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Great post, Frederic. I bet Burke had read Hume's history, whose arch villain was Oliver Cromwell. Cromwell, whose great crime was regicide, was England’s Napoleon. Hume feared the rise of tyrants such as Cromwell and therefore opposed radical social change, regardless of the direction in which it might be pointed. This Humean status quo bias is an essential part of Hume’s liberalism that has been (IMHO) undervalued by many modern followers of the liberal tradition.

Interesting post, but surely even the Hayekians can appreciate Monarchial demise even if it sowed the seeds for French Statism. It was a step forward at least.

Extremely well-said. A little depressing though because France is, through it all, a nation of tremendous accomplishment.

Yes, it was Rousseau who probably planted most of the seeds of the disaster that ensued, but I think the Hayekian "constructivist" interpretation doesn't exhaust his ideas. After all, he is a precursor of Romanticism and nationalism (and in fact of all ideologies ever since), he pleads for a return to nature as an ideal, extols the virtues of the ancient compact community, cries against the alienation and decadence brought by money and so on...

The French culture has (had?) the unique capacity in modern history of being the European culture capable of putting forward universalizable ideas and cultural models; none other could do this with the same impact, clarity and durability. So the ideas of the French Revolution, the good and the bad, became the benchmark of civilisation, were copied and adopted all over Europe and the world. The entire constitutional, judicial, political and administrative structure in the Latin countries and in Eastern Europe, for instance, is in general nothing but a CC of the 19th century French development. The "German model", though built in reaction to the French one, incorporates many of its features. On the other hand, many of the ideas, myths, propaganda techniques and so on of the French Revolution, particularly the Jacobite phase, has directly inspired the radical left up to the Boshevik Revolution and even after (it's interestingly the extent to which the Russian revolutionaries, not only the Bolsheviks - Kerenski, the liberal-conservatives, all - thought in terms of comparison with the French Revolution during the Russian revolution.

But in the end, Bastille was empty when the mod stormed it, no political prisoners whatsoever were found, just an empty building, once a symbol of power like the Tower of London, but by then just a place were young rebel aristocrats, like the Marquis de Sade, were punished by the king with the bessing of their tutors who sent him a lettre de cachet....

The romanticism of revolutionary violence by psychpaths like Che and Robert Mugabe has been one of the most corrosive features of radical politics since the French revolution and will no doubt be seen as its most influential legacy. If only the American revolution had been adopted as the model for reformers.

Of course the Marxists have been the major exponents of violent reform and the systematic ambiguity of Marx and Engels on the topic of violence and the "fraud" of representative democracy poisoned the wells of leftwing political philosophy. (Add economic illitaracy and stir vigorously for an explosive brew).

Compounding the problem, the existence of the worlwide communist movement, dedicated to burying the west democracies by fair means or foul, promoted the democracies to support nasty regimes as the lesser of evils. But that is another story.

There is a helpful chapter in "The Open Society" with some rules of the game for the use of violence, for example to remove a tyranny if no other means are available. That is a dangerous move if it is not quickly effective because the prolonged use of violence will undemine the dispassionate rule of reason, and possibly deliver not freedom but the rule of the strong man. "A violent revolution which tries to attempt more than the destruction of tyranny is at least as likely to bring about another tyranny as it is likely to achieve its real aims."

Was the french revolution doomed to failure?

From a Hayekian perspective, not necessarily. Franz Boehm, a member of the Freiburg school of law and economics, has argued the following way:

The goal of the french revolution was to abolish the old privileges of the feudal class, and as a part of this to give the power of the ruling class to all members of society.
The feudal society before the revolution was based on privileges. The legal status of a person, his legal rights and duties, were dependetn on his status in society. Part of the goal of the french revolution was to abolish these status-dependet rights, and to give the same rights to all.

Boehm's crucial question now is: does this goal entail the construction of an entirely new social order? This would of course be an approach, to which Hayek's critique of constructivist rationalism would apply. Boehm argues that it is not so.
In the feudal society there had existed, apart from the status-dependet law, the private law as a "gap-filler". Private law was used to "regulate" the relations between people which did not fall into the feudal system of status dependent rights and duties. An example would be if the feudal lord wanted a new cupboard in his castle. For this, he had to make a contract with an artisan in the cities, and the artisans were outside of the feudal relationship. Private law had to govern the contract between the lord and the artisan.

Boehm's central argument is that private law had existed for ages as a gap-filler in the feudal society, and had been repeatedly tested in a continuing process of evolution (sound familiar to Hayekians?).

