Common misconceptions about the French classical liberal tradition

French classical liberalism is commonly recognized as one of the greatest traditions of promoters of freedom. Yet this recognition and the help those authors provide is limited by a great number of misconceptions, which stem from the fact that, up to this day, historians and commentators have relied upon scattered and limited sources.

Common misconceptions about the French classical liberal tradition

by Benoît Malbranque



French classical liberalism is commonly recognized as one of the greatest traditions of promoters of human freedom in its various forms. Authors such as Turgot, Benjamin Constant, Frédéric Bastiat, Alexis de Tocqueville, Gustave de Molinari, continue to inspire new generations of liberty-minded individuals and to shape their understanding of the principles of a free and prosperous society.

Unfortunately, this recognition and the help those authors provide is limited by a great number of misconceptions. These misconceptions are a necessary, but maybe only temporary result of the present state of knowledge regarding the history of classical liberalism in France. Up to this day, although there have been numerous attempts to provide an account of the lives, ideas, and writings of these authors, a thorough and scholarly examination is a long time coming. Historians and commentators, having relied upon scattered and limited sources, have failed to portray correctly French classical liberalism.

Certainly, the amount of data is intimidating; but limited sources are the root cause for unfaithful historic accounts. If we, as classical liberals, want to know who we are and where we come from, it is necessary that in each country, or at least in each major country, one devoted historian engage in the comprehensive study of his national classical liberal literature. [1] As regards the French tradition, this has only been sketched. For example, I have never seen a single historian make use of anything from the 40 linear metres (43.7 yards) of Yves Guyot papers in the Archives de Paris, or from the private correspondence of major figures such as Gustave de Molinari (more than 60 letters), or the publisher Guillaumin (including the very useful letters between himself and the socialist Pierre-Joseph Proudhon), among others. Similarly, the Mirabeau papers, stored in the Bibliothèque Paul Arbaud in Aix-en-Provence, and the Dupont de Nemours papers, kept in the United States, are too often disregarded and ignored by good-intentioned but overhasty liberty-minded scholars.

Incomplete data have created unfaithful accounts, for reasons that are easy to grasp. Clarifications, corrections, or bold statements, which appeared in minor works, are completely overlooked. Less renowned authors, who were frequently celebrities at their time and who sometimes defined the intellectual trend, when our famous ones failed, continue to go unmentioned. However, manuscripts, private documents and correspondence alter even more deeply the historical narrative. There only is a writer really himself, freed that he is from the pressure of readership and sometimes censorship. Only in conversations and letters, for instance, could Molinari, allegedly converted in his latter years to the more moderate views of his colleagues, have indicated his lasting faith in the privatization of everything. [2] Likewise, it is in a manuscript, never published until a few years ago, that Dupont de Nemours confessed that if the physiocrats were quick to embrace “legal despotism” (despotisme légal), it was in part for tactical reasons: because they originated in the back room of the King’s favorite and lacked the freedom to speak and write. (Les économistes y ont été vite, et en partie par politique. Ils sont nés dans l’arrière cabinet de la maîtresse du Roi ; et il leur fallait liberté de parler et d’écrire. [3])

Undeserved punishments

Some misconceptions, however, originate only in unfairness. Two major authors, who have been and should still be classics among advocates of freedom, will help me to illustrate my point: René Descartes and Michel de Montaigne.

René Descartes (1596-1650) have been portrayed by F. A. Hayek as a great villain, the ultimate foundation of a deeply flawed French tradition of liberty which conveyed “flattering assumptions about the unlimited powers of human reason”[4], led up to the building of utopias on moving sand and paved the way toward totalitarianism. Yet, a careful examination of Descartes’ writings indicates that his ambitious scientific program went hand in hand with a clear-sighted acknowledgment of the limits of human reason. This particular idea was articulated by Descartes on several occasions, and in the last words of his famous Meditations on First Philosophy (Méditations métaphysiques, 1647), he made again reference of it, claiming that it is necessary to recognize the infirmity and weakness of our nature (il faut reconnaître l’infirmité et la faiblesse de notre nature[5]). Descartes frequently laid out this idea when considering free will (libre arbitre or franc arbitre), as well as when studying what is called “divine freedom” (liberté divine). Was God free when creating the world? Could he have abstained from making it, could he have made it differently, could he have made, for example, that two plus two do not make four? Descartes answered these by upholding the notion of divine freedom; this freedom, according to him, though deriving from rational arguments, cannot be proved, for those issues are beyond the capacity of the human intellect (il y a une infinité de choses en sa puissance desquelles les causes surpassent la portée de mon esprit[6]). On other occasions, Descartes studied again this “reduced capacity of our intellects” (la petite capacité de nos esprits[7]), making it one of the foundation of his philosophy. He gave a clear example of its significance when referring to the chiliogon, a polygon of one thousand sides: although I can very well imagine in my mind a triangle, with its three sides, I cannot imagine the thousand sides of a chiliogone. [8] That is because the power of the human reasoning is limited, and this fact, Descartes claimed, must always be recognized in scientific or philosophical endeavors.

I will comment later on how this powerful but forgotten argument, overlooked by Hayek, was used by the physiocrats around 1760 to undermine the statist and interventionist conceptions prevailing at their time.

