Counting Cats in Zanzibar Rotating Header Image

From Montesquieu to Voltaire – the corruption of the Enlightenment, thanks to Frederick the “Great”.

For centuries two of the standard attacks on the French Revolution have been the related attacks that it took liberty “too far” and that it applied principles rather than practical experience.

I will not, here, explore the debate of whether the above was Edmund Burke’s view of the French Revolution (I will simply say that I do not think that the above is a good description of Burke’s opinion), but I will give my own view.

I have always rejected the above line of attack upon the French Revolution – and for very basic reasons, based upon the opinions of leading Revolutionaries themselves, and what they actually did. Their words and their deeds.

The most often attacked group of Revolutionaries are the Jacobins and their leader Robespierre. Was he a fanatical supporter of laissez faire?

Of course he was not – he was an ardent statist (not a socialist – but no great roll back the state man, quite the contrary). Robespierre supported an active role for the state in economic and social life – the “freedom” he supported was the freedom of “the people” (not individual persons and private associations such as families) and a collective freedom under the wise guidence of a lawgiver (himself – or someone like him).

Nor can one blame “pressures of war” or even the supposedly power crazed nature of Robespierre for the statist nature of the French Revolution. As right from the start (before war and before people like Robespierre were leading figures) its nature was obvious – if one bothered to look at the facts.

The individual acts of murder (such as promising the Governor of Bastille safe conduct and then murdering him when he came out – such was the truth of the “storming” of the Bastille), destruction and plunder in 1789 could be dismissed as the actions of out of control mobs (although the fact that the supporters of the Revolution acted in such a way should have given observers some warning), but the central action of the new government could not be dismissed.

This was to confiscate the property of the church (the largest corporate body outside the state in France) and the issuing of fiat money supposedly “backed” by the stolen lands of the church.

For those people (like the Jacobins) who reject the corporate form (other than in their own clubs of course) and hold that there should be only atomized indivduals and the state, the confiscation of church property will cause few tears to be shed.

After all, no doubt the church had not “justly acquired” the land, or the people who had given the church this land had not “justic acquired” it (after all if one traces back far enough, very little land is “justly acquried” especially if one reverses the burden of proof by demanding that the owner “justify” his ownership or have the property taken by force and fear).

Of course confiscated property that is then sold or given away will soon concentrate in great estates again – if it is allowed to do so.

There have been many “land reforms” (i.e. mass land theft and handing out of land) in Latin America over the last two centuries – and great estates reemerge (if they are allowed to) under new owners. This is because even if everyone starts with the same – some people will soon be rich and some people will soon be poor (that is human nature – which ideological collectivist egalitarians ignore).

However, the French Revolutionaries (at least in theory) intended to keep the church property in the hands of the state and use it is as “backing” for their new currency.

However, land can not be used in this way – there was no need for a new currency anyway (the coinage under Louis XVI was basically sound) and whilst gold or silver can be divided up to make coins, land can not (trying to use land as money is folly).

As Edmund Burke predicted the fiat money of the French Revolution would soon became worthless – it was just printing press “money”.

It is often forgotten that Burke uses vastly more ink in “Reflections on the Revolution in France” denoucing fiat money and property confiscation (confiscated from the church – AND FROM OTHERS) than he does on the abuse of the Queen or anything like that.

But WHY did the Revolutionaries act in this way?

Two reasons – partly their desire to spend lots of money (this is always a desire for politicians – and it leads them down the fiat “easy” or “cheap” money road), and partly because they had no ideological committment to property rights (the bit in the Declaration of the Rights of Man about property sounds good – but when one looks at the wording in detail…..)  – at least not the property of other people (the Revolutionaries were, in the main, not socialists – those who had property themselves were rather keen on defending it).

Indeed there was less respect for private property under the Revolutionaries (even the moderate ones) than there had been under Louis XVI – just as there was less respect for civil liberties (the Bastille had about half a dozen prisoners in it when it was “stormed”, and none of them were there for their political opinions).

For example, under the old regime would-be Revolutionaries openly plotted in certain areas of Paris and the police did not touch them.

Why not? Because these areas were the private property of the Duke of Orleans and it was wrong to enter private property without a warrent. Of course the Duke of Orleans (the richest man in France, yet a radical – a sort of George Soros figure) was financing the Revolutionaries. He would later rename himself “Citizen Equality” and voted for the death of his own kinsman – the weak and well meaning Louis XVI (who went to his death with a courage that surprised his foes, and some of his friends). However “Citizen Equality” later met a bad end – and if there is a future state, kinslayers and oathbreakers have little to hope for in it.

