the flag at their head. I was on the point of mounting my horse when I received word that the general had left for Paris, and this caused the project, which was undoubtedly the surest and least dangerous, to fail…
The citadel must be in our hands this evening or civil war will break out. We will act with vigor if necessary, but I, who am carried along by enthusiasm without being blind to the facts, can see that it will be impossible to succeed if the garrison, which is said to be imbued with a good spirit, does not abandon the government. We will perhaps have a few wins but no success. But we should not become discouraged for all that, as we must do everything to avoid civil war. I am resolved to leave straight away after the action, if it fails, to try to raise the Chalosse. I will suggest to others that they do likewise in the Landes, the Béarn, and the Basque country; and through famine, wiles, or force we will win over the garrison.
I will keep the paper remaining to me to let you know how this ends.
The 5th at midnight
I was expecting blood but it was only wine that was spilt. The citadel has displayed the tricolor flag. The military containment of the Midi and Toulouse has decided that of Bayonne; the regiments down there have displayed the flag. The traitor J—— thus saw that the plan had failed, especially as the troops were defecting on all sides; he then decided to hand over the orders he had had in his pocket for three days. Thus, it is all over. I plan to leave immediately. I will embrace you tomorrow.
This evening we fraternized with the garrison officers. Punch, wine, liqueurs, and above all, Béranger contributed largely to the festivities. Perfect cordiality reigned in this truly patriotic gathering. The officers were warmer than we were, in the same way as horses which have escaped are more joyful than those that are free.
Richard Cobden’s “I have a dream” speech about a world in which free trade is the governing principle (1846)
Richard Cobden faced a number of significant criticisms during his campaign to abolish the Corn Laws (agricultural protection) in Britain in the early and mid 1840s. One set of criticisms was that he represented a particular “class interest” and not the general interest of the British people, in particular that he was against the class of landlords and large land owners; another was that he wanted to weaken “British” economic interests against that of foreign grain producers; or that he had a personal vested interest as a manufacturer of cotton goods in wanting to lower the cost of food for his workers so he could in turn lower their wages. In this speech on the eve of victory in the House of Commons (15 January, 1846 - the repeal came on 27 January 1846) Cobden was at pains to show that his motives had never been personal or pecuniary but were based on deeply held moral and economic principles that were above the specific place and time of his campaign. At the very end of the speech Cobden gave what is in effect his version of Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech in which he outlined what his vision of the world would look like 1,000 years hence when “the Free-Trade principle” he advocated had become universal. Cobden sincerely believed that this would result in “the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world’s history”.
Richard Cobden, Speeches on Questions of Public Policy by Richard Cobden, M.P., ed. by John Bright and J.E. Thorold Rogers with a Preface and Appreciation by J.E. Thorold Rogers and an Appreciation by Goldwin Smith (London: T.Fisher Unwin, 1908). 2 volumes in 1. Vol. 1 Free Trade and Finance. Chapter: FREE TRADE. XX. MANCHESTER, JANUARY 15, 1846.
On the eve of victory for the free trade Anti-Corn Law League, the British Member of Parliament Richard Cobden (1804-1865) gave a speech in Manchester on January 15, 1846 in which he outlined his dream of a future world where the principles of free trade “in everything” was the governing principle:
Well, I have now spoken on what may be done. I have told you, too, what I should advocate; but I must say, that whatever is proposed by Sir Robert Peel, we, as Free-traders, have but one course to pursue. If he proposes a total and immediate and unconditional repeal, we shall throw up our caps for Sir Robert Peel. If he proposes anything else, then Mr. Villiers will be ready, as he has been on former occasions—to move his amendment for a total and immediate repeal of the Corn-laws. We are not responsible for what Ministers may do; we are but responsible for the performance of our duty. We don’t offer to do impossibilities; but we will do our utmost to carry out our principles. But, gentlemen, I tell you honestly, I think less of what this Parliament may do; I care less for their opinions, less for the intentions of the Prime Minister and the Cabinet, than what may be the opinion of a meeting like this and of the people out of doors. This question will not be carried by Ministers or by the present Parliament; it will be carried, when it is carried, by the will of the nation. We will do nothing that can remove us a hair’s breadth from that rock which we have stood upon with so much safety for the last seven years. All other parties have been on a quicksand, and floated about by every wave, by every tide, and by every wind—some floating to us, others, like fragments scattered over the ocean, without rudder or compass; whilst we are upon solid ground, and no temptation, whether of parties or of Ministers, shall ever make us swerve a hair’s breadth. I am anxious to hear now, at the last meeting before we go to Parliament—before we enter that arena to which all men’s minds will be turned during the next week—I am anxious, not merely that we should all of us understand each other on this question, but that we should be considered as occupying as independent and isolated a position as we did at the first moment of the formation of this League. We have nothing to do with Whigs or Tories; we are stronger than either of them; and if we stick to our principles, we can, if necessary, beat both. And I hope we perfectly understand now, that we have not, in the advocacy of this great question, a single object in view but that which we have honestly avowed from the beginning. Our opponents may charge us with designs to do other things. No, gentlemen, I have never encouraged that. Some of my friends have said, ‘When this work is done, you will have some influence in the country; you must do so and so.’ I said then, as I say now, ‘Every new political principle must have its special advocates, just as every new faith has its martyrs.’ It is a mistake to suppose that this organisation can be turned to other purposes. It is a mistake to suppose that men, prominent in the advocacy of the principle of Free Trade, can with the same force and effect identify themselves with any other principle hereafter. It will be enough if the League accomplishes the triumph of the principle we have before us. I have never taken a limited view of the object or scope of this great principle. I have never advocated this question very much as a trader.
But I have been accused of looking too much to material interests. Nevertheless I can say that I have taken as large and great a view of the effects of this mighty principle as ever did any man who dreamt over it in his own study. I believe that the physical gain will be the smallest gain to humanity from the success of this principle. I look farther; I see in the Free-trade principle that which shall act on the moral world as the principle of gravitation in the universe,—drawing men together, thrusting aside the antagonism of race, and creed, and language, and uniting us in the bonds of eternal peace. I have looked even farther. I have speculated, and probably dreamt, in the dim future—ay, a thousand years hence—I have speculated on what the effect of the triumph of this principle may be. I believe that the effect will be to change the face of the world, so as to introduce a system of government entirely distinct from that which now prevails. I believe that the desire and the motive for large and mighty empires; for gigantic armies and great navies—for those materials which are used for the destruction of life and the desolation of the rewards of labour—will die away; I believe that such things will cease to be necessary, or to be used, when man becomes one family, and freely exchanges the fruits of his labour with his brother man. I believe that, if we could be allowed to reappear on this sublunary scene, we should see, at a far distant period, the governing system of this world revert to something like the municipal system; and I believe that the speculative philosopher of a thousand years hence will date the greatest revolution that ever happened in the world’s history from the triumph of the principle which we have met here to advocate. I believe these things: but, whatever may have been my dreams and speculations, I have never obtruded them upon others. I have never acted upon personal or interested motives in this question; I seek no alliance with parties or favour from parties, and I will take none—but, having the feeling I have of the sacredness of the principle, I say that I can never agree to tamper with it. I, at least, will never be suspected of doing otherwise than pursuing it disinterestedly, honestly, and resolutely.
Benjamin Constant and the Freedom of the Press (1815)
After the strict and heavy handed censorship of the Napoleonic Empire there was a brief period of press freedom during the First Restoration of the Bourbon monarchy under King Louis XVIII (April 1814 - March 1815). The restored Bourbon monarchy declared freedom of the press on 4 June 1814 which led to the creation of a full spectrum of political debate and argument among the 20 new titles which emerged. However, by October 1814 new censorship laws had been passed in order to control political criticism of the new regime. All publications less than 20 pages long (so most papers and journals) had to have their material approved by government officials before they could be published. These laws were made even more restrictive in November 1815. There was another liberalizaton of the censorship laws in late 1818 under the ministry of Dessoles-Decazes with the Serre press laws but this was short lived as the assassination of the Duke de Berry in February 1820 led to a severe crackdown on press liberties. In the wake of this many journals were forced to close, including the liberal La Minerve française for which Benjamin Constant wrote as well as the successor to Le Censeur of Comte and Dunoyer, Le Censeur européen. During this period classical liberals on both sides of the channel fought for an expansion of press freedom (Constant in France and James Mill in England should be mentioned). Their arguments were that educated people should have the right to know what politicians and government officials were doing with their tax money (so the proceedings of parliament should be openly published in newspapers), that corruption and nepotism by senior figures should be exposed and condemned, and that the interests of the middle and working classes should be expressed and defended in the press and that governments should take these interests into account when passing laws.
Benjamin Constant, Principles of Politics Applicable to a all Governments, trans. Dennis O’Keeffe, ed. Etienne Hofmann, Introduction by Nicholas Capaldi (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2003). Chapter: chapter three: On the Expression of Thought
In France one of the leading theorists of the principle of free speech was Benjamin Constant (1767-1830) who had been called upon by Napoleon during his brief return to power between March-July 1815 (The Hundred Days) to draw up a new constitution with more constitutional limits on government power. Constant’s ideas were elaborated in a book he wrote at the time Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments (1815) which included chapters on freedom of thought and religion. A typical passage reads:
If you once grant the need to repress the expression of opinion, either the State will have to act judicially or the government will have to arrogate to itself police powers which free it from recourse to judicial means. In the first case the laws will be eluded. Nothing is easier than presenting an opinion in such variegated guises that a precisely defined law cannot touch it. In the second case, by authorizing the government to deal ruthlessly with whatever opinions there may be, you are giving it the right to interpret thought, to make inductions, in a nutshell to reason and to put its reasoning in the place of the facts which ought to be the sole basis for government counteraction. This is to establish despotism with a free hand. Which opinion cannot draw down a punishment on its author? You give the government a free hand for evildoing, provided that it is careful to engage in evil thinking. You will never escape from this circle. The men to whom you entrust the right to judge opinions are quite as susceptible as others to being misled or corrupted, and the arbitrary power which you will have invested in them can be used against the most necessary truths as well as the most fatal errors.
When one considers only one side of moral and political questions, it is easy to draw a terrible picture of the abuse of our rights. But when one looks at these questions from an overall point of view, the picture of the ills which government power occasions by limiting these rights seems to me no less frightening.
What, indeed, is the outcome of all attacks made on freedom of the pen? They embitter against the government all those writers possessed of that spirit of independence inseparable from talent, who are forced to have recourse to indirect and perfidious allusions. They necessitate the circulation of clandestine and therefore all the more dangerous texts. They feed the public greed for anecdotes, personal remarks, and seditious principles. They give calumny the appearance, always an interesting one, of courage. In sum, they attach far too much importance to the works about to be proscribed.
