The Scandalous Neglect of Classical Liberal Sociology

Histories of the discipline of sociology usually give short shrift to the classical liberal tradition.1 Sometimes Alexis de Tocqueville gets a mention; Herbert Spencer is dismissed as an anachronism who is barely worth reading anymore; some technical aspects of Pareto’s thought is readily discussed but his “fascist” turn in the 1920s is a cause for worry and a reason to dismiss much of the rest of his work; and of course Max Weber is seen as a pivotal figure in the development of the modern discipline.

However, most of the space in these histories (including dictionaries and encyclopedias like those by Blackwell, Princeton, and Routledge) is devoted to socialist and other statist-inspired authors whose intellectual lineage goes back to Auguste Comte and Karl Marx. This is to get everything backwards in my view, as these “socialist sociologists” came after a lot of significant work in establishing the foundations of the disciple were laid by “liberal sociologists”. I have tried to show this alternative lineage in my anthology of classical liberal class analysis (CLCA) entitled “Plunderers, Parasites, and Plutocrats: An Anthology of Classical Liberal Writing on Class Analysis from Boétie to Buchanan” and in a monograph, a shortened version of which is destined to appeared as a chapter on “Class” for the Routledge Companion to Libertarianism ed. Matt Zwolinski (forthcoming). In that work I sketch out a distinguished line of thinkers stretching back to the Levellers in the 1640s who should be included in any good history of sociological analysis, especially one that is interested in the emergence of institutions like private property, voluntary association, trade between individuals, the emergence of markets and other complex economic institutions, the emergence of the state, slavery and serfdom and others forms of exploitation, war, and so on.

The sticking point for the mainstream approach to the study of sociology is that they cannot get the idea into their heads that voluntary market relations, especially the payment of wages, are NOT necessarily an exploitative relationship, as well as the idea that every action of the state and its officers IS coercive in nature and this has a profound impact on the way people think, behave, and organise themselves.

I have endeavored to rectify this situation by putting online in HTML and facs. PDF formats some of the best work to be found in this classical liberal sociology so it can act as a counterweight to this massive disproportion in the traditional literature. Over the past few months I have worked on the following individuals, especially the “three greats” – Gustave de Molinari, Herbert Spencer, and William Graham Sumner.

A Survey of the Some CL Sociologists who wrote on Class Analysis

See my draft of a monograph on “Libertarian Class Analysis: An Historical Survey” (Sept. 2020) and a shorter version of this “An Introduction to Classical Liberal/Libertarian Class Analysis” ( Oct. 2020). Also the anthology I helped put together on “the alternative tradition” of thinking about class: Social Class and State Power: Exploring an Alternative Radical Tradition, ed. David M. Hart, Gary Chartier, Ross Miller Kenyon, and Roderick T. Long (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018).

Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832), James Mill (1777-1836) and “the sinister interests”

[James Mill (1770-1836)]

Jermey Bentham and James Mill were pioneering early 19th century political sociologists with their analysis of the “sinister interests” who ran the state for their own private benefit and not that of the “general interest.

See my short discussion of “James Mill and Jeremy Bentham on Class” and an anthology of James Mill’s writings on politics “The Political Writings of James Mill: Essays and Reviews on Politics and Society, 1815-1836”.

Charles Comte (1782-1837) and Charles Dunoyer (1786-1862) on the evolution of law, property, markets, and “industrial” societies

[Charles Dunoyer (1786-1862)]

Except for a very few historians and sociologists (the most notable being the Canadian sociologist Robert Leroux) the work of Comte and Dunoyer have been largely forgotten in spite of the great work they did in the late Empire and early Restoration period. I began gathering some of their most interesting essays which they published into journals, Le Censeur (1814-1815) and Le Censeur européen (1817-1819) as part of my bicentennial celebrations of the work. They wrote on the impact of war on economic and political development, the emergence of a new class of productive workers they called “les industrieux”, the nature of dictatorships, and a theory of historical development which they called the “industrial theory of history”.

A future project is to put online their most important work in HTML. It is a scandal that none of their work has been republished in French, let alone translated into English.

Editor’s note: I wrote my PhD on them several decades ago.

