Lessons From The French Revolution?

Those supporting freedom should learn a lesson from the French Revolution. In “The First Leftist” (1951), Dean Russell, a former FEE employee and expert on French liberalism, described what went wrong in the French Revolution.

According to Russell, “the first leftist” were members of the National Constituent Assembly who wanted to abolish government controls over the market. They briefly held a slim majority and successfully limited the central powers of government. But sadly, a small minority among the group, the revolutionary Jacobins, grasped power. The Jacobins differed in that they wanted power in the hands of the “people”, rather than the local and constitutionally-limited government the first leftists had backed. The result was terror and tyranny.

So what lessons, particularly in regards to freedom and economics, should we take from this today? In a sense, the lessons for freedom and economics are the same. The issues of why a decentralized power structure is important for freedom are directly tied to the economics of knowledge.

F.A. Hayek points to these exact dangers of the centralization of power in the Road to Serfdom. Giving centralized power to the government in ‘the name of the people’ is just as much a slippery slope as any despot. The French experience aptly illustrates this.

Given Russell’s article, what parallels do you see with our current political climate? What are the differences? Could we be heading down a similar road?

Download the First Leftist by Dean Russell Here.