In the absence of government intervention, published sedition, immorality, and calumny would scarcely make more impact at the end of a given period of complete freedom than spoken or handwritten calumny, immorality, or sedition
Jasay on the superiority of “spontaneous conventions” over “legal frameworks” (2007)
In trying to explain why countries with roughly comparable legal systems have such diversity of economic and economic arrangements, where some are prosperous and law-abiding (like many northern European nations) and others (like some Mediterranean countries) are less prosperous, Jasay comes to the conclusion that social theorists have underestimated the importance of what he calls a “much older and more deeply rooted set of unwritten rules” or what might be termed “spontaneous conventions”. These are instilled in children at a very young age by their parents and the social groups immediately around them and have much less to do with the formal legal rules which legislators have concocted in some “law factory” over recent decades. This lesson also can be applied in understanding why countries which have recently emerged from communist rule might have difficulties in adjusting to the demands of a free society, as rule by the communist party wiped out most of these unwritten rules and spontaneous conventions over decades of despotism.
Anthony de Jasay, Political Economy, Concisely: Essays on Policy that does not work and Markets that do. Edited and with an Introduction by Hartmut Kliemt (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2009). Chapter: THE STATIST LEGACY.
The political economist Anthony de Jasay (1925- ) concludes that a major reason in explaining differences between nations concerning respect for property and tolerance towards others has less to do with formal “legal frameworks” which may exist than with deeper “spontaneous conventions” or social customs which have evolved over long periods of time:
One of our many lazy mental habits is glibly to take it as read that economic activity is, and indeed must be, carried out “within a legal framework” which largely conditions how people behave. The law says that they must respect each other’s person and property, fulfil their obligations, pay their taxes, and care for their dependents. They will by and large do these things if the law is enforced. The state is there to enforce it. As rivalry in enforcement would lead to a shambles, society entrusts to the state the monopoly of law enforcement and willingly shoulders its cost. Despite occasional causes for grumbling, it is broadly agreed to be money well spent, for where would we be without the law?
The double trouble with this line of soothing tale, which nearly everybody accepts and recites, is that it is not altogether true, and that even if it were, it would fall far short of an explanation of why broadly comparable legal systems are consistent with vastly different economic behavior in different societies. To begin with, it is not even certain that the “legal framework” really acts the way imagined in standard economic and social theory. The state guards its lawmaking and enforcing monopoly with ferocious jealousy. The fact that it is an effective monopoly should lead us to expect that it will maximize some kind of net result, achieving some high degree of compliance with the law, and do so economically. In reality, because it is a monopoly subject to a popular mandate and must not arouse dread, fear, and hatred, it is restricted in what it may and what it must not do. It must produce compliance and serve up justice in white gloves on a silver platter—a demand it is most of the time quite unable to meet. It must be sensitive to shifts in public opinion between novel shades of political correctness and human-rightsism, as well as to pressures from single-issue groups and special interests. As a result, it must become a law factory, pouring out an ever broader stream of new and complex legislation. Perhaps more important, it is financed from taxes imposed on people according to criteria that have little to do with what these taxpayers, taken individually, obtain from the state by way of law enforcement services. Like any other tax-financed service where contributions are divorced from benefits, the “legal framework” is an open invitation to free-riding. Individuals will unload (or at least have a good try at unloading) onto the state responsibilities that in a well-ordered society they could and would themselves carry on their own behalf or for neighbors, partners, and peers.
Here we reach the nub of the problem of why people in some societies behave mostly well, while in others they so often misbehave. Law even at its best controls only a small part of human behavior. At its worst, it aspires to control a great part, but largely fails. Vastly more important than the legal system is the much older and more deeply rooted set of unwritten rules (technically, spontaneous conventions) barring and sanctioning torts, nuisances, and incivilities that together define what each of us is free to do and by the same token what no one is free to do to us. If these rules are kept, everyone is free, property is safe, and every two-person transaction is mutually beneficial (though third persons may be exposed to negative externalities—for the rules are no bar to competition or the general rough-and-tumble of ordinary life).
How well these rules are kept depends on how well children are brought up, on war or peace, and on other ultimate causes that are not hard to divine. The proximate cause, however, is the effectiveness of sanctions. To mete out punishment for misbehavior always involves some cost to the well behaved who take it upon themselves to administer it. He and those he cares for benefit if misbehavior is punished and hence deterred, but he would benefit even more if the punishing were done and the cost borne by someone else. Rational calculus may tell him that given the likelihood of others undertaking what he would not, his best course is to undertake it himself.
Simeon Howard on liberty as the opposition to “external force and constraint” (1773)
The Boston minister Simeon Howard gave this very clear definition of liberty to a company of artillery soldiers in 1773 just before open hostilities broke out between the colonists and the British government. The sermon is interesting because of his combination of ideas drawn from the bible and from the Radical Whig or “Commonwealthman” tradition which existed in 18th century Britain. The latter drew upon 17th century radicals especially the work of John Locke, whose ideas of property rights, individual liberty, and the consent of the government were very influential. Howard provides a strong defence of a “negative” view of liberty, that is that a state of liberty is one where there is an absence of the use of “force and constraint” exercised by some men over others. Furthermore he argues, no other person can “restrain him in the exercise of this liberty” so long as he does not infringe upon the equal right to liberty of the people around him. To do anything else would be to establish of state of “temporal slavery” in the world.
Charles S. Hyneman, American Political Writing During the Founding Era: 1760-1805, ed. Charles S. Hyneman and Donald Lutz (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1983). 2 vols. Volume 1. Chapter: : Simeon Howard 1733-1804: A Sermon Preached to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company in Boston.
In this sermon preached in Massachusetts in 1773 to a company of artillery soldiers Simeon Howard (1733-1804) defines what he means by “liberty” at a time when Americans in the British colonies were increasingly seeing the British as violators of their liberty. He defines this key word in very Lockean terms as the opposition to “external force and constraint” by other men:
A Sermon Preached to the Ancient and Honorable Artillery Company in Boston, Boston, 1773
Though this word is used in various senses, I mean by it here, only that liberty which is opposed to external force and constraint, and to such force and constraint only, as we may suffer from men. Under the term liberty, taken in this sense, may naturally be comprehended all those advantages which are liable to be destroyed by the art or power of men; every thing that is opposed to temporal slavery.
This liberty has always been accounted one of the greatest natural blessings which mankind can enjoy. Accordingly, the benevolent and impartial Father of the human race, has given to all men a right, and to all naturally an equal right to this blessing.
In a state of nature, or where men are under no civil government, God has given to every one liberty to pursue his own happiness in whatever way, and by whatever means he pleases, without asking the consent or consulting the inclination of any other man, provided he keeps within the bounds of the law of nature. Within these bounds, he may govern his actions, and dispose of his property and person, as he thinks proper. Nor has any man, or any number of men, a right to restrain him in the exercise of this liberty, or punish, or call him to account for using it. This however is not a state of licentiousness, for the law of nature which bounds this liberty, forbids all injustice and wickedness, allows no man to injure another in his person or property, or to destroy his own life.
But experience soon taught that, either thro’ ignorance of this law, or the influence of unruly passions, some were disposed to violate it, but encroaching upon the liberty of others; so that the weak were liable to be greatly injured by the superior power of bad men, without any means of security or redress. This gave birth to civil society, and induced a number of individuals to combine together for mutual defence and security; to give up a part of their natural liberty for the sake of enjoying the remainder in greater safety; to agree upon certain laws among themselves to regulate the social conduct of each individual, or to intrust to one or more of their number, in whose wisdom and goodness they could confide, a power of making such laws, and putting them in execution.
In this state, the liberty which men have is all that natural liberty which has been mentioned, excepting what they have expressly given up for the good of the whole society; a liberty of pursuing their own happiness governing their actions, and disposing of their property and persons as they think fit, provided they transgress no law of nature, and keep within those restrictions which they have consented to come under.
This liberty will be different in different communities. In every state, the members will, probably, give up so much of their natural liberty, as they think will be most for the good of the whole. But different states will judge differently upon this point, some will give up more, some less, though still with the same view, the publick good. And every society have doubtless a right to act according to their own judgment and discretion in this matter, this being only an exercise of that natural liberty in which all are bound.
In Shakespeare’s Henry V the king is too easily persuaded by his advisors that the English economy will continue to function smoothly, like obedient little honey-bees in their hive, while he is away with his armies conquering France (1598)
We continue our exploration of the newly added Oxford Shakespeare to the OLL collection. Here we find Henry’s noble and churchly senior advisors providing him with reasons why he can and should invade France. Do they persuade a fence-sitting King, or has he already made up his mind for war and just wants to hear the kind of arguments they can come up with? When they have finished telling him that the realm will be safe while he is away in France and the productive “honey bees” will continue to produce the taxes to fund his adventure, Henry declares war on France and promises to “bend it to our awe or break it all to pieces.”
William Shakespeare, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare (The Oxford Shakespeare), ed. with a glossary by W.J. Craig M.A. (Oxford University Press, 1916). Henry V: Scene II.—: The Same. The Presence Chamber.
King Henry V is too easily persuaded by his advisors that the English economy will continue to function smoothly, like a well-ordered bee hive, while he is away with his armies conquering France. The Archbishop of Canterbury advises him that:
We do not mean the coursing snatchers only,
But fear the main intendment of the Scot,
Who hath been still a giddy neighbour to us;
For you shall read that my great-grandfather
Never went with his forces into France
But that the Scot on his unfurnish’d kingdom
Came pouring, like the tide into a breach,
With ample and brim fulness of his force,
Galling the gleaned land with hot essays,
Girding with grievous siege castles and towns;
That England, being empty of defence,
Hath shook and trembled at the ill neighbourhood.
She hath been then more fear’d than harm’d, my liege;
For hear her but exampled by herself:
When all her chivalry hath been in France
And she a mourning widow of her nobles,
She hath herself not only well defended,
But taken and impounded as a stray
The King of Scots; whom she did send to France,
To fill King Edward’s fame with prisoner kings,
And make your chronicle as rich with praise
As is the owse and bottom of the sea
With sunken wrack and sumless treasuries.
But there’s a saying very old and true;
If that you will France win,
Then with Scotland first begin:
For once the eagle England being in prey,
To her unguarded nest the weasel Scot
Comes sneaking and so sucks her princely eggs,
Playing the mouse in absence of the cat,
To tear and havoc more than she can eat.
It follows then the cat must stay at home:
Yet that is but a crush’d necessity;
Since we have locks to safeguard necessaries
And pretty traps to catch the petty thieves.
While that the armed hand doth fight abroad
The advised head defends itself at home:
For government, though high and low and lower,
Put into parts, doth keep in one consent,
Congreeing in a full and natural close,
Therefore doth heaven divide
The state of man in divers functions,
Setting endeavour in continual motion;
To which is fixed, as an aim or butt,
Obedience: for so work the honey-bees,
Creatures that by a rule in nature teach
The act of order to a peopled kingdom.
