Liberty Matters

David M. Hart’s Comment on Gary Chartier


It is good that Gary Chartier focuses on Molinari’s concern for the problems of the average worker in France in the 1840s, because this is one very important component of his unusual form of liberalism. Unlike the “top down” concerns of liberal conservatives like Edmund Burke and Alexis de Tocqueville, who were most worried about the continuity of institutions of dubious legitimacy and “law and order” (or rather “ordered liberty” whatever that might mean), Molinari and his fellow liberals like Frédéric Bastiat were very much concerned with what you might call “bottom up” liberty -- the rights and liberties of, and the injustices faced by, ordinary working people. As a young journalist trying to make ends meet in Paris in the early 1840s, Molinari was attracted by three things: the agitation for free trade (in order to get cheaper and more reliable food supplies to the people), slavery and serfdom (the worst forms of exploitation of the weakest members of society), and the right of workers to form associations in order to better themselves. These issues were the first things he wrote on.
Regarding workers, he and Bastiat were very concerned about the legal restrictions the state placed on workers to prevent them forming all kinds of voluntary associations. The most obvious restriction was the ban on forming unions and collectively bargaining for wages and conditions with employers. Technically the law also applied to business owners, but it was selectively applied, thus shutting out workers from the benefits of forming associations. Bastiat, Molinari’s close friend and colleague, protested this in the Chamber in 1848 and vigorously defended the right of all individuals to associate and speak their minds, whether they were workers or employers. Molinari got a start in journalism by covering a notorious court case involving carpenters and writing articles about the perversity of the application of the anti-association law. This began his life-long interest in labor exchanges as one way of overcoming this form of legal discrimination.
A second worker-related matter was the nonwage aspect of worker associations, namely, the right to form self-help or friendly societies in order to provide mutual assistance for things like unemployment insurance and medical help, or even just recreational activities. Molinari and Bastiat were aware that such groups were then forming in England and that, as in so many things, France was late to the party because of excessive regulation and bureaucracy. In one of his witty chapters in Economic Sophisms (“The Lower Council of Labor,” ES2 IV [1847?])[1] Bastiat mocks the official government-supported Superior Councils of Industry, which allowed manufacturers and landowners to get together to discuss their mutual concerns and lobby the government for benefits, but which deliberately excluded what Bastiat calls the “proper workers, serious workers” like joiners, carpenters, masons, tailors, shoemakers, dyers, blacksmiths, innkeepers, and grocers. Since they were prevented from forming their own “Council” (in the story Bastiat has them form a sarcastically named “Lower Council of Labour”) they therefore founded a mutual-aid society in their local village. Unfortunately Bastiat does not provide us with any more details about its activities.
A third worker-related interest was the restrictions on forming limited-liability companies and partnerships under French law, which were not loosened until 1867. It was expensive and time-consuming to form a business, often requiring special government legislation to do so. Molinari, being brought up in the Say school of political economy, was fascinated by the possibilities of entrepreneurship. He believed that, if given a legal chance, legions of French entrepreneurs would spring up to organize themselves into profit-making activities. In the Soirées, for example, he mentions at least 11 different types of entrepreneurial activity. Most of these referred to fairly traditional, large-scale entrepreneurs engaged in manufacturing, heavy industry, and textiles, but there were also a number of entrepreneurial activities for opportunistic members of the middle or working class, or what he called the “working class entrepreneur,” some of which are quite surprising and revealing of his thinking. These included “entrepreneurs de prostitution” (entrepreneurs in the prostitution business), “entrepreneurs d’education” (entrepreneurs in the education business), “entrepreneurs de roulage” (entrepreneurs in the haulage business), “entrepreneurs d’industrie agricole” (entrepreneurs in the agriculture industry), “entrepreneurs de diligences” (entrepreneurs in the coach business), “entrepreneur de pompes funèbres” (entrepreneurs in the funeral business), and most intriguingly “le laborieux entrepreneur, naguère ouvrier” (entrepreneurs who have emerged from the working class).
I know of no other 19th-century political economist who envisaged such a broad spectrum of economic activities in which members of the middle and working classes could succeed as entrepreneurs if only the clutter of legal privileges and restrictions could be removed. What is of most interest to the poorest members of society were his ideas for turning every French farmer into an “agricultural entrepreneur” by scrapping the compulsory division of property under the inheritance laws. This would allow successful famers to buy and sell land as they saw fit in order to create profitable enterprises, as well as having international free trade in order to sell their produce to whomever they pleased. The reform would also allow any teacher to set up his or her own school and seek business from among local families; allow any owner of a horse and cart to compete in offering services in the haulage and transport industry; and allow business-minded women to own and operate their own brothels as profit-making enterprises (prostitution was legal but heavily regulated by the state and women were banned from running brothels, forcing many of them to set up “dummy businesses” run by a male front man in order to stay in business). 
Of course Molinari imagined that many successful entrepreneurs would emerge from the working class, as his final category strongly suggested -- “le laborieux entrepreneur, naguère ouvrier” (entrepreneurs who have emerged from the working class, in other words “working class entrepreneurs”). I think that, as in so many areas, Molinari realized that the opportunities for freely forming businesses and associations of all kinds were much greater in England and the United States especially, and these remained the ideal for the time being as far as he was concerned. Endnotes 
[1] Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Sophisms, trans. Arthur Goddard, introduction by Henry Hazlitt (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996). Second Series, Chapter 4: Subordinate Labor Council. </title/276/23382>.