Benjamin Constant

“The Liberty of the Ancients Compared with that of the Moderns”

Constant argues that liberty for the ancients meant participation in the political process while liberty for the moderns focuses on restricting discretionary political power through the rule of law and the protection of individual rights.

Two interesting subthemes are contained in his comments about commerce and progress. He maintains a Hobbesian analysis of commerce in that commerce happens only when we cannot conquer. Like Plato’s Glaucon he insists that a sufficiently strong individual would have no need/interest in commerce.  This is a different picture than Smith paints when he talks of our need to “truck and barter.”  He also maintains that commerce changes the nature of property.  This definitely has implications for those who think the right to trade is included in the notion of a property right.

As for progress, Constant maintains that wars are now more costly than ever and hence there will be an increase in peace as we abandon war for commerce.  The jury is still out on this one.

READING LINK: Constant_Liberty1521_EBk_v5

About William Kline

William Kline is an associate professor in the department of Business Administration at the University of Illinois, Springfield.
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