Like “world governance” supporting  Geoge Soros (am I the only person who has read his little book denoucing Hayek and so on? Soros may talk about “the Open Society” but he is not really a supporter of Karl Popper, who was a fiend of Hayek), the French Revolutionaries (in the main) cared greatly for their own lives and goods (Soros bases his operations in the Netherlands Antilles – to avoid the high taxes he demands be imposed on other people) – but did not mind the plunder or murder of other people IF it was for the good of building the new society.

However, WHY did the Revolutionaries think they way they did?

It is normal (among people who get this far) to blame the influence of Rousseau.

Conservatives from Burke to Babbitt have claimed that the French Revolutionaries (unlike the American Founding Fathers) had their opinions warped by the collectivist influence of Rousseau – indeed many would point to the ideas of Rousseau (such as the idea that working for a private employer is a form of a slavery) as the inspiration of totalitarians from Karl Marx to Kevin Carson, and would claim to see the influence of Rouseau in such things as National Socialism and the modern “Green” movement.

I do not argue with the above, but I wish to draw attention to a more mainstream figure – Voltaire himself.

Unlike Rousseau, Voltarie is a main (and mainstream) figure in liberalism. And, indeed, much about him is admirable.

For example, his support for freedom of speech “I disagree with what you say – but I will defend to the death your right to say it” (what libertarian is not moved when he or she hears those words – and we are right to be moved). And his religious tolerance – it should not be forgottent that religous persecution was in decline in the 18th century, but cases of great injustice still occured and Voltarie was right to denounce them.

So why do I claim that Voltarie’s influence (and the influence of the many other intellectuals who followed him) had its dark side?

Partly his economics – Voltarie fully accepted the idea that one nation’s wealth in trade must be the result of the poverty of another nation. A fixed sum of wealth idea in trade (trade as a form of war). And an idea that if it was ever applied internally (to domestic economic matters) would lead straght to the totalitarian evil of state enforced egalitarianism – for if wealth can only be the result of the poverty of others should we not “forbid capitalistic acts between consenting adults”? Should we not follow the path of “land reform” and “communal anarchism” (collectivism with the state renamed “the people”) and “mutalism” (and all the rest of the totalitarian folly)?

Of course Voltarie never took this idea (the idea of trade as war) to these conclusions – but a false idea will be taken to false conclusions. For example, David Ricardo never used the (utterly false) idea of the labour theory of value, to reach collectivist conclusions – but the “Ricardian socialists” did, as did Karl Marx and (inspite of the labour theory of value being shown to be utterly false) collectivists down to our own day.

However, economics was not where Voltaire’s chief negative influence lay – it was in political theory.

Please remember how the 18th century enlightenment started. It started (in its European form at least) with the opposition of Montesquieu (and others) to the policies of Louis XIV – the Sun King.

Montesquieu did not claim that the France of Louis XIV was as bad as the Ottoman Empire (where tyranny went unchecked by such things as great private owned estates of land – protected by fundemental law and out of the reach of the “public power”), but he noted the tendancy towards tyranny in the regime of Louis XIV.

The centralized power (Montesquieu did not favour local tyranny over central tyranny – on the contrary, he understand that decentralized power acts as a check on tyanny by making it less difficult for people to vote with their feet), the undermining of insitutions (both legislative and judcial) that might act as a check on the executive – and the result, ever more taxes and government spending, and ever more regulations covering every aspect of life.

All the traditional checks on the power of the central government (from an independent Church, to provincial autonomy, to the independent nobility) were under threat in the opinion of Montesquieu.

In the words of Edmund Burke some decades later… the power of the monarchy (the central state – it need not mean the person of the king) had increased, was increasing, and ought to be diminished (rolled back).

This was the spritit of the early enlightenment – yes concerned with free speech, relgious tolerance (although Montesquieu, like Burke, was a believer – his was not a tolerance based on INDIFFERENCE, it is easy to be relgiously tolerant if you do not care, but more important if you really do care) and hostilty to things like torture and slavery (Montesquieu was famous for his denouncement of slavery – we pretend that blacks are not human beings, for if we accepted that they were beings endowed with souls by God, we could not claim that we are Christians for we treat  blacks as if they were not human beings).

However, the spirit of the early enlightenment was also a spirit of “traditional liberties” (seeking to recapture them) and a spritit that held that centralized and unlimited power was tyranny – the supreme political evil, that it was the duty of all to work against it.

