Liberty Matters

Bastiat and the 4 Musketeers: The Flowering of Classical Liberalism in Paris in the 1840s


What was it about Paris in the 1840s that resulted in the simultaneous emergence of a number of very original and important liberal thinkers and activists at that time? Bastiat was only one of a group of individuals, several of whom came to Paris from the provinces, who were beginning to make their mark at this time. Some went on to lead fairly long and productive lives; others were cut down early by disease (especially the cholera epidemic that swept France in 1849) and could not fulfill the promise of their youth. If I could borrow Dr. Who's time machine, the TARDIS,[80] one period in history I would most love to visit is Paris in the late 1840s because I believe it was truly a unique "libertarian moment" in time.
It was a time when the intellectual frontiers of libertarian thought were being pushed back in multiple dimensions, and Frédéric Bastiat was one of those fertile French classical-liberal minds who was doing some of the hardest pushing. It was the time when Charles Coquelin (1802-1852) was challenging the idea that the state should have a monopoly of central banking and the issuing of money in his book Du Crédit et des Banques (1848)[81]; it was the time when Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912) was challenging the idea that the state should have a monopoly in the "production of security" (1849)[82] ; and it was the time when Bastiat (1801-1850) was challenging a number of core principles of classical political economy, such as the theory of rent, of value, and Malthusian limits to population growth, and was thinking about how it might be taken in entirely new directions.
All of this activity in Paris was taking place under the protective intellectual umbrella of another young man from the provinces, Gilbert-Urbain Guillaumin (1801-1864), whose publishing firm published their books; provided the facilities for the monthly meetings of the Political Economy Society, which they all attended and at which their revolutionary ideas were hotly debated; and produced the Journal des économistes, in which they published their articles.[83] Guillaumin was also co-editor with Coquelin of the monumental Dictionnaire de l'économie politique (1852-53), which might justly be described as the pinnacle of classical-liberal scholarship in the mid-19th century with its 2,000 double-columned pages of text; it contained a vast array of biographical, bibliographical, and thematic articles on every economic topic imaginable.[84] In many ways Guillaumin's publishing firm was the Liberty Fund of the age, publishing books and journals, hosting monthly dinners where discussion thrived, bringing people of all kinds together to discuss free markets and individual liberty, and providing a hospitable environment where hitherto unthinkable thoughts could be thunk over a glass or two of red wine.
The historian Gérard Minard rightly called these four young men who came to Paris from the provinces the "Four Musketeers" of the French classical-liberal movement: Bastiat came from Mugron in the southwest, Coquelin from Dunkerque in the north, Guillaumin from Moulins in the south central region, and Molinari from Liège in Belgium.[85] Their new and original ways of thinking rearranged the intellectual furniture of French classical liberalism in fundamental ways, and it seems that something about where they came from helped them to think differently and to challenge the political and economic orthodoxy prevalent in the metropole.
This "libertarian moment" in history, which so interests me, is not just confined to Paris but also has a London dimension, so I would have to plan a quick side trip to London in the early 1850s to see Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and company at the Economist magazine. It is interesting to speculate when the first one-volume survey or overview of the libertarian, or classical-liberal, position was published. This is important because it would show when these ideas began to be thought of as a coherent worldview based around a few basic principles concerning individual liberty that were applicable to a whole range of issues and problems. I think the first such book was Molinari's Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare, which was published in 1849, closely followed across the channel by Spencer's Social Statics in 1851.[86] I think Bastiat and his friends began to think of classical liberalism very much in these terms, probably for the first time. As Robert Leroux noted in the conclusion to his opening essay, "Bastiat contributed in the mid-19th century to the marriage of economic liberalism with political liberalism in order to defend freedom in all its forms. Consequently, Bastiat's work cannot be reduced to the question of free trade, as too many have tried to do. His reflections on the state, the law, freedom of the press and, more broadly yet, on human nature testify eloquently to the breadth of his thinking." It was this "marriage of economic liberalism with political liberalism" into a new and coherent view of the world that makes this period unique and important in the history of the classical-liberal tradition.
That Bastiat was ignored during more than the last 100 years says a lot about the intellectual climate of the late 19th and 20th centuries. Again, Robert Leroux notes that "The problem, perhaps, is not that France did not understand Bastiat, but that it did not want to understand him." It is our hope that the new translation of his Collected Works, which is being published by Liberty Fund, will provide a new generation of scholars with the tools they need to explore his life and ideas further. Perhaps the near future is the time, at long last, when our society will want to understand Monsieur Claude-Frédéric Bastiat a lot better.
P.S. If I had my TARDIS time machine I would go back in time tomorrow not only to have a drink and a chat with Bastiat and sing some anti-government songs by his friend Béranger, but also to ask him a few nagging questions I still have about the translation.
[80] TARDIS is the acronym for "Time and Relative Dimension in Space."
[81] Charles Coquelin, Du Crédit et des Banques ( Guillaumin 1848). [82] Gustave de Molinari, "De la production de la sécurité," Journal des Économistes, 15 February 1849, pp. 277-90; and Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare; entretiens sur les lois économiques et défense de la propriété. (Guillaumin, 1849). Onzième Soirée, pp. 303-37.
[83] Guillaumin started his bookshop and publishing firm in 1835 and by 1847 the catalog was 22 pages long and contained works by 113 authors and editors. His daughters continued to run the firm in the same way after his death in 1864 until it was taken over by the publishing firm Alcan in 1907. [84] Coquelin, Charles, and Gilbert-Urbain Guillaumin, eds. Dictionnaire de l'économie politique ( Guillaumin et Cie., 1852-53), 2 vols. See the bibliography for the full title of this work which accurately describes its content and purpose. Bastiat was one of the guiding lights behind this enormous project. A translation of the full title is: "Dictionary of Political Economy, containing an exposition of the principles of the science (of economics), the opinion of the writers who have most contributed to its foundation and its progress, a general bibliography of political economy organized by author's name and by topic, with biographical articles and commentaries on the principle works in the field." [85] Gérard Minart, Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912) (Institut Charles Coquelin, 2012), p. 25.
[86] Herbert Spencer, Social Statics: or, The Conditions Essential to Happiness Specified, and the First of them Developed (London: John Chapman, 1851). </title/273>. It should also be noted that J.S. Mill's On Liberty (1859) might also fall into this category of a one-volume survey or overview of the libertarian or classical liberal position. Mill was partly inspired by the translation in 1854 of Wilhelm von Humboldt's The Sphere and Duties of Government, which was written in 1792 but not published until the 1850s. This work also would qualify as such a one-volume survey. Wilhelm von Humboldt, The Sphere and Duties of Government. Translated from the German of Baron Wilhelm von Humboldt, by Joseph Coulthard, Jun. (London: John Chapman, 1854). </title/589>.