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Raico on Molinari

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Apr 18th, 2018
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  1. In his historical writings and in contrast to French liberals of a more “British” persuasion (in Hayek’s terminology), like Constant, Guizot, and Toqueville, Molinari came to see no redeeming features in the Revolution of 1789. Traditionally, French liberals had credited the Revolution with certain reforms (especially in its earlier, pre-Jacobin phase, ”1789” rather than “1793”), such as abolishing internal tariffs and establishing religious freedom. But, Molinari maintains, “if the Revolution had not broken out, the reforms attributed to it would have been pursued peacefully for their useful qualities, and these reforms would then have been definitive.” This is a view of the Old Regime and the Revolution that in important respects differs little from the one later presented by the historian Pierre Gaxotte, an intellectual luminary of the royalist and far-right group, Action Française. The Revolution put an abrupt end to this organic evolution and initiated a massive shift of power to the state. “Military serfdom”—involuntary military service, roundly condemned by Turgot, Condorcet, and nearly all the other pre-revolutionary economists—had nearly disappeared in France. The Revolution universalized conscription: “This retrogression in the regime of [military] serfdom would suffice of itself to outweigh all the progressive reforms, real or imagined, that are customarily set to the credit of the revolution.” This “blood tax” was retained by the Restoration, since the upper and middle classes could easily purchase exemption through paying for replacements. Here was another example of class-legislation, as was the livret, or book listing previous employments, now mandatory on laborers, and the prohibition of workers’ organizations. The end result of the Revolution has been “to diminish the sum of liberties enjoyed by the French and at least to double the weight of the government of France.” This most “extreme” of French or even of all European liberals displayed a warm sympathy for tradition and “organic” culture, going so far as to criticize the Napoleonic Code for consolidating the “reforms” of the Revolution by replacing the variegated customs of the provinces with a uniform legislation: “In many respects the ancient customs, adapted over centuries to the populations they ruled and successively perfected by way of experiment, left a much greater area to individual liberty and established the responsibility attaching to liberty with more equity.” Molinari even assailed “the system of weights and measures, invented by professors of mathematics, in contempt of the experience and needs of those engaging in exchange,” and imposed by the Revolution. Much to his honor, Molinari indicted the Revolution for its “war of extermination” against the Catholic and royalist population of the Vendée, in western France. He estimated that the attempted genocide claimed some 900000 victims; in any case, the number was in the hundreds of thousands. This horrific, bloody episode had been blotted out of the accounts of earlier, less forthright French liberals. It may be that these liberals were anxious not to provide ammunition to their conservative foes. More likely, their strange silence is owing to the fact that these victims of state mass-murder were, after all, Catholic and royalist. In the long run, Molinari maintained, the most destructive result of the Revolution was to remove any curb to “the appetite for exploitation” of the bourgeoisie. This is what the famous achievement of “equality before the law” in large part amounted to. “The Revolution left the field clear to the middle class, and the latter did not neglect to turn the situation to its profit, by replacing the privileges suited to the interests of the nobility and clergy by other privileges suited to their own.” A new class was put “in possession of the apparatus for concocting laws and regulations.” The hereditary monarch had at least to some extent a personal interest in preserving the state from ruin and in promoting its prosperity. Molinari applies the class conflict theory which by his time had become a cornerstone of French liberal ideas, but, unlike earlier thinkers, he does not exempt the regimes that passed for liberal in French politics. The “liberal” July Monarchy was the the creature of the bourgeoisie, which aimed “from now on to fix the exploitation of the state firmly in their own hands.” The liberal party “was the expression of those in the governing class that had issued from the revolution.” The middle classes profited from tariffs, government contracts, state subsidies for railroads and other industries, state-sponsored banking, and the jobs available in the ever-expanding state bureaucracy itself. Soon, a radical movement emerged, as “the swelling profits of an exploitation spreading every day and branching out more and more excited the envy of the classes excluded from the feast.” The final term is arrived at with universal manhood suffrage, where the whole population must be bought off. Molinari’s relentlessly scathing and cynical analysis of representative government and advancing democracy suggests that his anarcho-capitalism was a product not only of economic and natural rights theory, but also of his interpretation of history.
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