But before that let us turn our attention to Michel de Montaigne (1533-1592), another disregarded giant of human liberty, whose Essays (Essais, 1590), though immensely influential, are commonly regarded, among free-market enthusiasts, as a sort of memorial to the mercantilist fashion. In Human Action (1959), Ludwig von Mises, studying the popular idea that trade is a zero-sum game, states boldly that “among modern writers Montaigne was the first to restate it; we may fairly call it the Montaigne dogma”[9]. However, the small chapter in which Montaigne addressed this particular issue tells us a very different story. According to the writer of the Essays, the fact that one only profits at the expense of another (qu’il ne se faict aucun profit qu’au dommage d’autruy[10]), is natural: it is illness, not good health, that enriches the doctor; it is similarly alcoholism, not temperance, that makes the winemaker’s fortune. But this does not imply, Montaigne adds, that doctors or winemakers must be vilified and their profits prohibited; on the contrary, the conclusion and purpose of the whole chapter is to absolve merchants of their alleged sins of profiteering. Yet the sentence has been passed, and very few liberty-minded individuals venture in the Essays anymore, despite the proto-Randian individualist philosophy that Montaigne displayed in it. Book of the self, self-centered, egoistic like none other, the Essays contain a comprehensive study and philosophy of the individual. Their morality is one of withdrawal, inward-looking and self-examination, culminating in the creed that “it is very pitiful and hazardous to be dependent on another… I have conceived a mortal hatred of being obliged either to another or by another than myself. I employ every power to the utmost to do without, before I employ the kindness of another, however slight or weighty the occasion.”[11] (Il fait bien piteux, et hazardeux, despendre d’un autre… J’ay prins à haine mortelle d’estre tenu ny à autre, ny par autre que moy. J’employe bien vivement, tout ce que je puis, à me passer : avant que j’employe la beneficence d’un autre, en quelque, ou legere ou poisante occasion ou besoing que ce soit.[12]) And when enunciating his beliefs regarding government and laws, Montaigne encountered the most essential principles of liberty. According to him, the world runs by itself (la plus part des choses du monde se font par elles mesmes[13]) and therefore laws are very unnecessary an institution. Order, harmony, can be found without them, as illustrated by the example of ants and other animals. (Il ne nous faut guere non plus d’offices, de reigles, et de loix de vivre, en nostre communauté, qu’il en faut aux grues et formis en la leur. Et neantmoins nous voyons qu’elles s’y conduisent tres ordonnément, sans erudition.[14]) There is too many laws, he asserts, to the point that we might as well have no law at all, and we would be better off (il vaudroit mieux n’en avoir point du tout, que de les avoir en tel nombre que nous avons[15]). Thus, the only requirement Montaigne expresses relating to governments is, like François Rabelais (1483-1553) before him, purely negative: nothing is to be given, or to be done; may the governing body abstain from plundering and harming me, and I will be pleased. (Les princes me donnent prou, s’ils ne m’ostent rien : et me font assez de bien, quand ils ne me font point de mal : c’est tout ce que j’en demande.[16])

An unintelligible school

In the 17th century, following Descartes and Montaigne, early French classical liberals, engaging in different debates, such as religious freedom, civil liberties, free trade, international peace, put forward new ideas and concepts, which later resulted in a proper liberty movement at the time of the Enlightenment (siècle des Lumières). I will not address in this article the famous writers, such as Voltaire, Diderot, Montesquieu, who wrote mostly, if not entirely, in favor of civil liberties in the boarder sense (liberté politique), but this other school, devoted mainly, but again not entirely, to economic freedom, and which bears the name of physiocracy.

The physiocrats, leading figures in the history of classical liberalism in France and beyond, are often deeply misrepresented.

It is said that they were a sect, under the domination of François Quesnay, but when the accusation was made against them, they rejected it as groundless and injurious[17], and repented some years later not to have dismissed it more vigorously. [18] The idea itself, that a writer, stuck in Versailles, who did not sign any writing under his own name and who therefore was known only by a dozen of his peers, should be recognized as central, is somehow puzzling, in particular when we learn, from the physiocrats themselves, that the marquis de Mirabeau or Mercier de la Rivière were more respectable figures than Quesnay, or that his over-cited Tableau économique was, according to Mirabeau, appreciated and understood only by three authors (himself, Dupont de Nemours, and Charles Butré), the vast majority (including Abeille, Le Trosne, Turgot, Mercier de la Rivière, Roubaud) having literally no clue about it. [19]

Indeed, the physiocrats, despite a common name (which they received later and under vague circumstances), never had a common doctrine, contrary to common belief. Their opponents, who themselves differed greatly from each other, some believing in the free-market (such as Condillac), and some offering proto-socialist theories and remedies (such as Linguet and Mably), recognized that each physiocrat was unique, and that one could not be an anti-physiocrat, but an anti-Mirabeau or an anti-Quesnay only (qu’anti-Économiste n’est pas le mot propre, et qu’il faudrait dire anti-Quenéiste, anti-Miraboliste[20]). Dupont de Nemours was of the opinion that there were actually two schools: the first, originating from Vincent de Gournay, and the second, formed around Quesnay. Yet he argued that inside this latter school, Baudeau and Mercier de la Rivière had constituted a “separate wing” (une branche particulière), revolving around the notion of legal despotism. [21] This three-dimensional school is hardly a fair representation, but instead of giving a classification of my own, suffice to say that in the eyes of the physiocrats themselves, the perfect unity could not stand.

The individuality factor put aside, it is said that physiocracy was ultimately founded on the idea that the land alone is productive. Yet in the writings of the few physiocrats for whom this principle mattered most, its exact significance was very different. According to Quesnay, first-hand commerce (commerce de première main) was equally productive, and in his main book, Mercier de la Rivière warned similarly that the output from waters is included in the output of lands (par le produit des terres, il faut entendre aussi celui des eaux[22]).

Lastly, physiocrats are said to be promoters of despotism, and critics of democracy. It must be pondered whether that particular despotism of them, a subjection to natural laws, similar to the despotic slavery to Euclid of anyone doing calculation, is despotic at all. But above all, the confession of Dupont de Nemours, quoted earlier, is crucial, hinting that the emphasis on certain ideas might have stemmed from tactical considerations.

Who were these authors, then, and why do they matter? Although I cannot dare to give a full account of them in such a limited space, I will argue that as far as the ideas of self-interest and the invisible hand are concerned, they should be recognized as Adam Smith’s schoolmasters. I will also comment briefly on their powerful argument on the impossibility of planning, proceeding along the lines of Descartes’ “reduced capacity of our intellects” (la petite capacité de nos esprits[23]).

The catalogues of Adam Smith’s library indicate that he possessed numerous writings published by physiocrats: Théorie de l’impôt (1760) and Philosophie rurale (1763)[24] by the marquis de Mirabeau; l’Ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques (1767)[25] by Mercier de la Rivière; as well as numerous volumes of physiocratic journals, namely the Journal de l’agriculture, du commerce et des finances (10 volumes, 1765-1767)[26] and the Éphémérides du Citoyen (42 volumes, 1766-1769)[27].

It is worth knowing that these works contain comprehensive studies of the self-interest motive and outline the harmonious natural order of market forces (the “invisible hand”), with unmistakable clarity.

