Review of Gustave de Molinari’s Soirées (1849)

by Charles Coquelin (1802-1852)

Click here for the French version
Cliquez ici pour la version française

Soirées on the Rue Saint-Lazare. Conversations on Economic Laws and Defense of Property, by M. G. de Molinari. One large volume in-18, 3 fr. 50 c. Guillaumin & Co.

GM-RSL.1 Of the two titles that this book bears, neither seems to us to indicate with sufficient clarity the goal that the author has set himself. What, to start with, are these Soirées on the Rue Saint-Lazare? This title leads us to expect a series of conversations, but without telling us what their aim will be. As for the second title, it has the serious drawback of letting us suppose what would be far from accurate, that one can expect to find here only a sort of doublet of M. Thiers’s all too well-known work on property. In order to judge otherwise on this matter, one must know to begin with that his time one has to do with a genuine economist, determined to defend the principle of property not only against those assaults with which socialism threatens it tomorrow, but against those already so numerous assaults to which it is subjected by the present-day regime – assaults in which M. Thiers himself has so often been complicit.
GM-RSL.2 Happily, if the ideas in this book are poorly indicated by the title, they are very clearly explained in the preface.
GM-RSL.3 “Agreeing with all the economists,” says the author, “in recognising property as the foundation of the natural organisation of society, I inquired whether the evil denounced by socialists – an evil that nobody could deny except through blindness or bad faith – I inquired whether or not this evil arises from property.
GM-RSL.4 “The result of my studies and inquiries has been that the ills of society, far from having their origin in the principle of property, derive on the contrary from the assaults that have been made, directly or indirectly, upon that principle.
GM-RSL.5 “Whence I conclude that the improvement of the lot of the labouring classes resides in the pure and simple emancipation of property.”
GM-RSL.6 It is above all in these last words that the book’s true idea shines forth. The project is no longer, as it was in the work of M. Thiers, one of purely and simply defending the existing order, with all its abuses and all its vices, but rather one of reforming it in accordance with sound doctrines. The aim is no longer solely to preserve the right of property from new assaults, while leaving in place all the other laws that violate or infringe it; the aim is rather to emancipate it by redressing the errors or inequities of the laws. That is to say, the author undertakes to defend property simultaneously against the socialists who seek to destroy it, and against the conservatives who defend it badly, because they unwittingly violate it themselves, each one more than the next.
GM-RSL.7 Such is the aim that M. Molinari has proposed for himself, and which he pursues in a series of conversations, to which he has given, for reasons none too clear, the name of Soirées. [Note: for a likely explanation of the title, see this post. – RTL]
GM-RSL.8 These conversations naturally feature three interlocutors, representing the three principles placed in conjunction: a Conservative, a Socialist, and an Economist. It is perhaps to be regretted that the author chose not to introduce a greater number of characters, which would have enabled him not only to bring greter animation to the scene and greater variety to the dilogue, but also to show us the socialist position and the conservative position in their different aspects; while by giving each of these positions only one representative, he found himself limited to presenting each of these positions in their highest generality only, that is to say in the abstract.
GM-RSL.9 If we wished to quibble about the form, we would say that M. de Molinari should perhaps have tossed into these conversations a few incidents, a few plot twists, so as to give them a more dramatic turn and justify a bit more the first title of the work. As they stand, these conversations are too even, too smoothly flowing, too methodical to really merit the name of Soirées. The hand that moves the characters, the wire that guides them, are too perceptible; the goal toward which the dialogue move is too clearly outlined and anticipated. But we do not insist on this defect in form – especially since the author, through the lively wit of the dialogue, the incisive turn of the repartees, as well as the variety of subjects he covers, has found a way to avoid the principal pitfalls of which he needed to beware: uniformity and boredom.
GM-RSL.10 What interests us above all in this work is not the form but the substance.
GM-RSL.11 On this point, a different and more serious criticism has been raised against M. de Molinari – a criticism in which, however, we cannot join. It has been alleged that he has not faithfully reproduced the doctrines he seeks to combat. Let’s consider this.