They have a king and officers of sorts;
Where some, like magistrates, correct at home,
Others, like merchants, venture trade abroad,
Others, like soldiers, armed in their stings,
Make boot upon the summer’s velvet buds;
Which pillage they with merry march bring home
To the tent-royal of their emperor:
Who, busied in his majesty, surveys
The singing masons building roofs of gold,
The civil citizens kneading up the honey,
The poor mechanic porters crowding in
Their heavy burdens at his narrow gate,
The sad-ey’d justice, with his surly hum,
Delivering o’er to executors pale
The lazy yawning drone. I this infer,
That many things, having full reference
To one consent, may work contrariously;
As many arrows, loosed several ways,
Fly to one mark; as many ways meet in one town;
As many fresh streams meet in one salt sea;
As many lines close in the dial’s centre;
So may a thousand actions, once afoot,
End in one purpose, and be all well borne
Without defeat. Therefore to France, my liege.
Divide your happy England into four;
Whereof take you one quarter into France,
And you withal shall make all Gallia shake.
If we, with thrice such powers left at home,
Cannot defend our own doors from the dog,
Let us be worried and our nation lose
The name of hardiness and policy.
Call in the messengers sent from the Dauphin.
[Exit an Attendant.
Now are we well resolv’d; and by God’s help,
And yours, the noble sinews of our power,
France being ours, we’ll bend it to our awe
Or break it all to pieces: or there we’ll sit,
Ruling in large and ample empery
O’er France and all her almost kingly dukedoms,
Or lay these bones in an unworthy urn,
Tombless, with no remembrance over them:
Either our history shall with full mouth
Speak freely of our acts, or else our grave,
Like Turkish mute, shall have a tongueless mouth,
Not worshipp’d with a waxen epitaph.
Ludwig von Mises argues that sound money is an instrument for the protection of civil liberties and a means of limiting government power (1912)
In the middle of a serious monetary crisis we again turn to Ludwig von Mises for insights. In 1912 he published The Theory of Money and Credit in which he discussed the political and social consequences of a policy of “sound money” (by this he meant money which could not be manipulated by governments for their own ends). In an insight not shared by mainstream economists, Mises argues that sound money policies were part of the 18th and 19th century classical liberal agendas to expand individual liberty and to restrict government power. This is an important aspect of history which most people have lost sight of today to their great cost and inconvenience.
Ludwig von Mises, The Theory of Money and Credit, trans. H.E. Batson (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1981). Chapter: CHAPTER 21: The Principle of Sound Money.
The Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973), argues in The Theory of Money and Credit (1912) that "sound money" was a crucial part of classical liberal theory because it was the market’s choice of a commonly used medium of exchange and also a method for obstructing the government’s propensity to meddle with the currency system:
The Classical Idea of Sound Money
The principle of sound money that guided nineteenth-century monetary doctrines and policies was a product of classical political economy. It was an essential part of the liberal program as developed by eighteenth-century social philosophy and propagated in the following century by the most influential political parties of Europe and America.
The liberal doctrine sees in the market economy the best, even the only possible, system of economic organization of society. Private ownership of the means of production tends to shift control of production to the hands of those best fitted for this job and thus to secure for all members of society the fullest possible satisfaction of their needs. It assigns to the consumers the power to choose those purveyors who supply them in the cheapest way with the articles they are most urgently asking for and thus subjects the entrepreneurs and the owners of the means of production, namely, the capitalists and the landowners, to the sovereignty of the buying public. It makes nations and their citizens free and provides ample sustenance for a steadily increasing population.
As a system of peaceful cooperation under the division of labor, the market economy could not work without an institution warranting to its members protection against domestic gangsters and external foes. Violent aggression can be thwarted only by armed resistance and repression. Society needs an apparatus of defense, a state, a government, a police power. Its undisturbed functioning must be safeguarded by continuous preparedness to repel aggressors. But then a new danger springs up. How keep under control the men entrusted with the handling of the government apparatus lest they turn their weapons against those whom they were expected to serve? The main political problem is how to prevent the rulers from becoming despots and enslaving the citizenry. Defense of the individual’s liberty against the encroachment of tyrannical governments is the essential theme of the history of Western civilization. The characteristic feature of the Occident is its peoples’ pursuit of liberty, a concern unknown to Orientals. All the marvelous achievements of Western civilization are fruits grown on the tree of liberty.
It is impossible to grasp the meaning of the idea of sound money if one does not realize that it was devised as an instrument for the protection of civil liberties against despotic inroads on the part of governments. Ideologically it belongs in the same class with political constitutions and bills of rights. The demand for constitutional guarantees and for bills of rights was a reaction against arbitrary rule and the nonobservance of old customs by kings. The postulate of sound money was first brought up as a response to the princely practice of debasing the coinage. It was later carefully elaborated and perfected in the age which—through the experience of the American continental currency, the paper money of the French Revolution and the British restriction period—had learned what a government can do to a nation’s currency system.
Modern cryptodespotism, which arrogates to itself the name of liberalism, finds fault with the negativity of the concept of freedom. The censure is spurious as it refers merely to the grammatical form of the idea and does not comprehend that all civil rights can be as well defined in affirmative as in negative terms. They are negative as they are designed to obviate an evil, namely omnipotence of the police power, and to prevent the state from becoming totalitarian. They are affirmative as they are designed to preserve the smooth operation of the system of private property, the only social system that has brought about what is called civilization.
Thus the sound-money principle has two aspects. It is affirmative in approving the market’s choice of a commonly used medium of exchange. It is negative in obstructing the government’s propensity to meddle with the currency system.
Sir William Blackstone differentiates between “absolute rights” of individuals (natural rights which exist prior to the state) and social rights (contractural rights which evolve later) (1753)
Because Blackstone distinguishes between the “absolute” or natural rights of individuals and their “social” or contractural rights he has a dual function of the state in mind. The absolute or natural rights are small in number, exist prior to the state, and take precedence over any social or contractural rights when it comes to enforcement. The social or contractural rights by contrast derive from individuals’ absolute rights and are thus “relative”, more numerous, and proliferate as society becomes more complex and developed. The aim of the state is to ensure that it “leaves the subject entire master of his own conduct”.
Sir William Blackstone, Commentaries on the Laws of England in Four Books. Notes selected from the editions of Archibold, Christian, Coleridge, Chitty, Stewart, Kerr, and others, Barron Field’s Analysis, and Additional Notes, and a Life of the Author by George Sharswood. In Two Volumes. (Philadelphia: J.B. Lippincott Co., 1893). Vol. 1 - Books I & II. Chapter: CHAPTER I.: OF THE ABSOLUTE RIGHTS OF INDIVIDUALS.
Blackstone argues that government exists principally to protect and enforce the absolute or natural rights of individuals which exist prior to the formation of the state:
For the principal aim of society is to protect individuals in the enjoyment of those absolute rights, which were vested in them by the immutable laws of nature, but which could not be preserved in peace without that mutual assistance and intercourse which is gained by the institution of friendly and social communities. Hence it follows, that the first and primary end of human laws is to maintain and regulate these absolute rights of individuals. Such rights as are social and relative result from, and are posterior to, the formation of states and societies: so that to maintain and regulate these is clearly a subsequent consideration. And, therefore, the principal view of human laws is, or ought always to be, to explain, protect, and enforce such rights as are absolute, which in themselves are few and simple: and then such rights as are relative, which, arising from a variety of connections, will be far more numerous and more complicated. These will take up a greater space in any code of laws, and hence may appear to be more attended to—though in reality they are not—than the rights of the former kind. Let us therefore proceed to examine how far all laws ought, and how far the laws of England actually do, take notice of these absolute rights, and provide for their lasting security.
The absolute rights of man, considered as a free agent, endowed with discernment to know good from evil, and with power of choosing those measures which appear to him to be most desirable, are usually summed up in one general appellation, and denominated the natural liberty of mankind. This natural liberty consists properly in a power of acting as one thinks fit, without any restraint or control, unless by the law of nature; being a right inherent in us by birth, and one of the gifts of God to man at his creation, when he endued him with the faculty of free will. But every man, when he enters into society, gives up a part of his natural liberty, as the price of so valuable a purchase; and, in consideration of receiving the advantages of mutual commerce, obligos himself to conform to those laws, which the community has thought proper to establish. And this species of legal obedience and conformity is infinitely more desirable than that wild and savage liberty which is sacrificed to obtain it. For no man that considers a moment would wish to retain the absolute and uncontrolled power of doing whatever he pleases: the consequence of which is, that every other man would also have the same power, and then there would be no security to individuals in any of the enjoyments of life. Political, therefore, or civil liberty, which is that of a member of society, is no other than natural liberty so far restrained by human laws (and no farther) as is necessary and expedient for the general advantage of the public.(c) Hence we may collect that the law, which restrains a man from doing mischief to his fellow-citizens, though it diminishes the natural, increases the civil liberty of mankind; but that every wanton and causeless restraint of the will of the subject, whether practised by a monarch, a nobility, or a popular assembly, is a degree of tyranny: nay, that even laws themselves, whether made with or without our consent, if they regulate and constrain our conduct in matters of more indifference, without any good end in view, are regulations destructive of liberty: whereas, if any public advantage can arise from observing such precepts, the control of our private inclinations, in one or two particular points, will conduce to preserve our general freedom in others of more importance; by supporting that state of society, which alone can secure our independence. Thus the statute of king Edward IV.,(d) which forbade the fine gentlemen of those times (under the degree of a lord) to wear pikes upon their shoes or boots of more than two inches in length, was a law that savoured of oppression; because, however ridiculous the fashion then in use might appear, the restraining it by pecuniary penalties could serve no purpose of common utility. But the statute of king Charles II.,(e) which prescribes a thing seemingly as indifferent, (a dress for the dead, who are all ordered to be buried in woollen,) is a law consistent with public liberty; for it encourages the staple trade, on which in great measure depends the universal good of the nation. So that laws, when prudently framed, are by no means subversive, but rather introductive, of liberty; for, as Mr. Locke has well observed,(f) where there is no law there is no freedom. But then, on the other hand, that constitution or frame of government, that system of laws, is alone calculated to maintain civil liberty, which leaves the subject entire master of his own conduct, except in those points wherein the public good requires some direction or restraint.
The idea and practice of this political or civil liberty flourish in their highest vigour in these kingdoms, where it falls little short of perfection, and can only be lost or destroyed by the folly or demerits of its owner: the legislature, and of course the laws of England, being peculiarly adapted to the preservation of this inestimable blessing even in the meanest subject. Very different from the modern constitutions of other states, on the continent of Europe, and from the genius of the imperial law; which in general are calculated to vest an arbitrary and despotic power, of controlling the actions of the subject, in the prince, or in a few grandees. And this spirit of liberty is so deeply implanted in our constitution, and rooted even in our very soil, that a slave or a negro, the moment he lands in England, falls under the protection of the laws, and so far becomes a freeman;(g) though the master’s right to his service may possibly still continue.
The absolute rights of every Englishman, (which, taken in a political and extensive sense, are usually called their liberties,) as they are founded on nature and reason, so they are coeval with our form of government; though subject at times to fluctuate and change: their establishment (excellent as it is) being still human. At some times we have seen them depressed by overbearing and tyrannical princes; at others so luxuriant as even to tend to anarchy, a worse state than tyranny itself, as any government is better than none at all. But the vigour of our free constitution has always delivered the nation from these embarrassments: and, as soon as the convulsions consequent on the struggle have been over, the balance of our rights and liberties has settled to its proper level; and their fundamental articles have been from time to time asserted in parliament, as often as they were thought to be in danger.