I have all their work online but only in facs. PDF format:

  • Bibliography of Charles Comte and his major works: Traité de législation, ou exposition des lois générales suivant lesquelles les peuples prospèrent, dépérissent ou restent stationnaire (1827) 4 vols, and Traité de la propriété, 2 vols. (1834).
  • Bibliography of Charles Dunoyer and his major sociological writings: L’Industrie et la morale considérées dans leurs rapports avec la liberté (1825), Nouveau traité d’économie sociale, ou simple exposition des causes sous l’influence desquelles les hommes parviennent à user de leurs forces avec le plus de LIBERTÉ, c’est-à-dire avec le plus FACILITÉ et de PUISSANCE (1830), 2 vols., and De la liberté du travail, ou simple exposé des conditions dans lesquelles les force humaines s’exercent avec le plus de puissance (1845), 3 vols.

Apart from myself, the following people have written extensively on Comte and Dunoyer:

Two major articles by Éphraïm Harpaz in the 1950s and 1960s, “Le Censeur, Histoire d’un journal libéral,” Revue des sciences humaines (1958) and “Le Censeur européen: histoire d’un journal quotidien,” Revue des sciences humaines (1964), which have been republished as Éphraïm Harpaz, Le Censeur. Le Censeur européen. Histoire d’un Journal libéral et industrialiste (Genève: Slatkine Reprints, 2000).

The other author of note is Robert Leroux, Aux fondements de l’industrialisme : Comte, Dunoyer et la pensée libérale en France (Paris: Editions Hermann, 2015).

Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912) on Political and Economic Evolution

[Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912)]

The Belgian/French political economist Gustave de Molinari is one of the great forgotten CL sociologists of the 19th century. As a young man he wrote some pioneering essays for the Dictionnaire de l’économie politique (1852-53), some 30 in French only 7 of which have been translated into English.

Soon after this he wrote a work in order to explore how Louis Napoleon came to be “Emperor” of a republic. His class analysis in this work was based on the idea of the conflict between the “tax-payers” and the “tax-eaters” and the new coalition formed between traditional ruling elites in the military and the church, the rising economic elites among the state and subsidized and protected agricultural and manufacturing industries, and the bureaucrats who ran the government agencies which regulated the economy: Les Révolutions et le despotisme envisagés au point de vue des intérêts matériels (Revolutions and Despotism seen from the perspective of material interests)(1852) – text.

Towards the end of his long life, after a couple of decades as an economic journalist for the Journal des débuts, he wrote a trilogy of great sociological works exploring economic and political evolution, and the impact of the French revolution and war on these evolutionary process: L’évolution économique du XIXe siècle: théorie du progrès (Economic Evolution in the 19th Century: A Theory of Progress) (1880) text, L’évolution politique et la révolution (Political Evolution and the Revolution) (1884) text; Grandeur et decadence de la guerre (The Rise and Fall of War) (1898) text.

He then wrote a final fourth volume which summarised his life’s work on this topic: Économie de l’histoire: Théorie de l’Évolution (The Economics of History: A Theory of Evolution) (1908) text.

It is scandalous that only one of these works has been republished – Grandeur et decadence de la guerre (The Rise and Fall of War) (1898 – by the Institute Coppet, and none translated into English.

Herbert Spencer (1820-1903) and the evolution of “industrial” and militant” types of society

[Herbert Spencer (1820-1903)]

The work of the English radical individualist is well known but not well understood. I have put online his major work on sociology The Principles of Sociology (1874-1896): vol.1; vol.2; vol.3; with a combined table of contents of the set to help researchers more easily explore his work.

William Graham Sumner (1840-1910) on Forgotten Men and Women, and Plutocrats

[William Graham Sumner (1840-1910)]

England had Herbert Spencer (1820-1903); France had Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912); and America had William Graham Sumner (1840-1910). All three did pioneering work in the emerging discipline of “sociology”, were radical classical liberals (libertarians), and were active in popularizing their ideas via journalism. Sumner was a professor of sociology at Yale University who wrote on free trade and protection, sound money and banking, and was an outspoken member of the American Anti-Imperialist League.