GM-RSL.12 That the author has not reproduced socialism as Messieurs So-and-So or Such-and-Such conceive, we freely admit; that he has likewise not represented it under the infinitude of its aspects, we further concede, and we have given the reason. How, indeed, may one depict precisely, and in determinate form, this elusive Proteus that transforms itself with each new day? It is certain, at least, that M. de Molinari has been reasonably faithful in attributing, to the socialist whom he has brought on stage, those views generally accepted among his party; that is to say, the critique of the present regime, the diatribes against property, against competition, against industrial liberty. He was pretty much prevented from doing any better than that, from the moment he assigned to that position only a single mouthpiece.
GM-RSL.13 As regards the treatment of the conservative party, that’s a different matter. Here the criticism strikes us as entirely without foundation. Despite its internal disagreements, engendered by the clash of ambitions or the opposition of interests, the conservative party is one. If within that party there is not as much unity of thought as it desires or feigns to maintain, there is at least a unity of aim, in that it remains imperturbably attached to that which is. One always knows where to find it. There’s nothing easier to depict, after all, than a party openly professing immobility, and remaining effectively immobile for the past thirty years. The portrait that M. de Molinari has drawn of it is also faithful, whatever may be said of it. The complaint has been raised, however, that he has attributed to this party antediluvian opinions. Antediluvian, to be sure; but these are no less the opinions which the entire party professes. It does more than profess them: it practices them. Is it the author’s fault if there are to be found, here and there among the conservatives, a few men less blind who blush when they find placed before their eyes a faithful reproduction of those deplorable prejudices, those antilogical doctrines, to which they unreflectively attach themselves.
GM-RSL.14 What is perhaps true is that the conservative and the socialist do not sufficiently maintain, in this work, the character of obstinacy appropriate to them. The author portrays them to us as too ready to be convinced. Men of their party will say that they do not make use of all ther weapons; we for our part would say that they are not sufficiently obstinate in their errors. They listen too meekly to the good arguments presented to them; they balk too little against the truth that presses upon them; they too willingly sacrifice their prejudices upon the altar of reason. Toward the end of the book, we find them nearly convinced. That is a genuine failure of fidelity, but to whom should complaints about this be addressed? In order to be entirely accurate, it would have been necessary to show them as being, to the end, rebels against all demonstration, closing their eyes to all evidence, irremediably obstinate in their errors, and finally going to their graves impenitent to the end. Certainly there are, on the margins of the conservative and of the socialist party, a great many men who will turn convert one day when the light shall have finally broken through to them; but the pureblood conservative, the pureblood socialist (and it is these that M. de Molinari needed to use as types) would never turn convert.
GM-RSL.15 The plan adopted by the author is at the same time very simple and very straightforward; such, indeed, as is indicated by the very nature of the subject. In his first chapter, or, if one prefers, in the first soirée, he seeks to state the social problem in its true terms. He establishes that society is governed by immutable laws which may not be violated with impunity; that the first of these laws, the one from which all the others derive, is respect for property, the basis of the natural organisation of society. He defines property, identifying labour as its origin. Then he lists the many assaults currently being made on this principle. In the chapters that follow, he reviews in succession the assaults on property he had previously enumerated, and seeks to trace out the unfortunate conseqences resulting therefrom. It goes without saying that along the way he refutes, to the extent that they obstruct his path, the opposing doctrines of the two adversaries he has given himself.
GM-RSL.16 The entire first section of M. de Molinari’s book, that is to say the first soirée, which he devotes to the exposition of general principles, seems to us excellent and virtually without flaw. It is impossible to state the social problem in better terms, or to press his adversaries more successfully to the finish. The argumentation is always presented, to be sure, in a light and lively form; but this lightness of form takes nothing from the force and weight of the substance – far from it! One may judge this from the following passage:
GM-RSL.17 After having shown the conservative that by rejecting principles, by not recognising any laws for society beyond the expediency of the moment and the arbitrary will of men, his party has disarmed itself against socialism, and that all that remains for it is to await the hour when the latter shall overrun society, he turns suddenly toward the Socialist, who enters the scene with the following exclamation:
GM-RSL.18 “So you acknowledge that the future lies with us?