In Philosophie rurale, the marquis de Mirabeau explained how, in the system of free exchange, self-interest ensures that production is undertaken in the most economical and advantageous manner. And therefore, “everyone is, or believes he is free in his own field of activity, and yet is lead, by his consideration for his own advantage, to work for the common good. Thanks to the magic of the well-ordered society, everyone works for each other, while thinking of working for themselves” (chacun est, ou se croit libre dans sa sphère, et chacun est entraîné par la vue de son propre bien à concourir au bien universel. Toute la magie de la société bien ordonnée est que chacun travaille pour autrui, en croyant travailler pour soi.[28]) In similar fashion, Mercier de la Rivière, in l’Ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques, urged statesmen and philosophers alike to recognize that there is only two driven forces in man, namely the appetite for pleasures and the aversion to pain (l’appétit des plaisirs et l’aversion de la douleur). When these forces are not hampered by unnecessary regulation, he states, “each man is directed towards his best possible condition, and through that very process, he works and contributes necessarily to the attainment of the best possible condition of the whole society” (chaque homme tend perpétuellement vers son meilleur état possible, et qu’en cela même il travaille et concourt nécessairement à former le meilleur état possible du corps entier de la société[29]).

I have confined myself so far to the books that Smith actually possessed, although he met the physiocrats in Paris and could have been more knowledgeable of their writings, and of those of their immediate predecessors, than we believe. Pierre de Boisguilbert, for instance, once noted (1705) how remarkable it was that trade is everywhere founded on mutual advantage: “all around the world commerce, both wholesale and retail, and even agriculture, is governed only by the interest of entrepreneurs, who never had the intention of obliging those with whom they contract through trade… It is this reciprocal utility that brings harmony to the world and maintain all nations; everyone thinking of pursuing their personal interest to the highest degree and with the greatest possible ease…” (tout le commerce de la terre, tant en gros qu’en détail, et même l’agriculture, ne se gouverne que par l’intérêt des entrepreneurs, qui n’ont jamais songé à rendre service ni à obliger ceux avec qui ils contractent par leur commerce… C’est cette utilité réciproque qui fait l’harmonie du monde et le maintien des États ; chacun songe à se procurer son intérêt personnel au plus haut degré et avec le plus de facilité qui lui est possible…[30]). In a wide-spread manuscript, published in 1765, the marquis d’Argenson drew a parallel with a bee hive, “where each insect acts according to its instinct, and what results from their actions is a great produce for the needs of their small society; but this was not brought about by orders, or by generals who forced each individual to follow the views of their leader.” (où chaque insecte agit suivant son instinct, il résulte de leurs actions un grand amas pour les besoins de la petite société ; mais cela ne s’est point opéré par des ordres, ou par des généraux qui aient obligé chaque individu à suivre les vues de leur chef.[31])

For the physiocrats, self-interest was indeed a crucial notion. According to Abeille, personal interest was the sole foundation of trade (l’intérêt qui fait rouler toute la machine du commerce[32]) and André Morellet characterized it as an “ever-mighty, ever-alert, ever-powerful cause of action” (un principe d’action toujours soutenu, toujours vigilant, toujours énergique[33]).

What remained, then, for Adam Smith to be discovered on this particular topic? His main task, as far as the self-interest principle if concerned, was to include it in a comprehensive study, written in English. The own examples he gave, to illustrate the notion, could, just like the pin manufacturing, made popular by the Encyclopédie, already be found in the writings of the physiocrats. We are commonly grateful to our local baker for providing us with bread, says Mirabeau in a letter to Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and to this statement “it is replied that he does this for his own advantage. But who on earth has ever obliged you or me by other consideration than self-interest?… Nobody gives in this world, everybody lends, sells or invests”. (Mais, dit-on, c’est pour son avantage. Et qui diable nous a jamais obligés, ni vous ni moi, que par intérêt ?… Personne ne donne ici-bas, tout le monde prête, vend ou place[34]). As for coining the popular catch phrase of “invisible hand”, which appear only once in a thousand pages, and then went absolutely unnoticed for more than a century, I dare say my opinion, that this is an over-praised achievement. Impartial historians will count the points; I would only urge them to consider the physiocrats remarkable insights and the influence they had. Once informed of the publication of Smith’s Wealth of Nations, the marquis de Mirabeau wrote one of his friend: “I have heard of Smith’s book. I believe we helped him a bit.” (J’ai ouï parler du livre de Smith. Je crois que nous l’avons un peu aidé.[35])

Physiocrats also put forward ideas that Smith ruled out and which almost had to be re-invented again. It is for instance the case of their brilliant study of the impossibility of planning.

Along the lines of Descartes’ recognition of the “reduced capacity of our intellects” (la petite capacité de nos esprits[36]), the physiocrats claimed that there was a lot of issues on which the intellectual capacity of kings, ministers and public servants was simply too limited to ensure fruitful intervention and regulation. “A large state, Abeille wrote, cannot and should not be governed like a family, where mediocre eyes can see everything, count everything, and arrange everything in detail.” (Un grand État ne peut, ni ne doit être gouverné comme une famille où des yeux médiocres peuvent tout voir, tout compter, tout arranger en détail[37]).

They extensively relied on and made use of this argument when defending the full and unlimited freedom of exchange (liberté illimitée, or pleine et entière liberté) in the fierce debate on grain policy. According to Le Trosne, if governments have failed repeatedly to ensure price stability and adequate supplies of grain and flour, it is because “trying to regulate trade and prices, they have misestimated the scope of their weak intellectual power; they have dared to hold a balance which slips out of their hands, and which handling is beyond their capacity.” (entreprenant de diriger le commerce et de gouverner les prix, ils ont méconnu la portée de leur faible intelligence ; ils ont essayé de tenir une balance qui leur échappe, et dont la direction surpasse leur pouvoir et leur force.[38]) “Grain trade is so complex an issue, Abeille similarly claimed, that is beyond the capacity of the brightest administrator; therefore it is necessary to let it run its own course.” (le régime d’un commerce aussi compliqué que celui des grains est au-dessus des forces de l’homme le plus supérieur, et par conséquent, il est indispensable de l’abandonner à lui-même.) [39] Trying to convince the abbé Terray, then minister, and who will turn out to be his own predecessor, Turgot explained that to obtain what government is trying to achieve in the grain trade would require a complete knowledge of production and needs, and that in all logic the most skilful and capable government will always at least be mistaken by half. [40] Therefore, as Mirabeau states, “the more we intervened in the grain trade and tried to hold the balance of subsistence, the more we have seen the ills grow, expend and multiply.” (Plus nous nous sommes occupé du commerce des grains, et avons voulu tenir la balance des subsistances, plus nous avons vu les maux s’accroître, s’étendre et se multiplier.[41])