The Earl of Shaftesbury states that civility and politeness is a consequence of liberty by which “we polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides” (1709)
This is a clever lapidary analogy concerning the improvement of politeness and manners through the free intercourse of human beings, an “amicable collision” between individuals as Shaftesbury puts it. To use force or coercion to improve civility, good breeding, and charity will create its very opposite, as any good free market economist will tell you regarding economic regulations. One wonders however about his condemnation of punning as the language of the court. Perhaps we have been court out as a closet monarchists?
Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury, Characteristicks of Men, Manners, Opinions, Times, ed. Douglas den Uyl (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2001). 3 vols. Vol. 1. Chapter: AN ESSAY, &c.
Central to Shaftesbury’s idea of liberty is the notion of the free interchange of ideas, even if some of those ideas grate against those of others (p. 42, last paragraph of Section I):
We have seen in our own time the Decline and Ruin of a false sort of Wit, which so much delighted our Ancestors, that their Poems and Plays, as well as Sermons, were full of it. All Humour had something of the Quibble.The very Language of theCourt was Punning. But ’tis now banish’d the Town, and all good Company: There are only some few Footsteps of it in the Country; and it seems at last confin’d to the Nurserys of Youth, as the chief Entertainment of Pedants and their Pupils. And thus in other respects Wit will mend upon our hands, and Humour will refine it-self; if we take care not to tamper with it, and bring it under Constraint, by severe Usage and rigorous Prescriptions. All Politeness is owing to Liberty. We polish one another, and rub off our Corners and rough Sides by a sort of amicable Collision. To restrain this, is inevitably to bring a Rust upon Mens Understandings. ’Tis a destroying of Civility, Good Breeding, and even Charity it-self, under pretence of maintaining it.
[More works by Anthony Ashley Cooper, Earl of Shaftesbury (1671 – 1713) and Beauty and Virtue]
David Hume on the origin of government in warfare, and the “perpetual struggle” between Liberty and Power (1777)
Although the later Hume has a reputation for supporting the British monarchy (this was Jefferson’s view) in some of his early essays we see a more radical view of the nature of government emerge. In a previously cited quotation Hume tells us that a combination of force and public opinion is required to keep a regime in power. In this essay Hume adds two more crucial insights into the origin and operation of governments: the first is that the earliest governments probably came about as a result of war with the victorious strongman seizing power and gradually making it permanent; secondly, that once governments were established there began a “perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty.” Perhaps this passage should be the foundational text for the present collection of quotations entitled Reflections on Liberty and Power.
David Hume, Essays Moral, Political, Literary, edited and with a Foreword, Notes, and Glossary by Eugene F. Miller, with an appendix of variant readings from the 1889 edition by T.H. Green and T.H. Grose, revised edition (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1987). Chapter: ESSAY V: OF THE ORIGIN OF GOVERNMENT.
David Hume has two important insights into the origin of government; that it is often born out of warfare, and that once established there is a “perpetual struggle” within it between Liberty and Power (1777):
But though this progress of human affairs may appear certain and inevitable, and though the support which allegiance brings to justice, be founded on obvious principles of human nature, it cannot be expected that men should beforehand be able to discover them, or foresee their operation. Government commences more casually and more imperfectly. It is probable, that the first ascendant of one man over multitudes begun during a state of war; where the superiority of courage and of genius discovers itself most visibly, where unanimity and concert are most requisite, and where the pernicious effects of disorder are most sensibly felt. The long continuance of that state, an incident common among savage tribes, enured the people to submission; and if the chieftain possessed as much equity as prudence and valour, he became, even during peace, the arbiter of all differences, and could gradually, by a mixture of force and consent, establish his authority. The benefit sensibly felt from his influence, made it be cherished by the people, at least by the peaceable and well disposed among them; and if his son enjoyed the same good qualities, government advanced the sooner to maturity and perfection; but was still in a feeble state, till the farther progress of improvement procured the magistrate a revenue, and enabled him to bestow rewards on the several instruments of his administration, and to inflict punishments on the refractory and disobedient. Before that period, each exertion of his influence must have been particular, and founded on the peculiar circumstances of the case. After it, submission was no longer a matter of choice in the bulk of the community, but was rigorously exacted by the authority of the supreme magistrate.
In all governments, there is a perpetual intestine struggle, open or secret, between Authority and Liberty; and neither of them can ever absolutely prevail in the contest. A great sacrifice of liberty must necessarily be made in every government; yet even the authority, which confines liberty, can never, and perhaps ought never, in any constitution, to become quite entire and uncontroulable. The sultan is master of the life and fortune of any individual; but will not be permitted to impose new taxes on his subjects: a French monarch can impose taxes at pleasure; but would find it dangerous to attempt the lives and fortunes of individuals. Religion also, in most countries, is commonly found to be a very intractable principle; and other principles or prejudices frequently resist all the authority of the civil magistrate; whose power, being founded on opinion, can never subvert other opinions, equally rooted with that of his title to dominion. The government, which, in common appellation, receives the appellation of free, is that which admits of a partition of power among several members, whose united authority is no less, or is commonly greater than that of any monarch; but who, in the usual course of administration, must act by general and equal laws, that are previously known to all the members and to all their subjects. In this sense, it must be owned, that liberty is the perfection of civil society; but still authority must be acknowledged essential to its very existence: and in those contests, which so often take place between the one and the other, the latter may, on that account, challenge the preference. Unless perhaps one may say (and it may be said with some reason) that a circumstance, which is essential to the existence of civil society, must always support itself, and needs be guarded with less jealousy, than one that contributes only to its perfection, which the indolence of men is so apt to neglect, or their ignorance to overlook.
Bruno Leoni argues that expressing one’s economic choice as a consumer in a free market is quite different from making a political choice by means of voting (1961)
Bruno Leoni critices the common comparison which is made between “voting” in the market place for brand “X” over brand “Y” and voting in the political arena for candidate “Tweedle Dee” over candidate “Tweedle Dum”. In the market place, choice is considerable, flexible, efficient, and one can usually get one’s money back if one is not satisfied. Political voting on the other hand, is a distorted form of “consumer choice”. It is also quite hard to “get one’s money back” if a candidate does not live up to his election promises.
Bruno Leoni, Freedom and the Law, expanded 3rd edition, foreword by Arthur Kemp (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1991). Chapter: 4: Voting Versus the Market.
The Italian legal philospher Bruno Leoni in a lecture entitled "Voting versus the Market" noticed a key difference bewteen the choices made by individuals in the free market and choices made by those same individuals in voting for candidates for political office:
We have seen in the preceding lecture that notwithstanding many similarities that may exist between voters on the one hand and market operators on the other, the actions of the two are far from actually being similar. No procedural rule seems able to allow voters to act in the same flexible, independent, consistent, and efficient way as operators employing individual choice in the market. While it is true that both voting and operating in the market are individual actions, we are compelled, however, to conclude that voting is a kind of individual action that almost inevitably undergoes a kind of distortion in its use...
Political competition appears to be much more restricted by its very nature than economic competition, particularly if the rules of the political game tend to create and maintain disequilibria rather than work in the opposite direction.
We must conclude that there is little sense in praising the simple majority rule as the best possible rule for the political game. There is much more sense in adopting several kinds of rules according to the ends we want to reach, e.g., adopting qualified majority rules when the issues at stake are rather important for each member of the community, or adopting the unanimity rule when the issue is absolutely vital for each of them. I believe almost all of these points have been brilliantly stressed in the recent analyses based on the economic approach.
But we must bear in mind that none of the rules adopted or adoptable in political decisions can produce a situation which is really similar to that of the market under conditions of competition. No vote trading could be sufficient to put each individual in the same situation as the operators who freely buy and sell goods and services in a competitive market.
When we consider law as legislation it can be clearly shown that the law and the market can in no way be considered similar from the point of view of the individual and his decisions.
In fact, the market process and the legislative process are inescapably at variance. While the market allows individuals to make free choices provided only that they are prepared to pay for them, legislation does not allow this.
Marcus Aurelius on using reason to live one’s life “straight and right” (170)
It is extraordinary to think that Marcus Aurelius wrote these meditations while he was planning to fight or actually waging war near the Danube river. They are deep reflections on human nature, the natural laws which govern the world, the dangers of being swept away by one’s passions or emotions, and the need to live one’s one life in a self-critical and calm manner under the guidance of reason. These are not the kind of thoughts one usually associates with military leaders in the heat of battle. However, Marcus Aurelius does hint at the passions which might have been flooding his mind at this time when he warns against the dangers of the “animal soul” overwhelming “the intellectual” soul. Without the distance and calm which he believed reason provides us men can “be moved, like puppets, by appetites and passions, (which) is common to us with the wild beasts.” The Scottish enlightened thinker Francis Hutcheson (1694-1746) was drawn to the Meditations which he helped translate from the Greek in 1742, thus making this book one of the more influential texts of the Scottish Enlightenment.
Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, The Meditations of the Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus, trans. Francis Hutcheson and James Moor, edited and with an Introduction by James Moore and Michael Silverthorne (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2008). Chapter: BOOK III.
The Emperor Marcus Aurelius Antoninus (121-180) was also a Stoic philosopher whose Meditations (written while on a military campaign during the 170s) were highly influential during the Scottish Enlightenment. He exhorted each person to find peace within themselves by discovering the natural laws which governed the universe and living one’s life in accordance with them. His advice was to live one’s life “always straight and right, and not as amended or rectified” by others:
5. Do nothing with reluctance, or forgetting the kind social bond, or without full inquiry, or hurried into it by any passion. Seek not to set off your thoughts with studied elegance. Be neither a great talker, nor undertaker of many things. And let the God within thee find he rules a man of courage, an aged man, a good citizen, a Roman, who regulates his life, as waiting for the signal to retreat out of it, without reluctance at his dissolution; who needs not for a bond of obedience, either the tie of an oath, or the observation of others. Join also a chearful countenance, an independence on the services of others, a mind which needs not retirement from the world, to obtain tranquillity; but can maintain it without the assistance of others. One should rather appear to have been always straight and right, and not as amended or rectified.…
6. If you can find any thing in human life better than justice, truth, temperance, fortitude; or, to sum up all, than to have your mind perfectly satisfied with what actions you are engaged in by right reason, and what providence orders independently of your choice: if you find any thing better, I say, turn to it with all your soul, and enjoy the noble discovery. But if nothing appears more excellent than the divinity seated within you, when it hath subjected to its self all its passions, examined all appearances which may excite them, and, as Socrates expresses it, has torn itself off from the attachments to sense; has subjected it self to the Gods, and has an affectionate care of mankind: If you find all things mean and despicable in comparison with this, give place to nothing else: for, if you once give way, and lean towards any thing else, you will not be able, without distraction of mind, to preserve the preference of esteem and honour to your own proper and true good. For it is against the law of justice, that any thing of a different kind withstand the proper good of the rational and social nature; such as the views of popular applause, power, riches, or sensual enjoyments. All these things, if we allow them even for a little to appear suitable to our nature, immediately become our masters and hurry us away. But do you I say, with liberty, and simplicity of heart, chuse what is most excellent, and hold to it resolutely. What is most excellent is most advantageous. If so to the rational nature, retain it; but if only to the animal, renounce it. And preserve the judging power unbyassed by external appearances, that it may make a just and impartial inquiry…
16. The body, the animal soul, the intellectual. To the body belong the senses: to the animal soul, the appetites and passions: to the intellectual, the maxims of life. To have sensible impressions exciting imaginations, is common to us with the cattle. To be moved, like puppets, by appetites and passions, is common to us with the wild beasts, with the most effeminate wretches, Phalaris, and Nero, with atheists, and with traitors to their country. If these things, then, are common to the lowest and most odious characters, this must remain as peculiar to the good man; to have the intellectual part governing and directing him in all the occurring offices of life; to love and embrace all which happens to him by order of providence; to preserve the divinity placed in his breast, pure, undisturbed by a croud of imaginations, and ever calm and well-pleased, and to follow with a graceful reverence the dictates of it as of a God; never speaking against truth, or acting against justice. And, tho’ no man believe he thus lived, with simplicity, modesty, and tranquillity; he neither takes this amiss from any one; nor quits the road which leads to the true end of life; at which he ought to arrive pure, calm, ready to part with life, and accommodated to his lot without reluctance.