GM-RSL.19 “— God forbid! But I think your adversaries are wrong to resist you if they despair of defeating you, and I believe that in renouncing all attachment to fixed and immutable principles they have lost any assurance of victory. The conservatives are powerless to conserve society – that is all that I have sought to prove. Now to you and the rest of the organisers I will say that you will be powerless to organise it. You can take Byzantium and put it to the sack; you would not be able to govern it.
GM-RSL.20 “— That’s how much you know! Don’t we have organisations by the dozens?
GM-RSL.21 “— You have just put your finger on the sore. Would you be so good as to tell me to which socialist sect you belong? Are you a Saint-Simonian?
GM-RSL.22 “— No, Saint-Simonianism is outdated. It was from the start more an aspiration than a formula – and its disciples have spoiled the aspiration without finding the formula.
GM-RSL.23 “— Phalansterian?
GM-RSL.24 “— It’s tempting, but the morals of Fourierism are rather scandalous.
GM-RSL.25 “— Cabetist?
GM-RSL.26 “— Cabet has a clever mind, but not a well-rounded one. He understands nothing about matters of art, for example. If you can believe it, in his “Icaria” they paint their statues. The waxworks of Curtius – that’s the Ideal of Icarian art. What a barbarian!
GM-RSL.27 “— Proudhonian?
GM-RSL.28 “— Proudhon – ah, what a marvelous destroyer! How well he demolishes! But so far all he’s managed to establish is his bank of exchange. And that is not enough.
GM-RSL.29 “— Not a Saint-Simonian, not a Fourierist, not a Cabetist, not a Proudhonian. Well, what are you then?
GM-RSL.30 “— I am a socialist.
GM-RSL.31 “— But once again, to what variety of socialism do you subscribe?
GM-RSL.32 “— To my own. I am convinced that the great problem of the organisation of labour has not yet been resolved. Ground has been cleared, foundations have been laid, but the structure has not yet been raised. Why shouldn’t I seek to build it as much as any other? Am I not animated by a pure love of Humanity? Haven’t I studied Science and meditated at length upon the problem? And I believe I can assert that ... no, not yet! There are certain points which are not yet completely cleared up (tapping his forehead), but the idea is there – and you will see later on.
GM-RSL.33 “— In other words, you too are seeking your own organisation of labour. You are an independent socialist. You have your own particular Bible. And after all, why not? Why shouldn’t you receive the spirit of the Lord as well as anybody else? Then again, why shouldn’t others receive it as well as you? How the organisations of labour do multiply!
GM-RSL.34 “— So much the better: the people will have an opportunity to choose.
GM-RSL.35 “— Right, by majority vote. But what will the minority do?
GM-RSL.36 “— They will submit.
GM-RSL.37 “— And if they resist? But I acknowledge that they will submit, voluntarily or otherwise. I acknowledge that the organisation adopted by majority vote will be put in force. But what will happen if somebody – you, I, someone else – discovers a superior organisation?”
GM-RSL.38 We will not push this quote further. It suffices to give an idea of the author’s lively and witty manner, and yet at the same time of the force of argumentation that hides beneath this apparent levity. It strikes us as difficult, indeed, to do a better job of pushing his opponent to the finish. One can foresee, indeed, where this reasoning is leading. It leads to the recognition that, humanity being essentially perfectible, the first organisation hit upon would not be perfect; that the next day another, better one might be discovered: and the next, another better still; so that it would be necessary each new day to subject this poor world to far graver social revolutions than all the political revolutions we have witnessed. This leads the conservative to cry out in horror: What a frightful mess! A mess indeed, and that even according to the hypothesis most favourable to the socialists, the entirely gratuitous hypothesis that they might one day agree on something capable of being implemented, on some organisation not devoid of common sense. Hence we must conclude that even if Providence had not endowed the world with a natural organisation, based on immutable foundations, it would still be necessary to refrain from imposing an artificial organisation on society, for fear of delivering it into eternal strife.