His work on classical liberal class analysis should also be mentioned, where he championed the interests of “The Forgotten Man and Woman” who paid the taxes which made it possible for the various vested interest groups, both large (plutocrats and party bosses) and small (those who sought government jobs), to enjoy their privileged position. Sumner also wrote several works against the theory and practice of socialism. In his view the great clash of the future would be between socialists from below and plutocrats from above, with the “forgotten” man and woman caught in the middle. I have put online the four volumes of his collected essays, his major treatise on sociology, Folkways (1906), and several other works:

  1. See for example the massive and comprehensive (weighing in at 5 vols. and over 5,000 pages) The Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology. Edited by George Ritzer (Oxford: Blackwell, 2007); The Handbook of Economic Sociology. Second Edition. Neil J. Smelser and Richard Swedberg editors. (Princeton and Oxford: Princeton University Press, 2006); and the International Encyclopedia of Economic Sociology. Edited by Jens Beckert and Milan Zafirovski (London and New York: Routledge, 2006, 2011). []

James Gillray on Debt and Taxes during the War against Napoleon

James Gillray (1756-1815) trained as an engraver but became best known for making hundreds of caricatures of British social and political life in the 1790s and 1800s. He satirized in particular King George III, William Pitt, the French Jacobins, Napoleon, and many others in the British political and military establishment. A recurring theme in his work was the dramatic increase in taxation and the national debt which was imposed in order to fight the wars against Napoleon and which placed a growing burden on the English people (represented as “John Bull”).

Gillray also satirized the large numbers of well-connected people in the government and the military who profited from increased government expenditure by depicting them as greedy cormorants, sucking pigs, highway men, and wasps and hornets. These individuals came from both sides of the political spectrum (from the both the Whig and the Tory parties) and were thus called members of the “Broad Bottom’d” (or bipartisan) party.

“BEGGING no ROBBERY; i.e. Voluntary Contribution; or John Bull escaping a Forced Loan” (1796) s one of several caricatures Gillray did about the “voluntary loan” which was a thinly veiled threat by the government that a “forced loan” would be imposed on taxpayers to raise money for the war effort if they did not make “voluntary” contributions to the exchequer.

Here we see John Bull riding an emaciated horse which looks like it is on its last legs. He has been waylaid by highwaymen hiding in the bushes as he rides by and is obliged to make a “donation” of coins into their hat instead of being forced to make a loan to the government to fund the army. The men in the bushes on the right have pistols pointed at him and are wearing fine robes and hats which suggest that they represent the aristocracy, the church, and the law. The man kneeling by the roadside is a soldier wearing torn and bedraggled clothes. He has in his pocket a pistol and a sheet of paper which says “forced loan in reserve”. He is holding a blunderbuss on which is written “standing army”. In the speech bubble above him it says “Good Sir, for Charity’s sake, have Pity upon a poor ruin’d Man; drop if you please, a few bits of Money into the Hat, & you shall be rewarded hereafter.”

“More PIGS than TEATS, or the new Litter of hungry Grunters sucking John Bull’s old Sow to death” (1806). In this caricature John Bull is shown as a pig farmer who has come to check on his old sow in the pig stye. The sow represents the British economy which was being sucked dry by all the demands being placed upon it by the British government in order to fight the war against Napoleon, especially the new war taxes. Those doing the “sucking” are the vested interests which benefited from the policy of war, such as members of the government, the law, the military, and the aristocracy. John Bull is shocked to see his poor emaciated sow (emaciated and near death, with a very forlorn look on her face) being besieged by “hungry Grunters” wanting to suck at her teats. John Bull says “O Lord. O Lord! I never had such a dam’d Litter of hungry pigs in all my life before! why they’s beyond all count! [I count 28 (editor)]. where the devil do they think I shall find Wash & Grains for all their Guts? zookers, why they’ll drain the poor old Sow to an Otomy! (?) e’cod She’ll make but bad Bacon for Boney [the English nickname for Napoleon Bonaparte], when they’s all done sucking o’her!!!”

“A Great Stream from a Petty-Fountain; or John Bull swamped in the Flood of new-Taxes; Cormorants Fishing the Stream” (1806). In this caricature, on the left we see John Bull (the personification of Britain) in a sinking boat which has been swamped by a mass of new taxes to fund the war against Napoleon. He has lost hold of an oar with the name of “William Pitt” written on it. [William Pitt the Younger was Prime Minister from 1804-1806 as well as Chancellor of the Exchequer (or minister of finance)]. On the right we see a man’s head (probably Lord Henry Petty the new Chancellor of the Exchequer) from whose mouth pours a fountain of water labeled “new taxes” which are named in the cascades of the fountain (taxes on salt, tea, hops, malt, sugar, alcohol, candles, horses, servants, soap, houses, land, stamps, windows, property, etc.). In the foreground we see 10 hungry cormorants with human heads devouring the fish, crabs, and eels which thrive in the waters of the tax fountain. In the middle ground there are 2 other human-headed birds; in the distance we can see dozens more hungry cormorants heading towards the tax feast. The heads of the cormorants probably depict prominent politicians and other figures of the day.

