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The Utopia of Liberty: A Letter to Socialists (1848)

We are adversaries, and yet the goal which we both pursue is the same. What is the common goal of economists and socialists? Is it not a society where the production of all the goods necessary to the maintenance and embellishment of life shall be as abundant as possible, and where the distribution of these same goods among those who have created them through their labor shall be as just as possible? May not our common ideal, apart from all distinction of schools, be summarized in these two words: abundance and justice?

Such, none among you can deny, is our common goal. Only we approach this goal by different paths; you proceed along the hitherto unexplored dark passage of the organization of labor, while we proceed along the broad and well-known highway of liberty. Each of us is attempting to drag behind him a hesitating and groping society that scans the horizon seeking, but in vain, the pillar of light that formerly guided the slaves of the Pharaohs to the Promised Land.

Why do you refuse to follow the path of liberty alongside us? Because, you say, this liberty which we so extol is fatal to the laborers; because it has thus far produced only the oppression of the weak by the strong; because it has given birth to disastrous crises in which millions of men have lost in some cases their fortunes and in other cases their lives; because liberty unbridled, unregulated, unlimited — is anarchy!

Is this not the reason that you reject liberty? Is this not the reason that you demand the organization of labor?

Well then, if we prove to you with sufficient clarity that all the evils which you attribute to liberty — or, to make use of an absolutely equivalent expression, to free competition — have their origin not in liberty but in the absence of liberty, in monopoly, in servitude; if we further prove to you that a society of perfect freedom, a society disencumbered of every restriction, of every fetter, such as has never been seen in history, would be exempted from most of the miseries of the present régime; if we prove to you that the organization of such a society would be the best, the most just, the most favorable to advancement in the production and equality in the distribution of wealth; if we should prove all this, I ask, what would be your response? Would you continue to proscribe the freedom of labor and to inveigh against political economy, or would you, rather, rally openly to our banner, and employ all the precious fund of intellectual and moral forces with which nature has endowed you, to speed the triumph of our henceforth common cause, the cause of liberty?

Ah! I would be willing to swear that you would not hesitate a moment. If you became certain that you had been mistaken as to the true cause of the evils that afflict society and the means of remedying them; if you became certain that the truth is on our side and not on yours, no bonds of vanity, of ambition, or of stubborn partisanship would be strong enough to keep you on the shore of error: your hearts would be saddened, no doubt; you would bid with regret a last farewell to the dreams that have fed, enchanted, and misled your imaginations; but in the end you would abandon these beloved chimeras, you would overcome your repugnance, and you would come over to us. By God, we for our part would do as much, if you should succeed in introducing into our feeble intellects a ray of that light which converted St. Paul; if you should demonstrate, as clearly as the day, that the truth lies with socialism and not with political economy. We hold to our system only so far as we believe it true and just; we would burn tomorrow, with no inner rebellion, what we have adored, and we would adore what we have burned, if it were proven to us that our gods — Smith, Turgot, Quesnay, and J.-B. Say — are no more than wretched idols of wood.[i]

We and you, therefore, are alike free of all stubborn partisanship, taking this term in its strict sense; our view rises to a higher sphere, our thoughts follow a more generous flight: it is truth, justice, and utility that are our immortal guides through the hidden circles of science; it is humanity that is our adored Beatrice![ii]

This being well understood between us, I pose plainly the question which separates us.

You maintain that society suffers from liberty; we maintain that it suffers from servitude.

You conclude that it is necessary to abolish liberty, and to put in its place the organization of labor; we conclude that it is necessary to abolish servitude, and to put in its place — liberty, pure and simple.

Let us begin by specifying the facts. From what era does the freedom of labor date? It was proclaimed for the first time by Turgot in an immortal edict,[iii] and later sanctioned by the Constituent Assembly.

I will tell later on how this sacred freedom has been newly fettered and chained; for the moment I confine myself to noting that it was born only at the end of the eighteenth century.

Now what, I ask you, was the condition of the laboring masses up to the end of the eighteenth century? Were the workers happier before this time than they have been since?

If they were happier, oh! then I will agree with you that liberty has been a fatal gift for the world, and you are right to call for an organization of labor modeled on that of ancient Egypt or Medieval Europe.

But if, on the contrary, the condition of the mass of people today is superior to what it was before ‘89,[iv] will you not be obliged in good faith to acknowledge that the freedom of labor has been a benefit for humanity?

Let us quickly run over together the history of the past, the history of those thirty centuries of servitude which proceeded the arrival of the freedom of labor, and let us see what spectacle it offers to our view.

Is it truly the spectacle of universal ease and equality? Would God that it were! but no. It is on the contrary the tableau of a wretchedness more intense and of an inequality more profound than those which afflict our sight today. And the further back into the past we plunge, setting at ever greater distance the day when liberty finally shone forth upon the earth, the darker and more hideous this tableau of misery and social inequality appears to us.