Mercy Otis Warren asks why people are so willing to obey the government and answers that it is supineness, fear of resisting, and the long habit of obedience (1805)
Like many authors Warren asks a key question: why do people so readily obey the government? David Hume believed that it was a combination of physical force on the part of the government as well as an ideological belief in the legitimacy of the rulers. Warren seems to think it is perhaps inherent in human nature (“supiness”) but she does admit that resistance does sometime occur (like the American Revolution) and it is again as a result of something in human nature which “ever revolts at the idea of servitude”. She does however admit of some economic reasons for obedience such as old habits of thought which are hard to shake off, and fear of retribution or punishment by the state.
Mercy Otis Warren, History of the Rise, Progress, and Termination of the American Revolution interspersed with Biographical, Political and Moral Observations, in Two Volumes, Foreword by Lester H. Cohen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund 1994). Vol. 1. Chapter: C H A P T E R I I: The Stamp Act • A Congress convened at New York, One thousand seven hundred and sixty-five • The Stamp-Act repealed • New Grievances • Suspension of the Legislature of New York.
In her pioneering History of the American Revolution (1805) Mercy Otis Warren (1728-1814) reflected upon the propensity of human beings to obey authority out of old habits of obedience until they have been pushed to the limits by despotic masters
However injudicious the appointments to American departments might be, the darling  point of an American revenue was an object too consequential to be relinquished, either by the court at St. James’s, the plantation governors, or their mercenary adherents dispersed through the continent. Besides these, there were several classes in America, who were at first exceedingly opposed to measures that militated with the designs of administration;—some impressed by long connexion, were intimidated by her power, and attached by affection to Britain. Others, the true disciples of passive obedience, had real scruples of conscience with regard to any resistance to the powers that be; these, whether actuated by affection or fear, by principle or interest, formed a close combination with the colonial governors, custom-house officers, and all in subordinate departments, who hung on the court for subsistence. By the tenor of the writings of some of these, and the insolent behaviour of others, they became equally obnoxious in the eyes of the people, with the officers of the crown, and the danglers for place; who, disappointed of their prey by the repeal of the stamp-act, and restless for some new project that might enable them to rise into importance, on the spoils of America, were continually whispering malicious insinuations into the ears of the financiers and ministers of colonial departments.
They represented the mercantile body in America as a set of smugglers, forever breaking over the laws of trade and of society; the  people in general as factious, turbulent, and aiming at independence; the legislatures in the several provinces, as marked with the same spirit, and government every where in so lax a state, that the civil authority was insufficient to prevent the fatal effects of popular discontent.
It is indeed true, that resentment had in several instances arisen to outrage, and that the most unwarrantable excesses had been committed on some occasions, which gave grounds for unfavorable representations. Yet it must be acknowledged, that the voice of the people seldom breathes universal murmur, but when the insolence or the oppression of their rulers extorts the bitter complaint. On the contrary, there is a certain supineness which generally overspreads the multitude, and disposes mankind to submit quietly to any form of government, rather than to be at the expense and hazard of resistance. They become attached to ancient modes by habits of obedience, though the reins of authority are sometimes held by the most rigorous hand. Thus we have seen in all ages the many become the slaves of the few; preferring the wretched tranquillity of inglorious ease, they patiently yield to despotic masters, until awakened by multiplied wrongs to the feelings of human nature; which when once aroused to a consciousness of the native freedom and equal rights of man, ever revolts at the idea of servitude.
 Perhaps the story of political revolution never exhibited a more general enthusiasm in the cause of liberty, than that which for several years pervaded all ranks in America, and brought forward events little expected by the most sanguine spirits in the beginning of the controversy. A contest now pushed with so much vigour, that the intelligent yeomanry of the country, as well as those educated in the higher walks, became convinced that nothing less than a systematical plan of slavery was designed against them. They viewed the chains as already forged to manacle the unborn millions; and though every one seemed to dread any new interruption of public tranquillity, the impetuosity of some led them into excesses which could not be restrained by those of more cool and discreet deportment. To the most moderate and judicious it soon became apparent, that unless a timely and bold resistance prevented, the colonists must in a few years sink into the same wretched thraldom, that marks the miserable Asiatic.
George Washington warns that the knee jerk reaction of citizens to problems is to seek a solution in the creation of a “new monarch”(1786)
In a letter to John Jay in 1786 George Washington expresses dismay that the people are all too ready to call for the return of a “new monarch” (i.e. a “leader”) when difficult times arrive. It seems they clamor for an individual with “coercive powers” to solve their problems and that all the talk of equal liberty is “merely ideal and fallacious”.
George Washington, George Washington: A Collection, compiled and edited by W.B. Allen (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1988). Chapter: 117: TO JOHN JAY.
In a letter to John Jay written on August 15, 1786, George Washington worries that, because the states will not grant the central government sufficient "coercive power", they will swing to the other extreme of seeking a new monarch to solve their problems:
TO JOHN JAY
Mount Vernon, August 15, 1786
I have to thank you very sincerely for your interesting letter of the 27th of June, as well as for the other communications you had the goodness to make at the same time.
I’m sorry to be assured, of what indeed I had little doubt before, that we have been guilty of violating the treaty in some instances. What a misfortune it is the British should have so well grounded a pretext for their palpable infractions? And what a disgraceful part, out of the choice of difficulties before us, are we to act?
Your sentiments, that our affairs are drawing rapidly to a crisis, accord with my own. What the event will be is also beyond the reach of my foresight. We have errors to correct. We have probably had too good an opinion of human nature in forming our confederation. Experience has taught us, that men will not adopt & carry into execution, measures the best calculated for their own good without the intervention of a coercive power. I do not conceive we can exist long as a nation, without having lodged somewhere a power which will peruade the whole Union in as energetic a manner, as the authority of the different state governments extend over the several States. To be fearful of vesting Congress, constituted as that body is, with ample authorities for national purposes, appears to me the very climax of popular absurdity and madness. Could Congress exert them for the detriment of the public without injuring themselves in as equal or greater proportion? Are not their interests inseparably connected with those of their constituents? By the rotation of appointment must they not mingle frequently with the mass of citizens? Is it not rather to be apprehended, if they were possessed of the power before described, that the individual members would be induced to use them, on many occasions, very timidly & inefficaciously for fear of losing their popularity & future election? We must take human nature as we find it. Perfection falls not to the share of mortals. Many are of opinion that Congress have too frequently made use of the suppliant humble tone of requisition, in applications to the States, when they had a right to assume their imperial dignity and command obedience. Be that as it may, requisitions are a perfect nihility, where thirteen sovereign, independent, disunited States are in the habit of discussing & refusing compliance with them at their option. Requisitions are actually little better than a jest and a bye word throughout the Land. If you tell the Legislatures they have violated the treaty of peace and invaded the prerogatives of the confederacy they will laugh in your face. What then is to be done? Things cannot go on in the same manner forever. It is much to be feared, as you observe, that the better kind of people being disgusted with the circumstances will have their minds prepared for any revolution whatever. We are apt to run from one extreme into another. To anticipate & prevent disastrous contingencies would be the part of wisdom & patriotism.
What astonishing changes a few years are capable of producing! I am told that even respectable characters speak of a monarchical form of government without horror. From thinking proceeds speaking, thence to acting is often but a single step. But how irrevocable and tremendous! What a triumph for the advocates of despotism to find that we are incapable of governing ourselves, and that systems founded on the basis of equal liberty are merely ideal and fallacious! Would to God that wise measures may be taken in time to avert the consequences we have but too much reason to apprehend.
Retired as I am from the world, I frankly acknowledge I cannot feel myself an unconcerned spectator. Yet having happily assisted in bringing the ship into port & having been fairly discharged; it is not my business to embark again on the sea of troubles. Nor could it be expected that my sentiments and opinions would have much weight on the minds of my countrymen they have been neglected, tho’ given as a last legacy in the most solemn manner. I had then perhaps some claims to public attention. I consider myself as having none at present. With sentiments of sincere esteem & friendship
I am, my dear Sir,
Yr. Most Obed. & Affect.
Lord Kames states that the “hoarding appetite” is part of human nature and that it is the foundation of our notion of property rights (1779)
Like Adam Smith, a fellow member of the Scottish enlightenment, Lord Kames believes that the “hoarding instinct” is innate and that even children and bees (compare Bernard Mandeville) have a sense of “mine and thine”. This is the powerful natural origin of property rights in human society.
Henry Home, Lord Kames, Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion, Corrected and Improved, in a Third Edition. Several Essays Added Concerning the Proof of a Deity, Edited and with an Introduction by Mary Catherine Moran (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2005). Chapter: essay ii: Foundation and Principles of Morality.
Henry Home, Lord Kames, a leading figure of the Scottish Enlightenment, argued in Essays on the Principles of Morality and Natural Religion (1779) that the "hoarding appetitie" was universal among mankind and that it was the basis of the idea of property rights:
The compass I have taken is wide, but the shortest road is not always the smoothest or most patent. I come now to the point, by putting a plain question, What sort of creature would man be, endued as he is with a hoarding appetite, but with no sense or notion of property? He hath a constant propensity to hoard for his own use; conscious at the same time that his stores are no less free to others than to himself;—racked thus perpetually betwixt the desire of appropriation, and consciousness of its being in vain. I say more: the hoarding appetite is an instinct obviously contrived for assisting reason, in moving us to provide against want. This instinct, like all others in the human soul, ought to be a cause adequate to the effect intended to be accomplished by it. But this it cannot be, independent of a sense of property. For what effectual provision can be made against want, when the stores of every individual are, without any check from conscience, left free to the depredations of the whole species? Here would be a palpable defect or inconsistency in the nature of man. If I could suppose this to be his case, I should believe him to be a creature made in haste, and left unfinished. I am certain there is no such inconsistency to be found in any other branch of human nature; nor indeed, as far as we can discover, in any other creature that is endued with the hoarding appetite. Every bee inhabits its own cell, and feeds on its own honey. Every crow has its own nest; and punishment is always applied, when a single stick happens to be pilfered. But we find no such inconsistency in man. The cattle tamed by an individual, and the field cultivated by him, were held universally to be his own from the beginning. A relation is formed betwixt every man and the fruits of his own labour, the very thing we call property, which he himself is sensible of, and of which every other is equally sensible. Yours and mine are terms in all languages, familiar among savages, and understood even by children. This is a fact, which every human creature can testify.
