Liberty Matters

On Molinari and Spencer

Like Matt Zwolinski, I too was struck by the similarities between Molinari and Spencer because they appeared to jettison their youthful radicalism and embrace a more bitter and pessimistic view of the prospects for liberty as they aged. They were close contemporaries: Spencer (1820-1903) and Molinari (1819-1912) lived into their 80s and 90s. Perhaps that will be the fate of us all if we live that long!
I think there are a number of reasons for this pessimism. The first is the obvious failure of the prospect that a free society would be achieved by converting everybody to a pro-liberty, pro-property position. This was perhaps plausible in the 1840s with the success of Richard Cobden’s Anti-Corn Law League in abolishing protectionism in England. It then seemed that the further progress of the liberty agenda was unstoppable. These hopes were dashed when the Anti-Corn Law League abolished itself and the momentum for further reform was lost. In France the rise of socialism in the 1848 Revolution and then the coming to power of yet another Napoleonic dictator soon put paid to the hopes of the French classical liberals. Such was his disillusion that Molinari left the country in disgust and set up shop in Belgium for nearly 20 years.
An initial fallback position that Molinari and Spencer both adopted was to postulate an evolutionary inevitabilism, where the gradual evolution of free institutions would come about as a result of a deeper underlying evolution of societies from war, conquest, and plunder towards free-market industrialism (in the case of Molinari) or from simpler militant societies to complex industrial societies (in the case of Spencer). By the mid-1880s, for both men this initial fallback position was also shown to be too optimistic, as the reappearance of protectionism and the rise of labor and socialist parties domestically, and the rise of militarism and imperialism in foreign affairs clearly indicated. What had originally seemed inevitable and unstoppable proved to be neither. It is thus not surprising that both men began to express in increasingly strident tones their pessimism and fear for the future -- Molinari in some deeply pessimistic remarks in a new edition of a book about protection and democracy, Conversations sur le commerce des grains et la protection de l'agriculture (1886), [1] and Spencer in The Man versus the State (1885), containing “The New Toryism,” “The Coming Slavery,” “The Sins of Legislators,” and “The Great Political Superstition”.[2]
What both men did not grasp is that a society does not need unanimity of belief in order to function. What is needed is a critical mass of liberty-loving people and institutions that have incentives which reward peaceful and productive behavior and which penalize violent and nonproductive behavior. What this critical mass of liberty-loving people is we still do not know, but today we know a lot more about how incentives  operate (especially at the margin).
However, what they both fully grasped, and what is still the bane of the struggle for liberty in the present day, is that the rise of mass democracy completely changed the nature of the game. It was no longer a struggle between two easily identifiable classes, the small ruling elite of exploiters and the tax-paying mass of ordinary people, but a democratic society with multiple groups of vested interests that compete for the spoils of office, while the professional politicians act as brokers in the dispensation of the spoils. Bastiat called this situation as early as 1848 “the great fiction,” meaning that everybody thought they could now live at the expense of everybody else. (See his essay “The State” (1848).)[3] We are now living through an important historical moment when the truth of this statement is finally being actualized -- as the welfare states of Europe and America go through their paroxysms of sovereign-debt crisis and economic stagnation.
Another thing that both Molinari and Spencer realized was that they were living through a period when a very dangerous new coalition of vested interests was being forged, one that would have cataclysmic consequences in the 20th century. This was a new coalition of the traditional ruling elites from the military and wealthy elites in agriculture and industry, which benefited from tariffs and government contracts, and working-class groups represented by labor and socialist parties in Parliament. Whether it was Victorian England, Third Republic France, Bismarck’s Second Empire in Germany, or post-World War II America, the results would be very similar -- imperialism and militarism abroad and the welfare state at home. Molinari and Spencer were prescient enough to see this coalition on the historical horizon and were worried by what they could see of the future.
[1] Gustave de Molinari, Conversations sur le commerce des grains et la protection de l'agriculture (Nouvelle édition) (Paris: Guillaumin, 1886). [2] Herbert Spencer, The Man versus the State, with Six Essays on Government, Society and Freedom, ed. Eric Mack, introduction by Albert Jay Nock (Indianapolis: LibertyClassics, 1981). <>. "The New Toryism" </title/330/119742>, "The Coming Slavery" </title/330/119743>, "The Sins of the Legislators" </title/330/119744>, and "The Great Political Superstition" </title/330/119745>. [3] The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850, Jacques de Guenin, General Editor. Translated from the French by Jane Willems and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Pascal Salin. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation Editor Dennis O’Keeffe. Academic Editor, David M. Hart (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012). Chapter 7: The State </title/2450/231335>.