Now, in abolishing the old privilege-based system, the revolutionaries did not at the same time have to think about a completely new societal system to replace the old one. When all privileges were abolished, as a result the private law (as a law for people of equal legal status) suddenly became the law for all members of society.

Society thus could rely on the previously existing and repeatedly tested private law system for its new social order, the only knowledge problems concerned the system-wide effects of the extension of this former gap-filler to the whole society.

Boehm also stresses that when a general system of private law (as a law system for equally free and status-equal people) is institutionalized, this equals the institutionalization of the market order.

The whole thing can be read (in German, I doubt iit has been translated into English) in Boehms article:

Böhm, Franz: Privatrechtsgesellschaft und Marktwirtschaft, in: Böhm, Franz, Freiheit und Ordnung in der Marktwirtschaft, Baden-Baden.

A good economic analysis of the failure that it was is Florin Aftalion's book on the topic, "L'economie de la Revolution française".

As comments noted, this post would have a better historical grasp if it reminded that the enemy was an aging french kingdom, semi-absolutist in its principles (it's not Louis XIV anymore). Not very hayekian, neither. So, even from a libertarian point of view, I think there has been some progress from a society with "les 3 ordres" to a castless society. Don't forget Marx and marxists call the French Revolution the "revolution bourgeoise", which means that some of the values such as private property and equality before the law are very much market friendly.

As for your last paragraph, I think the works of Pierre Rosanvallon has very strongly showed the dialectism between the ideas of accountability and legitimity of the government and its real implementation.

True, Hayek was influenced by the Tories and was not a friend of the encyclopedists. As a result one must be careful applying his ideas to the debate on the French revolution.

But the point is to take the romance out of the revolution. Abolishing the priveleges was a goal that emerged in the course of the first weeks of the revolution. It was obtained by August 4th, 1789. If this was the main goal of the revolution, then one may wonder why it continued and degenerated in bloodshed (and hyper-inflation) for another 5 years after that.

In the course of the revolution, some of the revolutionaries realized that they could go further and dreamt of a new social order (that's what Robespierre, who was an intellectual disciple of Rousseau, had in mind). Indeed, what exactly are you trying to do when you not only abolish the class system, but also you're trying to exterminate a good part of those who were part of the aristocracy, plus those who disagree with you? The French revolution contained more than just the desire for a classless society, it also contained the idea of social constructivism on a massive scale. This may have gone beyond the original aspirations of some, but it was the end result.

The abolition of privileges was desirable, but it remains to be shown that the revolution was the only way to obtain it or that it was necessary at that point in time. For instance, while some peaceful reforms had failed, Turgot had done a great job freeing trade within the kingdom. France was in competition with England and had to adapt to survive. Thus, it is possible that what Turgot had not realized in the 1770s, someone else might have done it 20 or 30 years later in the normal course of politics.

Yes, history with "ifs" is always fun. But the course of events is difficult to stop, and I think you lose a lot by trying to separate what is "good" from "not good" (as historians constantly tried to do during the 3rd Republic). Tocqueville showed how the jacobinist perspective ans its progressive extremisation was a process in the long term.

For example, I'd like to know how you interpret the "Le Chapelier" Law, which is a rather market friendly law (removing barriers of entry), but constructivist too.

On Robespierre, I am not that sure that he wanted a classless society, if by classless you mean income equality. He was more of a moralist extremist ("L'Incorruptible"), which is not better, but you cannot make him a marxist avant la lettre (though maybe I'm wrong, references to historians would be useful). Last point: as a lot of French pupils, I have read Hugo at school, and it is very hard to take romanticism out of the Revolution, and even the Terror, after you've read the beautiful novel "93".

Markss, in addition to reading beautiful novels, would it help to read the history of the 20th century and count the number of people who were killed because they got in the way of a revolution? Try reading "A Bend in the River" by V S Naipaul as well.

Well, my point is that the French Revolution has specific historical determinants, different fron the 20th centuty events, and bringing romanticism ot of it is hard, so I don't think the comparison is relevant. But I am sure Naipaul is a great writer, and definetly planned on reading it too.

Markss, the point is that one of the determinants of the carnage of the 20th century was the romantic idea of revolution that was reinforced by the mythology of the French Revolution and propagated by a many artists and writers of imaginative fiction.

Incidentally Ayn Rand wanted people to rediscover the spirit of Romanticism by reading Hugo's "93".

Thank you for this reference!

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