The Abbe Sieyès and hereditary privilege

As functional differentiation accelerated in the second half of the 18th century, the system of inherited social ranking came under serious stress. The attack on hereditary privilege is evident in An essay on privileges, and particularly on hereditary nobility (English trans, 1791), by Emmanuel Joseph Sieyès (the Abbe Sieyès), one of the chief political theorists of the French Revolution. The Abbe Sieyès wrote,

Privilege has been defined to be “a dispensation or exemption in favour of him who possesses it and discouragement to those who do not.” If this then be the case, it must be allowed that Privileges are a very poor invention indeed!

The complete title is An essay on privileges, and particularly on hereditary nobility. Written by the Abbe Sieyes, a member of the national assembly; and translated into English, with notes, by a foreign nobleman, now in England.

Abbe Sieyès emphasizes the law, or the legal system, which becomes operationally autonomous under functional differentiation. In a functionally differentiated society, the same law should apply to everyone. As Sieyès puts it:

There is one supreme law which ought to apply to that one supreme law which ought to be the parent of all others, and that is “Do wrong to no man.” [. . .] Where any class of citizens enjoys an exemption from any particular law, it is directly saying to those citizens, “You are permitted to do wrong.” There is no power on earth, which should be authorized to make such as concession. If the law is good it out to bind every individual, if bad it ought to be abolished.

When the major function systems—the legal system, the economy, the political system, —differentiated themselves as autonomous function systems, traditional aristocratic privilege was lost. The power of the Church was also greatly diminished as religion became just one of several autonomous function systems. Henceforth, there would be, at least in principle, one economy, one legal system, and one political system for everyone. There might still be other legal systems, such as military and Ecclesiastical courts, but there is one legal system that is available to everyone and that takes precedence in case of conflict. Top-down social control and segmentation into “hermetically sealed” social groups would never work the same way again.


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