For a return to liberal democracy based on the sovereignty of the individual

by Matthieu Creson

October 3, 2022

Adapted by the author from his original article published in French on April, 13 2022 for the website of the Revue Politique et Parlementaire

For a return to liberal democracy based on the sovereignty of the individual

In this article, Matthieu Creson, a Franco-American docent and researcher working and living in Paris, urges his fellow countrymen and women to rediscover the respective roles of the individual and the State which any liberal democracy worthy of the name involves or should involve.

According to the members of the LREM party (Emmanuel Macron’s former political party), the traditional left/right divide is a thing of the past, insofar as the French do not care whether an idea supposed to be beneficial for them comes from the left or the right, as long as it yields positive results. If we can indeed question the relevance of such rigid political categories as “right” and “left” – did the great classical liberal French thinker and economist of the 19th century, also a representative of the Landes département under the Second Republic, Frédéric Bastiat, not sit on the left in the Assembly? -, the fact remains that the real “Revolution” – to refer to the title of Emmanuel Macron’s book (Paris: XO Editions, 2016) – would consist in freeing the French from the yoke of statism, and not in continuing to make people believe that their problems will be solved by such and such additional state intervention or regulation. In a truly liberal democracy – which is completely different from a democracy where a tyrannical majority has all the rights, including the right to crush the individual in his own sphere of autonomy – citizens are not to wait passively for their situation to improve thanks to the action of the State or the arrival to power of some alleged providential politician; the solutions to the problems facing them can only be found within themselves, in the way they make use of their personal resources, resources which they can freely choose to pool with other people if they wish to, by convergence of lawful interests. In a liberal democracy, that is to say a democracy based on respect for inalienable individual rights, and on the circumscription of state power within clearly defined limits, it is individuals who are the main players responsible for their own destiny, for their successes as for their failures, for their happiness as for their misfortune. In a truly free society, the individual may experience success as well as failure – one or even several failures sometimes being the prelude to his or her future success – but in either case the individual may be said to belong to himself only. It is in ancient societies, tribal or feudal, that individuals, considered as the property of the ruler or the community, thus dispossessed of themselves, have no other role than that assigned to them from above, without any real possibility for them to decide or act on their own account. Conversely, in a liberal democracy, government must essentially limit itself to guaranteeing respect for the rule of law, a necessary legislative framework without which there can be no free fulfillment of individuals by themselves. But government should not come to claim that it is in a position to provide the means conducive to the success and well-being of individuals, because that would amount to maintaining the myth that individuals owe their lives to the State and its support. In a liberal democracy, the primary role of politics does not consist in taking “measures” or establishing “plans” of all kinds; it does not consist in legislating relentlessly under the pretext that the general interest is at stake, but in guaranteeing the autonomy of civil society, a sine qua non of the development and fulfillment of the individuals who compose it.

In this regard, our State must cease to be largely guided by collectivist ideas as it still is today, and must become a classical liberal state: that is to say, a state upholding the rule of law, but leaving it to individuals to determine themselves, to create and innovate freely, to increase the limits of their field of action, without ever seeking to replace them in their choices or the conduct of their existence. In other words, the State must cease to be, as Max Stirner writes in The Ego and its Own (1844), “the organized ostracism of the Egos”; and it is also essential the State reconnect with the founding principles of our Revolution (the French one guided by the original principles of 1789, which, however different it may have been from the American one, still shares many common features with the latter), which are notably the respect for individual freedom and the protection of private property1.

We are still extraordinarily far today from such a classical liberal State, no doubt because the socialist experiment carried out in the 20th century, in which many countries throughout the world had embarked before having to acknowledge the catastrophic results that came out of it, may be said – in spite of its obvious failures – to have lastingly marked our perception of the desirable relationship between the State and individuals. In France, the so-called “progressives” never cease to praise the supposed merits of our (overwhelmingly costly) “social model”, a set of achievements which the French would allegedly not renounce for anything in the world, for fear of having to sink again in the “savage” capitalism of the 19th century and the “tyranny” of the free market. Yet, most of the problems with which France has been confronted for decades, whether they are economic or social, are precisely due to the burden of progressivism and state interventionism, which are incompatible with the fundamental principles of a classical liberal state. The only “revolution”, therefore, that we can wish to see happen is the one that would finally deliver us once and for all from the stifling tyranny of statist expansionism, something that would then imply a complete transformation of our State – the functioning of which is still far too marked by collectivist principles – into a genuinely classical liberal state.

Self-proclaimed “progressives” will undoubtedly see these lines as being informed by “reactionary” conservatism. But who are the real progressives and who are the real reactionaries? The American essayist and film-director Dinesh D’Souza recently said that being “conservative” (in the American sense of the term, that is to say the opposite of “liberal”, which paradoxically refers in English to the support given to state interventionism) aims at seeking to preserve the achievements of the American Revolution – which many radical democrats influenced by “woke” political correctness are currently trying to unravel. The time has perhaps come for the French to draw on their American counterparts in the establishment of a real conservatism of this sort, that is to say, a conservatism intending to precisely conserve the fundamental achievements of our Revolution, which was essentially informed by classical liberal principles, in spite of its deadly deviation that the Jacobin dictatorship constituted. It is thus only by rediscovering these essential contributions, it is only by becoming aware again of the existence of a rich and powerful classical liberal tradition (a tradition which had already been recognized by the American founders and their successors), dating back to the 18th and 19th centuries (Montesquieu, the physiocrats, Turgot, Condorcet , Sieyès, Jean-Baptiste Say, Germaine de Staël, Benjamin Constant, Frédéric Bastiat, Tocqueville, Gustave Le Bon, etc.), that the French may then have a chance to retrieve the taste for individual freedom and thus advance towards the recovery of their own economic and cultural autonomy. But they will certainly not achieve this goal if they keep on believing that their destiny is in the hands of political leaders, who, let us not forget, almost always have the same tendency to broaden the sphere of influence of the State to the detriment of that of individuals.

1 On the fundamental principles of the French Revolution, see for example Aux sources du model libéral français (under the direction of Alain Madelin. Paris: Perrin, 1997). Contrary to what the French statesman Clemenceau (1841-1929) had said about the French Revolution (i.e. the idea that it should be seen as a whole – “un seul bloc” in French), many historians have justifiably argued since then that 1793/1794, that is to say the Reign of Terror, far from being the continuity of 1789, was in fact its complete betrayal.

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