Monday, September 20, 2010

Quote of the day

Yesterday's Tom Friedman column, one in a continuing series on the super-awesomeness of China, reminded me of this passage by Adam Ferguson:
When we suppose government to have bestowed a degree of tranquillity, which we sometimes hope to reap from it, as the best of its fruits, and public affairs to proceed, in the several departments of legislation and execution, with the least possible interruption to commerce and lucrative arts; such a state, like that of China, by throwing affairs into separate offices, where conduct consists in detail, and in the observance of forms, by superseding all the exertions of a great or a liberal mind, is more akin to despotism than we are apt to imagine.

Whether oppression, injustice, and cruelty, are the only evils which attend on despotical government, may be considered apart. In the mean time it is sufficient to observe, that liberty is never in greater danger than it is when we measure national felicity by the blessings which a prince may bestow, or by the mere tranquillity which may attend on equitable administration. The sovereign may dazzle with his heroic qualities; he may protect his subjects in the enjoyment of every animal advantage or pleasure: but the benefits arising from liberty are of a different sort; they are not the fruits of a virtue, and of a goodness, which operate in the breast of one man, but the communication of virtue itself to many; and such a distribution of functions in civil society, as gives to numbers the exercises and occupations which pertain to their nature.

The best constitutions of government are attended with inconvenience; and the exercise of liberty may, on many occasions, give rise to complaints. When we are intent on reforming abuses, the abuses of freedom may lead us to incroach on the subject from which they are supposed to arise. Despotism itself has certain advantages, or at least, in time of civility and moderation, may proceed with so little offence, as to give no public alarm. These circumstances may lead mankind, in the very spirit of reformation, or by mere inattention, to apply or to admit of dangerous innovations in the state of their policy.

That's from 1767, mind you. FLG really needs to study the Scottish Enlightenment further.

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