Benjamin Constant looks at Brexit

by Chris Bertram on January 21, 2021

If Crooked Timber readers have not had enough of Brexit reflections from me today, there are more over at the LRB blog where I use Benjamin Constant’s distinction between the liberties of the ancients and the liberties of the moderns to illuminate, I hope, the false promise that with sovereignty Brexit brings freedom.



Robespierre 01.22.21 at 4:34 pm

I don’t think your framing helps.
The freedom to move, work, trade etc. is in the context of a State, and within its administrative reach. They are political questions.
You may claim that freedom to trade and move without restriction are good things, but these are your claims and your political preferences. And your preferences don’t seem to be very popular.

Keep in mind, also, that the freedoms granted to the “moderns” by the State are not guaranteed. They may be reasonably safe if the State is led by someone who needs to answer to citizens. In most ‘democratic’ countries, the government is one or two degrees separate from citizens. In the EU, there are at least 3 degrees – I don’t think anyone can seriously argue that European citizens have a meaningful input into the activity of the European Union.

I’d like Europe as a single, unitary democratic state (and no federalist bull). This is not what we have, and I am pretty sure what we have cannot get to where I want. Best wishes to the UK, hopefully you won’t keep shooting yourself in the foot on specific policy.


Tm 01.23.21 at 1:45 pm

Robespierre (I’m already intimidated;-):
Would you explain precisely how European citizens have meaningful input into the activity of their national government in a way that strictly doesn’t also apply to the governing bodies of the EU? Pick a specific country if you will. This narrative is such an old chestnut and I would really appreciate somebody providing an actual argument with facts and logic in its support.

The argument about „degrees of separation“ btw is nonsense. Or would you claim that federal states (Germany, Switzerland) are a priori less democratic than unitary ones? If so, why?

Re freedom to move. In my experience, the freedom to move across European borders with little or no restriction is extremely popular in Europe. Most Europeans can hardly imagine any more living without that freedom. What is not so popular among certain Europeans is the freedom of other people to move.


Robespierre 01.23.21 at 2:15 pm

Their elected representatives can actually promote legislation, for one.


Tm 01.23.21 at 7:28 pm

In theory or in practice? In most parliamentary democracies, almost all legislation is introduced by the government. The UK btw is the prime example for this.


Tm 01.24.21 at 9:12 am

The vast majority of the laws in parliamentary democracies like the UK (just an example, it’s similar in Germany or France) are introduced by the government. AFAIK it is extremely rare in such systems that legislation is introduced and enacted against the preferences of the government (which usually controls a parliamentary majority). I don’t think that this hypothetical instrument makes an actual difference from my point of view as a citizen wishing to exert political influence.


Gorgonzola Petrovna 01.24.21 at 10:50 am

I too was curious in which ‘democratic’ countries the government is one or two degree separate from citizens. Must be San Marino?

As for the EU, methinks ‘3 degrees’ is ludicrous. One could argue that it’s controlled directly by the oligarchy, or by the leader of Germany (the ‘Fourth Reich’ concept), or essentially by the US via NATO (“to keep the Russians out, the Americans in, and the Germans down”), or some combination of the above. But citizens? Think of the infamous Greek referendum. Citizens are nowhere in sight.


Tm 01.26.21 at 12:15 pm

“As for the EU, methinks ‘3 degrees’ is ludicrous. One could argue that it’s controlled directly by the oligarchy, or by the leader of Germany (the ‘Fourth Reich’ concept)”

Putin and Trump have shown us the beauty of Real Democracy. Us poor EUans look in envy to the lucky ones who escaped oligarchic rule.

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