This is NOT the spirit of the late enlightement – not the spirit of Voltarie and others.

To them centralized and unlimited power was a GOOD thing (not the supreme evil) – it was the way they would be able to reshape all of society to their heart’s desire. I am not claiming that Voltaire and others were like the depraved Fabians (see “the Fabian Window” a stained glass window created by the Fabians themselves, that shows their utter evil much better than any words of mine can), but some of the same “intellectual” spirit is there.

A throwback to Francis Bacon (of “The New Atlantis”) and even to Plato – a view of the intellectual as ruler or as adviser to the ruler. And that government should be centralized and absolute, with no traditional limitations upon its power.

No independent corporate organizations (such as the church), no great private estates, no provicial autonomy, no local customs……

For all his faults this is not really totally the view of Rousseau (who, for example, held that government should be as local as possible – although I doubt that he held that view for vote-with-your-feet reasons, Rousseau would not have been too unhappy with tyranny, as long as it was local tyranny) – it is more the view of Voltarie and his friends.

But WHY?

Why did they turn the spriit of the enlightenment on its head (from freedom to statism) and why did anyone listen to them?

The answer is Frederick the “Great”.

Where Frederick was pro freedom it was because of indifference – not conviction.

He supported religious tolerance – because he had no real religious faith (not because he belevied it was a natural right of free will given by God Himself, as the American Founding Fathers did) – “who cares, it has the same result”, actually whether you support freedom out of indifference or conviction matters a great deal.

Nor was it just religious faith – Frederick is (or should be) famous for saying “let my subjects believe what they like – as long as I can do what I like” but even this cynical view does not get to the heart of his philosophical contempt for freedom.

Frederick did not just have indifference for religion – he was also indifferent to human freedom (to the idea that humans are beings, free will agents, at all) in general. In fact he was a philosophical determinist – who did not see any basic difference (in TYPE) between a human being (not really a “being” in this view of course) and a lump of wood.

It is perfectly possible for a non religious person to be philosophical libertarian (Ayn Rand, not just nonreligous but an athiest, is the obvious example), but Frederick was neither a religous man (although he was not a formal athiest) or a philosophical libertarian.

And Voltarie and the others opposed this evil man? On the contary he was their idol. He was the “enlightened Prince” who would make all their dreams come true.

Why was Frederick so important? Partly because he was truly cultured (he had read their works – always a way to flatter an intellectual) and he loved music and the arts, he could play the flute to a professional standard, and was composer in his own right.

He was also indifferent to traditional aristocratic things – for example he did not chase women (I will not go into the reasons as to why that might be so – or into the CONTESTED claims that it was a factor that led him to the rejection of traditional values, as it is supposed to have done with certain people from the University of Cambridge in the 20th cventury), and he sneared at points of honour.

To an aristocrat (and to a non aristocrat in the Western tradition) force should only be used to defend a point of honour (Montesquieu defined “honour” as the defining feature of a Western monarchy – and what made it different from an Eastern despotism). To the honourable man (or women) force should never be used against the weak or helpless to take their lives or goods – on the contrary it was the duty of the honourable to defend the weak (even if it meant their own deaths).

“My honour is loyality” (the Nazi S.S. line) is, to the tradition of men like Baron Montesquieu (but to non barons also), a total perversion of what the word “honour” means. “I was only obeying orders” is no defence.

On the contrary – the man of honour (aristocrat or not) should oppose “orders” indeed should stand against a whole army on his own, if this is the only way he can defend the lives and goods of the weak or helpless.

Like the title character in the film “El Cid” (the Charlton Heston version) on hearing the words “you are alone and we are many” he should reply “the just man is never alone” and plunge in sword in hand, if this is the only way to free someone who has been unjustly arrested (and if killed, this is just the price of being an honourable man).

Old sickly, Edmund Burke (spectacles and all) knew all of this -  and when faced with the Gordon Riots (in 1780 London) he drew his sword to defend the helpless and (when the rioters backed off – courage was not their stong point) he went quickly to help defend houses under attack from the mob.

However, to Frederick the “Great” honour was just nonsense.

He could point to many cases (to hundred of cases over the centuries) where people had claimed to be honourable – whilst seeking base advantage with the use of violence.

You should not need my help in seeing the flaw in this “argument”.

Frederick wrote the “antiMachiaval” claiming to oppose the cynical power politics associated (perhaps unjustly) with the name of Niccolo Machiavelli. But Frederick admitted that he started the war of Austrian Sucession out of a desire to “make a name for myself” NOT out of a sincere belief that he had an honourable (just) claim to Silesia.

