Twenty-five years ago today I stood on the Champs-Elysees and watched a parade celebrating the bicentennial of the French Revolution, capped off with Jessye Norman singing “La Marseillaise.”
Of course, the French Revolution is controversial, especially among my conservative friends. How should libertarians see it? Three years ago I discussed that topic at FreedomFest and on the Britannica Blog. Here’s some of what I wrote then:
The Chinese premier Zhou Enlai is famously (but apparently inaccurately) quoted as saying, “It is too soon to tell.” I like to draw on the wisdom of another deep thinker of the mid 20thcentury, Henny Youngman, who 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.
Conservatives typically follow Edmund Burke‘s critical view in his Reflections on the Revolution in France. They may even quote John Adams: ”Helvetius and Rousseau preached to the French nation liberty, till they made them the most mechanical slaves; equality, till they destroyed all equity; humanity, till they became weasels and African panthers; and fraternity, till they cut one another’s throats like Roman gladiators.”
But there’s another view. And visitors to Mount Vernon, the home of George Washington, get a glimpse of it when they see a key hanging in a place of honor. It’s one of the keys to the Bastille, sent to Washington by Lafayette by way of Thomas Paine. They understood, as the great historian A.V. Dicey put it, that “The Bastille was the outward visible sign of lawless power.” And thus keys to the Bastille were symbols of liberation from tyranny….
Liberals and libertarians admired the fundamental values [the French Revolution] represented. Ludwig von Mises and F. A. Hayek both hailed “the ideas of 1789” and contrasted them with “the ideas of 1914” — that is, liberty versus state-directed organization.