Today is the 222nd anniversary of the storming of the Bastille on July 14, 1789, the date usually recognized as the beginning of the French Revolution. I’ll be speaking this weekend at FreedomFest on the topic, “Liberty, Equality, Fraternity: A Libertarian Version.” I previewed part of my talk at this week’s Britannica Blog column. So what should libertarians think about the French Revolution? The great Henny Youngman, when asked “How’s your wife?” answered, “Compared to what?”
Compared to the American Revolution, the French Revolution is very disappointing to libertarians. Compared to the Russian Revolution, it looks pretty good. And it also looks good, at least in the long view, compared to the ancien regime that preceded it….
Lord Acton wrote that for decades before the revolution “the Church was oppressed, the Protestants persecuted or exiled, … the people exhausted by taxes and wars.” The rise of absolutism had centralized power and led to the growth of administrative bureaucracies on top of the feudal land monopolies and restrictive guilds….
The results of that philosophical error—that the state is the embodiment of the “general will,” which is sovereign and thus unconstrained—have often been disastrous, and conservatives point to the Reign of Terror in 1793-94 as the precursor of similar terrors in totalitarian countries from the Soviet Union to Pol Pot’s Cambodia.
In Europe the results of creating democratic but essentially unconstrained governments have been far different but still disappointing to liberals….
Still, as Constant celebrated in 1816, in England, France, and the United States, liberty
is the right to be subjected only to the laws, and to be neither arrested, detained, put to death or maltreated in any way by the arbitrary will of one or more individuals. It is the right of everyone to express their opinion, choose a profession and practice it, to dispose of property, and even to abuse it; to come and go without permission, and without having to account for their motives or undertakings. It is everyone’s right to associate with other individuals, either to discuss their interests, or to profess the religion which they and their associates prefer, or even simply to occupy their days or hours in a way which is most compatible with their inclinations or whims.
Compared to the ancien regime of monarchy, aristocracy, class, monopoly, mercantilism, religious uniformity, and arbitrary power, that’s the triumph of liberalism.