Frederick’s wars led to at least a million deaths – and the country that suffered the most deaths in proportion to its population was Prussia itself. And the only reason that Prussia was not full of cripples after his wars is that Frederick did not spend money on medical care for his soldiers – your chances were bad if wounded in the service of most 18th century armies, but in the Prussian service you were doomed (a man without a leg or an arm was no use to Frederick -  so he would just let you die, remember most humans are not “beings” not free will agents, they are just material like lumps of wood).

Wars that were not motivated by justice – but a desire to make a name for Frederick, wars born of a lust for power.

This was the hero of the intellectuals. And he was a hero because he WON.

His battlefield success mattered to them – not the lack of justice in his cause.

I might point out that had the Empress Elizabeth of Russia lived a little longer Frederick would have been crushed and his Prussia his “army that became a state” (with its nobility that were dependent on government employment – rather than being independent of it) along with him. But that is one of the might-have-beens of history.

Frederick won – and winning (power) is the only thing that impresses some intellectuals (now as well as then). The victory proved, to the intellectuals, that a state bureacracy, if it was honest and hardworking and led by a man of genius (like Frederick – but also like themselves of course), could achieve great things – could create a new great nation (if there could be a new Prussia – why not a new France?).

As for Frederick’s economic opinions – of course they were vile.

Frederick was in the mainstream of German “Cameralist” thought, state guidence of the economy, state education (and so on) were all good as far as he was concerned.

Frederick was only limited in his statism by practical considerations (lack of money) not by any principled anti statism.

It is absurd to compare Federick to the National Socialists – he was not a fanatical racialist and anti semite seeking to exterminate Jews and enslave Slavs (and that is what the Nazis were – anyone who thinks only Hitler was a problem is a fool, the Nazis were a force of basic EVIL, evil that had to be OPPOSED, and those who do not see that are no more historians than they are camels), but it also absurd to make Frederick a hero – to a person of honour, to a person who believes in justice and freedom (the rights of people and private associations to be secure in their bodies and goods) Frederick is nothing of the kind.

But he was the hero of Voltaire and his friends. And the “enlightened government” (whether the enlighted Prince or the enlightened Republic) has been the, STATIST, ideal of many since then – from the French Revolutionaries to own times.

It is not really freedom, not really putting one’s faith in Thomas Reid style “Common Sense”.

To use words from Rousseau – it is more faith in the “lawgiver” in “the General Will” not the “will of all”.

Not the traditional liberties of people (seeking to recapture them – by removing the corruptions of the passing years, seeking to RESTORE liberty, indeed to get to the heart of traditional principles even if this was NOT fully achieved in the past – which is what Montesquieu and Burke and others have tried to do). But rather the liberty of THE STATE – to remake the world (build a “new society”) in line with the “heart’s desire” of those “enlightened ones” who try to control the state. What they call “good sense” (of the elite – although I am, of course, not attacking everyone who has ever used the term “good sense”) rather than (truly) “common sense”.

Of course Thomas Paine himself (the writer of  “Common Sense”) was, especialy in his later years, far more in the second group than the first. A centralizer (not a defender of local autonomy – and voting with your feet), a person who supported religious tolernance out of indifference to religion (not out of committment to religion) and a person who would violate private property if it did not produce the results he wanted – if it did not produce a new society in line with his heart’s desire.

For example, Paine first claimed that getting rid of King George III (and hangers on) would give the money needed for such things as government financed education for most people (of course government financed education is harldy what a pro freedom person should support – as John Locke pointed out almost a century before).  And when it was pointed out to Thomas Paine that his sums just did not add up (that “The Rights of Man – Part II” does not add up) he simply demanded a tax (going all the way to 100%) on private landowners.

In short Paine was not really a libertarian (any more than Voltaire was) – he was quite happy to use government power (unlimited tax and other power) to create the new society he craved. He was (at bottom) no better in this than Frederick the Great or Plato. I am not saying that Paine was a man of blood (as Frederick was), but I am saying his principles were no good.

This cancer at the heart of the late enlightment (the enlightenment of Voltaire and Paine, not Montesquieu and Burke) was, I believe, first noted by John Adams. And modern libertarians (whether in America or elsewhere) could do a lot worse than study the judgements of John Adams – in this and many other matters.