Given this inherent impossibility for government to intervene, the only policy was to let things be (laissez faire). “Let us follow the natural course of things, Abeille advocated, for we would only be capable of turning it upside down; this ambition of ours to regulate everything, to order everything, and to submit everything to our tiny and weak minds, is a disease of which it is high time to be cured.” (Suivons le cours naturel des choses, nous ne serions capables que de le bouleverser ; c’est une maladie dont il serait bien temps de nous guérir, que celle de vouloir tout régler, tout ordonner, et tout soumettre à nos vues si faibles et si courtes.[42])

Peace, liberty, … and colonization

The history of classical liberalism is not always pleasing, and numerous misconceptions arose from the rewriting efforts that have been made by some of us, on occasions when the core values of liberty appeared to be at stake.

One major case is colonization and the underlying issues it encompasses, such as imperialism and racism. Although in the 17th and 18th century French classical liberalism was a driving force for the anti-colonialist movement, a large number of 19th century authors, whose dedication to liberty cannot be questioned, openly promoted an imperialist agenda.

In the aftermath of the French revolution of 1789, and as a consequence of its own positive achievements, some liberty-minded intellectuals fostered a radically new approach, one in which France became a moral high ground, whose institutions and ideas were to be admired and copied. The expansion of French ideas, culture, and language, in countries labelled as backward or barbaric, seemed only natural in their eyes, filled with admiration for the liberal philosophy of 1789 revolutionaries.

While restating the case against colonial monopolies and the ever-deceitful balance of trade, Jean-Baptiste Say did not completely disregard the imperialist trend. Under certain circumstances, he wrote, colonization appears to be “favorable to the progress of the human race and to its happiness” (favorable au progrès de l’espèce humaine et à son bonheur[43]). Given the superiority of the Western nations, one can only hope that their influence in other parts of the world will increase over time. “With its despots and superstitions, Asia has no good institutions to lose, and it has many good ones to receive from Europeans.” (Avec ses despotes et ses superstitions, l’Asie n’a point de bonnes institutions à perdre, et elle en a beaucoup de bonnes à recevoir des Européens.[44])

Say wished for this influence to be exerted by peaceful means; some, however, did not share his patience and intellectual rigidity. According to Tocqueville, France’s glory and prestige required an aggressive foreign policy, with the aim of securing colonies—that is, regions or countries where legal relationships of domination and exploitation could be instituted and maintained. The imbalance between civilized and barbaric nations were so profound, he believed, that France had every right to conquer poorly exploited lands. Violence itself was not a shameful instrument in this regard. One must not, he said precisely, “find despicable that harvests are burnt, silos emptied, and that unarmed men, women and children are seized. According to me, this is an unfortunate necessity, one which any nation intending to make war against the Arabs simply have to accept.”  (trouver mauvais qu’on brûlât les moissons, qu’on vidât les silos et enfin qu’on s’emparât des hommes sans armes, des femmes et des enfants. Ce sont là, suivant moi, des nécessités fâcheuses, mais auxquelles tout peuple qui voudra faire la guerre aux Arabes sera obligé de se soumettre.[45])

Contrary to common belief, these views were wide-spread among 19th century French classical liberals. The influential Adolphe Blanqui, who turned away from the Journal des économistes after having founded it, precisely, as he explained in a letter to the poet Lamartine, “because it dealt too much with arithmetic and not enough with charity” (précisément parce qu’il faisait trop d’arithmétique et pas assez de charité[46]), had a very curious notion of charity when it came to foreign nations. In a report to the Académie des sciences morales et politiques, he promoted colonization with passion and a certain lack of scruples, recommending the eviction of local populations in Algeria to allow the introduction of modern cultivation methods. [47] In the Journal des économistes itself, advocates and opponents of colonization engaged in a lively debate. In the very first issue, Louis Reybaud lamented that colonization had not received yet from economists the esteem it deserves (le principe des colonisations ne jouit pas encore, auprès des économistes, de toute l’estime qu’il mérite[48]). Describing such endeavors as rightful “propaganda of civilization against backwardness” (une propagande de la civilisation contre la barbarie[49]), Reybaud made the case for the colonial expansion of France as a source of national prestige. “There are some drawbacks attached to this role, he wrote; but also what a glory! To leave one’s mark everywhere, one’s language, one’s customs, one’s nationality, is an ambition worthy of a great people, and this task, which seems to have been delegated to us by nature, cannot be disowned by the economic science.” (Il y a quelques inconvénients attachés à ce rôle ; mais aussi que de gloire ! Laisser partout son empreinte, sa langue, ses mœurs, sa nationalité, est une ambition digne d’un grand peuple, et cette tâche, que la nature semble lui avoir déléguée, ne saurait être désavouée par la science.)[50]

In its long history, the Journal des économistes continuously swung between the two poles, maybe letting free debate decide the question. Shameless advocacy for colonization therefore appeared regularly. In 1854, for example, in the aftermath of new developments in the conflicted relations between the United States and Mexico, Horace Say endorsed the American expansion plans. “Any indigenous people, occupying a fertile land, without being able to cultivate it, must give way to those who are more capable. And to those who might raise the question of justice, the answer is here at hand: dig the soil with us, assimilate yourself to the civilized world through work, or give away your rights, sell away your lands.” (Toute peuplade indigène occupant un territoire fertile, sans savoir le mettre en culture, doit céder la place à plus habile qu’elle. Si la question d’équité est plus ou moins consciencieusement soulevée, on a toujours une réponse prête : Piochez avec nous, assimilez-vous par le travail aux hommes civilisés ; ou cédez-nous vos droits, vendez vos terres.[51])

