Molinari defends the right to property against the socialists who want to overthrow it, and the conservatives who defend it poorly (1849)

Gustave de Molinari

Found in Les Soirées de la Rue Saint-Lazare (1849)

In the second year of the 1848 Revolution the French political economist Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912) wrote a defence of the right to property in the form of conversations between an Economist (him), a Socialist, and a Conservative. He argues that the Socialists want to overthrow the right to property without understanding what this will do to both justice and prosperity, and that Conservatives do not know how to defend property correctly:

Society, according to the Economists of the eighteenth century, is organized on the basis of natural laws, whose essence is Justice and Utility. When these laws are misunderstood, society suffers. When they are fully respected, society enjoys the greatest possible abundance and justice reigns in human relations.

Are these laws of providence respected or unrecognized today? Do the sufferings of the masses have their origin in the economic laws which govern society or in the obstacles placed in the way of their beneficent operation? Such is the question which recent events have raised for us.

To this question the Socialist schools reply, sometimes by denying that the economic world is governed, as is the physical world, by natural laws, and at other times by the affirmation that these laws are imperfect or vicious, and that the ills of society stem from this imperfect or vicious character.

The more timid claim that we must modify these laws; the more intrepid claim we should totally eliminate what are radically imperfect arrangements and replace them with new ones.

The rise of socialism during the 1848 Revolution in Paris confronted the classical liberal economists (the “économistes”) with a serious problem, namely how to counter their push to significantly regulate the economy and to finance their utopian schemes such as the National Workshops (government funded unemployment relief). On the one hand, the right to property had been poorly defended by the conservatives who had undermined it with their efforts to regulate the economy and to grant legal privileges to some property owners at the expense of others (tariff protection and state subsidies for manufacturers). On the other hand, the socialists could point out that they were only doing what the conservatives had done for decades but only more so and now in the interests of “the people” instead of the elite. One result of this was Molinari’s 1849 book Les Soirées de la Rue St. Lazare which was a vigorous “defence of economic laws and the right of property” as the subtitle makes very clear. It is in the form a a series of debates or conversations between a Socialist, a Conservative, and an Economist (who is a thinly disguised Molinari). Over the course of 12 evenings Molinari gives us a detailed defense of both the “Justice” and the “Utility” of property rights, both of which he believed were crucial pillars in any theory of property. Liberty Fund is having this important book by Molinari translated and is pleased to give readers a foretaste here.