Review (1912) of Gustave de Molinari’s
Ultima Verba (1911)

by Langford Lovell Price (1862-1950)

Ultima Verba: mon dernier Ouvrage. Par G. de Molinari. xvii + 336 pp., crown 8vo. Paris: V. Giard et E. Brière, 1911. Price 4 francs.

GM-UV.1 The preface of this volume might disarm even an unfriendly critic. In the opening sentences we are told that the author has now reached his ninety-second year, and that this final product of his active pen is concerned with the self-same subjects as those to the strenuous advocacy of which the whole of his long previous life has been consistently devoted. And yet these “fundamental” notions of freedom of exchange, and of peaceful intercourse, which have thus formed throughout this remarkable career the cherished ideals of so eloquent and industrious, so venerable and reputed, an economist as M. de Molinari, are, he confesses, at the present moment everywhere on the decline in influence and favour, while in the middle of the century just passed they were fated, so it seemed, to dominate thenceforward the entire civilised world. sixty-five years of continuous contribution to economic literature, and the full, impressive list (prefixed to this last work) of a variety of writings comprising nearly forty separate publications, furnish a title to reverential admiration which has been amply earned. It would not be easy, and it would certainly be ungracious, to dispute this substantial claim to respect even were we so inclined; and the very last charge at any rate which could be successfully advanced against the doyen of French economic teachers would be that of vacillating inconsistency.
GM-UV.2 Nor, we may add, does the present declaration of his faith reveal in truth any lack of pristine vigour in the candid statement, or any failure of the most admirable transparent clearness in the positive exposition of inveterate convictions. A youthful writer might justly envy the élan of this nonagenerian. Some amount of prolixity or repetition it would not have been easy, or perhaps possible, in the circumstances to avoid; and a rapid glance at the titles of the successive chapters given in the Table of Contents might probably excite a suspicion of discursiveness which would not be removed by the intimate consultation of the actual text. Yet the connecting thread that binds together these several essays is soon discovered. It is found in the prominent articles of the clear, definite, and compact economic faith adopted by the distinguished author in his youth and preserved in substance unimpaired to the advanced old age to which he has now attained. We are tolerably sure that M. de Molinari would not solicit, and we are certain that he does not need, any compassionate indulgence from a charitable reviewer. He is still as doughty a controversial combatant as he ever was. His zeal for the fray is unabated and he is able to give as good an account of himself as any of those opponents whom he does not spare.
GM-UV.3 What then are the cardinal tenets of the creed of this outspoken representative of French economic orthodoxy? They are all, we think, to be found expressed in plain emphatic language in this final exposition of his life-long views. To an unreserved belief in the healing virtues of free competition, which is, in his opinion, alone “natural,” he joins a deep-rooted distrust of the noxious or erring “artificial” “interference” of the State. Protection is accordingly, in his judgment, as fallacious and as harmful as is Socialism, whichever one of the protean forms taken by the latter be adopted. State-Socialism, as it is sometimes called, is no less definitely reprobated than the anarchism with which contemporary Syndicalism is virtually identical. The “war of tariffs” again is but a variety – springing from the same mistaken, if unfortunately popular, ideas, and prompted and favoured by the same narrow, prejudiced, and selfish class of feelings and interests – of the military or naval strife known especially as war. Trade Unions, similarly, belong in essence to the identical broad class which comprises Trusts; for both forms of combination stand in detrimental contrast to the wholesome principle of laissez-faire. Primitive savagery was marked, so M. de Molinari points out with justice, by the prominence of robbery, for which exchange was gradually but generally substituted as civilisation made its way; and in effect, our author holds, all those departures from peaceful exchange, by which the existing practice of economic intercourse and the present methods of business and of politics are characterised, are modern forms of robbery. Taxation itself, at any rate in many of its later shapes, is in serious danger of being included in this opprobrious category.
GM-UV.4 M. de Molinari belongs, in short, as readers of this Journal will not improbably have been aware, to the strait school of individualism which has been for many years dominant in France in influential economic circles. Critics who might regard his attitude as out-of-date – he himself admits as much with characteristic candour – will yet find not a little to admire, or even to approve, in the robust unyielding steadfastness with which his standpoint is maintained. If they did not unreservedly appreciate the courageous and engaging frankness with which such inveterate convictions are expressed, they would nevertheless be attracted by the compelling ease and impressive sense of mastery with which the burden of so many years of life is lightly borne. In one respect indeed – in his emphasis on the contention that modern warfare does not pay – this veteran author is curiously in agreement with the novel gospel recently advanced by Mr. Norman Angell in this country; while the general argument in favour of liberty so strongly held and so eloquently reasoned in this book can scarcely be pronounced as yet to be so old-fashioned as not to be worth stating once again. In M. de Molinari’s hands, at any rate, it lacks no charm of effective literary presentation. Its strong points are duly emphasised, if its deficiencies are voluntarily hidden or its gaps unconsciously ignored. And yet, in conclusion it should be remarked, this ardent believer is not unaware of some awkward facts of actual life with which his faith has perforce been brought into damaging collision. He is uncomfortably sensible of disquieting immediate failure; and he is not very sanguine of future recognition by a perverse generation of mankind.

Journal of the Royal Statistical Society 75, no. 2 (January 1912), pp. 263-265.

Back to online library