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The Secessionist French Classical Liberals: Molinari and Dunoyer

Back in 1976, Joseph Salerno lamented that “there exists today in Anglo-American economics a veritable ‘conspiracy of silence’ regarding the works and achievements of the French Liberal School of Economics.” Not a whole lot has changed since then, and the same can be said about the contributions of the French liberals—what are now called classical liberals—in general. 

Indeed, to this day, few English translations—sometimes no English translation—exist of some key works of influential French liberals from the nineteenth century. Although the Anglophone world tends to minimize or ignore these liberals, their works were well-read not only in France, but throughout much of Western Europe as well. 

Among the French classical liberals can also be found some of the most radical, as well. Specifically, Charles Comte, Charles Dunoyer, and Gustave de Molinari. Comte and Dunoyer were pioneers in developing the thought of the radical laissez-faire philosophy known as industrialism (industrialisme). As they developed their ideas in this area, they launched in 1816 the periodical known as Censeur europeen, which, according to Leonard Liggio, “had both an immediate and long-lasting impact on the social thought of the 19th century.” Perhaps their greatest acolyte was Gustave de Molinari, who was editor of the highly-influential Journal des économistes from 1881 to 1909. 

Among the French liberals of the time, it was easy to find theorists, scholars, and legislators—e.g., Frederic Bastiat—who advocated for generally free markets and for a much-reduced role for the French state in the economy. Most liberals had been influenced by Jean-Baptiste Say (whose daughter married Charles Comte in 1818), for example, and Say’s work remained highly respected throughout the nineteenth century.

Comte, Dunoyer, and Molinari, however, took things much further in both their sociological and economic theories. In their consistent hostility to monopolist states, all three embraced various types of anarchism while defending secession and radical decentralization as key strategies in confronting state power. 

Historian Mark Weinburg has done a thorough job in exploring what he calls “the basic anarchism in the thought of Comte [and] Dunoyer … firmly rooted in an evolutionary concept of social development.” Murray Rothbard described Molinari as essentially the founder of what came to be known as market anarchism or anarch-capitalism. 

What I seek to focus on here, however, is the secessionism and radical decentralism found in the work of Dunoyer and Molinari. 

Monopoly vs. Competition for States

The foundations of these ideas were first laid in the earlier work of Comte and Dunoyer as they developed industrialism which advocated for gradually replacing all political (i.e., coercive) state institutions with competitive private institutions. These private institutions would provide all the services that states claimed to provide, but at a lower price and without the exploitation present in all state relations between the ruling class and the productive class. Comte and Dunoyer developed these ideas into a complex theory of history. They added much to classical liberal exploitation theory as it developed in the nineteenth century before Marxists appropriated the idea for their own movement. 

One core attribute of industrialism was the idea that states must gradually be forced to de-monopolize and be subject to competition from the private sector. This potentially included every state “service” from pensions to military defense. As Weinburg puts it, “Comte and Dunoyer saw the natural evolution of society bringing about the gradual replacement of political by market relationships.” 

This wasn’t to say the process didn’t need to be helped along through concerted activism. Comte was key in setting the stage for understanding the importance of reducing exalted state institutions to the same level of private competitors, but it was Dunoyer and Molinari who most carefully explored the ways that this might actually come about. For both men, a key strategy in this struggle was secession. 

Dunoyer on Secession as a Strategy to the “Municipalisation of the World”

David Hart notes that in Dunoyer’s essay L’Industrie et la morale (Industry and Morality), he “provides the best summary of [his] ‘industrial’ political theory — a society so much under the influence of the market that there is no role for the nation state at all. All public goods would be provided by “industrial enterprises” or small-scale ‘municipal’ governments which would act much like their private counterparts.” 

