Liberty Matters

Molinari in His Final Years: Cranky Old Man or Realist?

Anybody who studies Molinari’s large output of books and articles is struck by some of the intellectual oddities that begin to appear in the 1880s and 1890s, when he was in his mid-60s to late 70s. We have his theory of “tutelage” (1884),[1] according to which some groups (the industrial masses, women, inhabitants of the colonial third world) are not yet ready for full freedom and thus need guidance and then only gradual exposure to the responsibilities of being completely free and independent individuals; his view of religion (1892), [2] which, as Roderick correctly notes, Molinari did not believe himself but, as a “tutor” of the masses, thought was necessary during their apprenticeship into full liberty; his return to Malthusian population theory with his edition of Joseph Garnier’s book on Malthus (1885) and Molinari’s own edition of The Principle of Population in 1889, which leads to his rather bizarre theory of “viriculture” (1897), [3] which, while not a theory of fully fledged eugenics comes uncomfortably close to embracing some of its doctrines.
The question for scholars is to determine whether these ideas were an integral part of Molinari’s thought from the very beginning or whether they were an unfortunate response to events taking place at this time. I think the latter is the case, with the exception of his orthodox Malthusian views, which date to the 1840s and which give him a decided pessimistic turn of mind. Unlike Bastiat, who rejected Malthusianism because of his theory of human capital and the explosion of human wealth-creation that was being unleashed by free trade and the rise of industrialism, Molinari and Garnier continued to defend Malthus’s ideas throughout the rest of the century. By the mid-1880s Molinari had reached the conclusion that the classical liberals were losing the battle of ideas against the protectionists and the socialists (if they hadn’t already) and that other means needed to be adopted to keep the socialist masses at bay, whether by “tutelage” or population control of some kind. The clearest indication of Molinari's growing pessimism in the mid-1880s was the conclusion to his third collection of “soirées,” or conversations, the Conversations sur le commerce des grains et la protection de l'agriculture (1886).[4] Here, using the voice of “The Economist,” he expresses his frustration at the resurgence of protectionism and the attitude of the politicians that support for free trade would be electoral and political suicide. The Economist accepts the criticism of the Conservative and the Socialist that he had probably wasted his life by writing books no one read and whose ideas no one believed. This I think is a serious admission of defeat by Molinari. The only consolation Molinari offers himself is that he is living in an historical moment when one is forced to retreat -- but only to be able to move forward again sometime in the future.
Perhaps one way to explain (or to explain away) these odd and rather cranky ideas of Molinari in this period is to see them as the musings of an old man who is seeing his life-long hopes for liberty evaporating before his eyes as socialism, protectionism, colonialism, and militarism rise up to challenge liberty in the late 19th century. This is made worse by the diminishing numbers of the old school of radical classical liberalism that Molinari personified, thus leaving him increasingly isolated both personally and intellectually.
But alongside the crankiness that was emerging in his thought at this time, there is no diminution in his clear-sighted realism about the very real successes of the classical-liberal program that had been achieved in the 19th century and his dire predictions about what would happen to liberty in the 20th if present trends continued. In another burst of activity in his 70s and 80s, Molinari wrote a series of books and articles in which he summed up his thinking, culminating in two articles in the Journal des Économistes and a book at the turn of the century, Les Problèmes du XXe siècle (1901). [5] Looking back over his long life he listed on the plus side the dramatic rise in prosperity produced by international free trade, the innovations created by the industrial revolution, the vastly increased kinds of jobs available to ordinary people resulting from an expansion of the division of labor, the political liberalization brought about by the defeat of monarchism and the old order, the abolition of slavery and serfdom, the near universal recognition of freedom of speech, and so on. On the negative side, and this was what most worried him in 1901, he counted the revival of protectionism in France; the success of socialist groups both intellectually and politically; the dramatic increase in colonialism and imperialism, especially since the scramble for Africa in the 1880s; the revival of militarism in an arms race (especially in the navy); and the abandonment of classical liberalism by most of the intellectual class. While Marxists were predicting the eventual overthrow of the capitalist system and the creation of a bountiful socialist paradise in the near future, Molinari was painting a much bleaker picture that was very prescient in some of the details. He predicted an eventual war between the Great Powers of Europe, which would lead to massive government intervention and control of the economy, huge deficits and government loans to fund the war and social programs demanded by the rising left, the eventual collapse of the financial system, and a long period of economic depression and political crises. If this sounds a lot what happened to Europe after 1914, then Molinari should get due recognition for his prophetic powers. 
One would have thought that given his frame of mind in his later years, which I have sketched out above, he would be very pessimistic, even suicidal, as the new century began, but one would be wrong. Even at the end Molinari continued to believe that freedom would somehow survive the statist catastrophe of the 20th century. After the devastation of war, economic collapse, and loss of belief in classical-liberal ideas, Molinari was convinced that a liberal renaissance would take place after a half-century or so of suffering, that the truth about liberty and free markets could not be suppressed or ignored forever, and that the classical-liberal program of the mid-19th century would be taken up again by his successors. He repeated much the same in his ironically titled last book, Ultima Verba: Mon dernier ouvrage (The Last Word: My Last Work, 1911),[6] which, while being the last book he published, is definitely not the last word either about him or about the ideas of classical liberalism that he espoused during his long and fruitful life.
[1] See Chap. XI “Tutelle et liberté,” pp. 424-506 in L'Évolution politique et la Révolution (Paris: C. Reinwald, 1884).
[2] Gustave de Molinari, Religion. Paris: Guillaumin et Cie, 1892.
[3] Gustave de Molinari, La viriculture; ralentissement du mouvement de la population, dégénérescence, causes et remèdes (Paris: Guillaumin et cie, 1897).
[4] Gustave de Molinari, Conversations sur le commerce des grains et la protection de l'agriculture (Nouvelle édition) (Paris: Guillaumin, 1886). Conclusion, pp. 302-10.
[5] Gustave de Molinari, Comment se résoudra la question sociale (Paris: Guillaumin, 1896); Grandeur et decadence de la guerre (Paris: Guillaumin, 1898); Les Problèmes du XXe siècle (Paris: Guillaumin, 1901); Questions économiques à l'ordre du jour (Paris: Guillaumin, 1906); and "Le XIXe siècle", Journal des Économistes, Janvier 1901, pp. 5-19 and "Le XXe siècle", Journal des Économistes, Janvier 1902, pp. 5-14.
[6] Gustave de Molinari, Ultima Verba: Mon dernier ouvrage (Paris: V. Girard et E. Briere, 1911).