August 18, 2016 | by Dr. Tom G. Palmer

This is the second part of a new blog series from Dr. Palmer on the topics featured in his new book Self-Control or State Control? You Decide, which can be downloaded for free here.


The great British political thinker and politician Edmund Burke is frequently called a conservative, although he did not use the term for himself, preferring the term “Whig” — and “Old Whig,” at that. Those who call him a conservative often think of him as favoring a state that will use its coercive powers to control human beings, to make them behave morally. People who do not behave morally, they suggest, cannot be free, because they are constrained by their own excesses. Or, quoting Burke, “Their passions forge their fetters.” A key passage frequently quoted in support of that thesis is found in a letter of May, 1791 (“A Letter to a Member of the National Assembly”) that Burke addressed to the French politician François-Louis-Thibaut de Menonville. The oft-quoted passage reads:

I doubt much, very much indeed, whether France is at all ripe for liberty on any standard. Men are qualified for civil liberty, in exact proportion to their disposition to put moral chains upon their own appetites; in proportion as their love to justice is above their rapacity; in proportion as their soundness and sobriety of understanding is above their vanity and presumption; in proportion as they are more disposed to listen to the counsels of the wise and good, in preference to the flattery of knaves. Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without. It is ordained in the eternal constitution of things, that men of intemperate minds cannot be free. Their passions forge their fetters.

Like many of Burke’s statements, it is often quoted out of context. He was neither a defender of absolute monarchy, nor of the nanny state, nor (as far as I know) of the prohibitionist state, nor of the paternalistic state. In the context of the times, he was rather a tolerant person; he put his own career at risk by defending in parliament two men who had been publicly tortured, at least one of whom was killed (beaten and strangled while being pilloried), after conviction for homosexual conduct.

What did Burke mean by saying that “Society cannot exist unless a controlling power upon will and appetite be placed somewhere, and the less of it there is within, the more there must be without”? Some may interpret him, on the basis of that quote, as claiming that there is a constant quantum of control of behavior generally and that if it is not supplied “within,” it must be supplied “without,” meaning that people can only be free if they do what they ought to do, and if they do not do it of their own accord they must be forced to do it — or to abstain from doing what is immoral. Thus, for instance, if someone drinks to excess, some outside power must control this behavior by forbidding alcohol or restricting access to it.

The context of the letter makes it quite evident that Burke was not arguing for this interpretation. His intent was quite different, and rather important for the maintenance of civil liberty. The imprisonment of the French king had entailed overthrowing the preceding Constitution, abandoning whatever checks and balances it may have had, and replacing it with something untried, untested, and likely unstable. The passages that immediately precede the Burke quote above are as follows:

I am constantly of opinion, that your states, in three orders, on the footing on which they stood in 1614, were capable of being brought into a proper and harmonious combination with royal authority. This constitution by estates, was the natural, and only just representation of France. It grew out of the habitual conditions, relations, and reciprocal claims of men. It grew out of the circumstances of the country, and out of the state of property. The wretched scheme of your present masters, is not to fit the constitution to the people, but wholly to destroy conditions, to dissolve relations, to change the state of the nation, and to subvert property, in order to fit their country to their theory of a constitution.

Until you could make out practically that great work, a combination of opposing forces, “a work of labour long, and endless praise,” the utmost caution ought to have been used in the reduction of the royal power, which alone was capable of holding together the comparatively heterogeneous mass of your states. But at this day, all these considerations are unseasonable. To what end should we discuss the limitations of royal power? Your king is in prison. Why speculate on the measure and standard of liberty?

Better than imprisoning the king would have been to have revived the old constitution of the French Estates, which “grew out of the habitual conditions, relations, and reciprocal claims of men.” Instead, the whole order was upended and a new one established in its place, one that drew nothing from the preceding historically rooted order. Instead, it was based on the claims of reason alone, without the tempering of historical experience that shapes institutions and fits them to our conditions, relations, and claims. Burke is focusing his keen attention, then, not on whether one’s personal behavior should be controlled by one’s self or by the outside power of the state, but on the idea that the state itself could be refashioned arbitrarily at will, or according to the dictates of reason (or what some imagine reason dictates), or of majoritarian power, or of sheer violence.