This would replace the status quo system which Dunoyer saw as a system of overly large and overly diverse states. These states are deemed necessary on the grounds that they must pacify and force “unity” upon heterogeneous populations that lacked true common interests. Dunoyer contends, on the other hand, that radical decentralization of government institutions into more homogeneous municipality-sized functionally independent polities provides an alternative. He writes

There are absolutely no forces at work in the industrial system which require such vast associations of people. There are no enterprises which require the union of ten, twenty or thirty million people. It is the spirit of domination which has created these monstrous aggregations or which has made them necessary. It is the spirit of industry which will dissolve them – one of its last, greatest and most salutary effects will be the “municipalisation of the world.” Under the influence of industry people will begin to govern themselves more naturally. One will no longer see twenty different groups, foreign to each other, sometimes scattered to the four corners of the globe, often separated more by language and customs than by distance, united under the same political domination. People will draw closer together, will form associations among themselves according to what they really have in common and according to their true interests. Thus these people, once formed out of more homogeneous elements, will be infinitely less antagonistic towards each other.

Dunoyer contends that this municipalization process will mean “[c]entres of activity will be multiplied” with more of them to compete with the old state-driven centers of power.  At the root of all of this was the ultimate goal of the industrialist vision: make states so much like private competitive institution that states ceased to be very state-like at all. 

Molinari on Secession

As part of his drive toward imposing competition on states, Dunoyer had on several occasions suggested the idea that even the military and policing functions of the state could be taken over by competitive firms in the private sector. This was, of course, regarded as outlandish even among other radical liberals in Dunoyer’s circles. 

Dunoyer’s disciple Molinari took the idea several steps further, and Molinari is perhaps best known today for this book De la Production de la Sécurité (The Production of Security). In this, Molinari further builds upon Dunoyer’s vision of multitude of “states” that function more like business enterprises. Like Dunoyer, Molinari also understood that this necessarily implies that states will no longer be able to dominate society from large national administrative centers. 

Rather, the goal for Molinari became “the diffusion of the state within society,” by which states are made essentially indistinguishable from countless private competing organizations that already exist. Molinari writes in L’évolution politique et la Révolution (Political Evolution and Revolution):

Instead of absorbing the organisation of society, according to the revolutionary and communist notion, the Commune and the State will be dissolved into [society itself]. [The states’] functions will be divided up and society will be made up of a multitude of (business) enterprises, under the control/ sway of the common/shared necessities which come from their particular nature, associations or free states (des unions ou des États libres) each of which will exercise/carry out a special function. Thus the future will belong not to the absorption of society by the state, as the communists and the collectivists claim, and not to the abolition of the state as the anarchists and nihilists dream of, but to the diffusion of the state within society. This, to recall/remember the famous saying, is “l’État libre dans la Société libre” (a free state in a free society).

It is difficult to see how this would be brought about without a process of radical decentralization through secession. Molinari apparently saw this as well since at various times throughout his career he embraced secession as the natural outgrowth of his efforts to cripple states’ monopoly powers. For example, early in his long career, in the 1840s, Molinari was already noting the importance of secession in subjecting states to competition. In 1854’s Cours d’Economie Politique (A Course in Political Economy) Molinari wrote:

The notion of subjecting governments to the regime of competition is still generally regarded as chimerical. But the facts on the question are marching ahead of theory. The “right” of secession which is making some progress in today’s world will necessarily establish “liberty of government.” When this principle has been recognized and applied to its fullest natural extent, “political competition” will act as a complement to competition in agriculture, industry and commerce.” 