GM-RSL.39 Happily, this natural organization exists, far superior to anything that vain utopians could imagine, perfect in its essence, immutable in its laws, though at the same time subject to development without cessation, and perfectible to infinity. Human laws, to the extent that they violate property or right, admittedly throw some parts of this admirable organism into difficulties, and from this arise most of our miseries: but after everything, the foundation remains, and it is this unalterable foundation that allows humanity to proceed once more, as best it can, without breaking on the rocks. What would become of us, great God! if it were otherwise? But if this natural organisation exists, placed by the hand of Providence on immortal foundations, must we not (here the author is speaking) pity the pride-swollen pygmy who would try to substitute his work for that of the Creator?
GM-RSL.40 All this is unanswerable. This would be enough to reduce to confusion the principle of socialism, that recklessly arrogant principle which at its foundation conceals only anarchy or nothingness. But the author does not stop there. Further on, he pursues this principle as far as its consequences, and shows it to remain impotent and false. To be sure, socialism has been refuted many times since the February Revolution; it has never been so, we believe, in a more successful and complete manner.
GM-RSL.41 But it is not socialism alone that he is concerned to combat, it is the blindly conservative position as well. To tell the truth, this is even, by our lights, the most important part of the task that M. Molinari has set himself; for if should ever become possible to enlighten the conservative party, to dispel its blind prejudices, to render wisely progressive that which is obstinately stationary today, socialism would soon cease to be a danger, and would not take long to disappear entirely. For what indeed is socialism? At bottom, it is nothing obut a protest against the unrest, disorders, and miseries of present-day society; disorders and miseries engendered by so many abuses – abuses whereof the conservative party has constituted itself the guardian. It is these disorders and miseries that, misinterpreted by feeble minds, lead them to ignore the hand of Providence in the social frame, or to blaspheme in accusing it. Remove the abuses from which these miseries arise, and socialism falls of itself, because it has lost its reason for existing. That is why, of the two refutations or two conversions which the author has undertaken, that of the conservative party seems to us the more important by far.
GM-RSL.42 In some respects, M. de Molinari has fulfilled the second part of his task as well as the first. It is impossible to better highlight the inconsistencies of this party, which rallies to defend principles when it sees them too strongly attacked, and which foresees the ultimate consequences of their violation, but which denies them again, which even violates them itself, when led to do so by its convenience or its prejudices. Unfortunately, in this portion of his demonstration, which could and should have been simple, definite, and clear in equal measure – which, to be conclusive, required appeal only to these constant principles – the author has mixed in eccentric opinions, contestable principles, whose principal fault is to complicate quite badly the intention of his work, and which not only complicate it but undermine the authority it might have had and almost completely neutralize its effect.
GM-RSL.43 It is here that, after having calculated the share of praise – a just and merited share – we must calculate the share of blame. M. de Molinari is too serious a writer for us to offer him less than than the full truth.
GM-RSL.44 To begin with, why has he attributed to his economist opinions that no economist has ever professed? Even if these opinions were correct,it would still be a serious infidelity to attribute them to a school that does not endorse them. Oh! if in this book M. de Molinari had been speaking in his own personal name, he would have been entitled to profess whatever opinion he liked. Even in that case he would have been inappropriately diverting the minds of his readers from the principal objective; but at least he would have been within his rights. But it is not in his own personal name that he speaks. Through this title of economist that he gives to his third charcater, he openly offers him as a representative of the economic school. Hence he had no right to attribute to him opinions or doctrines that have not been endorsed by one or another of the masters of this science. When we see him instead venturing opinions which he alone adopts, opinions which the entire economic school rejects, or would doubtless reject if they were submitted to it, we are permitted to cry infidelity.
GM-RSL.45 Among the eccentric opinions of which M. Molinari has made himself the promoter, we shall point out only one, so as not to overburden this review.
GM-RSL.46 Starting from this truth, to which we adhere without effort and without reservation – that competition is the soul of the industrial world, where it regulates and orders everything, never producing, on balance, other than salutary effects; that it is not merely useful but necessary, and that its empire should be extended as far as possible – the author comes to the conclusion that competition should take over even even the functions of government or the State; to the point that, for example, a day will come when the government, under the name of producer of security, will simply be an industrial concern like any other, competing with other industrial concerns of the same kind and contending for customers. On this hypothesis, the State would be nothing but a kind of insurance company, a rival to many others, and each person would, just as he pleases, freely subscribe to this one or to that one to guarantee himself against the troubles that threaten him, exactly as one would guarantee his house against fire or his ship against shipwreck.
