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Benjamin Constant

From 1767
 to 1830

Born near Lausanne, Switzerland, to descendants of Huguenots, Constant was educated at the universities at Erlangen and Edinburgh, the latter having such luminaries as Adam Smith and Adam Ferguson on their faculty-a center of Whig politics.

In contrast to the physiocrats who supported an enlightened despot to promote liberal principles, Constant rejected such solutions, declaring that government was the greatest threat to liberty. The worst thing would be to give the state more power, regardless of what the agenda might be.

He gave many reasons to limit state intervention in the lives of people: 1) errors in law spread their negative effects throughout the nation as opposed to individual errors that are limited in scope; 2) the damage of erroneous laws effect citizens more than legislators who are thus less inclined to repeal them; 3) it takes longer to repair the damage done by legislation than the damage done by individuals by their own private choices; 4) because of the constant watch of critics, politicians are less inclined to publicly admit error and undo the damage done; 5) politicians are more inclined to make decisions based on pragmatism and prejudice than on principle as a citizen may be.

Like Montesquieu, Constant believed in a system of checks and balances and supported the freedom of the press and other institutions. Contrary to some critics of religion at the time, he believed that religion was a positive force in society which helped, like regionalism, to check the power of the state.

His writings are numerous and include literary works as well as works of political theory which include De l'esprit de conquête et de l'usurpation (1814), and Principes de politique (1815).