In these cartoons Gillray seems to have an understanding of a classical liberal theory class analysis where the productive many are exploited by the unproductive few. This view is epitomised in this 1816 illustration of John Bull as a modern “Atlas” who has to carry the parasitic British establishment of the monarchy and the standing army on his shoulders.

For a discussion of more images by Gillray, see this illustrated essay and “John Bull as the British Atlas” (1816).

See also “Images of the Ruling Class and the State” and “Images of the Ruled as “Atlas”

James Mill on Politics and Class

James Mill (1773-1836), the father of John Stuart, has not been served well by editors of his writings, so I made my own anthology of 28 essays and articles written in the 1820s and 1830s.1 They include a dozen articles he wrote for the 1824 edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica, most notably those of “caste,” “Government,”and “Liberty of the Press,” and 14 articles for the important “review” periodicals The Westminster Review and The London Review which were very important organs for the dissemination of liberal reform ideas.

Like most of the radicals and liberals of his day he had a theory of class to explain who exploited the hard working and industrious ordinary people of Britain. He and the other Benthamites talked about “the ruling few” who had their own “sinister interests” which they were pursuing, and “the subject many” who paid the taxes. Interestingly he also used a couple French terms to describe the relationship between these two groups (probably because the French classical liberals were more advanced than their English counterparts in their thinking about class), such as: “society is divided into two classes, Ceux qui pillent, et Ceux qui sont pillés (those who pillage and those who are pillaged). Ten years after this was written Frédéric Bastiat developed his own radical theory of “la spoliation” (plunder” where society was divided into two antagonistic classes “la classe spoliatrice” (the plundering class) and “les classes spoliées” (the plundered classes).

For a snippet of Jeremey Bentham’s and James Mill’s thinking about class see this short essay.2

  1. See this anthology of The Political Writings of James Mill: Essays and Reviews on Politics and Society, 1815-1836. []
  2. A brief essay on Mill and Bentham on class – See this short essay. []

An Introduction to Classical Liberal Class Analysis

An Introduction to Classical Liberal/Libertarian Class Analysis
In my long monograph on Libertarian Class analysis (Blog post and main paper) I have sections which deal with some of the themes which were common to most if not all CLs who wrote on class, as well as a chronological analysis of some of the key thinkers going back to the Levellers of the 1640s.

In this much shorter version I have dispensed with discussing in detail the work of five key figures from the heyday of CLCA (Bastiat, Spencer, Molinari, Sumner, and Pareto) and focussed more on the following key themes:

  1. the central role played by state coercion in creating “class” (understood in its political sense)
  2. the idea that there are two mutually exclusive ways in which wealth can be acquired, “the economic means” (by producing things oneself or by voluntary trade with others) and “the political means” (by the use of force to acquire things other people have produced) (to use Franz Oppenheimer’s terminology)
  3. that those who use “the economic means” to acquire wealth constitute one class which has been variously described as the “productive” or “industrious “ class”, “la classe spoliée” (the plundered class), or more generally as “the ruling class”; and that those who use “the political means” constitute an “unproductive” class, “la classe spoliatrice” (the plundering class), or more generally “the ruled”
  4. that there has been an antagonistic relationship between these two classes which has manifested itself over the centuries as a “class struggle”
  5. that this class struggle and system of exploitation has interested CL historians and political economists in three paradigmatic forms: the conquering class vs. the conquered class; the slave owning class vs. the slaves; and the tax-receivers of consumers vs. the tax payers (with perhaps today a new form of “the regulators” vs. “those who are regulated”)
  6. that societies have evolved over time through stages each with its own particular means of producing wealth and with its own particular types of “ruling class” which extracts this wealth from the producing class

Read a draft of it here: An Introduction to Classical Liberal/Libertarian Class Analysis

A History of Libertarian Class Analysis

Libertarian Class Analysis: An Historical Survey

(M)en placed in society … are divided into two classes, *Ceux qui pillent,—et Ceux qui sont pillés* (those who pillage and those who are pillaged); and we must consider with some care what this division, the correctness of which has not been disputed, implies.
The first class, *Ceux qui pillent*, are the small number. They are the ruling Few. The second class, *Ceux qui sont pillés*, are the great number. They are the subject Many.