John Locke believed that the magistrate should not punish sin but only violations of natural rights and public peace (1689)
Living in the 17th century Locke had seen or had heard about the terrible things which had been done in the name of religion as Christian Europe divided into Catholic and Protestant sections and fought to the death over their scriptural differences. Locke was a middle of the road supporter of toleration (he denied it to atheists and Muslims for example) but considerably advanced compared to some of his contemporaries. In this passage he clearly states that, unless another person’s rights are violated (such as their property or liberty) the magistrate has no right under law to punish a person for the very nebulous and disputed concept of “sin”. Note the related works of Pierre Bayle and Voltaire on this topic.
John Locke, The Works of John Locke in Nine Volumes, (London: Rivington, 1824 12th ed.). Vol. 5. Chapter: A LETTER CONCERNING TOLERATION.
John Locke (1632-1704), in his Letter on Toleration, argued that sins should not be punished by the magistrate. Only acts which are "prejudicial to other men’s rights" should be legally punished:
But idolatry, say some, is a sin, and therefore not to be tolerated. If they said it were therefore to be avoided, the inference were good. But it does not follow, that because it is a sin it ought therefore to be punished by the magistrate. For it does not belong unto the magistrate to make use of his sword in punishing every thing, indifferently, that he takes to be a sin against God. Covetousness, uncharitableness, idleness, and many other things are sins, by the consent of all men, which yet no man ever said were to be punished by the magistrate. The reason is, because they are not prejudicial to other men’s rights, nor do they break the public peace of societies. Nay, even the sins of lying and perjury are no where punishable by laws; unless in certain cases, in which the real turpitude of the thing and the offence against God, are not considered, but only the injury done unto men’s neighbours, and to the commonwealth. And what if in another country, to a mahometan or a pagan prince, the christian religion seem false and offensive to God; may not the christians for the same reason, and after the same manner, be extirpated there?
Adam Smith on social change and “the man of system” (1759)
This chapter in the Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759) might be seen as Adam Smith’s strategy for achieving political and social change. He contrasts two different approaches to achieving change which emerge from “the turbulence and disorder of faction”, namely those embued with “the spirit of system” who wish to change society root and branch by imposing their “plan of government” upon the whole of society by force if necessary, and the man “of humanity and benevolence” who, although he is aware of abuses and injustices, knows that change must proceed slowly by moderating those abuses gradually and avoiding the use of violence wherever possible. The “man of system” sees the world as a large “chess board” with pieces which can be moved around at the will of the legislator. The man of “humanity and benevolence” sees that every chess piece “has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it”. The problem Smith does not address here is that which was faced in America in 1776 and France in 1789, what is the man of “humanity and benevolence” do when confronted by a state which refuses to allow gradual and piecemeal change?
Adam Smith, The Theory of Moral Sentiments, ed. D.D. Raphael and A.L. Macfie, vol. I of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982). Chapter: chap. ii: Of the order in which Societies are by nature recommended to our Beneficence.
Adam Smith (1723-1790) contrasts two different ways by which the evils of society might be reformed: the “man of humanity and benevolence” who uses reason and persuasion and “the man of system” who imposes his own “ideal plan of government” on others by force:
Amidst the turbulence and disorder of faction, a certain spirit of system is apt to mix itself with that public spirit which is founded upon the love of humanity, upon a real fellow–feeling with the inconveniencies and distresses to which some of our fellow–citizens may be exposed. This spirit of system commonly takes the direction of that more gentle public spirit; always animates it, and often inflames it even to the madness of fanaticism. The leaders of the discontented party seldom fail to hold out some plausible plan of reformation which, they pretend, will not only remove the inconveniencies and relieve the distresses immediately complained of, but will prevent, in all time coming, any return of the like inconveniencies and distresses. They often propose, upon this account, to new–model the constitution, and to alter, in some of its most essential parts, that system of government under which the subjects of a great empire have enjoyed, perhaps, peace, security, and even glory, during the course of several centuries together. The great body of the party are commonly intoxicated with the imaginary beauty of this ideal system, of which they have no experience, but which has been represented to them in all the most dazzling colours in which the eloquence of their leaders could paint it. Those leaders themselves, though they originally may have meant nothing but their own aggrandisement, become many of them in time the dupes of their own sophistry, and are as eager for this great reformation as the weakest and foolishest of their followers. Even though the leaders should have preserved their own heads, as indeed they commonly do, free from this fanaticism, yet they dare not always disappoint the expectation of their followers; but are often obliged, though contrary to their principle and their conscience, to act as if they were under the common delusion. The violence of the party, refusing all palliatives, all temperaments, all reasonable accommodations, by requiring too much frequently obtains nothing; and those inconveniencies and distresses which, with a little moderation, might in a great measure have been removed and relieved, are left altogether without the hope of a remedy.
The man whose public spirit is prompted altogether by humanity and benevolence, will respect the established powers and privileges even of individuals, and still more those of the great orders and societies, into which the state is divided. Though he should consider some of them as in some measure abusive, he will content himself with moderating, what he often cannot annihilate without great violence. When he cannot conquer the rooted prejudices of the people by reason and persuasion, he will not attempt to subdue them by force; but will religiously observe what, by Cicero, is justly called the divine maxim of Plato, never to use violence to his country no more than to his parents. He will accommodate, as well as he can, his public arrangements to the confirmed habits and prejudices of the people; and will remedy as well as he can, the inconveniencies which may flow from the want of those regulations which the people are averse to submit to. When he cannot establish the right, he will not disdain to ameliorate the wrong; but like Solon, when he cannot establish the best system of laws, he will endeavour to establish the best that the people can bear.
The man of system, on the contrary, is apt to be very wise in his own conceit; and is often so enamoured with the supposed beauty of his own ideal plan of government, that he cannot suffer the smallest deviation from any part of it. He goes on to establish it completely and in all its parts, without any regard either to the great interests, or to the strong prejudices which may oppose it. He seems to imagine that he can arrange the different members of a great society with as much ease as the hand arranges the different pieces upon a chess–board. He does not consider that the pieces upon the chess–board have no other principle of motion besides that which the hand impresses upon them; but that, in the great chess–board of human society, every single piece has a principle of motion of its own, altogether different from that which the legislature might chuse to impress upon it. If those two principles coincide and act in the same direction, the game of human society will go on easily and harmoniously, and is very likely to be happy and successful. If they are opposite or different, the game will go on miserably, and the society must be at all times in the highest degree of disorder.
Adam Smith on the “Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration” one feels when contemplating the physical World (1795)
As we continue to explore the complete works of Adam Smith in the Glasgow Edition republished by Liberty Fund, we find many unexpected gems. Here we see Smith lecturing on science to undergraduates and expressing his heartfelt admiration for the beauty of the physical world.
Adam Smith, Essays on Philosophical Subjects, ed. W. P. D. Wightman and J. C. Bryce, vol. III of the Glasgow Edition of the Works and Correspondence of Adam Smith (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 1982). Chapter: The HISTORY of ASTRONOMY.
In a lecture on Astronomy Adam Smith explores the range of feelings one feels when observing the wonders of nature and the beauties of the physical world:
Wonder, Surprise, and Admiration, are words which, though often confounded, denote, in our language, sentiments that are indeed allied, but that are in some respects different also, and distinct from one another. What is new and singular, excites that sentiment which, in strict propriety, is called Wonder; what is unexpected, Surprise; and what is great or beautiful, Admiration.
We wonder at all extraordinary and uncommon objects, at all the rarer phaenomena of nature, at meteors, comets, eclipses, at singular plants and animals, and at every thing, in short, with which we have before been either little or not at all acquainted; and we still wonder, though forewarned of what we are to see.
We are surprised at those things which we have seen often, but which we least of all expected to meet with in the place where we find them; we are surprised at the sudden appearance of a friend, whom we have seen a thousand times, but whom we did not imagine we were to see then.
We admire the beauty of a plain or the greatness of a mountain, though we have seen both often before, and though nothing appears to us in either, but what we had expected with certainty to see …
These sentiments, like all others when inspired by one and the same object, mutually support and enliven one another: an object with which we are quite familiar, and which we see every day, produces, though both great and beautiful, but a small effect upon us; because our admiration is not supported either by Wonder or by Surprise: and if we have heard a very accurate description of a monster, our Wonder will be the less when we see it; because our previous knowledge of it will in a great measure prevent our Surprise.
It is the design of this Essay to consider particularly the nature and causes of each of these sentiments, whose influence is of far wider extent than we should be apt upon a careless view to imagine. I shall begin with Surprise.
Mill on the dangers of the state turning men into “docile instruments” of its will (1859)
It would have alarmed Mill to see how many of the activities of the modern welfare state are justified on the grounds of “utility” and the improvement in the “happiness” of people as judged by politicians and bureaucrats. This is exactly what he warned against in his book On Liberty (1859). In the following passage he warns of the dangers to the independence and autonomy of the very individuals the Poor Law Board was trying to help with its welfare legislation. By substituting “its own activity for theirs” the State does a great “mischief” by hindering the moral and economic self-improvement of the people.
John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XVIII - Essays on Politics and Society Part I, ed. John M. Robson, Introduction by Alexander Brady (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1977). On Liberty: CHAPTER V: Applications.
