Liberty Matters

Final Word

It is a hard task to write a few words to conclude this discussion on Vilfredo Pareto. I've learnt a lot from my discussants, Giandomenica Becchio, Rosolino Candela, and Richard Wagner, to whom I'm thankful. Likewise, I thank David M. Hart and Sheldon Richman, who run the show.
For my last contribution I want to let a more interesting voice than mine speak. What follows is a translation of bits of a short piece by Italian economist Sergio Ricossa on Pareto. Ricossa (1927-2016) taught at the University of Turin and was for many years a lonely voice for free markets in Italy.[17] Ricossa, who later came closer to Austrian economics, matured scientifically as a neoclassical economist imbued with the teachings of Pareto. Ricossa authored some works regarding the history of ideas, including a book aimed at the popular reader, One Hundred Plots of Classics of Economics. In the 1970s, he also edited a collection of abstracts from Pareto's buddy Maffeo Pantaleoni's works.
The following words come from a couple of pages written in 1973 on the occasion of the 50th anniversary of Pareto's death. The Pareto quote is from Les systèmes socialistes. The piece is written for the layman and paints a vivid picture of Pareto the man, which I think nicely complements our discussion.
The great Pareto was always really an amateur: a magnificent amateur, a "Renaissance" amateur, who contrasts with the highly specialized professional economists, such as those who in our day are teeming up in universities and planning offices.An engineer by background, as a general manager of the Railway Company of San Giovanni Valdarno, he was immediately uncomfortable in such a practical activity. "Damn the day I got there!", he wrote, and soon he left the company to devote himself to a little bit of everything. He tried politics, but Montevarchi's voters wisely did not elect him: he would disgust them and he would end up disgusting himself.Economics began to interest him because it allowed him to argue as a free hitter in the polemics of the time: but philology, history, sociology interested him too. Once he got the chair of economics in Lausanne, he paid the debt of gratitude to those who had granted him trust by writing the Course, one of his major works. Then he took any attempt to stop teaching, and he eventually succeeded. For him, teaching was "time lost for science". He inherited from an uncle, and then he allowed himself the luxury of only satisfying his ingenious cultural caprices.A prodigious mind, he mingled mathematics and philosophy, literature and statistics as a virtuoso practice. It is astonishing to browse the index of the names mentioned in his books. See the Course, for example: Adam Smith is cited less than Aristotle, and Demosthenes beats Cournot, Edgeworth, and other economists.... Whatever the subject matter, he found a way to illustrate it with some event from a day before or ten centuries before. One of the main results is that the reader keenly feels the impression that everything has already happened and humanity keeps repeating the same nonsense.Hence the lesson of total skepticism to which Pareto's thought can be essentially reduced. Hence also the aversion that he manifested for "practice": practical endeavours appear to him to entail unnecessary trouble about worldly things that invariably mock the man's attempts to change them. But he was even more annoyed by the optimism of the theoreticians, who, running after their dreams, deluded themselves to possess a magic wand to untie at a stroke the most intricate knots.... Pareto was strongly interested in the phenomenon of socialism and the bourgeoisie's reactions. He thoroughly criticized its scientific basis, but did not make the mistake of underestimating its passionate, almost religious power.... So Pareto ended up being disagreeable both to the socialists and to the bourgeois, as he described the hypocrisies, the subsidence, the baseness of both. He did so without any moralistic intent, as a pure scientist, but often with an ironic tone, which obviously multiplied his enemies. Having noted that in times of decadence "there is an acrid voluptuousness in wallowing in self-abasement and self-degradation, in mocking the class to which one belongs, in ridiculing all that previously was believed respectable", he came to compare a part of the upper bourgeoisie to those Roman matrons that, according to Tacitus, enrolled among the prostitutes. On the same subject, he wrote: "The rich who, in our day, help with their money institutions in which it is taught that the goods of the bourgeois are the result of theft and that they need to be stripped of them are at least inconsistent. If they really think that these goods are taken away from the community, they must return them entirely and not just a small part. Is it not pleasant to hear people who live exclusively on the incomes of capital declaim against that very capital? Most of those who pontificate on the workers' right to the integral product of their labor not only are not workers, they are people who can do nothing useful with their ten fingers. Quis tulerit Gracchos de seditione querentes?Pareto ended up being isolated from everyone: this is not very surprising, as he was a man inconvenient to everyone. He chose Céligny, a village on Lake Geneva, as his place of exile, and stayed there until his death, reserving most of his love for his cats Timoteo and Myrrhine.
[17.] Alberto Mingardi, "RIP Sergio Ricossa, lonely voice for freedom in Italian academia," Econlib (March 9, 2016) <>.