  1. Hmm, where to start… interesting piece, btw.

    From Bastiat’s ‘The Law’, on Montesquieu:

    “Those who are subject to vulgar infatuation may exclaim: “Montesquieu has said this! So it’s magnificent! It’s sublime!” As for me, I have the courage of my own opinion. I say: What! You have the nerve to call that fine? It is frightful! It is abominable! These random selections from the writings of Montesquieu show that he considers persons, liberties, property — mankind itself — to be nothing but materials for legislators to exercise their wisdom upon.”

    This follows a few quotes from Montesquieu, which Bastiat holds up as examples of the man’s attitude being straight out of the Plato line. I haven’t checked the source, but Bastiat quotes:

    “Now it is true that if one considers the sheer pleasure of commanding to be the greatest joy in life, he contemplates a crime against society; it will, however, always be a noble ideal to govern men in a manner that will make them happier.

    Those who desire to establish similar institutions must do as follows: Establish common ownership of property as in the republic of Plato; revere the gods as Plato commanded; prevent foreigners from mingling with the people, in order to preserve the customs; let the state, instead of the citizens, establish commerce. The legislators should supply arts instead of luxuries; they should satisfy needs instead of desires. ”

    Many such thinkers as Voltaire have tried their hand at tutoring the ruler, with the idea that they will be able to guide him in the paths of enlightenment, and have discovered that it doesn’t work that way. I think Voltaire learned the lesson.

  2. Paul Marks says:

    On Montesquieu – quite right Tropper Thomson.

    Montesquieu as not always correct – as Bastiat pointed out.

    And I was wrong not to state this myself – my apologies.

    However, on Voltarire I think you miss my point.

    He did not fail to tutor Frederick (for all their falling out). On many basic things he and Frederick were in agreement.


  3. Frank Davis says:

    For example, David Ricardo never used the (utterly false) idea of the labour theory of value, to reach collectivist conclusions – but the “Ricardian socialists” did, as did Karl Marx and (inspite of the labour theory of value being shown to be utterly false) collectivists down to our own day.

    So, okay,what’s wrong with the Labour Theory of Value (which says that the value of anything is the amount of work that goes into making it), eh?

  4. Paul Marks says:

    Frank Davis.

    The economic value of a thing is what someone is prepared to pay for it – well almost.

    Actually there are two values – the value the seller puts on it (which is going to be less than the price he sells it for – apart from in weird circumstances) and the price the buyer puts on it (which is going to be more than the price he pays for it – apart from in weird circumstances).

    Economic value being subjective – i.e. the good being worth more to the buyer than to the seller (the idea that “equal values” are exchanged is a central error in the economics of Aristotle – a great man but not always correct).

    For further information see (for example) “Human Action” by Ludwig Von Mises a development of the economics of Carl Menger (Principles of Political Economy).

    Or for a brief refutation of the labour theory of value (the idea that the economic value of a good is somehow determined by the work to make it) see “Introductory Lectures on Political Economy” by Richard Whately (second edition – 1832). Lecture Nine (on the correct use of language) pages 252-253.

    Bascically work may be needed to produce a good or service – but it has naught to do with its economic value.

    A diamond I find lying on the sand is not going to be worth any less than one I spend a day digging out of the earth with my finger nails.

    “In this, as in many other points of political economy, men are prone to confuse cause and effect. It is not that pearls fetch a high price because men have dived for them; but on the contrary, men dive for them because they fetch a high price”.

    Sometimes this can be very sad.

    For example, someone may work very hard (and very skillfully) and produce something that no one is willing to pay for.

    “But it must be worth a lot – I worked so hard and I worked so well….”

    I am not denying that you worked hard and you worked with great skill – but that has got sweet Fanny Adams to do with with the economic value of the thing.

  5. David B. Wildgoose says:

    How can you accurately measure the amount of work going into an item in any event?

    If I use my skill, experience and knowledge to make a subtle change to a program in order to provide something a customer wants then I might not need much chronological time to do the work, but only because of the countless hours spent on learning my profession and the countless hours of experience to know what will be the simplest and most robust change.

    Giving the job to an amateur who makes enormous changes of dubious maintainability and as a result takes much longer, doesn’t make his work more valuable than mine!

    Interesting piece by the way.

  6. Paul Marks says:

    The Marxists (and others) do try and measure the amount of work that goes into making a thing – the “socially necessary labour” and so on. But it all misses the point because this is not what value is about.

    By the way other folk declare that the amount of energy that goes into making a thing is the “true” value (which leads to fresh absurdities).

    David B. Wildgoose.

    Many thanks for the complement.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: