Question of the Limits of State Action and Individual Action
Discussed at the Society of Political Economy (1849)

[possible author: Joseph Garnier, editor of the Journal des Économistes]

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

LSA.1 M. [Horace] Say, who presided, proposed turning the conversation to a very delicate subject (one which had already been abandoned in a previous session through a digression on the topic of assistance), on the question of what the limits are of the functions of the State and of individual action; whether these limits have been well drawn, marked, and whether there is a way to make them more precise. Unfortunately, since M. Say remarked that this subject had been suggested to him by reading the work which M. Molinari had just published (Soirées on [the Rue] Saint-Lazare, dialogues on various principles of social economy), no more than this was needed to ensure that the principal question was once more approached in a very timid manner, and that the discussion was diverted to various other topics covered by M. de Molinari, and notably to the principle of expropriation for public utility [Note: i.e., eminent domain. – RTL], which this writer has combated in the most absolute manner. Nevertheless, the conversation was both very lively and very instructive. Messieurs Coquelin, Bastiat, de Parieu, Wolowski, Dunoyer, Sainte-Beuve, representative of the Oise [Note: not the famous literary critic Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve, but the politician Henri Sainte-Beuve (1819-1855). – RTL] (who was attending the gathering for the first time, along with M. Lopès-Dubec, representative of the Gironde), Rodet, and Raudot, of Saône-et-Loire, successively asked to speak.
LSA.2 M. Coquelin, having taken as his starting point in the discussion the opinion of M. de Molinari (who thinks that, in the future, it will be possible for competition to arise among insurance companies that will be able to guarantee security to citizens who are their customers), remarked that Mr. Molinari had failed to notice that without a supreme authority, justice would have no sanction, and that competition – which is the only remedy against fraud and violence, and which alone is capable of causing the nature of things to triumph in relations among men – could not exist without this supreme authority, without the State. Within the state, competition is possible and fruitful; outside the State, it is impossible to put it into practice or even to conceive of it. M. Bastiat spoke along the same lines as M. Coquelin; he believes that the functions of the State must be confined to the guarantee of justice and security; but since this guarantee does not exist except by force, and since force can only be the attribute of a supreme power, he can make no sense of a society with a similar power assigned to bodies equal amongst themselves, and which would not have a higher point of support. [Note: for a fuller elaboration of these objections, see Coquelin’s review of Molinari’s Soirées. – RTL] M. Bastiat then considered whether an extremely lucid, clear, and plain statement of this idea, that the State should have no other function than the guarantee of security, might not be a useful and effective propaganda in the face of the socialism that manifests itself everywhere, even in the minds of those who seek to combat it. [Note: Bastiat had already done this in his 1848 essay The State, and would do so again in his 1850 essay The Law. David Hart interprets Bastiat as saying, not that a clear statement of minarchism would be good propaganda against the socialists, but rather that a clear statement of Molinari’s anarchist position would be good propaganda by the socialists. But Bastiat says he is discussing the view that “the State should have no other function than the guarantee of security”; that is Bastiat’s own view, and does not obviously entail anarchism. – RTL]
LSA.3 M. de Parieu, following M. de Molinari in the discussion of a very distant ideal, thinks that the issue raised by the latter is that of the conflict between liberty and nationality. But it is not impossible that these two principles should be reconciled quite naturally. Already Switzerland offers examples of populations who separate themselves from their former cantons in order to found independent States. They are decentralising themselves in a certain respect; but they remain united in the connection of nationality. M. Rodet likewise cited analogous examples presented by the history of developments in the American Union.
LSA.4 M. Wolowski ventured the opinion that the civilisation of people involves the coexistence of two principles proceeding in parallel: the principle of the liberty of the individual, and the principle of the social state, which should not be ignored, and which is endowed with life of its own. The honorable representative does not think the future belongs to the splitting up of nations; he believes on the contrary in their expansion by means of successive annexations.
LSA.5 M. Dunoyer, like M. Coquelin and M. Bastiat, thinks that M. de Molinari has allowed himself to be led astray by the illusions of logic, and that competition among governmental companies is chimerical, because it leads to violent conflicts. Now these conflicts can be resolved only by force, and it is more prudent to leave this force where civilisation has placed it – in the State. All the same, M. Dunoyer believes that competition is in fact introduced into government through the operation of representative institutions. In France, for example, all the parties are in true competition with one another, and each of them offers its services to the public, which quite genuinely chooses each times it casts its ballots. M. Dunoyer also wished to say that if M. de Molinari was too absolute in prohibiting every type of expropriation for public utility, people have been, in recent times, too inclined to violate property; he cited tendencies in government prior to February 1848, as well as the doctrines expressed in the bosom of the Constituent Assembly, with the support, so to speak, of the majority. M. Sainte-Beuve and M. Bastiat did not accept the accusation directed against the majority of the assembly to which they had belonged. All the same, if in fact the Constituent Assembly made no determination along the lines spoken of by M. Dunoyer, there is every reason to believe that it was not owing to a perfectly sound judgment of the majority, that it was not for any economic reason, but rather through a spirit of political reaction against the extreme left, dominated by socialism, that it acted in this way.
LSA.6 M. Raudot, who spoke last, shared the opinion of M. Wolowki on the probability in favour of the formation of larger and larger States in the future; but he thinks that this concentration would lead peoples to the greatest tyranny and the greatest poverty, if the State continued to seek to absorb everything and to leave municipalities under a tutelage which enervates the life of the towns and leads to socialism, of which we are beginning to understand the dangers.
LSA.7 As may be seen, the original question indicated by M. Say was not specifically addressed, but several members of the gathering have promised to return to it.

Journal des Économistes, vol. 24, no. 103 (15 October 1849), pp. 314-316.

Back to online library