This colonialist fashion has received little mention, filtered as it was by pious liberty-minded commentators. It is all the more upsetting, since this trend was not even limited to a somewhat moderate or conservative wing of the French classical liberal tradition. Following Charles Dunoyer’s puzzling assessment of the « influence of race on liberty »[52], the radical Gustave de Molinari also claimed that civilized nations had an active role to play in large parts of the world, where backward peoples had to be lifted up by direct intervention. “The main shortcoming of the Negro race, he wrote, is one which is common to all backward races, from the Redskin Indian of North America to the Germain of Tacitus era: it is laziness.” (Le défaut capital de la race nègre, défaut qui lui est commun avec toutes les races peu avancées en civilisation, avec l’Indien peau-rouge de l’Amérique du Nord comme avec le Germain du temps de Tacite, c’est la paresse.[53]) To which he added: “This endemic disease of primitive peoples can only be cured by contact with a population of laborious habits.” (Cette maladie endémique des peuples primitifs ne se guérit que par le contact d’une population aux habitudes laborieuses.[54]) The result was a sort of mission, for Western nations—that of civilizing the uncivilized, which involved conquest and legal domination, because those backward peoples, Molinari believed, “will not voluntarily go to civilization, civilization will have to come to them.” (n’iront pas volontairement à la civilisation, il faudra que la civilisation vienne à eux[55].)

It is therefore highly inappropriate to label as an exception the colonialist fervor of Alexis de Tocqueville or Paul Leroy-Beaulieu—the latter I choose even not to mention, because his mixing of sound free-market economics with an aggressive colonialist policy is honestly sad to hear, and even more to write.

The question of why men of such an advanced understanding of the principles of liberty could have fallen into the trap of colonization, with features of racism, is surely one to be pondered. In my humble opinion, this kind of introspection will serve our cause immensely more than the repeated narrative of how right and superior we have always been. As to those who find joy in walking with eyes closed, I have nothing to say.

Elusive agreements

I shall turn my attention to one last important misconception regarding the French classical liberal tradition. Although they often upheld similar general principles and even battled together when facing some common threats such as socialism, they never formed a school in the proper sense. Considered in detail, the French classical tradition was indeed very heterogeneous; but not in the sense that they ranged from moderates and conservatives, to more radicals, and up to the more extreme views of Molinari. In fact, they lacked any uniformity. On many issues, they portrayed variations and contradictions.

Colonization, upheld by some, was described by Joseph Garnier as a “huge prejudice” (un énorme préjugé[56]). According to Bastiat, it was nothing but another manifestation of plunder, or spoliation, the great enemy and opposite of liberty. “Spoliation abroad is called war, conquests, colonies, he asserted. Spoliation within is called taxes, places, monopolies. » (la spoliation au dehors s’appelle guerre, conquêtes, colonies. La spoliation au dedans se nomme impôts, places, monopoles.[57]) In this respect, colonization was indeed “the most disastrous illusion that has ever led nations astray” (la plus funeste des illusions qui ait jamais égaré les peuples[58]). And in the 1870s and 1880s, when colonization became once again central in French foreign policy, authors such as Yves Guyot opposed it vigorously. In numerous articles, tracts and books, Guyot denounced these immoral and anti-economical endeavors. In order to found colonies, “we shoot unarmed or ridiculously armed enemies, like rabbits. It is called ‘raising the prestige of France’.” (On tire sur des ennemis désarmés ou armés ridiculement, comme sur des lapins. Cela s’appelle relever le prestige de la France’.[59]) Economically, this policy was also flawed and lead to miserable results. “Our colonies are an outlet, not for the products of our industry and commerce, but for our taxpayers’ money” (nos colonies sont un débouché non pas pour notre industrie et notre commerce, mais pour l’argent des contribuables[60]), was a favorite conclusive statement of his.

Even on the issue of free-trade, which could be considered an undisputed feature of classical liberalism, a severe gap existed and a lasting consensus was never found across the two major strands of the spectrum. At the time of Bastiat, the more moderate fringe was dominating. According to the influential figures such as Horace Say, Michel Chevalier, Léon Faucher, trade liberalization must occur with the greatest of prudence. Charles Dunoyer, when commenting Bastiat’s defense of free trade, insisted on these necessary precautions. According to him, the cry for complete and immediate free-trade was nothing but “a gross exaggeration” (une extrême exagération[61]). Proponents of moderation were prevailing and their views were dominant in the Journal des économistes. Bastiat, once a very regular contributor, was invited to take care of his own newspaper, Le Libre-Échange, a way to say: go and play somewhere else. Even there, however, he still had to contend with the dominating fringe. When, in early 1848, he had to handle his post of redactor-in-chief because of deteriorating health, he complained that the conservative wing included in the decision process made the whole business very unpleasant.[62] In his eyes, the free-trade movement in France did not stand on firm ground—that is, on absolute principles. “The greatest of all misfortunes, he wrote to Richard Cobden, is that we don’t have barely any real economist. I have not met two of them capable of promoting the cause and the theory of free-trade in all its purity; on the contrary one sees the grossest mistakes and concessions mingling with the speeches and writings of those who call themselves free-traders.” (Le plus grand de tous les malheurs c’est que nous n’avons pas de vrais économistes. Je n’en ai pas rencontré deux capables de soutenir la cause et la doctrine dans toute son orthodoxie, et l’on voit les erreurs et les concessions les plus grossières se mêler aux discours et aux écrits de ceux qui s’appellent free-traders.[63]) Similarly, at the end of the 19th century, moderates and radicals of free-trade continued to clash inside the French classical liberal tradition. The new free-trade association, created around Léon Say by the timid party of the day, met with little enthusiasm in the ranks of more principled authors. One, Ernest Martineau, a devoted follower of Bastiat, deliberately refused to have a part in it, considering, as he wrote to Yves Guyot, that “this association only talks about commercial treaties; it is not based on the fundamental principle of the right to exchange, which is a consequence of an absolute right: that of private property. It does not embrace the great motto of the Anti-Corn-Law-League: total, immediate, and unconditional repeal of the grain laws; and therefore it will not achieve anything.” (cette société ne parle que des traités de commerce ; elle ne repose pas sur le principe fondamental : le droit d’échanger, conséquence du droit de propriété, droit absolu. Elle n’a pas pris comme la ligue anglaise cette grande devise : abolition totale, immédiate et sans condition, des lois céréales ; elle est ainsi condamnée à la stérilité.[64])

