September 22nd, 2014
Assignment: Paper 1
Word Count: 1458
The Paradox of Privilege
In “What is the Third Estate?” Sieyes argues for a model of nationhood based on civil and political equality. These principles though necessary are not sufficient to entail equality amongst all people. Equality is an ‘umbrella’ term including a range of subsets; equitable distribution of political power and a “common law” (97) are part of the latter category and hence cannot be said to ensure equality overall. It must be admitted however, that these two notions identified by Sieyes, are essential in providing the basis for a state that works towards achieving the greatest possible measure of equity amongst its citizens. Sieyes’ model, though definitely an improvement on previous times, contains within it, seeds of further inequality and divisions.
Before one can analyze how Sieyes’ model does or does not perpetuate equality, the two concepts mentioned above must be understood. Despite often resorting to a rhetoric insistence on the nation being nothing more than the Third Estate, Sieyes provides in his essay a clear definition of what a nation is. He describes it as “ a body of associates living under a common law, represented by the same legislature, etc.” (97). This sentence has profound implications: everyone, regardless of their caste, color, creed or any other credentials is equal before the law. This is a landmark moment, as it ensures that members of privileged orders cannot abuse their power, and that at the very least, every citizen can rest assured that his (the her is debatable) rights are not violated. Political equality follows from this, as it allows all citizens the right to shape the law, to some degree. They are all represented by one legislature, thereby ensuring that a single law-making body represents the entire nation. Therefore, in addition to the same law applying to all, everyone is entitled to the same degree of representation in government, as well. At least in theory, no one person, or order of persons, is in any way above the law, or possesses greater political power than any other.
The concept of citizenship is of essence here as it defines who enjoys the rights mentioned above. Sieyes proudly proclaims that, “the Third Estate is always identical to the idea of a nation”(101). By extension then, everyone who is part of the Third Estate, is considered a citizen and should enjoy civil and political equality.
Here, the first and perhaps most glaring flaw in the essay’s logic is revealed. Despite being a voracious attack on the aristocracy and hereditary entitlement, “What is the Third Estate?” turns citizenship itself into a privilege. In the opening pages, Sieyes describes “All the different kinds of private employment” (94) and goes on to include all those engaged in productive labor. This includes “everything from the most distinguished…to the least esteemed domestic services.” However later on in the essay, these very people are disenfranchised and deemed unable to hold public office or exercise political power. The very law that is supposed to guarantee equality “specifies the character of those entitled to be electors” and hence deems women, beggars, domestic servants and “anyone dependent on a master” to be unfit to enjoy “a people’s political trust”(107).
Before digging deeper, one must subject these ideas to the very same logic that Sieyes applies in his text. According to him, “every privilege is the opposite of the common law”(101). The very premise of national unity is based on the principle of a law common to all, yet this law excludes certain ‘classes’ of people (women, servants, and all other dependents) from exercising their political rights. Thus the ‘common law’ is not so common after all, and is in itself a privilege enjoyed only by a certain segment of society. It must be remembered that at the time this text was published a large segment of society was ‘dependent’