In the contemporary American context, the role of “a controlling power without” is not played by a king, but by a document: the Constitution of the United States. That is the external “controlling power upon will and appetite” — not the commands of the Food and Drug Administration, the Drug Enforcement Administration, or the Occupational Safety and Health Administration. When internal moral constraint is insufficient to motivate us to tolerate the obnoxious opinions of others, and we demand that they be forced by government to shut up, the Constitution is invoked, specifically the First Amendment. When internal moral constraint is not enough to get us to eschew theft of the property of others and we demand that their goods be taken from them by government and given to us, the Constitution is invoked, specifically the Fifth Amendment. When internal moral constraint is not enough to persuade us to respect the contracts of others, the Constitution is invoked, specifically Article I, section 10, clause 1. If we lose that controlling power, our passions will forge our fetters. We will slide into what today would be called dictatorship, but in Burke’s time tyranny.

In his letter of November, 1789 to Charles-Jean-François Depont, Burke explained what freedom meant for him and the centrality of “equality of restraint” that was inseparable from it:

You have kindly said, that you began to love freedom from your intercourse with me. Permit me then to continue our conversation, and to tell you what the freedom is that I love, and that to which I think all men entitled. This is the more necessary, because, of all the loose terms in the world, liberty is the most indefinite. It is not solitary, unconnected, individual, selfish liberty, as if every man was to regulate the whole of his conduct by his own will. The liberty I mean is social freedom. It is that state of things in which liberty is secured by the equality of restraint. A constitution of things in which the liberty of no one man, and no body of men, and no number of men, can find means to trespass on the liberty of any person, or any description of persons, in the society. This kind of liberty is, indeed, but another name for justice; ascertained by wise laws, and secured by well-constructed institutions. I am sure that liberty, so incorporated, and in a manner identified with justice, must be infinitely dear to every one who is capable of conceiving what it is. But whenever a separation is made between liberty and justice, neither is, in my opinion, safe. I do not believe that men ever did submit, certain I am that they never ought to have submitted, to the arbitrary pleasure of one man; but, under circumstances in which the arbitrary pleasure of many persons in the community pressed with an intolerable hardship upon the just and equal rights of their fellows, such a choice might be made, as among evils. The moment will is set above reason and justice, in any community, a great question may arise in sober minds, in what part or portion of the community that dangerous dominion of will may be the least mischievously placed.

What is needed to avoid letting our passions forge our fetters is a constitutional order that restrains us when we seek to infringe the rights of others. The observance of a constitutional order cannot come about from sheer force, however. As David Hume observed, “as Force is always on the side of the governed, the governors have nothing to support them but opinion.” A constitutional government requires a high degree of self-control on the part of its citizens and its officers.

What, then, is needed for the controlling power on will and appetite to come from within? What institutional order promotes self-control? It is a system of institutions, both practices and organizations, that link actions to outcomes, that link the costs of actions to the benefits, that “internalize the externalities” entailed by their actions. What is needed is a set of practices, norms, rules, and enforcement mechanisms that make us responsible for our actions. As Nobel laureate economist Friedrich A. Hayek, himself an admirer of Edmund Burke, noted in The Constitution of Liberty:

Liberty not only means that the individual has both the opportunity and the burden of choice; it also means that he must bear the consequences of his actions and will receive praise or blame for them. Liberty and responsibility are inseparable.


This is the second part of a new blog series from Dr. Palmer on the topics featured in his new book Self-Control or State Control? You Decide, which can be downloaded for free here.


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Dr. Tom G. Palmer is the executive vice president for international programs at Atlas Network and is responsible for establishing operating programs in 14 languages and managing programs for a worldwide network of think tanks. Learn More about Dr. Tom G. Palmer >