On the issue of the role and scope of government, great differences of opinion could also be witnessed. In 1849, a somewhat united front was presented against the notorious anarcho-capitalist doctrines of Molinari. Previously, authors like Benjamin Constant or Pierre Daunou had already warned that the road towards the privatization of everything was a perilous one to take. [65] Yet Molinari, a recent convert to the cause of liberty, after having wandered in the desert of statism for most of his youth, daringly furthered the principles of Jean-Baptiste Say in this very direction. Following Say’s comments on “the industry of a physician, or, to mention other examples, of a public servant, a lawyer, or a judge (l’industrie d’un médecin, et, si l’on veut multiplier les exemples, d’un administrateur de la chose publique, d’un avocat, d’un juge[66]), Molinari started a labeling of his own, studying the “monopolistic” and “costly” production of public education by clergymen[67], or the progress of the “production of speed” (l’industrie de la vitesse[68]), through railway transportation. Even immigration was, in his words, “the industry of free-labor transportation” (le commerce de transport du travail libre[69]). Soon he mentioned the “production of security” (la production de la sécurité[70]), and advocated for its privatization. This idea was nonetheless rejected by every single one of his classical liberal colleagues. During one epic meeting of the Société d’économie politique, a sharp rebuttal was presented. Charles Coquelin argued that competition free of the necessary boundaries provided by a minimal state, was impossible, a stance adopted also by Frédéric Bastiat. As for Charles Dunoyer, he considered that Molinari had been carried away by illusions of logic (s’est laissé égarer par des illusions de logique) and that free competition in the industry of security was completely unrealistic (chimérique). [71] The French classical liberal tradition, famous for its laissez-fairist stand, had never been committed to absolute anarchism. When Boisguilbert, d’Argenson, and the physiocrats argued for laissez-faire, they condemned intervention without advocating inaction—just as the Chinese wu-wei (無爲) a possible inspiration[72], offered a model of ruling without governing, or action without action. The role of government, Le Trosne wrote, is only to ensure the inviolable ownership of goods, the free employment of men and wealth, and the freedom of trade; it consists much more in protection than in action.” (La fonction du gouvernement se réduit à assurer inviolablement la propriété des biens, la liberté dans l’emploi des hommes et des richesses, et la liberté des échanges, et consiste beaucoup plus en protection qu’en action.[73]) Frédéric Bastiat, who argued for a “very limited” (très limité[74]) scope of government, still advocated for its involvement in infrastructures[75], public works in times of crisis[76], or postal service[77]. Around 1880, a new trend became noticeable in the French classical liberal tradition, to admit growing responsibilities for governments. In this environment, Molinari experienced difficulties maintaining his pledge to the privatization of everything. In correspondence and conversations, nonetheless, he still taught the possibility of “having private companies competing for the production of order, security, or, in another words, for the market of government, as well as for water, gas or electricity distribution. Anybody could subscribe to the particular company of his choice. Religion itself would be issued in shares and provided economically by private competition.” (des sociétés privées qui distribueraient l’ordre, la sécurité, en un mot le gouvernement, comme l’eau, le gaz ou l’électricité ? Chacun s’abonnerait à celle qui lui conviendrait. La religion elle-même serait mise en actions et fournie au meilleur compte par la libre concurrence.[78]) Charles Benoist, who witnessed such teachings along with André Liesse and Joseph Chailley, later explained in his Memoirs how “amazed” (émerveillé) he was by it. But the majority of French classical liberals was annoyed by it, if nothing else, and some directly opposed it in their writings, as did Paul Leroy-Beaulieu in his influential L’État moderne et ses fonctions (1890).

On the issues which mattered most, these authors failed repeatedly to present a united front. Sincerity, for sure, is very tempting a course for intellectuals. At the turn of the century, for instance, when nationalist fervor grew dangerously, Gustave de Molinari and Frédéric Passy warned actively against it, laying out strangely premonitory scenario before the public eyes. In conferences, pamphlets and books, Passy portrayed “the whole able-bodied population in Europe, ready to massacre and destroy each other; nobody, it is true, wishing to attack, everyone showing off a love for peace and the resolution to maintain it, but everyone still realizing that it would only need one unforeseen incident” (toute la population valide de l’Europe se préparant à se massacrer mutuellement ; personne, il est vrai, ne voulant attaquer, tout le monde protestant de son amour de la paix et de sa résolution de la maintenir, mais tout le monde sentant qu’il suffit de quelque incident imprévu[79]) According to Molinari, the European continent was analogously nothing but a “gunpowder magazine, which could explode with the burning of a single match” (un magasin à poudre que le frottement d’une allumette peut faire sauter[80]), eventually leading to “a war which the enormous armed forces and the still greater power represented by the advanced instruments of destruction will make the cruelest and most disastrous of all those which have afflicted mankind” (une guerre que les énormes effectifs en présence et la puissance plus énorme encore des instruments de destruction perfectionnés rendront la plus cruelle et la plus désastreuse de toutes celles qui ont affligé l’humanité.[81]) Yet these two authors had opposite views when it came to the organization of peace, and therefore did not collaborate. Whereas Passy insisted on moral and humanitarian considerations, Molinari kept himself busy setting up a pragmatic check-and-balance system, similar to the future United Nations and its “blue helmets” peacekeepers. From time to time, he publicly expressed his disagreement with his colleague, therefore jeopardizing his potential success. [82]

On a smaller scale, societal issues helped widen the gaps. Religion, which was considered by Molinari a necessary and crucial support for liberty[83], was attacked by Guyot as profoundly illiberal, because it teaches subjection and passivity[84]. On the rights of women, Yves Guyot was a pioneer who devoted great attention to this very liberal issue. By the end of his life, when a larger minority had catched up with his ideas, he was recognized by Miss Avril de Sainte Croix as “the older of all feminists, who dared to be a feminist when it caused mockery” (le doyen des féministes. Il a été un féministe quand cette qualité soulevait les railleries[85]). Molinari, on the other hand, had more of a conservative mindset. When dealing with the issue, he chose to condemn the “idle talk” (discussions oiseuses) and “eccentric theories” (théories excentriques) of early feminists, considering that their custodianship was all in all more advantageous that disadvantageous. [86] Indeed, the two barely collaborated with each other. Their correspondence, kept in the Guyot papers in the Archives de Paris, is cold and unsympathetic, as if they were no ally at all.

