Even living under the USA Patriots Act and in a state of semi-permanent war, I am not worried about what Benjamin Constant called the “liberty of the moderns.” Indeed, after last week’s expansion of privacy rights by the Supreme Court, I think that this form of freedom continues to expand as a result of deep cultural trends. I am, however, concerned about what Constant called the “liberty of the ancients.”
I’m referring to his De la liberté des anciens comparée à celle des modernes (1819), in which Constant defines the “liberty of the moderns” as: “for each, the right to be subjected to nothing but laws, to have no possibility of being arrested, detained, executed, or maltreated in any way as a result of the arbitrary will of one or many individuals: It is for each the right to state his opinion, to choose his business and work in it, to dispose of his property, to take advantage of the same; to come and go without obtaining permission, and without explaining his reasons and itinerary. It is, for each, the right to associate with other individuals, whether to confer about their own interests, to profess the religion that he and his associates prefer, or simply to pass days or hours in a manner that fits his inclinations, his fantasies. Finally, it is the right, for each one, to influence the administration of the Government, whether via the nomination of some or all officials, or via representations, petitions, demands that the authority is more or less obligated to take into consideration.
“Compare now the liberty of the ancients. That consists of exercising collectively, but directly, many parts of absolute sovereignty, [and the right] to deliberate, in a public space, about war and peace, to ratify treaties of alliance with foreigners, to vote laws, pronounce decisions, examine the accounts, actions, and management of officials, to compel them to appear before the whole people, to accuse them, to condemn or acquit them.”
[This is my hasty translation; double-check it before you use it.]
It is the liberty of the ancients that appears threatened—that
we seem to hold cheap—when we ignore charges that the Bush Administration
misled American citizens about its reasons for the Iraq war. According to the
York Times, Bush aides are not worried about complaints that they lied
or misled the public, “because people understand that the world is better
off without Saddam Hussein.” The world is better off (so far, at least).
However, if the public is willing to be misled, then we citizens have forfeited
our right to exercise our national sovereignty collectively, because we have refused
to “deliberate, in a public space, about war and peace.” To borrow Constant’s
language, it is time for us to “examine the accounts, actions, and management
of officials, to compel them to appear before the whole people, to accuse them,
to condemn or acquit them.” Otherwise, we may be free as individuals, but
we are not a free people.