James Mill, “The State of the Nation,” *The London Review,* (1835).

This monograph is a continuation of a project I have been working on for many years, most recently for example the anthology of texts I co-edited: Social Class and State Power: Exploring an Alternative Radical Tradition, ed. David M. Hart, Gary Chartier, Ross Miller Kenyon, and Roderick T. Long (Palgrave Macmillan, 2018), and a paper I gave at the Libertarian Scholars Conference on “Plunderers, Parasites, and Plutocrats: Some Reflections on the Rise and Fall and Rise and Fall of Classical Liberal Class Analysis” – paper.

My hope is to write a book on the history of classical liberal (libertarian) thinking about the nature of state power and the groups of people (“classes”) who win or lose out by having access to this power.

The approach I have taken is to show, firstly the persistence of thinking about class by proto-liberals, classical liberals (CL), radical individualists, and modern day libertarians over several centuries. I believe such thinking is a core component of the broader CL tradition which has for too long been downplayed or outright ignored.

Secondly, to let these thinkers speak in their own words I have quoted the original language alongside my own translation in most cases. This is also to demonstrate the considerable diversity of terms used to describe the class of the exploited and the exploited and what the former does to the latter. Thus I precede each section on a particular thinker with a list of the terms and language they used in their theory of class. This diversity of language is both a plus and a minus for the CL tradition – a plus because it shows the creativity of these thinkers in coming up with often hard-hitting and amusing epithets (often referring to some predatory animal!); and a minus because it meant that to a large degree these CLs did not speak with a common voice in making their case against the exploitation of one class of people by another.

The table of contents of this draft version of the monograph is the following:

Introduction: Two Competing Traditions of thinking about Class – CL and Marxist

Some Common Theoretical Aspects of Classical Liberal Class Analysis
The Central Role played by Organised Coercion
The Shared Structural Framework for CLCA
The Diversity of Terminology about Class
The Rulers vs. the Ruled
The Unproductive vs. the Productive
The Evolution of Class Society
The End of Class Rule?

The History of CLCA (I): Some Different Perspectives on Class
The View from Below
Slaves vs. Slave-owners
Tax-payers vs Tax-receivers/consumers
The “Industrious Classes”

The History of CLCA (II) – Before WW2

The Pre-history of CLCA
Étienne de La Boétie (1530–1563)
Levellers Richard Overton (1631–1664) and William Walwyn (1600–1681)
18th Century Commonwealthmen: John Trenchard (1662–1723) and Thomas Gordon (1692–1750)

The Enlightenment
Adam Smith (1723–1790)
Adam Ferguson (1723–1797)
Turgot (1727–1781)
John Millar (1735–1801)

English Radicals and Republicans

American Radicals and Republicans

The Philosophic Radicals and the Benthamites
William Cobbett (1763–1835)
John Wade (1788–1875)
Jeremey Bentham (1748–1832)
James Mill (1773–1836)

The Classical Political Economists: The English School
John Stuart Mill (1806–1873)
Richard Cobden (1804–1869)

The French Political Economists and the Paris School
Jean-Baptiste Say (1767–1832)
Benjamin Constant (1767–1830)
Charles Comte (1782–1837), Charles Dunoyer (1786–1862), and Augustin Thierry (1795–1856)
Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850)
Ambroise Clément (1805–86)
Gustave de Molinari (1819–1912)

The Sociological School
Herbert Spencer (1820–1903)
Gustave de Molinari (1819–1912)
William Graham Sumner (1840–1910)
Vilfredo Pareto (1848–1923)

The History of CLCA (III) – The Post-WW2 Renaissance of CLCA
Ludwig von Mises, Murray N. Rothbard, and the Circle Bastiat
Post-Circle Bastiat – the Libertarian Scholars Conferences
Other Works on CLCA by CLs and Libertarians

Other Approaches similar to CLCA
Public Choice and Rent-Seeking
Rational Choice and Predatory Rulers
Mancur Olson and State Banditry
Angelo Codevilla on the Ruling Class vs. the Country Class

Marxists who are “Bringing the State Back In”