Concluding remarks

The current historic narrative regarding the French classical liberal tradition can hardly be called satisfactory. Incomplete data and false representations passed down from generation to generation make it impossible for us all, as new-comers in the liberty movement, to get inspiration and direction from the great minds of the past. The task ahead of us is therefore immense—to recognize its usefulness is just a preliminary step.


[1] This ambitious task is currently undertaken in France by Mathieu Laine, president of the Institut Coppet.

[2] See the letter from Gustave de Molinari to Pierre-Joseph Proudhon, February 14, 1859, in Proudhon archives, Besançon, Ms 2950, f°109; and the testimony of Charles Benoist in his memoirs (« Mes débuts littéraires », Revue bleue, politique et littéraire, 1932, p. 329; Souvenirs, t. I (1883-1893), 1933, p. 28).

[3] Pierre Samuel Dupont de Nemours, Remarques sur les observations qu’a faites M. de Mirabeau au sujet de la déclaration des droits publiée par l’État de Virginie ; Dialogues physiocratiques sur l’Amérique, Garnier, 2015, p. 168.

[4] Friedrich A. Hayek, “Freedom, Reason, and Tradition”, Ethics, Vol. 68, No. 4 (Jul., 1958), p. 229.

[5] René Descartes, Méditations métaphysiques ; Œuvres et Lettres de Descartes, Pléiade, p. 334.

[6] Méditations ; Œuvres et Lettres, Pléiade, p. 303.

[7] Méditations, Réponses aux objections ; Œuvres et Lettres, Pléiade, p. 354.

[8] Méditations ; Œuvres et Lettres, Pléiade, p. 318.

[9] Ludwig von Mises, Human Action, The Scholar’s Edition, Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1998, p. 660.

[10] Montaigne, Essais, liv. I, chap. xxi ; Pléiade, 2007, p. 110.

[11] Essays, III, ix ; Complete Works of Montaigne, Standford Univeristy Press, 1965, p. 740-741.

[12] Essais, III, ix ; Pléiade, p. 1014-1015.

[13] Essais, III, viii ; Pléiade, p. 978.

[14] Essais, II, xii ; Pléiade, p. 513.

[15] Essais, III, xiii ; Pléiade, p. 1112.

[16] Essais, III, ix ; Pléiade, p. 1013.

[17] P. S. Du Pont, « Notice abrégée, etc. », Éphémérides du Citoyen, 1769, vol. IX, p. 69.

[18] Letter from Dupont de Nemours to the count Scheffer, September 8, 1779; Riksarkivet [national archives] in Stockholm, Schefferska samlingen Skrivelser till Karl Fredrik Scheffers [Collection of letters of K. F. Scheffer], box IV.

[19] Letter from the marquis de Mirabeau to Charles Richard de Butré, December 16, 1777; Bibliothèque de l’Arsenal in Paris, Ms. 12101.

[20] Correspondance entre M. Graslin et M. l’abbé Baudeau, etc., 1777, p. 29.

[21] P. S. Dupont de Nemours, Notice sur les économistes, Œuvres de Turgot, vol. III, 1808, p. 315.

[22] Mercier de la Rivière, L’Ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques, 1767, p. 177.

[23] Descartes, Méditations métaphysiques, Réponses aux objections ; Œuvres et Lettres, Pléiade, p. 354.

[24] J. Bonar, A Catalogue of the library of Adam Smith, 1894, p. 69 ; H. Mizuta, Adam Smith’s Library: A Supplement to Bonar’s Catalogue with a checklist of the whole library, 2008, p. 120.

[25] H. Mizuta, Adam Smith’s Library, etc., 2008, p. 111.

[26] J. Bonar, A Catalogue of the library of Adam Smith, 1894, p. 2.

[27] H. Mizuta, Adam Smith’s Library, etc., 2008, p. 111.

[28] Marquis de Mirabeau, Philosophie rurale, etc., 1763, p. 50.

[29] Mercier de la Rivière, L’Ordre naturel et essentiel des sociétés politiques, 1767, p. 33, 35.

[30] Pierre de Boisguilbert, Le factum de la France contre les demandeurs en délai, 1705 ; Pierre de Boisguilbert ou la naissance de l’économie politique, Ined, 1966, t. II, p. 748-749.

[31] Marquis d’Argenson, Considérations sur le gouvernement ancien et présent de la France, 1765, p. 41.

[32] Louis-Paul Abeille, Lettre d’un négociant sur la nature du commerce des grains, 1763, p. 10.

[33] André Morellet, Fragment d’une lettre sur la police des grains, 1764, p. 30

[34] Letter from the marquis de Mirabeau to Jean-Jacques Rousseau, october 27th, 1766 ; G. Streckeisen-Moultou, J. J. Rousseau, ses amis et ses ennemis. Correspondance, 1865, vol. II, p. 320.

[35] Letter from the marquis de Mirabeau to Marc Charles Frédéric de Sacconay, 19 août 1776 ; Private collection.

[36] Descartes, Méditations métaphysiques, Réponses aux objections ; Œuvres et Lettres, Pléiade, p. 354.

[37] Louis-Paul Abeille, Principes sur la liberté du commerce des grains, 1768, p. 100.

[38] Guillaume-François Le Trosne, Lettres à un ami sur les avantages de la liberté du commerce des grains, 1768, p. 52.

[39] Louis-Paul Abeille, Principes sur la liberté du commerce des grains, 1768, p. 45.

[40] Turgot, Lettre sur la marque des fers, 1773 ; Œuvres, éd. Institut Coppet, vol. III, p. 558.

[41] Marquis de Mirabeau, « Projet d’édit sur le commerce des grains », vers 1768 ; Archives nationales, M. 784, n°3 ; G. Weulersse, Les manuscrits économiques de François Quesnay et du marquis de Mirabeau aux Archives nationales, 1910, p. 107.

