Quotation of the Day…

by Don Boudreaux on July 25, 2013

in Civil Society, Complexity & Emergence, Hubris and humility, Man of System

… is from page 441 of Liberty Fund’s 2003 collection of Benjamin Constant‘s 1815 tract, Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments (trans. Dennis O’Keeffe; ed. Etienne Hofmann); available on-line here:

Supporters of all theoretical systems of this kind [i.e., systems of top-down commands meant to improve society] always mistake effect for cause.  Because habits transform themselves into institutions, they think nothing easier than transforming institutions into habits.  They want to support all the natural sentiments, honor, patriotism, paternal power, conjugal love, respect for old age, by means of institutions.  This is to pursue a course opposite to nature.  Institutions have to be created by the spontaneous motion of sentiments.  For them to be powerful but not tyrannical, their origin must be lost in the night of time.  For their head to reach toward heaven and cover us with its shade, their roots must be hidden in the earth’s bosom.  They are useful as a heritage; they are merely oppressive when drafted as laws.  Government is in rightful place only when it is a curb. Then none of its actions is worthless.  But when it wants to encourage, direct, arouse, and enthuse and comes forward with pretentious talk, always followed with coercive measures, it is ridiculous in failure and despotic in constraint.

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