Review (1896) of Gustave de Molinari’s
How the Social Question Is to Be Solved (1896)

by Francis Charles Montague (1858-1935)

Comment se résoudra la Question Sociale. Par G. DE MOLINARI. (Paris: Guillaumin et Cie. 1896.)

GM-SQR.1 It is the object of M. de Molinari’s essay to show that free competition, so far from being the cause of the evils of the present time, is in reality the only power which can cure them. Competition, he argues, has not been devised by man and cannot be abolished by man. The satisfaction of desire involves effort and effort involves the exhaustion of vital force. Man inevitably seeks to economise the expenditure of force, to get the largest return for a given quantity of exertion, and this instinct is a mainspring of improvement. The bounty of nature is limited, whilst its creatures are capable of unlimited increase. Hence the competition among those creatures, but pre-eminently amongst men. Human competition takes successively three forms. In the lowest form it is an animal conflict for bare existence. The stronger destroy the weaker, either in order to eat them, or in order to eat what they would otherwise have eaten. But this form of competition lasts only so long as productive industry is unknown, and the race subsists on the spontaneous gifts of nature. When agriculture commences and wealth accumulates, competition enters on it second stage. The stronger conquer the weaker in order to appropriate their hoarded wealth and to utilise them in the business of production. the vanquished enemy is not slain, but is reduced to slavery. The inherent defects of slave labour lead first to the modification and then to the suppression of slavery. With the disappearance of slavery competition assumes its third form. In this final form it produces inequality, but not necessarily either death or servitude. It compels the producer to produce as much as possible that he may have more to give in exchange for the satisfaction of his wants, and therefore to carry the economy of vital force to the utmost possible point. Accumulation is thus quickened, and, as capital grows more plentiful, the return to capital diminishes. But with the progress of invention higher faculties are required in the labourer. he needs a more elaborate training, he becomes a more expensive article, he can obtain a more liberal reward. If competition is allowed to work itself out, it results in higher wages with an augmented purchasing power. In this way it tends to the ultimate suppression of poverty and to the general well-being of mankind.
GM-SQR.2 Why then, an objector will say, is the world still so full of unhappiness? M. de Molinari would reply, Partly because of the violent disturbance consequent on passing out of the intermediate form of human competition, out of mediæval into modern society; partly because of the ideas and institutions derived from an earlier period which still hamper competition, and partly because moral development has lagged behind industrial development, because man’s power of production has outstripped his power of self-government. The revolution at the end of the last century, though needful, was violent and to some extent premature. Although originating in a principle of fraternity, it led to struggles which rekindled the warlike passions of our race, and so to the enormous military preparations which exhaust the wealth of modern communities. Nations, though unwilling to fight, dare not lay down their arms. For this wasting disease the only effectual remedy is a league of neutrals to secure that each state shall have its rights and no more than its rights. Again, modern governments have adopted all the claims of arbitrary and unlimited dominion over ‘the subject’ made by the old monarchies of right divine. As the public service has some obvious attractions beyond other callings, the revolution which opened the public service to men of all classes has create a demand for places unknown to former ages. Every political party bids for popular support by making proposals which will augment the number of places to be filled. Fresh functions are incessantly assumed by governments, and, since a government can fill up every deficit by fresh taxes or fresh loans, its enterprises are no conducted in strict commercial principles. Many of them result in a clear loss. The taxation imposed is often of such a kind as to secure monopolies to certain classes of producers, and so double the burthens of all the rest of the people. The only check upon extravagance and inefficiency in governments is to acknowledge a right of secession. Lastly, the fact that moral and intellectual development has lagged behind industrial development accounts for the little benefit which the public have as yet derived from their increased command over nature or their predominant power in politics. Retarded development can best be quickened by the pressure of competition, and attempts to save men from the consequences of their failings will only make those failings more incorrigible.
GM-SQR.3 Such, very briefly ad imperfectly stated, is the argument of M. de Molinari. The greater the number of books on ‘the social question’ which we read the more we feel that, whilst every side has a good deal to say for itself, no side is likely to convince the other. A socialist might assent to much of the argument in the book before us, and go on to infer from the progressive mitigation of the competitive struggle that competition will be still further limited and will finally disappear. A student of history might be disposed to qualify M. de Molinari’s statement that war becomes more and more unproductive as civilisation advances. Its gains are more indirect, but are they less? Who can compute the accession of wealth which England has derived from her success in the struggle with France for colonial supremacy? Nor, again, is the desire of wealth the only motive for war. Many other motives, some higher, some lower, impel nations into conflict. A practical politician will have serious doubts about the feasibility of a league of neutrals. What makes possible the enforcement of an impartial award upon private litigants is the circumstance that there are millions of men in the same community who care nothing about the result of a particular lawsuit, and want only to uphold justice. But where nations contend it is very different. There are only a few bystanders, and scarcely one of them is impartial. Can anybody imagine a league of neutrals to protect England in the peaceable enjoyment of her boundless possessions? We are much more likely to see a League of Cambrai to relieve her of their weight. Then how about the right to secession? Scattered individuals could not exercise it at all. Small districts could not exercise it without setting up petty governments which would be more expensive than the old central government. Besides, a nation is not a joint stock company. The parts of a nation are not held together by the reflection that the government is worth what it costs, and will not fly asunder because the government is corrupt and wasteful. That modern governments, especially in France, frequently undertake what they had better let alone is true. But many persons who are not socialists will demur to M. de Molinari’s view that art, science, and learning will flourish all the more if not assisted by government. Compare art in the United states with art in France, or learning in the United Kingdom with learning in Germany. What everybody earnestly desires, and what everybody can test for himself, will be supplied in the best possible way by free competition. We would rather obtain our food and clothing from the private trader than from the government. But it is different with things which are often most wanted by those who feel the want least and with things which can be tested only by experts. In short, the controversy between freedom and protection, between state action and individual enterprise, is in its nature interminable. We should agree with many of M. de Molinari’s structures on the present tendency of European politics, and yet we do not feel convinced that the simple remedy of unlimited competition would be effectual.


Economic Journal 6, no. 22 (June 1896), pp. 254-257.

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