[42] Guillaume-François Le Trosne, « Lettre sur les avantages de la concurrence des vaisseaux étrangers pour la voiture de nos grains, etc. », Éphémérides du Citoyen, 1765, vol. I, p. 70.

[43] Jean-Baptiste Say, Cours complet d’économie politique pratique, 1828, t. IV, p. 455 ; Œuvres complètes de Jean-Baptiste Say, Economica, t. II, vol. II, p. 887.

[44] Ibid., t. IV, p. 52-53 ; Œuvres, t. II, vol. I, p. 680.

[45] Alexis de Tocqueville, Travail sur l’Algérie, 1841 ; Œuvres, Pléiade, t. I, p. 704.

[46] Letter from Adolphe Blanqui to Alphonse de Lamartine, February 22nd, 1845 ; Correspondance de Lamartine, Honoré Champion, t. IV, 2001, p. 513.

[47] Adolphe Blanqui, Rapport sur la situation économique de nos possessions dans le nord de l’Afrique, etc., 1840.

[48] Louis Reybaud, « Coup d’œil sur le cours de M. Rossi », Journal des économistes, January 1842, p. 195.

[49] Ibid., p. 195.

[50] Ibid., p. 193.

[51] Horace Say, « Les États-Unis et le Mexique », Journal des économistes, August 1854, p. 216.

[52] Charles Dunoyer, De la liberté du travail, 1845, livre II : « Influence de la race sur la liberté ».

[53] Gustave de Molinari, Études économiques, 1846 ; Œuvres complètes de Gustave de Molinari, Institut Coppet, t. II, p. 281.

[54] Ibid. ; Œuvres, t. II, p. 281.

[55] Ibid. ; Œuvres, t. II, p. 279.

[56] Joseph Garnier, « Exposition des produits de l’industrie », Journal des économistes, July 1844, p. 341.

[57] Frédéric Bastiat, Cobden et la Ligue, 1845 ; Œuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, Guillaumin/Institut Coppet, t. III, p. 11.

[58] Frédéric Bastiat, À MM. les électeurs de l’arrondissement de Saint-Sever, 1846 ; Œuvres, t. I, p. 475.

[59] Yves Guyot, La politique coloniale de M. Jules Ferry, 1885, p. 4.

[60] Yves Guyot, Lettres sur la politique coloniale, 1885, p. 99 ; idem, La politique coloniale de M. Jules Ferry, 1885, p. 19.

[61] Charles Dunoyer, « De l’agitation anglaise pour la liberté du commerce », Journal des économistes, August 1845, p. 19.

[62] Letter from Frédéric Bastiat to Félix Coudroy, February 13, 1848 ; Œuvres, t. I, p. 80.

[63] Letter from Fréderic Bastiat to Richard Cobden, June 25, 1846 ; Œuvres, t. I, p. 135.

[64] Letter from Ernest Martineau to Yves Guyot, March 16, 1887 ; Fonds Guyot, Archives de Paris, D21J 179.

[65] Benjamin Constant, Essais sur Godwin, 1810 ; Œuvres complètes de Benjamin Constant, De Gruyter, t. II, p. 1424. — Pierre Daunou, Essai sur les garanties individuelles que réclame l’état actuel de la société, 1819, p. 41.

[66] Jean-Baptiste Say, Traité d’économie politique, Paris, 1803, t. I, p. 362 ; Œuvres, t. I, vol. I, p. 214.

[67] Gustave de Molinari, Des compagnies religieuses et de la publicité de l’instruction publique, 1844 ; Œuvres, t. I, p. 244.

[68] Gustave de Molinari, « De la mobilisation du travail », La Réforme, June 9th, 1845 ; Œuvres, t. I, p. 358.

[69] Gustave de Molinari, Études économiques, 1846 ; Œuvres, t. II, p. 278.

[70] Gustave de Molinari, « De la production de la sécurité », Journal des économistes, February 1849.

[71] Société d’économie politique, Meeting of October 10th, 1849 ; Annales de la Société d’économie politique, t. I, p. 85.

[72] Lewis Maverick, China : A Model for Europe, San Antonio, 1946.

[73] Guillaume-François Le Trosne, De l’utilité des discussions économiques, etc., 1766 ; Recueil de plusieurs morceaux économiques, 1768, p. 58 ; Discussions et développements, etc., suite de la Physiocratie, t. IV, 1768, p. 55.

[74] Frédéric Bastiat, Discours sur l’impôt des boissons, December 12th, 1849 ; Œuvres, t. V, p. 488.

[75] Frédéric Bastiat, Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas, 1850 ; Œuvres, t. V, p. 353.

[76] Frédéric Bastiat, Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas, 1850 ; Œuvres, t. V, p. 355.

[77] Frédéric Bastiat, Mémorial bordelais, April 23rd, 1846 ; Œuvres, t. VII, p. 81.

[78] Charles Benoist, « Mes débuts littéraires », Revue bleue, politique et littéraire, 1932, p. 329 ; Souvenirs, t. I (1883-1893), 1933, p. 28.

[79] Frédéric Passy, L’avenir de l’Europe. Conférence faite le 14 février 1895, à la mairie du VIe arrondissement de Paris, au nom de la Société française pour l’arbitrage entre nations, p. 6-7 ; Journal des économistes, February 1895, p. 163-164.

[80] Gustave de Molinari, Grandeur et décadence de la guerre, 1898, p. 289.

[81] Ibid., p. 289.

[82] See Gustave de Molinari, La morale économique, 1888, p. 350, and idem, Grandeur et décadence de la guerre, 1898, p. 258.

[83] Gustave de Molinari, Religion, 1892, p. 32.

[84] Yves Guyot and Sigismond Lacroix, Étude sur les doctrines sociales du christianisme, 1873, p. xxiv.

[85] Opening statement from Avril de Sainte Croix, before a conference by Yves Guyot on the rights of women, January 30th,1922 ; Fonds Guyot, Archives de Paris, D21J 65.

[86] Gustave de Molinari, Journal des débats, August 21, 1868.

A propos de l'auteur

Benoît Malbranque est le directeur des éditions de l'Institut Coppet. Il est l'auteur de plusieurs livres, dont le dernier : Vincent de Gournay et l'économie politique du laissez-faire (2016)

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