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Eugen Richter and the Critique of Socialism

Eugene Richter (1838-1906) was a member of a generation of classical liberals who died between the turn of the 19th century and the First World War. This generation included the French economist Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912), the English sociologist Herbert Spencer (1820-1903), the English historian Lord Acton (1834-1902), the English radical individualist Auberon Herbert (1838-1906), the American sociologist William Graham Sumner (1840-1910), and the English radical liberal Thomas Mackay (1849-1912). What died with the passing of this generation was a form of classical liberalism which was based on a strong defence of individual liberty, property rights and self-ownership, free trade and laissez-faire, and opposition to war and imperialism. The "liberalism" which emerged after the catastrophe of the First World War, if one can indeed call it "liberalism", turned its back on this generation of classical liberals and all that it believed in—with dire consequences for liberty in the 20th century.

Richter was born in Duesseldorf and attended universities in Bonn, Heidelberg and Berlin. In the late 1860s, when the German unified nation state was being created by Prussia through a series of wars against other German states and France, Richter first became a member of the German national parliament (the Reichstag). Over several decades he used Parliament as a platform to voice his unwavering opposition to increasing state expenditure, increases in the size and power of the army and the navy, government abuses of individual freedom, and colonial policy. Richter was faced with two major sources of opposition to his form of classical liberalism. On the one hand there were the conservatives led by Otto von Bismarck who cleverly forged an alliance between traditional conservatives, the military, and the working class with his combination of warfare and welfare expenditure and tariff protection. On the other hand, there were the socialists who wanted to maintain the high level of government expenditure, but shift the balance more towards welfare expenditure. As modern electoral politics emerged in Germany in the late 19th century Richter's never-ending opposition to all government expenditure increasingly came to be seen as mere dogmatism and pig-headed "Manchesterism" (as free trade and free market ideas were called).

Pictures of the Socialistic Future (freely adapted from Bebel) (1891), is Richter's satire of what would happen to Germany if the socialism espoused by the trade unionists, social democrats, and Marxists was actually put into practice. It is thus a late 19th century version of Orwell's 1984, minus the extreme totalitarianism which Orwell had witnessed in Nazi Germany and Stalinist Russia but which was still inconceivable to 19th century liberals. The main point of the book is to show that government ownership of the means of production and centralised planning of the economy would not lead to abundance as the socialists predicted would happen when capitalist "inefficiency and waste" were "abolished". The problem of incentives in the absence of profits, the free rider problem, the public choice insight about the vested interests of bureaucrats and politicians, the connection between economic liberty and political liberty, were all wittily addressed by Richter, much to the annoyance of his socialist opponents.

Richter's book is part of a series we are putting together online on late 19th century free market criticism of socialism. It now joins those by Mackay and Spencer.

Little has been written on Richter. There is a brief excerpt from one of his books and a short bio in Western Liberalism: A History in Documents from Locke to Croce, ed. E.K. Bramsted and K.J. Melhuish (London: Longman, 1978). There is a long chapter on Richter in Ralph Raico, Die Partei der Freiheit: Studien zur Geschichte des deutschen Liberalismus (Stuttgart: Lucius, 1999). See also Ralph Raico, "Eugen Richter and Late German Manchester Liberalism: A Reevaluation," The Review of Austrian Economics, vol. 4, 1990, pp. 3-25. Online at http://www.qjae.org/journals/rae/pdf/R4_1.pdf.

Last modified April 10, 2014