GM-RSL.47 Look and see whether any economist at all has ever professed such a doctrine. The idea has not even occurred to them. [Note: this is somewhat overstated, as both Jean-Baptiste Say and Charles Dunoyer came very close, in some of their writings, to Molinari’s ideas. – RTL] One single time we have seen this idea set forth, in this very venue, in the Journal des Économistes, but it was M. de Molinari himself who was its promoter, and it seems to us that his voice has not found a single echo. Once more then, why place on the account of political economy an idea which is assuredly quite extraordinary idea, and which it has never accepted?
GM-RSL.48 Oh! we’re well aware how M. de Molinari might reply to us, and how he doubtless will reply. If you do not accept this idea, it means that you are not logical, that you recoil from the general principle you had taken as your starting-point. That is what needs to be shown. Perhaps by investigating carefully we shall find that it is M. de Molinari himself whose logic has gone astray, drawing false consequences from a principle badly stated. Let us indeed look into the matter a bit.
GM-RSL.49 In the course of his work the author speaks often, a bit too often perhaps, of absolute principles. Are there or are there not such absolute principles? A somewhat vague question, more difficult to solve given that the meaning of the term is not always well understood. What is certain, at least, is that in order to be entitled to draw out indefinitely all the consequences of a principle, that principle must be very clearly stated at the outset, along with all the circumstances that extend or limit it; otherwise, even with the strictest and most precise logic, one runs the risk of strange deviations; yet to state a principle straightforwardly is often quite difficult to do, and it is this in particular that M. de Molinari has not done.
GM-RSL.50 Competition is simultaneously an engine of activity and of order; it subjects everything to rule; it places each person and each thing in its place: yes, but on one condition. That is that fraud and violence be banned from banned from human transactions: otherwise, farewell to order, farewell to rule; there is no longer anything but chaos and confusion. Speak then of competition to people who hold a sword at your kidneys or a pistol at your throat. The necessary condition for competition to take place, is that the sword return to its sheath and the pistol to its holster. That, sir, is what you forget. This condition is usually not mentioned by economists; perhaps they do not even think of it, but they feel it at least, and, whether well or badly understood, it is always implicit in their writings. But you, for your part, fail to take notice of it, and this explains the strange deviation into which you have fallen. [Note: For a critique of Coquelin’s assumption that competition presupposes the framework of the state, see my “Market Anarchism As Constitutionalism.” – RTL]
GM-RSL.51 If, in order for competition to take place, it is necessary that violence be banned from transactions, it must also be assumed that there is a higher authority, ready to interpose itself between the contracting parties: otherwise the strongest party will always impose its law. With respect to transactions among individuals, this superior authority is the government, the State, hovering ceaselessly over them. It is thanks to the intervention of the State, that organised human justice, that you are able to deal freely with other individuals, even if they are much stronger than you, without having to dread their violence, and that is how competition becomes possible and good. But between individuals and the State, who is there to intervene? Nobody. Here, then, you have no guarantee against violence, against the abuse of force, and that is what makes competition, property so called, forever impossible in these sorts of transactions.
GM-RSL.52 You compare the State to an insurance company, and you imagine that you will be able to go freely looking beyond it for a guarantee of security, just as you might go looking elsewhere for a guarantee against fire or shipwreck. Follow the comparison a bit further and see:
GM-RSL.53 When you address yourself to a company that insures against fire, you simply ask for its terms. If these terms do not suit you, you go elsewhere and that’s the end of it. There’s no danger that it will seize you by force, even if it should be ten times stronger than you, because the public force is there that protects you against it. Suppose you have accepted its terms and that you subsequently have to bring a complaint concerning the manner in which it has fulfilled them; you submit your claim, and the courts, representing the State, serve as sovereign judge between it and you. You can do better than resign yourself to self-pity; you leave the company in order to address yourself to another. Nothing simpler: it will not keep you by force, because the State still defends you against the violence that the company might employ. Here, then competition brings forth its full effect, because transactions are free, thanks to this superior authority that hovers ceaselessly over the contractors.
