January 18 marks the 320th anniversary of the birth of Charles Louis de Secondat, Baron Montesquieu. Robert Wokler called Montesquieu “perhaps the most central thinker…of the enlightenment.” He was also an important influence on America’s founders, particularly his argument that a separation of powers was necessary for liberty to be maintained—so much so that one writer characterized him as John Locke’s “ideological co-founder of the American Constitution.”
Law and Liberty
Montesquieu’s ideas were most famously spelled out in his 1748 The Spirit of Laws. There he offered insights into governments, which he divided into tyrannies, monarchies, and republics. Of particular importance for America was his analysis of the relationship between law and liberty in republics.
With American politics heavily engaged with protectionism, one aspect of Montesquieu’s work that is particularly relevant today is what he wrote about that very practical application of liberty—free trade, derived from our ownership of ourselves:
"Countries are well cultivated, not as they are fertile, but as they are free."
"The public good consists in every one’s having his property…invariably preserved."
"When the inhabitants of a state are all free subjects…each man enjoys his property with as much right as the prince."
"It is not for the advantage of the public to deprive an individual of his property, or even to retrench the least part of it by a law, or a political regulation."
"The spirit of commerce…renders every man willing to live on his own property."
"Trade produces in the mind of a man a certain sense of exact justice, opposite… to robbery."
"Commerce is a profession of people who are upon an equality."
"The spirit of commerce is naturally attended with that of frugality, economy, moderation, labor, prudence, tranquility, order, and rule. So long as this spirit subsists, the riches it produces have no bad effect."
"When a democracy is founded on commerce, private people may acquire vast riches without corruption of morals."
"In republics, [commerce] is commonly founded on economy. Their merchants, having an eye to all the nations of the earth, bring from one what is wanted by another."
"It is much better to leave [trade] open than, by exclusive privileges, to restrain the liberty of commerce."
"One nation should never exclude another from trading with it, except for very great reasons…for it is competition which sets a just value on merchandise, and establishes the relation between them."
"Commerce has everywhere diffused a knowledge of the manners of all nations: these are compared one with another, and from this comparison arise the greatest advantages."
"The history of commerce is that of the communication of people."
"Commerce is a cure for the most destructive prejudices…wherever we find agreeable manners, there commerce flourishes; and that wherever there is commerce, there we meet with agreeable manners."
"When two nations come into contact with one another they either fight or trade. If they fight, both lose; if they trade, both gain."
"Peace is the natural effect of trade. Two nations who traffic with each other become reciprocally dependent...their union is founded on their mutual necessities."
"The effect of commerce is riches."
"Commerce is of the greatest service to a state."
"It is for [countries’] advantage to load this commerce with as few obstacles as politics will permit."
"The real wants of the people ought never to give way to the imaginary wants of the state."
"Commerce…flies from the places where it is oppressed, and stays where it has liberty to breath."
"[Because of free trade] it became necessary that princes should govern with more prudence than they themselves could ever have imagined…from experience it is manifest that nothing but the goodness and lenity of a government can make it flourish…More moderation has become necessary…Happy is it for men that they are in a situation in which, though their passions prompt them to be wicked, it is, nevertheless, to their interest to be humane and virtuous."
Montesquieu's Intellectual Legacy
Montesquieu recognized that liberty required government “so constituted as one man need not be afraid of another.” And free trade was an essential part of such an assurance. But trade restrictions force Americans to constantly fear that others will seize more of the power of government and use it against them. Such protectionism, behind its many disguises and misrepresentations, illustrates exactly what Montesquieu feared would undermine republics, such as ours started out to be: “In an extensive republic…there are trusts too considerable to be placed in any single subject; he has interests of his own…In an extensive republic the public good is sacrificed.”
Montesquieu was one of the most influential political thinkers behind America’s founding in search of liberty. But the extent that our country has abandoned one of the most essential aspects of the liberty we sought in becoming independent—the freedom to trade as we see fit, which is based on our ownership of ourselves and the product of our efforts—shows how far we have moved away from a system that by its nature is peaceful, just, and mutually beneficial.
From before America’s founding, careful thinkers have known the blessings of liberty and the benefits of voluntary arrangements unhindered by political favoritism, backed by government threats of force.
From before America’s founding, careful thinkers have known the blessings of liberty and the benefits of voluntary arrangements unhindered by political favoritism, backed by government threats of force. Montesquieu is part of that intellectual legacy, now honored far more in the breach than reality. We need to revive that legacy. Protectionism and all other forms of war by the state on its people are devastating and need to be undone.