The present-day political tension between social and economic conservatives on the proper role of government in social life has roots that go back to the Enlightenment. Social conservatives wish to see their views of morality embodied in legislation; economic conservatives—liberals, in the classical meaning of that term—oppose any such intrusion as an infringement on individual liberty. Among the classical liberals, such as Locke, Montesquieu, Adam Smith, and Madison, should be numbered the Swiss-born political philosopher Benjamin Constant (1767–1830). Constant's major political work, Principes de politique applicables à tous les gouvernements (1810), is an eloquent defense of freedom and privacy. “There are things about which the legislature has no right to make law,” he wrote, “areas of individual existence in relation to which society is not entitled to have any will.” Population is adduced as one illustration, a case where government interference, even if well-intentioned, is almost always for the worse. The outcome to be avoided, as he saw it, was depopulation. “All detailed legislation, the prohibition on celibacy, the stigmatizing, the penalties, the rewards for getting married—none of these artificial means ever achieves the purpose envisaged…” In sum, “When the vices of government do not put obstacles in the way of population, laws are superfluous. When they do, laws are bootless.”
Constant had a varied career, including a long affair and intellectual collaboration with the prominent writer Germaine de Staël and a significant political role in postrevolutionary France. His own writings included well-received novels and a five-volume history of religion. He published a work with virtually the same title as the 1810 Principes de politique in 1815, overlapping in content but much shorter, focused on constitutional issues. For a long time this was the only version existing in English (it is included, for example, in The Political Writings of Benjamin Constant [Cambridge University Press, 1988]). A translation of the 1810 book, based on a modern French edition edited by Etienne Hofmann (Librairie Droz, Geneva, 1980), appeared only in 2003: Principles of Politics Applicable to All Governments, translated by Dennis O'Keeffe (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund). The extract below comprises the chapter “On government measures in relation to population” from Book XII (pp. 260–266), reprinted by permission of Librairie Droz.