Molinari’s Future Society of Absolute Liberty

Related Links:

Source: Introduction to Molinari's The Society of Tomorrow: A Forecast of its Political and Economic Organization, ed. Hodgson Pratt and Frederic Passy, trans. P.H. Lee Warner (New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons, 1904).


It is fortunate for the modern world that there is a considerable number of persons who have time, inclination, and ability to inquire how human communities may best secure a prosperous existence and ultimate salvation from disasters or even annihilation. It is fortunate that the necessity is so widely felt of making such inquiries, and that there is so great an accumulation of facts, and of arguments based thereon, as to enable thinkers to arrive at a complete knowledge of the dangers which menace society, and of the best way of dealing with them. We greatly need light from men who are capable of giving answers to such questions as the following: "What should be the definite aim of all human societies? Whither tend the communities and nations now in existence? What are their special dangers, and how can they best be averted? What should be the true ideals of every people, so that they may be kept clearly in view and realised?"

Such wise and thoughtful books as that of M. de Molinari, the well-known and most distinguished economist, should be carefully studied by all who care for the welfare of their fellow-men. He stimulates thought and consideration regarding these great problems, and produces masses of fact and argument, which enable his readers to think solidly and effectively.

Few can read his book without perceiving clearly how great are the problems which statesmen, philosophers, and philanthropists have to face. It is madness and treachery to trust to things "finding their level." Peoples, as well as individuals, must know to what point in the chart of humanity they should steer—where are the rocks and shoals, what is the best and shortest route. At all events in these days, more than ever before, there are moral, political, and social geographers, eager to point the true course and to awaken their fellows to the overwhelming importance of the inquiry.

There are, as we know, two great schools of social reformers, guides and teachers—the School of Individualists and the School of Organisers, if we may use the term: (1) Those who consider it sufficient to provide a fair field for liberty and free competition to all engaged in the "struggle for life"; and (2) those who say that there is no such thing as "equality of opportunity" for the millions, and that, without most perfect organisation in the interests of those millions, the poor only grow poorer and the rich richer—misery for the many, luxury for the few.

Here is the great question which should occupy the minds of all who desire that the human world should not be a ghastly failure. Here we have before us the question presented under the title of "The Future of Society," to quote the title of M. de Molinari's book. It may be termed the question of realising that long-desired end, the greatest happiness of the greatest number. To bring this great problem vividly before the reader, we cannot do better than make a quotation from an author who puts the whole case somewhat as follows: "Half a century ago, I conceived the possibility of coming to an understanding between the two Schools, and I addressed them as follows: 'What is the Ideal alike common to Socialists and Economists? It is surely this: the realisation of a state of society in which the production of all good and necessary things, advantages or welfare necessary to maintain and embellish life, shall be the most abundant possible, and wherein the distribution of these things amongst those who produce them shall be the most equitable possible—in a word, Abundance and Justice. But we proceed to this end by different routes—you by an obscure path which you call the organisation of labour; we, the economists, by the broad and well-known highway of Liberty. Why do you refuse the latter? "Because," say you, "it is injurious to the workers; because hitherto it has produced nothing but the oppression of the weak by the strong; because it has led to disastrous crises wherein millions have been ruined or have perished; because liberty without control is Anarchy." I reply, however, that you have to prove that the evils you attribute to liberty, or to what I call "free competition," have not their origin in monopoly, in undue restrictions.' "

What M. de Molinari desires to do is to set forth, with abundance of illustration, the fact that what human society needs is no such all-embracing organisation of industry and commerce as socialists desire, but a régime of absolute liberty, a fair field and no favour; and that this has hitherto been impeded by the despotism and interference of the State, the existence of powerful military and official classes whose personal interests are bound up with militarism, conquest, and war. What he writes under this last head is of the utmost value, and will strengthen the hands of those engaged in the crusade of Peace. His demonstration of the certain ruin impending over the most civilised states, in consequence of vast and growing military expenditure and the policy of annexation, is convincing, and deserves universal attention. It is to this state of things that he, of course, attributes the serious financial and economic condition of European nations; and he sees that it is indispensable to put an end to the rule of the privileged classes interested in maintaining the present policy of war and aggression. Then, and then only, will be set free the resources and the energies of the industrial populations, who, being released from the present burdens, will all have a fair share of the results of their labour. In effect, he says, "carry out this great change, and there will be no need for such fancied remedies as are promised by Socialism."

It is, indeed, of vital importance that the people of every country in Europe should seek a remedy for the enormous evils from which they suffer,—one which shall be complete and far-reaching. A great service, therefore, is rendered, as a first step in the reform needed, when an authoritative and trusted teacher of economic science denounces the rule of the militarist and governing classes. He does so because he knows it is hopeless to attempt the abolition of social misery and anarchy until the peoples are relieved from their present intolerable burdens.

Hear what this careful master of statistics says: "Two-thirds of the European budgets consist of charges for war and debts. The premium paid for ensuring 'security' exceeds the risk." "The total expenditure, direct and indirect, absorbs half the wealth produced by the working classes." The governments must therefore be deprived of their unlimited power over the life and fortune of the citizens, and that power will continue so long as the existing state of war or armed peace continues. The States of Europe have accumulated more than 130 milliards of debt, or 5,900,000,000 in pounds sterling. Yet, while these charges continually rise, industrial productivity tends to fall off.

The object of the governing class has been to secure profit from fresh conquests, in order that the advantages may be divided between civil and military officers; while the loss involved has fallen in an increasing degree upon industry, and the flower of the race has been absorbed for purposes of war. "Hence," says our author, "the most urgent reform of the present time is to put an end to this latent state of conflict," and he asserts that the remedy is to be found in a "collective insurance " against war. There should be a joint insurance to provide for the collective protection of States, instead of the present "isolated insurance." He is further of opinion that the ruinous effects of war upon neutral and non-belligerent States gives them a right to intervene, whenever other States propose to engage in conflict. In fact, he proposes the substitution of "collective justice" for the present claim of each Government to be a judge of its own rights. M. de Molinari, therefore, suggests that Europe should constitute an association strong enough to oblige any single nation to submit its disputes to an arbitral court; and that this should be supplemented by troops sufficient to enforce the verdict of the tribunal. By such provisions individual governments would no longer claim that they have the duty of providing insurance against war, and all excuse for unlimited disposal of the lives and property of their peoples would cease. With the great political change thus inaugurated would come an immense increase in individual liberty, "individual sovereignty" being the required basis of the political institutions of the future; so that the resources of a nation would no longer be at the mercy of a class, and the individual would become his own master.

The "individualist ideal" is that under which all the citizens would be associated, not only for common security, but for all public ends connected with municipal life. Then State taxation would be greatly reduced, local services being provided for by rates. This would lead to a great extension of productive enterprise, at present hampered and impeded, and there would be a great impetus given to individual activity through increased freedom. M. de Molinari has a firm faith in the great results of unlimited "competition" which would tend to reduce prices to the level of the cost of production; and he says that, with growing enterprise, new markets will be found, and so a demand for skilled labour increase; while the growth of machinery will diminish existing inequalities in remuneration. The price of the product being diminished by machinery, new markets will grow up and, with them, more demand for skilled labour. This means an increase of consumption and increased means of providing for it.

We must leave students of economics to consider M. de Molinari's statement of the comparative advantages of a condition of things where competition shall have freer play and where the laws shall interfere as little as possible with the conditions under which industry is at present conducted (at least in some countries). He compares the results which will thus be obtained with the results of socialistic organisation—of course to the disadvantage of the latter.

His hope for the future is based not on any fundamental change in the organisation of industry, but on the greater control exercised over governments by the populations—in a word, on the growth of individual liberty.

Under the action of great "natural laws" which regulate the growth of society, civilisation has grown up, and M. de Molinari asks whether the progress accomplished has not diminished the sum of human suffering; but this question he leaves undecided. "Increased happiness for man may," he says, "be the result of progress but not the object. That object is the increase of the power of the human race, in view of a destiny which is unknown to us."

These are the final words of his book; and some philosophers may be content with that conclusion. It will not, however, satisfy the daily growing number of those who are in consternation at the existing condition of society, and who find their own lives made unhappy by the present order of things; one in which millions of men and women in the most "civilised" communities, lead an existence which makes them wish they had never been born, which makes the lot of the beast of the field seem enviable—lives, in which all that most distinguishes man from the animal is almost unattainable—lives from which all noble hopes and purposes, all glorious and divine enjoyments are utterly shut out.

This is truly the age of great cities; but what an amount of chaotic misery that implies! In those great cities of London, or Glasgow, or Liverpool, or Birmingham, how many thousands of parents rise every morning asking themselves how their sons and daughters are to live—it is a mere lottery whether it shall be success or failure. Their education is, in a vast number of cases, ill adapted to their respective needs; and their avocations will therefore be decided by mere chance. A lad will become a carpenter, a blacksmith, a shop assistant or a clerk, a soldier or a sailor by haphazard. "The square pegs are put into round holes, and the round into square." And in a vast number of cases nothing but failure is the result. To many it must seem to be a better lot for a man to be born in a Hindoo or Burmese village than in a London street. At all events, in the former a child's future trade or profession is settled beforehand by his caste or class, and he is prepared for it designedly from his first years.

In view of the justifiable dismay which many of us feel, I venture to think that M. de Molinari should not have dismissed the proposals of the Socialist schools with such scant reference as being simply the result of "ignorance," and the "negation of the natural laws which govern mankind." It seems to me that any attempt to frame a "Future of Society " should at least include an inquiry into the economic theory called "Collectivism."

What indeed is the Socialist demand, as the fundamental condition of a human society which professes to be governed by a desire for the moral welfare of all its members—for which right economic conditions are indispensable? The great revolution demanded is that of the substitution of Collectivism for Individualism. If the latter has quite failed to provide for the well-being of the great majority of the population in civilised countries, the demand for the former should be heard.

The aim of every rightly constituted human society is the greatest possible happiness of the greatest possible number. But under the existing haphazard and non-organised conditions, there is none of that equality of opportunity which is essential if individual liberty is to suffice for the attainment of the end in view. At present all is confusion and waste of means, because there is no guarantee that each man shall do the work for which he is best fitted, and be properly trained for it. Unregulated competition is at present the only resource for the members of a community ignorant of the conditions which are essential to a right use of capital and labour. The result is that while some members of the community are idle, others are the slaves of excessive toil, and a third group are doing work for which they are unfitted. This is well pointed out by Mr. J. A. Hobson in his admirable work on "The Social Problem." He reminds us of the results of this want of intelligent adaptation of means to the end in England. Three-fourths of our town population live under unhealthy and almost intolerable conditions, and, as he says, no increase of the total amount of material wealth can compensate for such deterioration of work and life as is going on among millions of men and women. In view of such facts is it not justifiable to assert that there is no hope without organisation on the part of the community? Adoption of methods capable of providing a decent existence, on the doctrine of "All for each, and each for all," is an imperative requirement.

This is what the Socialist asserts, and he has a right to say to the orthodox economist, What plan have you for remedying the tremendous evils of modern society, beyond the mere affirmation of certain axioms? There is no sufficient remedy in individual liberty. A large proportion of the community are handicapped by general chaos and confusion, and are ignorant of everything needed to give certainty of remunerative labour—it is a blind struggle of rival workers and distributors.

Yet this is the competition which is to rescue vast populations from their present misery and hopelessness!

The error of orthodox economists, it seems to me, has been to consider only how the sum total of national wealth may be increased, while disregarding the question of its distribution. Yet it should be possible to provide, in a large degree, for every member of the community to do that particular work which best enables him to live up to a decent standard of existence. When we find a state of things exist in which needlewomen earn only eighteen pence a day for more than twelve hours' labour, the whole community suffers as well as the worker, both morally and physically. It is not true civilisation; it is a barbarism which disgraces every member of the community, especially those who have the knowledge and opportunity for bringing about a change. Those who grow rich and powerful out of such an industrial régime participate in robbery, and cannot justify their position in the world.

The realisation of the ideals of the Socialist reformers means, of course, an entire transformation of existing social conditions, especially in a country such as England. Here the monopoly of the land by hereditary owners involves loss to the whole community. These owners can waste it on private enjoyment, and claim an exclusive right to the enormous national wealth lying under the surface, for which their predecessors paid not one farthing. There can be no right conditions of existence so long as such a monopoly exists, and there can be no means of betterment for those who produce the national wealth by their daily labour, so long as this authorised injustice prevails. In the meantime the population becomes wholly urban, unable to live on the land.

It should be noted, however, that there has appeared during the last half-century a voluntary organisation known by the name of "Co-operation." It has accomplished remarkable results in diminishing the misery of a great number of hand-workers, and in laying the foundation of a new system of production, distribution, and exchange, while giving new hope of social and economic amelioration. This remarkable work has been carried out by the more enlightened and self-reliant members of the proletariat, aided, here and there, by a few servants of humanity such as Robert Owen, Leclaire, Godin, L. Vansittart Neale, Charles Robert, and Schultze Delitsch.

In Great Britain there are two million members of these societies, and their organisation is on a vast scale, carried out with great administrative ability, and the best social and moral aims are not overlooked. It appears to me that no student of "the Future of Society" should neglect to appraise the true value and possibilities of such an organisation. The great purpose to be kept in view is the realisation, in every community, of the highest kind of existence possible for all its members; and that object has never been lost sight of by the Central Union of Co-operators. It does credit to the representatives of Labour in several European countries, that this movement has made great progress. It is capable of much further development, alike in spheres of production and trade. It is the best school of training for those who will, in the future, be charged with the duty of conducting municipal life on an increasing scale. It will also train men for the realisation of the changes which the Socialists entertain.

Indeed, Co-operation is in some degree an adoption of socialistic principles, in so far as individual association can succeed, and in the absence of the direct agency of the State. Co-operation, as in the case of Socialism, has in view a new social order. Its greatest object is to accomplish the equitable distribution of the proceeds of labour amongst all who have contributed to its result. In co-operation the labourers provide the capital or hire it, instead of being themselves hired by capital, as its veteran prophet, G. J. Holyoake, has declared in hundreds of speeches. The material results of a half-century of these societies can be shown in figures, though not the moral results, which are of no small value. Looking at the last Annual Report of the Central Co-operative Board, we find that the number of members (in 1671 societies) is considerably upwards of two millions, and that they hold shares of the value of nearly ninety-six millions sterling; the sales for the year were eighty-five and a half millions, yielding profits of nine and a half millions. These represented what is called the "Distributive" part of the organisation; while the Productive and Farming Societies embraced 34,875 members, with a capital of £881,568, the sales amounting to upwards of three millions. The productive outturn of individual societies and of the wholesale societies of England and Scotland combined is estimated at seven millions and a half.

"The co-operative conception of life," says the organ of the movement, the Co-operative News, "embraces the absence of all preventable waste through needless competition in social and political strife; when realised wholly, there would be no idle shopkeepers, no strikes and lockouts. Co-operation, when applied to national life, would not stop short at distribution, production and carriage, but would apply itself to planning or replanning cities, to education, to houses. The co-operative conception of life does not admit of any industrial hands remaining idle or of any capable minds lying fallow." It was because the Rochdale pioneers set out with the avowed aim of "making the world better than they found it," that their successors, labouring men and artisans, have done a work unsurpassed of its kind because spontaneous and without any reliance upon outside help or Government interference. Necessarily there are limits to such individual organisation; and this is the justification of the desire to revolutionise the whole industry of a nation as proposed by the Socialists.

The above reference to the moral elements at work in co-operation and to their frank recognition by its foremost leaders brings us to the greatest question of all: How far will any proposed change of economic conditions secure the truest welfare of men?—in other words, How far can man's progress in all that is highest and best be secured? However ingeniously devised new schemes of social and industrial improvement may be, whatever provision may be made for individual liberty, the rule of the Moral Law is the one condition of all true and sound progress. The Economic "laws," referred to by M. de Molinari, however fully recognised and followed by action, will not secure society from catastrophes, even when an enlightened self-interest may lead to the abolition of war. It will not wholly diminish strife and violence, either within or without, unless the moral law is generally observed. The "old Adam" will frequently reappear without it; and it is a profound error to ignore the fact.

The hope that the realisation of Socialism may rescue human communities from the tremendous evils which now oppress them is based on the fact that its aim is profoundly ethical, if not religious. It recognises the essential need of justice in all the departments of human life. It is because right conditions of life are necessary for the formation of human character that they are so important; and without character there is no guarantee of right conduct; and conduct is the basis of all well-being in society. The aim of socialism may therefore fairly be said to be the moral welfare of society. And under what other system of society, under what so-called laws is it proposed to secure right economic conditions? What other and better methods are suggested by those who profess to be economists?

Mr. Frederic Harrison has said that the real cause of all industrial evils is to be found in the want of a higher moral spirit in those engaged in industry. "The kingdom of God," it has been said, "is on the earth, and is concerned with all departments of human life." Altruism, not egoism, is the highest good of the individual, and its realisation is to be found in making the good of all the end of our individual action. "All for each, and each for all"—as the Co-operators have always said. No nobler watchword could have been adopted.

The highest self-interest, whether for individuals or communities, is fidelity to moral principle. To realise one's own highest good we must live for the good of others; and Christianity makes all things subservient to Brotherhood. "The toughest economic, social, and political questions must be solved by ethics—which teach that solidarity rooted in fraternity must be the basis of social relations."1

M. de Molinari and other economists treat their science as a study of men's actions in the business of life, and infer that men will at all times act in the same way and from the same motives. But is this true? Are there not elements at work in modern communities which were absent at previous periods? There exists now a widespread feeling of moral solidarity and fraternity which was once unknown, and which exercises an increasing influence on laws, on conduct, and on institutions. It is, therefore, a profound error to separate the study of economics from that of ethical, social, political, and religious science.

There are immense possibilities within reach of that future "new moral world" which will be based on the universal recognition of Fraternity. Every man that hath that hope in him will become the nobler, and will work the harder for its realisation. There will be an ever-increasing approach to a perfect state of society, "when man shall be liker man through all the cycles of the Golden Year."


Le Pecq (Seine et Oise), France.

[1.]"The Foundations of Society," by John Wilson Harper.