Review (1864) of Gustave de Molinari’s
Course of Political Economy (1855)

by John Emerich Edward Dalberg, Lord Acton (1834-1902)

[Under review: Cours d’économie politique, Gustave de Molinari, 1855.]

GM-CPE.1 M. de Molinari is the director of the Economiste Beige, an organ of the school of Adam Smith, Bastiat, and Cobden; and he is also one of the most sensible advocates of the déclassement and reconstruction of the two parties which, under the name of Catholic and Liberal, distract the politics of Belgium. He has experienced the oppression of the so-called Liberals; expelled from a professorship at the Athenée Royal of Paris by the revolution of 1848, he returned to his own country, and finished his course of political economy at the Musée d’Industrie of Brussels, where, we believe, he has not been altogether well treated by the Liberal ministry. This gives a personal significance to his protest against the nomenclature of the two parties, which falsely implies that the one comprises all that is religious, and the other all that loves liberty, in Belgium. One who has experienced the tyranny of the partisans of centralisation and universal administration says, with no less feeling than truth, “Whether despotism is exercised in virtue of the principles of 1789, or in virtue of the absolute principles of divine right, it is no less despotism.”
GM-CPE.2 M. de Molinari’s course of political economy is distinguished from others by the prominence he gives to a law destined, as he believes, to be the refutation of the socialist school of universal administration. “I have attempted to demonstrate,” he says, “that the world of the economist, in which socialism can find no regulative principle, is governed by a law of equilibrium which tends incessantly and irresistibly to maintain a necessary proportion between the different branches and the different agents of production. I have endeavoured to show that under the influence of this law order establishes itself spontaneously in the economical world, as it does in the physical world by the law of gravitation.” The only things which prevent this law attaining its full development are – 1. The uncertainty of the seasons; 2. The insufficient knowledge of the state of the markets; and, 3. Monopolies. Now it is clear that the administrative systems proposed by the socialists could not rectify the first obstacle, would be a most clumsy machinery for rectifying the second, and would rather increase than diminish the third. There is therefore no ground for the pretence that in order to maintain equilibrium between production and demand, we must employ the foresight of an army of administrators and surveyors, whose duty it should be to prescribe what every produce should provide, and consequently how much each consumer should enjoy. Inhabitants of our metropolis see every morning an ample but not excessive provision made for its 3,000,000 inhabitants, and this without any previous direction or settled plan; the utmost order and regularity result from the natural economic law of the supply and demand finding their equilibrium spontaneously; whereas we might look for a chaos tenfold more chaotic than that of Balaclava, if the problem were left to the arrangement of administrators or directors of social labour and consumption.
GM-CPE.3 In common with all who undertake to write a course of any special science. M. de Molinari has been obliged to seek his proper place in the circle of philosophy, and to attach himself, by proper transitions, to the proximate sciences. In this he has failed from want of any general philosophical culture. He has no idea of the metaphysics of political economy. Man, he says, in the eyes of the economist, is a being with material, moral, and intellectual needs; his body requires food, clothing, shelter, and protection; his mind is athirst for knowledge; it wants to be ever receiving new impressions; his sentiment requires the pabulum of love, of beauty, and of religion. And this world, the world of the economist, is sufficient to supply all these wants. “Le globe que nous habitons, l’immensityé dont nous avons la perspective, la société au sein de laquelle nous vivons, renferment tous les éléments necessaires à la satisfaction de nos appétits materiels, intellectuels et moraux.” [Translation: “The globe which we inhabit, the vast expanse which presents itself to our view, the society in whose bosom we reside, contain all the elements necessary for the satisfaction of our material, intellectual, and moral appetites.” – RTL] But the material wants come first; and by the time the economist has done with them, his course is finished, and he has nothing left to say on the satisfaction of our intellectual and moral wants. Thus he gives occasion to his enemies to say that with him our animal wants are all in all. There is more reason to accuse him of forgetting the truth that body and soul are distinguished chiefly in this, that while the body has only wants for us to supply, the soul has duties to fulfil; and that these duties are so harmonised with our wants, that the faithful performance of the one ensures the supply of the other. The moral foundation of political economy is not the satisfaction of appetites, but the fulfilment of duties. Labour, patience, justice, peace, and self-denial are the mainsprings of economical production, and the metaphysical basis of the science is not in a philosophy which reduces religion and learning to a mere satisfaction of an appetite, like eating or drinking, but in the verification of the promise, “Seek ye first the kingdom of God and His justice, and all these things” – “the necessaries of life – “shall be added unto you.”

The Home and Foreign Review, vol. IV (January 1864), pp. 313-315.

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