Frédéric Bastiat asks what came first, property or law? (1850)

The French political economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) argues that it is in order to defend one’s already existing person, liberty, and property that laws are made:

Herbert Spencer on customs which are the result of human action but not of deliberate design (1876)

The English sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) notes that human “conventions” or customs are not the result of any deliberate design by human beings but usually evolve gradually and spontaneously over very long periods of time:

Destutt de Tracy on society as “nothing but a succession of exchanges” (1817)

The French revolutionary politician and republican Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) believed that society was a complex web of mutually beneficial transactions which brought people together both across space and time:

James Wilson asks if man exists for the sake of government, or is government instituted for the sake of man? (1791)

James Wilson (1742-1798), one of the signers of the Declaration of Independence and one of the original justices appointed by George Washington to the United States Supreme Court, delivered some Lectures on Law in 1790-91 in which he argued that the function of government was to protect and enlarge an individual’s existing natural rights, not to subvert or restrain them:

Sir Edward Coke declares that your house is your “Castle and Fortress” (1604)

The English judge and jurist Sir Edward Coke (pronounced cook) (1552-1634) declared in a ruling known as Semayne’s Case that there were strict limits on how Sheriffs may enter a person’s house in order to issue writs:

Gouverneur Morris on the proper balance between commerce, private property, and political liberty (1776)

In his Political Enquiries (1776) Gouverneur Morris (1752-1816) was ruminating on key political questions on the eve of American independence. In this section “Of Commerce” he worries about the tension between private property rights and commerce on the one hand, and the exercise of political liberty which might be used to violate property rights:

Liberty in the French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen (1789)

The French Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen was promulgated in August 1789 and drew heavily upon the American precedents of the Virginia Declaration (May 1776) and the Declaration of Independence (4 July 1776). We quote here the first few articles:

John Lilburne rails against his unjust imprisonment (1646)

The English Leveller John Lilburne (1615-1657) denounces the government for his false imprisonment, his jailers for their corrupt practices, and demands his rights as an Englishmen under Common Law to face a jury of his peers, otherwise … :

John Locke on the separation of Church and Magistrate (1689)

John Locke (1632-1704) was also known in his lifetime as a staunch defender of religious toleration. In this passage he calls for the complete separation of church and magistrate:

Arthur Seldon on the problem of “who guards us from the guardians”? (1990)

The founder of the Institute of Economic Affairs, Arthur Seldon (1916-2005), argues that advocates of limited government have still yet to solve this most important political problem:

Spinoza on the dangers of using superstition to hoodwink the people (1670)

The 17th century rationalist philosopher Benedict de Spinoza (1632-1677) warns how religion can be misused by tyrants to hoodwink the people into fighting just as bravely for their own slavery as for liberty:

Cobden on the folly of using government force to “protect commerce” (1836)

The English manufacturer and defender of free trade Ricard Cobden (1804-1865) argued that the very nature of trade would be changed if it were “touched by the hand of violence”:

Destutt de Tracy on the mutually beneficial nature of exchange (1817)

In his Treatise on Political Economy (1817) which was so admired by Thomas Jefferson, the French revolutionary politician and republican Destutt de Tracy (1754-1836) argues that both parties to a voluntary exchange benefit (i..e profit) from the same transaction:

John Milton on the tyranny of government licensed printing (1644)

The English revolutionary poet and pamphleteer John Milton (1608-1674) wrote one of the greatest defences of the freedom of speech, Areopagita, in 1644. Here he compares the censoring of ideas in books to restrictions on the free trade of goods:

William Leggett on the separation of bank and state (1837)

The Jacksonian era journalist William Leggett (1801-1839) was the intellectual leader of the laissez-faire wing of Jacksonian democrats. He believed that the “separation of bank and state” was an essential part of “democratic” economic policy:

Tocqueville on Centralised Government in Canada and Decentralised Government in America (1856)

Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) believed that the true essence of the government of the old régime was revealed in the institutions it created in its Canadian colony, in very great contrast to what was happening in the British colonies:

Michel Chevalier on two kinds of political power in America, the Caesars and the Commissioners (1835)

The French economist Michel Chevalier (1806-1879) visited the United States in 1835 and observed that the power of the state governors (the Cæsars) were declining, while the power of the Commissioners of public works and banks were expanding rapidly:

Tocqueville on the absence of government in America (1835)

What struck Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859) when he visited the U.S. in 1831-32 was the absence of visible signs of government compared to what he was used to seeing in Europe:

Pufendorf on the danger of rulers confusing their own self-interest with that of the State (1695)

The German philosopher of natural law Samuel von Pufendorf (1632-1694) was also an historian who thought that Rulers needed to be better informed about history in order to avoid confusing their own selfish interests with the real interests of the State:

Herbert Spencer on the State’s cultivation of “the religion of enmity” to justify its actions (1884)

In the Postscript to his The Man versus the State (1884) the English sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) argued that the State deliberately encouraged “the religion of enmity” against others in order to bolster public “faith in governmental ability and authority”:

James Mackintosh on the relationship between justice and utility (1791)

The Scottish philosopher and historian James Mackintosh (1765-1832) replied to Edmund Burke’s criticism of the French Revolution and the idea of natural rights in Vindiciae Gallicae (A Vindication of France) (1791). In this passage he rejects the idea that one should abandon “general maxims” about what it is right to do for the sake of expediency:

Philip Wicksteed on how impersonal economic relations help others (1910)

The English economist Philip H. Wicksteed (1844-1927) makes the interesting point that a business person aims to help others achieve their goals whether or not the business person is motivated by selfishness or altruism:

Edmund Burke on liberty as “social” not “individual” liberty (1789)

A year before he published his full critique of the French Revolution Edmund Burke (1729-1797) wrote to a young Frenchman and offered his definition of liberty. His was not “unconnected, individual, selfish liberty” but a “social freedom” which is “secured by well-constructed institutions”:

Montesquieu argues that the law of a free society is like a very large fishing net (1720)

A theme which runs through Montesquieu’s collection of Thoughts (1720) is that the law is like a fisherman’s net. In a free society it is a large net which gives the fish the illusion of liberty. In a despotic state is a very tight net where the fish know immediately that they are trapped:

Jacques Maritain on the dynamism of freedom (1938)

The French Thomistic philosopher Jacques Maritain (1882–1973) believes that the “dynamism of freedom” consists of using one’s “freedom of choice” in order to gain another kind of freedom, the “freedom of spontaneity or of independence”: