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When you establish that the sovereignty of the people is unlimited, you create and toss at random into human society a degree of power which is too large in itself, and which is bound to constitute an evil, in whatever hands it is placed. Entrust it to one man, to several, to all, you will still find that it is equally an evil. You will think that it is the fault of the holders of such power and, according to the circumstances, you will accuse in turn monarchy, aristocracy, democracy, mixed governments or the representative system. You will be wrong: it is in fact the degree of force, not its holders, which must be denounced. It is against the weapon, not against the arm holding it, that it is necessary to strike ruthlessly. There are weights too heavy for the hand of man.
The error of those who, in good faith, in their love of liberty, have granted boundless power to the sovereignty of the people, derives from the way in which their political ideas were formed. In history they have observed a small number or men, or even a single individual, in possession of an immense power which caused much harm. But their wrath has been directed against the holders of the power rather than against the power itself. Instead of destroying it, they have simply thought of replacing it. It was a curse, yet they have regarded it as a conquest. They have bestowed it upon the entire society. It has necessarily passed from society at large to the majority, from the majority to the hands of a few men, often to a single man. It has caused as much evil as before; while the examples, the objections, the arguments and the evidence have multiplied themselves against all political institutions.
In a society founded upon the sovereignty of the people, it is certain that no individual, no class, are entitled to subject the rest to their particular will. But it is not true that society as a whole has unlimited authority over its members.
The universality of the citizens is sovereign in the sense that no individual, no faction, no partial association can arrogate sovereignty to itself, unless it has been delegated to it. But it does not follow from this that the universality of the citizens, or those who are invested with the sovereignty by them, can dispose sovereignly of the existence of individuals. There is, on the contrary, a part of human existence which by necessity remains individual and independent, and which is, by right, outside any social competence. Sovereignty has only a limited and relative existence. At the point where independence and individual existence begin, the jurisdiction of sovereignty ends. If society oversteps this line, it is as guilty as the despot who has, as his only title, his exterminating sword. Society cannot exceed its competence without usurpation, nor bypass the majority without being factious. The assent of the majority is not enough, in any case, to legitimate its acts: there are acts that nothing could possibly sanction. Whenever some authority commits any such acts, it hardly matters from which source it emanates. It is irrelevant whether it calls itself an individual or a nation. Were it the whole of the nation, save the citizen whom it oppresses, it would be none the more legitimate.
Rousseau overlooked this truth, and his error made of his Social Contract, so often invoked in favour of liberty, the most formidable support for all kinds of despotism. He defined the contract struck between society and its members as the complete alienation of each individual with all his rights, without any reservations, to the community. In order to reassure us about the consequences of such an absolute renunciation of all the parts of our existence for the benefit of an abstract being, he tells us that the sovereign, that is the social body, can neither harm the totality of its members, nor any of them in particular. Since everyone gives himself entirely, all share the same condition, and nobody is interested in making that condition onerous to the others. Because every individual gives himself to all, he does not give himself to anyone in particular. Everybody acquires over his associates the same rights as he surrenders in their favour. Thus he gains the equivalent of all that he loses together with greater strength to preserve what he has. However, Rousseau forgets that all those preserving attributes which he confers on the abstract being he calls the sovereign, derive from the fact that it is formed by all individuals without exception. But as soon as the sovereign must make use of the power which he possesses, or in other words, as soon as it is necessary to proceed to the practical organization of authority, as the sovereign cannot exercise it himself, he must delegate it, and all those attributes disappear. Because the action performed in the name of all is necessarily, whether we like it or not, at the disposal of a single individual or of a few, it happens that, in giving oneself to all, one does not give oneself to nobody, on the contrary, one submits oneself to those who act in the name of all. Hence it follows that, by giving ourselves entirely, we do not enter a condition equal for all, because some derive exclusive advantage from the sacrifice of the rest. It is not true that nobody has an interest in making the condition of the others more onerous, because there are associates who are above the common condition. It is not true that all associates gain the same rights as those they renounce. Not all of them gain the equivalent of what they lose, and the result of what they sacrifice is, or can be, the establishment of a power which takes away from them whatever they have.
Rousseau himself was appalled by these consequences. Horrorstruck at the immense social power which he had thus created, he did not know into whose hands to commit such monstrous force, and he could find no other protection against the danger inseparable from such sovereignty, than an expedient which made its exercise impossible. He declared that sovereignty could not be alienated, delegated or represented. This was equivalent to declaring, in other words, that it could not be exercised. It meant in practice destroying the principle which he had just proclaimed.
Observe instead how much franker the partisans of despotism are in their course when they set out from the same axiom, since it is an axiom which supports and favours them. Hobbes, the man who has most intelligently reduced despotism to a system, hastened to acknowledge sovereignty as unlimited, in order to infer from this the legitimacy of the absolute government of a single individual. Sovereignty, he says, is absolute; this truth has been recognized in all times, even by those who have excited sedition or provoked civil wars: their aim was not to annihilate sovereignty, but rather to transfer its exercise elsewhere. Democracy is absolute sovereignty in the hands of all; aristocracy absolute sovereignty in the hands of some; monarchy absolute sovereignty in the hands of one man. The people have relinquished that absolute sovereignty in favour of a monarch, who has become its absolute possessor.
It is clear that the absolute character which Hobbes attributes to the sovereignty of the people is the basis of his entire system. The word absolute distorts the whole question, and leads us in to a series of fresh implications. It is the point where the writer abandons the path of truth to proceed by sophism, towards the aim which he proposed to himself when he set out. He proves that, since the conventions established by men are not sufficient to ensure that they will be observed, a coercive power is necessary to force men to observe them. Because society must protect itself from external aggression, it needs a common force armed for common defence. Because men are divided by their pretensions, they need laws to regulate their rights. He concludes from the first point that the sovereign has the absolute right to punish; from the second, that he has the absolute right to make war; from the third, that he is the absolute legislator. Nothing could be more false than these conclusions. The sovereign has indeed the right to punish, but only in the case of guilty actions. He has the right to make war, but only when society is attacked. He has the right to make laws, but only when these laws are necessary and when they are in accord with justice. Consequently, nothing is absolute or arbitrary in these attributions. Democracy is indeed authority entrusted to the hands of all, but it is only the measure of authority necessary for the safety of the association. Aristocracy is the same authority entrusted to a few. Monarchy, the same authority conferred on a single person. The people can renounce that authority in favour of a single individual or of a few. But their power is still as limited as that of the people who have invested them with it. By the suppression of a single word, gratuitously introduced into the construction of a sentence, Hobbes' whole dreadful system collapses. On the contrary, with the word absolute, neither liberty nor, as we shall see below, peace nor happiness are possible under any institutions. Popular government is simply a violent tyranny, monarchical government only a more concentrated despotism.
When sovereignty is unlimited, there is no means of sheltering individuals from governments. It is in vain that you pretend to submit governments to the general will. It is always they who dictate the content of this will, and all your precautions become illusory. . . .
No authority upon earth is unlimited, neither that of the people, nor that of the men who declare themselves their representatives, nor that of the kings, by whatever title they reign, nor, finally, that of the law, which, being merely the expression of the will of the people or of the prince, according to the form of government, must be circumscribed within the same limits as the authority from which it emanates.
The citizens possess individual rights independently of all social and political authority, and any authority which violates these rights becomes illegitimate. The rights of the citizens are individual freedom, religious freedom, freedom of opinion, which includes the freedom to express oneself openly, the enjoyment of property, a guarantee against all arbitrary power. No authority can call these rights into question without destroying its own credentials. . . .
Let us now sum up the consequences of our principles. The sovereignty of the people is not unlimited: it is, on the contrary, circumscribed within the limits traced by justice and by the rights of individuals. The will of an entire people cannot make just what is unjust. The representatives of the nation have no right to do what the nation itself has no right to do. No monarch, whatever title he may claim, whether that title rests upon divine right, the right of conquest or the assent of the people, possesses a power without limits. God, if he intervenes in human affairs, can only sanction justice. The right of conquest is simply force, which is not a right, since it passes to whomever seizes it. The assent of the people cannot legitimate what is illegitimate, because the people cannot delegate to anyone authority which they do not themselves possess.
An objection presents itself against the limitation of sovereignty. Is it really possible to limit it? Can any force effectively prevent it from crossing the barriers prescribed to it? It is possible, some will argue, through ingenious combinations, to restrain power by dividing it. We may set its different parts in opposition and balance them against one another. Yet by what means can we ensure that the total sum will not be unlimited? How is it possible to limit power other than through power itself?
No doubt, the abstract limitation of sovereignty is not sufficient. We must find for political institutions foundations which combine the interest of the different holders of power so that their most apparent, most durable and most certain advantage would be to remain within the limits of their respective attributions. . . .
* * *The extract is from Chapter One, “On the Sovereignty of the People,” of the 1815 edition of Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments, in Benjamin Constant, Political Writings. Translated and edited by Biancamaria Fontana (Cambridge University Press, 1988). Liberty Fund published in 2003 an English translation of the 1810 edition of the Principles of Politics by Dennis O’Keefe, in which the following portrait of Constant appears as the frontispiece.