Over the next three decades Molinari developed a more detailed explanation of the necessity of secession. Hart provides perhaps the most succinct summary of Molinari’s thinking here, so it is worth quoting at length:

[In his 1887 book Les Lois Naturelles de l’Économie Politique, (Natural Laws of Political Economy) Molinari] … discuss[es] how overtaxed and under-serviced inhabitants of a commune might go about freeing themselves from their political servitude, which brings him to the question of the right to secede. He discusses the plight of a wealthier region in a commune resenting the fact that they are being overtaxed to subsidize the services provided to a poor part of the commune. If the region is relatively small, they can emigrate to another lower taxed commune (which is a right they currently have). If the region is larger he thinks they should have the right to secede and form their own independent commune or to merge with a neighboring adjacent and lower taxed commune (this is a right they do not have under the current regime). Molinari argues that they should have this right and that this right is a double edged sword, that it is “un double droit de sécession” (double right of secession) where the commune can secede from the province, and the province can secede from the central state. This double threat of secession he believes would be a powerful force to keep the costs of government down to a minimum as each level of government would be most reluctant to lose too many of its taxpayers, and it would force each one to provide better services by contracting out to private companies (as described above) to attract more people to its locality. The costs of government overall – communal, provincial, and national – would be reduced by these multiple competitive forces to a single user fee or subscription (cotisation) which would be the bare minimum necessary to proved these “naturally collective” or public goods and services. This “double right of secession” would create “a double form of competition” (cette double concurrence) which would be brought to bare on the provision of services.

Secession was also important for Molinari because he, like Dunoyer and Comte before him, understood the limitations of constitutional governments that only theoretically secured rights for their citizens. The political theorists of the French Enlightenment had promised that a properly constructed national constitution would sufficiently protect the rights of citizens while simultaneously establishing a unified nation-state.  Yet, in spite of the many “checks and balances” proposed by Montesquieu, for example, these constitutional and republican guarantees had ultimately failed. Secession thus adds a much-needed additional safeguard. Molinari notes: 

[U]nder the present regime, the communes have no effective means of protecting themselves against the poor quality or the excessive price of the services provided by the provinces, any more than (they have) against the unwarranted multiplication of these services, and the province is disarmed/exposed in the same way vis-à-vis the central state.

Needless to say, the central state benefits from this arrangement, and as Molinari writes in his Society of the Future (Esquisse de l’organisation politique et économique de la Société future), states naturally fight against secession on the grounds it would weaken the state. States thus have a tendency to create national mythologies around the state supposedly being “one and indivisible.” States also tend to promote contradictory positions on whether or not communes (municipalities) and regional governments are ever to be respected in their efforts at self-determination. The contradiction arises from the fact that this local sovereignty is generally respected only at the phase when central states add new regions and municipalities within their borders. At this stage, agents of existing states are often willing to respect the idea that “a population which has emerged from a state of subjection, and has acquired ‘ownership’ of itself, cannot be separated from one nation and annexed to another without its own consent.” 

Yet this right to local self-determination is only tolerated up until a commune or regional makes the decision to join with another state. After that, local sovereignty is suddenly null and void. As Molinari puts it

The second, and contradictory, deduction—issuing this time from the theory of national indivisibility—refuses any right of secession from the State, and this refusal has been sanctioned by rigorous penalties, as if the right of accession to a State did not include the liberty of a withdrawal. The United States interpreted the modern theory of sovereignty thus. The English Colonies voluntarily incorporated themselves in the Union, but when the Southern States desired to withdraw the Northern States compelled them to remain in it by force of arms. In point of fact, the liberty enjoyed by populations voluntarily annexed or united is limited to a right of changing the form of their subjection. They were subject to an oligarchy, personified in a more or less absolute king; they are now the subjects of a nation, whose mouthpiece is a constitutional or republican government

For Molinari, then, secession was important as both a backstop for a failed constitutional order, and as a strategy for reducing the overall monopoly power of states. The ultimate goal, however, was never to enhance the powers of communes or provinces or municipalities, but to provide mechanisms for decentralizing political power, weakening central states, and subjecting states to more rigorous forms of competition. As radical liberals, of course, Comte, Dunoyer, and Molinari were primarily concerned with protecting the natural rights of individual persons. To do so, however, required radical new ways of confronting allegedly “indivisible” states and monopolistic state institutions. Radical decentralization, whether through outright secession or through the “municipalization of the world” offers a way out.