Those committed to liberty have a great deal of admiration for Frederic Bastiat’s writing. I am particularly fond of his pamphlet, “The Law” and his article “Government,” but he offers insights throughout his work. Whether for his writing style, particularly his mastery of reductio ad absurdum arguments, his ability to encapsulate core principles of economics in ways people can comprehend, or his ability to identify errors of basic logic behind government policies, Bastiat’s work deserves attention. There are excellent reasons why Henry Hazlitt cited him as the inspiration for his best-selling “Economics in One Lesson.”
While Bastiat is deservedly well-known, at least to libertarians, few people know about the person Bastiat described as his successor from his deathbed in 1850 – Belgian philosopher and economist Gustave de Molinari. That is despite the fact that David Hart termed him “the leading representative of the laissez-faire school of classical liberalism in France” following Bastiat’s death. As we reach Molinari’s March 3 birthday, his words merit far closer attention.
Joseph Stromberg noted how deeply he believed in the power of liberty, as “the first writer to draw the conclusion that government could, in effect, be replaced by competing companies or agencies offering to provide security and protection.” Molinari saw that government as it has always existed – as an abuser of people’s natural rights – could be supplanted by an agency that had no mandate other than providing security for life, liberty and property.
Molinari recognized the problems of government sovereignty from the perspective of justice and respect for natural rights and argued for individual sovereignty as a far superior means of achieving effective social cooperation. It is worth revisiting his inspirational recognition of how much better the consequences of self-ownership, applied far more broadly than it has been, would be:
Government has abused its unlimited power over individual life and property.
The abolishment of that ‘state’ is the present, most urgent, need of society.
Modern governments [offer] … grossly inadequate performance of their first duty – protection of life and property of the individual.
The progressive rise in taxation and expenditure which has occurred in every State … [comes from] their right of unlimited requisition upon the life, liberty, and property of the individual.
Government should restrict itself to guaranteeing the security of its citizens … the freedom of labor and of trade should otherwise be whole and absolute.
[With] the guarantee of internal peace and external security … The primacy of national interest over all other claims ceases.
The sovereign individual possesses the absolute right to dispose of his person and his property as he sees fit … to govern himself.
Property and liberty are the two aspects or two constituents of sovereignty.
What is the interest of the individual? It is to remain the absolute proprietor of his person and property and to retain the power to dispose of them at will … [subject only to] the property and liberty of others … such is the purpose of ‘government.’
The individual remains completely sovereign only under a regime of total liberty. Any monopoly, any privilege is an attack upon his sovereignty.
Progress will be still better secured by measures extending the sphere of individual self-government.
After … all artificial obstacles to the free action of the natural laws that govern the economic world have disappeared, the situation of the various members of society will become the best possible.
The ills [ascribed] to liberty – or, to use an absolutely equivalent expression, to free competition – do not originate in liberty, but in monopoly and restriction … a society truly free … will be exempt from most of the ills, as we suffer them today … the most just, the best, and the most favorable to the production and distribution of wealth, that is attainable by mortal man.
The true remedy for most evils is none other than liberty, unlimited and complete liberty, liberty in every field of human endeavor.
Gustave de Molinari learned of “the destructive apparatus of the civilized state” from the French Revolution, “naively undertaken to establish a regime of liberty and prosperity for the benefit of humanity,” but “end[ing] in … an increase in the servitude and burdens.” That inspired him to oppose government abuses of their citizens’ natural rights. He saw the far better alternative of vastly expanded liberty, enabling an explosion of human potential. Our world would be far better if we would re-learn that from him.
Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.