Benjamin Constant on why the oppressed often prefer their chains to liberty (1815)

Benjamin Constant

Found in Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments

Towards the end of Napoleon’s régime the French political philosopher Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) wrote his major work on political theory, Principles of Politics (1810-1815), in which he asks why it sometimes appears that the oppressed prefer their chains to liberty:

In the countries where these oppressive laws continue in undiminished rigor, it has been claimed, as always in such cases, that the classes they oppress recognize the advantages therein. It has been said that serfdom, a natural consequence of this system of property, was felicitous for the peasants and examples were given. Nobles one could suspect of hypocrisy and who should at least be accused of lack of foresight, have offered their vassals freedom. This is to say that they proposed to men brutalized by ignorance, without energy or capability or ideas, that they leave their fields and cabins, to go freely with their infirm parents and children of tender years, in search of a subsistence they had no means of procuring. These vassals preferred their chains, from which it was concluded that serfdom was agreeable.

Many classical liberals have asked themselves the question which is probably the most troubling to them, what if people prefer something else, such as security or equality, to that of individual, political, and economic liberty? The answer given by many tyrants is that “their people” are like children who need the guiding hand of a “political father” who can look after them. One such “political father” figure was Emperor Napoleon and it was during the last years of his régime that the French liberal political philosopher Benjamin Constant (1767–1830) pondered the awful question, what if the French people had come to like the strong hand of the state controlling every aspect of their lives, and when given the chance of political freedom would turn their back on it? His answer was that this often occurred when people had become so brutalized by their political “serfdom” that they had become afraid of freedom. They, he thought, were not the ones to ask about the benefits of freedom. The value of liberty was most appreciated by those who had fought and won their battle to be free.