Saturday, September 16, 2006

The Franco-American Disconnect: Interest vs. Reason

If you are not a regular reader of PYY and have searched your way into this post, here is the introduction (or preface, if you will) to this piece.

Awhile back, I was perusing the archives of Professor R.J. Rummel's blog (Democratic Peace) and found some information that may help explain some of the disconnect that is perceived to be so prevalent between two historical allies, the United States and France. And although there is a strong historical bond between Europe and America, there are some distinct differences that exist and not all of this has arisen from the different opinions about the Iraq war. Many of these dissimilarities can be traced back into the early days of both nations' new found liberty; and by acquiring a better understanding of that period, some of the philosophical differences can be better explained.

Here is a brief, but pertinent examination of the differences between the French and American Revolutions (and the states they produced) written by Dr. Rummel and found on the University of Hawaii's website.

The crux of this matter can best be summed up by his opening statement:

The intellectual struggle worldwide today is now between the beliefs encapsulated in the American Revolution and those in the French. It is interests versus reason.

Here, we have two separate revolutions occurring close to the same time frame. The goals were similar, in that, they were fought for the specific purpose of freeing the people from what was then a corrupt yoke of tyranny. However, in setting up their respective governments after that yoke was broken, both nations were motivated by two very different schools of thought in what objectives each respective government should try to meet and what philosophy/ideology would best to serve the people of each nation.

In the American experiment,
John Locke and Sir John Harrington were the philosophical influences that guided the Americans, to base their document on these three guiding principles, as explained by Dr. Rummel:

One is that all men have certain inalienable Rights standing above and limiting government, the agency of the State. Among these, as enshrined in the First Amendment, are the rights to the freedom of religion, speech, the press, assembly, and petition.

The second principle is that all governments carry within themselves the seeds of tyranny, of the absolute State, which can be limited only by a system of checks and balances. Thus, the Constitution balances aspects of monarchy, aristocracy, and the commons in the independent powers of the executive, judiciary, and legislature; it balances a democratic tendency to mob rule by protections of minority views and rights. It balances popular representation in the House of Representatives against the equality of large and small states in the Senate. And it balances the need to satisfy popular interests with the requirement for their careful and dispassionate consideration.

The third principle is that Freedom must reign, that no man working in his own interests can be unjust against himself, and that therefore, government must be limited to defining and administering the common law. Government is to be an arbiter between interests, to serve a janitorial role of defending and maintaining the commonwealth. All else is the preserve of Freedom.

Shortly after the creation of the U.S. Constitution, the French Revolution occurred. The two major philosphical influences on the new French government were
Rene Descartes and Jean Jacques Rousseau, two products of the Enlightenment.

Per Dr. Rummel, here are the three guiding principles of that revolution and subsequent government:

The first principle is that the benefits to the Community outweigh individual rights. This is what the common will or sovereignty of the people means -- that individuals are members of a Community which takes precedence over the individual, and that the Community has a will to be gratified, a justice to be sought, which no individual should bar.

The second principle is that the State, and thus government as its agent, can be beneficent instruments of progress, a tool to be used to pursue the common will, the Community's betterment. Government, of course, had been feared when ruled by kings and aristocrats. But in the hands of the people, government can only serve the people's ends. Therefore, government should not be checked and balanced. Its powers should not be divided, for then the State is severely restrained. The Application of Reason to further Social Justice is crippled. Unlike the Americans, the French revolutionaries did not fear the State as such, but only the State in the service of the wrong class and bad ends.

And this led to the third principle of the French Revolution -- unlimited government. As the State's implement of Reason working on behalf of the Community, government should not be limited. If necessary to pursue Social Justice, government should centralize, regulate, and control. No local or provincial government, no local council, court or judge, should be able to limit or contradict the pursuit of Social Justice by the State; no minority interest should have precedence over the General Will.

So, in essence, we have two separate entities seeking liberty and freedom from oppression, yet, we have two very different philosphical ventures on how to implement that liberty and freedom, and how to maintain it. What it all boils down to is, interest vs. reason and individual rights vs. the good of the community.

One can easily see the different approaches in the Constitutions of both nations. The American document's provisions for human rights is,
The Bill Of Rights, something most Americans are taught, from elementary school on. Although many of us are well-adept at knowing the principles contained therein, many Americans not realize that France has a similar provison in their document, known as, The Declaration of the Rights of Man and of the Citizen.

Let's look at some of the text:

Article I – Men are born and remain free and equal in rights. Social distinctions can be founded only on the common utility.

Article III – The principle of any sovereignty resides essentially in the Nation. No body, no individual can exert authority which does not emanate expressly from it.

As we see from these two passages, the focus is clearly centered on the community. But when we read the Bill Of Rights, we see the focus centered on the individual. In the U.S. Bill, the powers are separated, in the French Declaration, the powers are concentrated. In France, the government is the protector of rights. In the U.S., the government is the preserver.

One analogy I would submit is, both are solid foundations. But one is made of brick, the other is made of limestone. Bricks are man-made, limestone occurs naturally. One of the pre-eminent principles of the U.S. Constitution is, its outlined rights are presumed natural and God-given. Whereas in the French Constitution, the rights are created and flow from the State.

Not only were the foundational bases of both states different, both took different paths after their implementations. Both had their shares of troubles, there can be no doubt about that. But, one had a much more difficult time getting its experiment to work.

And that is where we will leave it, until the next post. Besides, this should be enough to chew on for a little while at least.


Anonymous said...

A great post you've written here LAS. Before I come back to it, there's something that I find somehow intriguing...
René Descartes is one of the last names I would think of when it comes to the thinkers whose works had some influence on the French Revolution. Of course, it is always possible to refer to some part of his thinking that could eventually be interpreted as a harbinger of what was to happen more than 200 years after his death... Yet, it seems to me a little far fetched...
Descartes really, can't be considered as a product of the enlightment which is mainly a 18th century stream of thinking.
Along with Rousseau, Voltaire and Helvetius are more appropriate references... Not to mention Montesquieu of course...

LASunsett said...

Thank you, whoever you are.

Being horrible with dates, I confused Descartes' time closer to that of the revolution. But as a result of your comment and upon further reading, I see that he was much earlier.

However, I will go out on a limb here and say that Descartes was very revered by the French even up to the days of the revolution. Part of that popularity was due to the fact that the Pope had banned his works at one point. And because the revolution was partly driven by secularists that wished to de-Christianize the state, he may have the subject of a Descartes revival, at that point in time. (Didn't they bring his body back to France to be re-buried in his homeland during the revolution?) Maybe after the concept of divine right was disposed of, there could have been a desire within the revolution to pour more salt on the wounds of the Vatican, for the years of anger generated by the grip the Catholic Church held on the state.

But, then again, I am not so sure. I am just trying to think this through a little.

Thanks again for the input.

Anonymous said...

Hmmm... For some reason I forgot to give my name on the comment I posted yesterday. Sorry about that.

Among many other names you also can think of D'Alembert and Diderot who were the main driving forces behind the publication of l'Encyclopaedia which had a trememdous impact on the French society of the time.
You will notice that all 5 philosophers named above died just some years or to the maximum 2 decades before the French Revolution broke out whereas Descartes died nearly 250 years before.
Regarding Descartes, he certainly was much revered since he introduced the concept of the self (le moi, le sujet) as the basis for any sound reasoning. This concept in turn reverberates in the notion that each and everyone is as entitled to his own right and way of thinking as the person of the King, supposedly God given to the masses. This concept certainly is one of the many ingredients the philosophical maelström the French Revolution was made of but it would be slightly exagerated to consider it as one of the main factors which contributed to it happening.


LASunsett said...


I wondered if that was you, but did not want to commit myself to assuming that much.

Voltaire and Rousseau, I am familiar with. Montesquieu, I have heard of. But the others, I haven't. I will look for some material on them, when I get some time.

I looked back at Dr, Rummel's commentary and found that he stated that Descartes' work in Geometry was one factor or influence (if you will) in the revolution. But, he doesn't elaborate much further than that. I am not sure I understand what he is trying to say in all of that. Maybe my lack of affinity towards math clouds my ability to reason that one out.

Anyway, thanks again for your input. It has pointed me in some directions that I may not have looked toward, otherwise.

LASunsett said...


I saw a comment you left on a post from May 2005, in which you dispute the figures I had on the European population. (Here)

Here is my source for the European population.

These figures include the nation of Turkey and some other western Asia nations that more closely idenify themselves as European. But even if you subtract the populations of those countries, you still are left with around 550 million or so.

Anonymous said...

Regarding the population of Europe, this a worm can indeed. What is Europe?
The UE? (25 members)
The Euro zone? (12 members)
The continent, as you wrote? (32 countries)
This is where the problem is: What are the boundaries of Europe? Political, geographical, historical?
All Europeans see Switzerland or Norway as European countries, no doubt about it.
When it comes to Bulgaria and Romania, well, yes too. Now, Ukraine, Bielorussia... hmmm...
But Turkey? with common borders with Iran, Iraq, Jordan, Georgia etc. hey, where do we stop? With 5% of turkish territory on mainland Europe...
This is a huge issue in Europe but, as usual, politicians and Eurocrats certainly never consult the peoples as to what they want, particularly regarding the future of Europe (among millions other issues).
Now, if you include all countries of the continent, indeed your figure is right.
Regarding the economic output of these countries as opposed as that of the US, well, as you know, Europe isn't monolithic and there are more differences between UK/ Germany/France for example and Bielorussia, Turkey or Romania that between any State of America. Notwithstanding the burden of History, languages, religions etc.


Anonymous said...

Now, why did I write there were 32 countries only in Europe whereas they're about 40 with Albania, Serbia, Macedonia, Slovenia, Montenegro, Lichtenstein, the Vatican etc.?
All in all you're right when it comes to the global figure of population. Be that as it may, the last cited countries don't add much...
Now what is Europe?


LASunsett said...

Hi Flocon,

//Now what is Europe?//

Someone once said, "What is truth?". Big question. It's been debated long bfore we were ever around and will be debated long after we are gone, I suspect.

As I said, the post was written a pretty good while back. One source I like and may have used was Political Calculations. (Which is a very reliable site.) Follow that link and look at the EU countries' GNP vs. the U.S.

I do think that I was referring to the EU and those that want in, like the old Soviet satellite nations. That would make it near 550 million or so.

But now that I know that you are watching closely, I will improve my sourcing. ;)

I didn't know how to blog very well back then. I didn't know how to make links and other stuff like that. So to link up whatever site I was looking at was not possible.