GM-RSL.54 But as regards the State, matters are different. If you first speak with it, you as an individual, in order to discuss your terms with it, it will reply to you that it does not discuss terms, it imposes them. To whom will you appeal in order to bring this company to heel? You will leave it, you say, in order to seek insurance elsewhere. No doubt you can do this (except in certain countries), but only on condition that you leave its territory; that is to say, on condition that you leave your family, your homeland, and to carry your penates to a strange land; and even then you will only have exchanged one yoke for another. But if you remain within its territory, you can proclaim as much as you like that you repudiate its protection; it, for its part, will not repudiate the authority that it seeks to exercise over you, and you will be forced to submit to it. It holds you under its heel and will not let you go, no matter what you may say, because there is no superior authority that protects you against its pretensions. [Note: Puzzlingly, Coquelin seems to have lost track of the position he is combating. Coquelin is contrasting two situations: a) relations among individuals and/or companies under a territorial monopoly government, and b) relations between an individual and such a territorial monopoly government itself. He notes, as though this were an objection to Molinari rather than grist for Molinari’s mill, that (b) lends itself to greater abuse than (a) does because with (b) there is no possibility of appeal. But both of these cases take place in the context of territorial monopoly government; Coquelin does not even consider the case that Molinari is discussing, namely c) the absence of any territorial monopoly. For Coquelin, either one can appeal upward or one cannot appeal at all; he misses entirely the possibility of appealing sideways. – RTL]
GM-RSL.55 Hence we do not speak of competition with respect to the functions of the State. Here, all the conditions of competition are lacking, because the transactions are not free. The transactions are not free, we say, and they cannot be so. The State, in relation to individuals, means the strong against the weak – the strong and armed against the weak and unarmed – with no arbiter who can restore the balance between them. [Note: Coquelin seems not to have taken to heart the lessons of La Boétie and Hume. – RTL] Eh! is it not for precisely that reason that in every era the State has abused its power in order to disturb that natural order of things, those eternal laws of justice that it should have limited itself to maintaining? The State forces individuals to lay down their swords so that they will appeal only to justice; but it keeps its own sword out of its scabbard at all times, and that sword is heavy. In fact it has genuine need of this sword; thus it is not for this that we criticise it. But we would be fooling ourselves to imagine that one could invoke the laws of competition in relation to this armed matador. No, no; here we have a natural monopoly; a necessary monopoly because it is inevitable. As to the remedy for the abuses of this monopoly, it lies not in an impossible competition, but in constitutional guarantees and citizens’ regular involvement in public affairs.
GM-RSL.56 This could lead us to examine another paradox of M. de Molinari’s, which consists in claiming that there are no natural monopolies. But we do not wish to extend still further this already too lengthy review. Perhaps we will return another day to take up one by one the eccentric propositions with which his book abounds and which he seems to delight in propounding; for even if these propositions are false, they are always ingenious, well presented, wittily deduced, and there may be some benefit in pointing out the initial error from which they flow.
GM-RSL.57 The errors of M. de Molinari have one good aspect: they are not dangerous. They even have a useful side, in that they might force economists to dig more deeply into their science in order to uncover the hidden principle. The misfortune is that they disfigure his book, by throwing in the false alongside the true in a most regrettable manner. Frankly, if M. de Molinari had new propositions to bring to light, be they true or false, he should not have produced them here, because they are out of place. In a book intended to combat the prejudices of the conservatives and the illusions of the socialists by setting up economic truth against them, he should have expressed only those principles that are easy to accept. Within these limits, as he himself has shown, his fund was still rich enough that he would have had nothing to regret. By mixing in, inappropriately, principles that are at the very least contestable, we fear that he has weakened and undermined the whole, and seriously compromised the useful result at which he had aimed.
GM-RSL.58 Nevertheless this book merits reading, being one of the best, after all, that our social crisis has inspired.

Journal des Économistes, vol. 24, no. 104 (15 November 1849), pp. 364-372.

Back to online library