The British philosopher and Member of Parliament John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) warned that if government did too much for people it would turn them into “docile instruments in its hands”:
To determine the point at which evils, so formidable to human freedom and advancement, begin, or rather at which they begin to predominate over the benefits attending the collective application of the force of society, under its recognised chiefs, for the removal of the obstacles which stand in the way of its well-being; to secure as much of the advantages of centralized power and intelligence, as can be had without turning into governmental channels too great a proportion of the general activity—is one of the most difficult and complicated questions in the art of government. It is, in a great measure, a question of detail, in which many and various considerations must be kept in view, and no absolute rule can be laid down. But I believe that the practical principle in which safety resides, the ideal to be kept in view, the standard by which to test all arrangements intended for overcoming the difficulty, may be conveyed in these words: the greatest dissemination of power consistent with efficiency; but the greatest possible centralization of information, and diffusion of it from the centre. Thus, in municipal administration, there would be, as in the New England States, a very minute division among separate officers, chosen by the localities, of all business which is not better left to the persons directly interested; but besides this, there would be, in each department of local affairs, a central superintendence, forming a branch of the general government. The organ of this superintendence would concentrate, as in a focus, the variety of information and experience derived from the conduct of that branch of public business in all the localities, from everything analogous which is done in foreign countries, and from the general principles of political science. This central organ should have a right to know all that is done, and its special duty should be that of making the knowledge acquired in one place available for others. Emancipated from the petty prejudices and narrow views of a locality by its elevated position and comprehensive sphere of observation, its advice would naturally carry much authority; but its actual power, as a permanent institution, should, I conceive, be limited to compelling the local officers to obey the laws laid down for their guidance. In all things not provided for by general rules, those officers should be left to their own judgment, under responsibility to their constituents. For the violation of rules, they should be responsible to law, and the rules themselves should be laid down by the legislature; the central administrative authority only watching over their execution, and if they were not properly carried into effect, appealing, according to the nature of the case, to the mtribunalsm to enforce the law, or to the constituencies to dismiss the functionaries who had not executed it according to its spirit. Such, in its general conception, is the central superintendence which the Poor Law Board is intended to exercise over the administrators of the Poor Rate throughout the country. Whatever powers the Board exercises beyond this limit, were right and necessary in that peculiar case, for the cure of rooted habits of maladministration in matters deeply affecting not the localities merely, but the whole community; since no locality has a moral right to make itself by mismanagement a nest of pauperism, necessarily overflowing into other localities, and impairing the moral and physical condition of the whole labouring community. The powers of administrative coercion and subordinate legislation possessed by the Poor Law Board (but which, owing to the state of opinion on the subject, are very scantily exercised by them), though perfectly justifiable in a case of first-rate national interest, would be wholly out of place in the superintendence of interests purely local. But a central organ of information and instruction for all the localities, would be equally valuable in all departments of administration. A government cannot have too much of the kind of activity which does not impede, but aids and stimulates, individual exertion and development. The mischief begins when, instead of calling forth the activity and powers of individuals and bodies, it substitutes its own activity for theirs; when, instead of informing, advising, and, upon occasion, denouncing, it makes them work in fetters, or bids them stand aside and does their work instead of them. The worth of a State, in the long run, is the worth of the individuals composing it; and a State which postpones the interests of their mental expansion and elevation, to a little more of administrative skill, or of that semblance of it which practice gives, in the details of business; a State which dwarfs its men, in order that they may be more docile instruments in its hands even for beneficial purposes—will find that with small men no great thing can really be accomplished; and that the perfection of machinery to which it has sacrificed everything, will in the end avail it nothing, for want of the vital power which, in order that the machine might work more smoothly, it has preferred to banish.
Frederick Pollock argues that a violent assault on the football field is not an actionable tort because it is part of the activities of a voluntarily agreed to association of adults (1895)
As part of our series of quotations about football and liberty during this Super Bowl week we have a passage from the English legal historian and jurist Sir Frederick Polloack’s book on The Law of Torts (1895). He makes the interesting point that what might appear at first sight to be a violent assault on somebody’s rights (in other words that there is a perpetrator of a crime and the victim of a crime) is in fact what is nowadays called a “victimless crime”. In the example he so colourfully uses, that of violence committed during a football game (presumably “soccer” and not American football), all the players have voluntarily agreed to play the game according to a set of rules and that an inevitable part of the game is violent tackling. Therefore it follows from this that there can be no “victim” and no criminal “perpetrator” when all have voluntarily agreed to play the game. Thus, football might be seen to be a case of a “victimless crime”.
Sir Frederick Pollock, The Law of Torts: A Treatise on the Principles of Obligations arising from Civil Wrongs in the Common Law: to which is added the Draft of a Code of Civil Wrongs prepared for the Government of India, Fourth Edition (London: Stevens and Sons, 1895). Chapter: CHAPTER IV.: GENERAL EXCEPTIONS.
Sir Frederick Pollock (1845-1937) makes a distinction in his discussion of torts between doing justified and unjustified harm to others. Since playing football is a voluntary activity where the rules are agreed to in advance by the players, then what ostensibly looks like a violent assault on the field, or what he called “a confused fight of savages,” is just a tackle:
We have considered the general principles of liability for civil wrongs. It now becomes needful to consider the general exceptions to which these principles are subject, or in other words the rules of immunity which limit the rules of liability. There are various conditions which, when present, will prevent an act from being wrongful which in their absence would be a wrong. Under such conditions the act is said to be justified or excused. And when an act is said in general terms to be wrongful, it is assumed that no such qualifying condition exists. It is an actionable wrong, generally speaking, to lay hands on a man in the way of force or restraint. But it is the right of every man to defend himself against unlawful force, and it is the duty of officers of justice to apply force and restraint in various degrees, from simple arrest to the infliction of death itself, in execution of the process and sentences of the law. Here the harm done, and wilfully done, is justified. There are incidents, again, in every football match which an uninstructed observer might easily take for a confused fight of savages, and grave hurt sometimes ensues to one or more of the players. Yet, so long as the play is fairly conducted according to the rules agreed upon, there is no wrong and no cause of action. For the players have joined in the game of their own free will, and accepted its risks. Not that a man is bound to play football or any other rough game, but if he does he must abide its ordinary chances. Here the harm done, if not justified (for, though in a manner unavoidable, it was not in a legal sense necessary), is nevertheless excused. Again, defamation is a wrong; but there are certain occasions on which a man may with impunity make and publish untrue statements to the prejudice of another. Again, “sic utere tuo ut alienum non laedas” is said to be a precept of law; yet there are divers things a man may freely do for his own ends, though he well knows that his neighbour will in some way be the worse for them.
Mises on the public sector as “tax eaters” who “feast” on the assets of the ordinary tax payer (1953)
A recurrent theme in classical liberal thought both in Europe and America is the notion that those who benefit from taxes, whether by working for the state or receiving state funded subsidies and grants, form a separate group with distinct interests from those who pay the taxes from their earnings or savings. In the 19th century James Mill (the father of John Stuart) distinguished between those who “pillage” and those who are “pillaged” and this idea was an important component in the political thought of the “philosophic radicals”. The English radical John Wade made this idea a key part of his analysis in his Black Book in which he listed all the beneficiaries of government subsidies in Britain in the 1820s and 1830s. In a cartoon which accompanied the 1835 edition he showed Gulliver (as the British taxpayer) bound and tied on the ground by government officials and tax recipients (as the Lilliputians) who rifle his pockets. Another depiction of this same idea was provided by the French cartoonist and caricaturist Honoré Daumier in “Gargantua” (1831) in which King Louis Philippe is shown as a classic example of the “tax eating” ruler. By the 1840s the French liberal political economist Frédéric Basiait (1801-1850) had developed these ideas into a more sophisticated analysis of what he termed “legal plunder.” His planned “History of Plunder” never eventuated because of his premature death in 1850. All we have is a sketch of what he planned to write on this interesting topic. On the other side of the Atlantic the Southern agrarian Jeffersonian republican John C. Calhoun (1782-1850) concluded in a very similar fashion in his Disquisition on Government (1843-1848) that “the necessary result, then, of the unequal fiscal action of the government is, to divide the community into two great classes; one consisting of those who, in reality, pay the taxes, and, of course, bear exclusively the burthen of supporting the government; and the other, of those who are the recipients of their proceeds, through disbursements, and who are, in fact, supported by the government; or, in fewer words, to divide it into tax-payers and tax-consumers.”
Ludwig von Mises, Economic Freedom and Interventionism: An Anthology of Articles and Essays, selected and edited by Bettina Bien Greaves (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2007). Chapter: 12: The Agony of the Welfare State.
In a similar fashion to John C. Calhoun’s division of the world into net “tax-consumers” and net “tax-payers”, the Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises (1881-1973) distinguished between the ordinary citizens who paid taxes and the public sector entities like the New York subway which “consumed” the taxes paid by the former. This is a classic example of what Mises in 1945 termed “the clash of group interests”:
Derailment of State Railroads
The financial embarrassment of the main European countries is predominantly caused by the bankruptcy of the nationalized public utilities. The deficit of these enterprises is incurable. A further rise in their rates would bring about a drop in total net proceeds. The traffic could not bear it. Daily experience proves clearly to everybody but the most bigoted fanatics of socialism that governmental management is inefficient and wasteful. But it is impossible to sell these enterprises back to private capital because the threat of a new expropriation by a later government would deter potential buyers.
In a capitalist country the railroads and the telegraph and telephone companies pay considerable taxes. In the countries of the mixed economy, the yearly losses of these public enterprises are a heavy drain upon the nation’s purse. They are not taxpayers, but tax-eaters.
Under the conditions of today, the nationalized public utilities of Europe are not merely feasting on taxes paid by the citizens of their own country; they are also living at the expense of the American taxpayer. A considerable part of the foreign-aid billions is swallowed by the deficits of Europe’s nationalization experiments. If the United States had nationalized the American railroads, and had not only to forgo the taxes that the companies pay, but, in addition, to cover every year a deficit of several billions, it would not have been in a position to indemnify the European countries for the foolishness of their own socialization policies. So what is postponing the obvious collapse of the Welfare State in Europe is merely the fact that the United States has been slow and “backward” in adopting the principles of the Welfare State’s “new economics”: it has not nationalized railroads, telephone, and telegraph.
Yet Americans who want to study the effects of public ownership of transit systems are not forced to visit Europe. Some of the nation’s largest cities—among them Detroit, Baltimore, Boston, San Francisco—provide them with ample material. The most instructive case, however, is that of the New York City subways.
New York City subways are only a local transit system. In many technological and financial respects, however, they surpass by far the national railroad systems of many countries. As everybody knows, their operation results every year in a tremendous deficit. The financial management accumulates operating deficits, planning to fund them by the issuance of serial bonds. Only a municipality of the bigness, wealth, and prestige of New York could venture on such a policy. With a private corporation financial analysts would apply a rather ugly word to its procedures: bankruptcy. No sane investor would buy bonds of a private corporation run on such a basis.
Incorrigible socialists are, of course, not at all alarmed. “Why should a subway pay?” they are asking. “The schools, the hospitals, the police do not pay; there is no reason why it should be different with a transit system.” This “why” is really remarkable. As if the problem were to find an answer to a why, and not to a wherefrom.
There is always this socialist prepossession with the idea that the “rich” can be endlessly soaked. The sad fact, however, is that there is not enough left to fill the bottomless barrels of the public treasury. Precisely because the schools, the hospitals, and the police are very expensive, the city cannot bear the subway deficit. If it wants to levy a special tax to subsidize the subway, it will have to tax the same people who are supposed to profit from the preservation of the low fare.
The other alternative is to raise the fare from the present  level of ten cents to fifteen cents.* It will certainly be done. And it will certainly prove insufficient. After a while a rise to twenty cents will follow—with the same unfavorable result. There is no remedy for the inefficiency of public management. Moreover there is a limit to the height at which raised rates will increase revenue. Beyond this point further rises are self-defeating. This is the dilemma facing every public enterprise.