If we go back as far as India and Egypt, what will we behold? two powerful castes, the caste of priests and that of the warriors, oppressing and exploiting without mercy the wretched multitude. At the pinnacle of these primitive societies, constructed in layers piled one above another like blocks of granite, we find the sages, garbed in purple, discussing the essence of divinity or the course of the stars, and the warriors intoxicating themselves with perfumes in the recesses of their harems; while below there vegetate the pariahs, covered in ignominy, or the slaves, molding with their sweat and their tears the rude, gigantic edifice of the pyramids. Did the evil of these primitive societies, we ask, lie in liberty or in servitude?

Let us consider the Roman world. What do we find at the heart of this society, though it was the richest and most powerful of antiquity? On one side, a patriciate composed of a very small number of men enriched by the spoils of the universe. The life of these men, as you know, was a succession of bloody battles and foul orgies! Beside this all-powerful caste, gorging itself on the substance of an entire world as the vultures were seen to gorge themselves on the corpses of those vanquished by Marius[v] — beside this engorged and satiated caste, what do we see? the impoverished multitude of proletarians and the debased multitude of slaves!

You speak of the miseries of our working class; good God! as painful and pitiable as these miseries may be, you can hardly compare them with those of the Roman proletarians. At least our working class works; it does not beg! The people of our gloomy suburbs are not to be seen lining up at the gates of the splendid mansions of our moneyed aristocracy to beg alms! They are not to be seen hurling themselves like dogs upon the crumbs which the rich brush from their tables with a bored and disdainful hand! Nor yet are they to be raising daily riots to obtain free distribution of food. No! today’s worker undeniably leads a poor life; but he earns this life, he is able to earn it. The Roman proletarian was not in a position to earn his own life. The wealthy patricians had monopolized all the industries and all the soil, which they exploited by means of their slaves. Victims of this unequal competition, the proletarians’ only choice was between begging, exile, and death. They begged. And yet the lot of these degraded proletarians was still a thousand times preferable to that of the slaves. The proletarian, at least, was a man; the slave, for his part, was only one more species of beast of burden, a thing! The slave possessed nothing, not even a name. Admittedly the poor workers of our own countryside deserve our commiseration, they who pass their lives stooped to the ground, most often obtaining in exchange for their hard labor nothing better than a morsel of black bread to eat, a coarse cloth to wear, and a mud hut to sleep in; but however painful this existence, how many Roman slaves would have envied it! Recall the accounts of Pliny and Columella.[vi] At the heart of the smiling countryside of Italy were to be found, at periodic intervals, those dark and noisome dwellings which were called ergastula. These were prisons, or to speak more accurately stables, of slaves. In the morning they filed out in bands, generally chained; they spread out across the countryside, driven by overseers armed with whips, and each furrow was watered with their sweat and their blood together. In the evening they were led back to the ergastulum, where like base animals they were tied up beside their mangers. For them no family, but a filthy promiscuity! no God, but an inexorable fate which robbed them of their humanity while leaving them not even the hope of a life to come! Such, as you know, was the condition of the laboring masses in antiquity. And yet the world had not yet been subjected to the law of laissez-faire!

Later on, what further do we see? Is the situation of the people much improved with the fall of the monstrous edifice of the Roman Empire? Morally, yes, no doubt, insofar as Christianity affords them sublime consolations; materially, no! Throughout the Middle Ages, the life of the people, whether serfs to the soil in the countryside or serfs to the guildmaster in the cities, is but a long train of anguish. The Middle Ages are a period of pain and sorrow, and among the groaning voices may be distinguished throughout the great and melancholy voice of the people. Still later, after so many and such fertile discoveries, after gunpowder had brought to justice the tyranny of the feudal lords, after printing had dispelled the deepest darkness of ignorance, after the compass gave us a new world, did the people cease to suffer? Under Louis XIV — under the reign of that king who is said to have carried to such heights the glory and power of France — what was the condition of the people? Was it superior to that of the people today? Everybody knows the celebrated passage in Vauban’s Royal Tithe,[vii] in which that illustrious man of good will characterized France’s situation in heart-breaking terms:

“It is certain,” he wrote, “that the evil has been pressed to the extreme, and if it is not remedied, the humble people will fall into an extremity from which they will never rise again; the highways of the countryside and the streets of the cities and towns are filled with beggars driven from their homes by hunger and nakedness.

