Review (1900) of Edmond Villey’s
The Economic Opus of Charles Dunoyer (1899)

by Lawrence Phillips

L’ŒUVRE ÉCONOMIQUE DE CHARLES DUNOYER. Par EDMOND VILLEY. [338 pp. 8vo. 7 fr. 50 c. Larose. Paris, 1899.]

EV-CD.1 Dunoyer represented the reaction from the first spring-tide of Socialism. He was a stalwart Individualist, and really believed in liberty – “liberté complète, absolue, laissée à l’homme, sauf repression en cas d’abus, voilà toute la politique sociale de Dunoyer.” [Online editor’s note: “complete, absolute liberty allowed to man, apart from repression in the event of abuse, this is Dunoyer’s entire social policy.” – RTL] Or again, as his amiable critic, M. Edmond Villey, [Online editor’s note: French economist Edmond-Louis Villey-Desmeserets (1848-1924). – RTL] says, “Il veut que la police judiciaire remplace absolument la police administrative; sa théorie est, à la lettre, celle qu’on a qualifiée de ‘nihilisme administratif.’” [Online editor’s note: “He wants judicial supervision to replace administrative supervision absolutely; his theory is, to the letter, what has been characterised as ‘administrative nihilism.’” The reference is to T. H. Huxley’s 1871 description of Herbert Spencer’s position; see Spencer’s reply. – RTL] It is an ideal from which we have drifted a long way now, compared to which it is true that “we are all Socialists.” Dunoyer would not even allow such things as the control of the labour of women and children in mines, though he would have the State punish those who employed them injuriously. Similarly, he is opposed to the roads being taken over by the State. “Why,” he asks, “should not the users of them pay for them?” Such a man has, no doubt, a great deal to remind us of, and it is therefore a fair ground of complaint against M. Villey that he does not give us enough of Dunoyer in his desire to correct Dunoyer’s errors. M. Villey is a thoroughly lively writer, as a Frenchman only knows how to be, but he has the defect of his quality in introducing the personal opinion as too large a part of his criticism. It is not of so much interest to the world to know what M. Villey, or even Dunoyer, think, but why they think it.
EV-CD.2 Of the book, possibly on account of the reader’s infirmity, the earlier part seems distinctly the best. Dunoyer had a remarkably large idea of the scope of political economy, coming back almost to the old Aristotelian conception of it. The consequence is that in the earlier part we get some most interesting chapters on anthropology, physiology, and other subjects. Dunoyer had written his book with the title La Liberté du Travail, and he defines liberty thus: “Ce que j’appelle Liberté dans ce livre, c’est le pouvoir que l’homme acquiert d’user de ses forces plus facilement à mesure qu’il s’affranchit des obstacles qui en gênaient originairement l’exercice.” [Online editor’s note: “What I call Liberty in this book is the power that man acquires of employing his forces more easily in proportion as he frees himself from the obstacles that originally constrained their exercise.” – RTL] He sets aside, surely quite rightly, the question of free will as irrelevant and belonging to metaphysics. But this M. Villey will not suffer, apparently because he confuses Determinism with Fatalism. The consequence is that metaphysics has to be added to Dunoyer’s already long list of sciences subordinate to political economy. But it is all such pleasant and easy reading that the student has not much to complain of.
EV-CD.3 This treatise on Liberty, then, with such a definition of the word, becomes, in fact, an inquiry into the evolution of man from the savage to the civilized Parisian. We get some interesting chapters on savage life, and of that patriarchal society which Le Play, as he observed it on the steppes which border the mountains of the Altaï, thought the highest type of human existence with which his great experience had acquainted him. There follows a very stimulating account of how the guild system arose out of the decay of slavery. Then came the time when “chacun donna le nom de liberté aux privilèges dont il jouissait au detriment de tout le reste” [Online editor’s note: “each party gave the name liberty to the privileges which it enjoyed at the expense of all the rest.” – RTL] (p. 102). By the breaking down of these monopolies we are brought to the dawn of modern industrialism. Dunoyer examines the present conditions of labour, sounding the individualistic note at each opportunity. Two of the last chapters on “L’Education” and “Du Sacerdoce” [Online editor’s note: “Priesthood.” – RTL] decide that religion is not economically necessary. Since things are not right because God orders them, Dunoyer argues that they will not cease to be right if we cease to believe in God, and so the only necessity for religion, namely as a sanction for morality, is gone. It will be seen from this that Dunoyer is not a very dispassionate thinker. For, even if things were as he states them, it might be necessary to embody truth in a tale before it could “enter in at lowly doors.” And also it is, of course, ridiculous to say that because morality does not depend on the arbitrary fiat of God, that there could still be morality if there were no God. Dunoyer would seem to have some such limited idea of God as is expressed by Heine’s famous cynicism, “Dieu me pardonnera, c’est son métier.” [Online editor’s note: “God will forgive me, it’s his line of work.” – RTL] But the Deity has other functions than that.
EV-CD.4 To pass from Dunoyer to his critic. Dunoyer had protested against introducing discussions of what ought to be into political economy. One doesn’t speak, he says, in mathematics of what ought to be, but of what is. “Le physicien observe que l’eau soumise à l’action du feu passe a l’état de vapeur; mais il ne dit pas qu’un des droits de l’eau est de se transformer en gaz.” [Online editor’s note: “The physicist observes that water subjected to the action of fire passes into a gaseous state; but he does not say that one of the rights of water is to transform itself into a gas.” – RTL] On which M. Villey very pertinently remarks that “the conclusion would have force only if man were a purely material being, like gas; it is inconclusive if you admit that man is a free agent” (p. 13). This is one of the best criticisms in the book. It is applicable to all opponents of the theory of natural rights, who are always, acknowledged or not, Determinists.
EV-CD.5 Another good point made is the defence of civilization. Le Play had maintained that vice grew with the growth of civilization. Superficially this seemed to condemn civilization. M. Villey takes surely a more correct and a deeper view. Civilization means the satisfaction of man’s wants, i.e., inevitably, the expansion of them. It may therefore be defined as an “increase of life.” Now, life needs rule, and the increased life needs more rule. Hence the facts which seem to condemn civilization merely mean that modern life has outgrown its childish dress and has not yet found another to fit it (p. 55 ff.). And he sees, further, that this is “diametrically opposed” to what he calls Dunoyer’s dominant thought, that man, the more he advances, has less need of government (p. 332). It is surely just this capacity to carry about with us all our life that fabric of rules and adjustments, but to do so without feeling the weight of it, that marks the amazing difference there is between the savage and the civilized man.
EV-CD.6 These are some of the good things in M. Villey, and there are not a few. He has the art which fortunately few Englishmen possess of taking you through a subject so smoothly that at the end, although you fully assent to the conclusion, you are only in the vaguest way conscious of the grounds for it. The consequence is that the easiest authors to read are the hardest to reproduce. It is only on re-reading M. Villey that you discover there is more in him than meets the eye. It should be added, finally, that this book has had the honour of being “recompensé par l’Institut.” [Online editor’s note: “funded by the Institute.” – RTL]


Economic Review X (1900), pp. 131-133.

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