Frédéric Bastiat on the state as the great fiction by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else (1848)
Liberty Fund is preparing a multi-volume collection of the selected works of Frédéric Bastiat in a translation which will take several years to complete. Much of this material has never been translated into English before. Here we have an older English translation of this favorite aphorism by Bastiat. In an earlier quotation we provided the French original. Soon after he wrote this piece Bastiat died in Italy from a serious throat condition and thus France lost one of its ablest defenders of the free market and individual liberty.
Frédéric Bastiat, Selected Essays on Political Economy, trans. Seymour Cain, ed. George B. de Huszar, introduction by F.A. Hayek (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1995). Chapter: 5: The State.
In his essay on “The State”, which Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) wrote during the revolutionary year of 1848 when socialist governments were promising the moon to French citizens, he sarcastically offered his own definition of what the state was
As, on the one hand, it is certain that we all address some such request to the state, and, on the other hand, it is a well-established fact that the state cannot procure satisfaction for some without adding to the labor of others, while awaiting another definition of the state, I believe myself entitled to give my own here. Who knows if it will not carry off the prize? Here it is:
The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.
For, today as in the past, each of us, more or less, would like to profit from the labor of others. One does not dare to proclaim this feeling publicly, one conceals it from oneself, and then what does one do? One imagines an intermediary; one addresses the state, and each class proceeds in turn to say to it: “You, who can take fairly and honorably, take from the public and share with us.” Alas! The state is only too ready to follow such diabolical advice; for it is composed of cabinet ministers, of bureaucrats, of men, in short, who, like all men, carry in their hearts the desire, and always enthusiastically seize the opportunity, to see their wealth and influence grow. The state understands, then, very quickly the use it can make of the role the public entrusts to it. It will be the arbiter, the master, of all destinies. It will take a great deal; hence, a great deal will remain for itself. It will multiply the number of its agents; it will enlarge the scope of its prerogatives; it will end by acquiring overwhelming proportions.
But what is most noteworthy is the astonishing blindness of the public to all this. When victorious soldiers reduced the vanquished to slavery, they were barbarous, but they were not absurd. Their object was, as ours is, to live at the expense of others; but, unlike us, they attained it. What are we to think of a people who apparently do not suspect that reciprocal pillage is no less pillage because it is reciprocal; that it is no less criminal because it is carried out legally and in an orderly manner; that it adds nothing to the public welfare; that, on the contrary, it diminishes it by all that this spendthrift intermediary that we call the state costs?
John Bright calls British foreign policy “a gigantic system of (welfare) for the aristocracy” (1858)
The anti-war and anti-empire British politician John Bright, along with his colleague Richard Cobden, suffered at the hands of the electorate for their opposition to Britain’s involvement in the Crimean War (1854-56) against the Russian Empire. The nationalism of the moment led to Cobden’s defeat at the election of 1857. Bright was able to hold his seat perhaps with the help of his great skills as an orator as exemplified in this speech from 1858 in which he reflects on the path Britain’s foreign policy had taken after the Glorious Revolution of 1688 up to the Crimean War. His conclusion is that, as in so many areas, the ruling elites were able to dominate parliament in such a way as to make sure that taxpayer funded benefits and subsidies ended up in their pockets. In this case, he argued that the elites who controlled the army, the navy, and the foreign office were just so many “place-hunters” who sought and got secure, well-paying government jobs and contracts at the expense of the ordinary British taxpayers. He took every opportunity to bring these facts to the attention of the British people in public talks and speeches in parliament during his long political career which spanned the years from 1843 to 1889. He sadly concluded that things had not changed very much during this period since “men made no progress whatever, but went round and round like a squirrel in a cage” making the same mistakes over and over again.
John Bright, Selected Speeches of the Rt. Hon. John Bright M.P. On Public Questions, introduction by Joseph Sturge (London: J.M. Dent and Co., 1907). Chapter: XVI: FOREIGN POLICY.
The British MP John Bright (1811-1889) gave a speech to his constituents in the Birmingham Town Hall on October 29, 1858 in which he asked who benefitted from Britain’s foreign policy of constantly interfering in the affairs of other nations? His conclusion was that it served the needs of the “place-hunters”, those members of the ruling elite who sought jobs for themselves, their families, and their friends. In other words, a form of welfare for the aristocracy:
But, it may be asked, did nobody gain? If Europe is no better, and the people of England have been so much worse, who has benefited by the new system of foreign policy? What has been the fate of those who were enthroned at the Revolution, and whose supremacy has been for so long a period undisputed among us? Mr. Kinglake, the author of an interesting book on Eastern Travel, describing the habits of some acquaintances that he made in the Syrian Deserts, says that the jackals of the Desert follow their prey in families like the place-hunters of Europe. I will reverse, if you like, the comparison, and say that the great territorial families of England, which were enthroned at the Revolution, have followed their prey like the jackals of the Desert. Do you not observe at a glance that, from the time of William III, by reason of the foreign policy which I denounce, wars have been multiplied, taxes increased, loans made, and the sums of money which every year the Government has to expend augmented, and that so the patronage at the disposal of Ministers must have increased also, and the families who were enthroned and made powerful in the legislation and administration of the country must have had the first pull at, and the largest profit out of, that patronage? There is no actuary in existence who can calculate how much of the wealth, of the strength, of the supremacy of the territorial families of England has been derived from an unholy participation in the fruits of the industry of the people, which have been wrested from them by every device of taxation, and squandered in every conceivable crime of which a Government could possibly be guilty.
The more you examine this matter the more you will come to the conclusion which I have arrived at, that this foreign policy, this regard for “the liberties of Europe,” this care at one time for “the Protestant interests,” this excessive love for the “balance of power,” is neither more nor less than a gigantic system of out-door relief for the aristocracy of Great Britain. [Great laughter.] I observe that you receive that declaration as if it were some new and important discovery. In 1815, when the great war with France was ended, every Liberal in England, whose politics, whose hopes, and whose faith had not been crushed out of him by the tyranny of the time of that war, was fully aware of this, and openly admitted it, and up to 1832, and for some years afterwards, it was the fixed and undoubted creed of the great Liberal party. But somehow all is changed. We who stand upon the old landmarks, who walk in the old paths, who would conserve what is wise and prudent, are hustled and shoved about as if we were come to turn the world upside down. The change which has taken place seems to confirm the opinion of a lamented friend of mine, who, not having succeeded in all his hopes, thought that men made no progress whatever, but went round and round like a squirrel in a cage. The idea is now so general that it is our duty to meddle everywhere, that it really seems as if we had pushed the Tories from the field, expelling them by our competition.
J.S. Mill spoke in Parliament in favour of granting women the right to vote, to have “a voice in determining who shall be their rulers” (1866)
John Stuart Mill began work on his companion piece to On Liberty soon after the latter appeared in print in 1859. This was to be The Subjection of Women which eventually appeared after some delay, perhaps for political reasons, in 1869 shorty before his death. The former work was designed to be a defence of liberty in the general case; the latter a defence of a particular kind of liberty affecting one group of people. During the period he was working on the book Mill repeatedly stood up in parliament to argue for the right of women to participate in politics, or as he slyly put it, to have “a voice in determining who shall be their rulers.” Of course, he was unsuccessful. Women in Britain did not get to choose their rulers until 1928 (however they could participate in local council elections in 1869, the year Mill’s book appeared).
John Stuart Mill, The Collected Works of John Stuart Mill, Volume XXVIII - Public and Parliamentary Speeches Part I November 1850 - November 1868, ed. John M. Robson and Bruce L. Kinzer (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, London: Routledge and Kegan Paul, 1988). Chapter: 25.: Electoral Franchise for Women 17 JULY, 1866.
In July 1866 Mill spoke in moving "for an Address for ‘Return of the number of Freeholders, Householders, and others in England and Wales who, fulfilling the conditions of property or rental prescribed by Law as the qualification for the Electoral Franchise, are excluded from the Franchise by reason of their sex.’":
Sir, I rise to make the Motion of which I have given notice. After the petition which I had the honour of presenting a few weeks ago, the House would naturally expect that its attention would be called, however briefly, to the claim preferred in that document. The petition, and the circumstances attendant on its preparation, have, to say the least, greatly weakened the chief practical argument which we have been accustomed to hear against any proposal to admit women to the electoral franchise—namely, that few, if any, women desire it. Originating as that petition did entirely with ladies, without the instigation, and, to the best of my belief, without the participation of any person of the male sex in any stage of the proceedings, except the final one of its presentation to Parliament, the amount of response which became manifest, the number of signatures obtained in a very short space of time, not to mention the quality of many of those signatures, may not have been surprising to the ladies who promoted the petition, but was certainly quite unexpected by me. I recognize in it the accustomed sign that the time has arrived when a proposal of a public nature is ripe for being taken into serious consideration—namely, when a word spoken on the subject is found to have been the expression of a silent wish pervading a great number of minds, and a signal given in the hope of rallying a few supporters is unexpectedly answered by many. It is not necessary to offer any justification for the particular Motion which I am about to make. (Hear, hear. ) When the complaint is made that certain citizens of this nation, fulfilling all the conditions and giving all the guarantees which the Constitution and the law require from those who are admitted to a voice in determining who shall be their rulers, are excluded from that privilege for what appears to them, and for what appears to me, an entirely irrelevant consideration, the least we can do is to ascertain what number of persons are affected by the grievance, and how great an addition would be made to the constituency if this disability were removed. I should not have attempted more than this in the present Session, even if the recent discussions in reference to Reform had not been brought to an abrupt close. Even if the late Government had succeeded in its honourable attempt to effect an amicable compromise of the Reform question, any understanding or any wish which might have existed as to the finality, for a certain period, of that compromise, could not have effected such a proposal as this, the adoption of which would not be, in any sense of the term, a lowering of the franchise, and is not intended to disturb in any degree the distribution of political power among the different classes of society. Indeed, honourable Gentlemen opposite seem to think, and I suppose they are the best judges, that this concession, assuming it to be made, if it had any effect on party politics at all, would be favourable to their side (hear); and the right honourable Member for Dublin University, in his humorous manner, advised me on that ground to withdraw this article from my political programme; but I cannot, either in jest or in earnest, adopt his suggestion, for I am bound to consider the permanent benefit of the community before the temporary interest of a party; and I entertain the firmest conviction that whatever holds out an inducement to one-half of the community to exercise their minds on the great social and political questions which are discussed in Parliament, and whatever causes the great influence they already possess to be exerted under the guidance of greater knowledge, and under a sense of responsibility, cannot be ultimately advantageous to the Conservative or any other cause, except so far as that cause is a good one. And I rejoice in the knowledge that in the estimation of many honourable Gentlemen of the party opposite, the proposal made in the petition is, like many of the most valuable Reforms, as truly Conservative, as I am sure it is truly Liberal. I listened with pleasure and gratitude to the right honourable Gentleman who is now Chancellor of the Exchequer, when in his speech on the second reading of the Reform Bill, he said he saw no reason why women of independent means should not possess the electoral franchise, in a country where they can preside in manorial courts and fill parish offices—to which let me add, and the Throne. (Hear, hear. )
Last modified April 13, 2016