“From all the research which I have been able to make during the several years that I have devoted myself to it, I have become very much aware that in recent times nearly one-tenth of the people is reduced to begging, and begs indeed; as for the other nine tenths, five are in no position to give them alms, since they themselves are but a short way from being in the same unhappy condition; of the four remaining tenths, three are worried and encumbered by debts and lawsuits; and in the final tenth — where I place all men of the sword and the robe, whether ecclesiastical or lay, all the high and distinguished nobility, all those with military or civil responsibility, the successful merchants, the bourgeois rentiers, and the most comfortable classes — there cannot be reckoned more than a hundred thousand families; and I do not think I would be wrong in saying that no more than ten thousand families, great or small, could be described as living in much ease.”[1]

Such was the condition of the people before freedom of labor arrived on the scene.

Moreover, throughout this long period of sufferings, what is the cry of the multitude? What was the demand of the captives of Egypt, the slaves of Spartacus, the peasants of the Middle Ages, and later the workers oppressed by the guildmasters and guilds. They demanded liberty!

They said to each other: our consciences, our thoughts, our labor are oppressed and exploited by men who have imposed themselves on us by violence or trickery. Some of them forbid us to love God and pray to him otherwise than according to their formula; others require us to study God, man, and nature according to their books, imprisoning our thoughts within the iron circle of their systems by forbidding us on pain of death to break it; still others, after these have enchained our souls, enchain our bodies. They require us to live attached like a plant to the place of our birth, and there they exercise their privileges to seize most of the fruits of our labor and sweat.

 They understood: $45 (two volumes)

Let us burst asunder, even at the risk of our lives, these bonds which bruise us; let us demand, for all, both the liberty of the soul and that of the body; let us claim, for all, the natural right to believe, to think, and to act freely — and our sufferings will be at an end. Will our souls not be satisfied, once we have obtained for them free access to the immaterial realm — the ability to sail the immense and marvelous ocean of the mind, without being held back by the iron cable of an imposed system? Will our physical needs not be entirely met, once the material realm is freely open to us — once no fetters forbid us to bring our labor and exchange its products over the entire surface of this fertile earth with which providence has generously endowed us? Let us become free, and we will be happy!

Such was the cry of oppressed humanity. Well, then! Do you suppose, therefore, that humanity was mistaken when it raised, from century to century, this long cry of distress and hope? Do you think that in their ceaseless pursuit of liberty they were running after a vain mirage? No! Look into your hearts, and you will not dare affirm it; you will not dare, you Brutuses of socialism, to say that liberty is only an empty name!

You will doubtless object that humanity still suffers! Most assuredly. But, and I insist on keeping this fact before your gaze, it suffered before the arrival of liberty upon the earth, and its sufferings then were harsher and more intense than they are today.

You cannot, therefore, without being guilty of gross anachronism, charge liberty with the ills of the laboring classes before ‘89; is it with greater justice that you impute to it those which have crushed the workers since that time? The examination of that question I reserve to a future letter.

[signed] A DREAMER.
Journal des Économistes vol. 20, no. 82. — June 15th, 1848 (pp. 328-332).

This essay was translated by Roderick T. Long. Professor Long is a senior fellow of the Mises Institute and editor of the Journal of Libertarian Studies. He is a professor of philosophy at Auburn University and runs the Molinari Institute and Molinari Society. See his website: Praxeology.net. Send him mailComment on the blog.

Gustave de Molinari (March 3, 1819 - January 28, 1912) was a Belgian-born economist associated with the French “Économistes”, a group of laissez-faire liberals. Throughout his life, Molinari defended peace, free trade, freedom of speech, freedom of association, and liberty in all its forms. He was the originator of the theory of Market Anarchism.

While this article was originally published anonymously, Molinari later acknowledged his authorship in his 1899 book Society of the Future, where he noted:

“This appeal, which incidentally bears the imprint of the confident naïveté of youth, was, as events have shown, entirely premature. It went unheard; but one may be permitted to hope that it will yet be heard one day, and that socialism, by contributing to the economists its contingent of forces, will aid them in surmounting the resistance of those selfish and blind interests that set themselves athwart the necessary transformation of a political and economic organization which has ceased to be adapted to societies’ present conditions of existence.”


[1] Collection of the Principal Economists, Guillaumin edition, vol. I, p. 34. [Citation in original.]

[i] Translator’s note: classical liberal economists Adam Smith (1723-1790), Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), François Quesnay (1694-1774), and Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832).

[ii] Translator’s note: a reference to Dante’s guide through Paradise in the Divine Comedy.

[iii] Translator’s note: in 1776, during Turgot’s tenure as finance minister.

[iv] Translator’s note: 1789, inter alia the first year of the Constituent Assembly, and thus for Molinari the first year of (relative) freedom of labor.

[v] Translator’s note: the Roman general Gaius Marius was said to have carried two pet vultures on his sanguinary campaigns.

[vi] Translator’s note: Gaius Plinius Secundus (or Pliny the Elder) and Lucius Junius Moderatus Columella, Roman writers on agriculture.

[vii] Translator’s note: French economist Sébastien Le Prestre de Vauban (1633-1707).

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