Sophie Wahnich is a historian based at the Laboratoire d’anthropologie des institutions et des organisations sociales in Paris.
First published in French by Libération. Translated by David Broder.
The 1789 Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen is part of our constitutional bloc. It sanctions a freedom limited by the principle of reciprocity set out in its fourth article: "Freedom consists of being able to do everything that does not harm others; thus the exercise of each man’s natural rights has no constraints other than those that assure other members of society the enjoyment of these same rights. These constraints can only be determined by law."
In fact, the Constituent Assembly would produce a law that immediately contravened this article, with the 29 August 1789 law on the unlimited freedom of the sale and circulation of grain. In sanctioning property rights as natural, this law flatly denied reciprocity, for it led some to become richer and others poorer, in a dissymmetry that would only be aggravated by the lack of any controls being introduced.