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”

My “Farewell to America” tour (January 2020)

As part of my “Farewell to America” tour in January 2020 I gave the following talks and papers on my way back to Australia:

  1. On Bastiat at the Political Economy Project at Dartmouth College, New Hampshire
  2. On Bastiat at the American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington, Massachusetts
  3. On classical liberal class analysis at the Adam Smith Center and the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University
  4. On the history of the classical liberal tradition at the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, Perth, Western Australia

David’s lecture on Bastiat
[David’s lecture on Bastiat at the AIER]

(1.) Dartmouth College: “Bastiat’s Economic Harmonies: A Reassessment after 170 Years.”

At Dartmouth College, New Hampshire: “Bastiat’s Economic Harmonies: A Reassessment after 170 Years.” A paper given to the Political Economy Project at Dartmouth College, Hanover, New Hampshire (7 Jan. 2020). This paper is a summary of what I have learned about the originality and importance of Bastiat as an economic theorist after having completed the manuscript of volume 5 of the Collected Works of Bastiat for Liberty Fund in September 2020. It builds upon a “Liberty Matters” discussion I organised on this topic earlier in the year when I invited leading scholars of Bastiat’s economic thought (Donald J. Boudreaux, Guido Hülsmann, and Joseph T. Salerno) to give their assessment of his work. See the discussion. In my paper I talked about Bastiat’s importance as a leading classical liberal figure and the striking radicalism of his thought. I also explain why I think he is underrated as an economic, political, and social theorist but justly recognised as one of the greatest economic journalists and popularizers of economic ideas who has ever lived. I include in the paper a number of key passages from his writings to illustrate my claims. See the paper in HTML and PDF; and also the lecture slides PDF. The talk was videoed but has not been released to my knowledge.

(2.) American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington, Massachusetts: “Bastiat on Harmony and Disharmony”

At the American Institute for Economic Research, Great Barrington, Massachusetts. Here I gave a paper on my reconstruction of what Bastiat’s great unfinished works on Harmony and Disharmony might have looked like had he lived long enough to complete them. These never finished works might rank alongside Lord Acton’s much anticipated History of Liberty as one of the most important classical liberal books never written. I also was interviewed by Jeff Tucker on the importance, originality, and radicalism of Bastiat which appears as a three part podcast.

“Bastiat on Harmony and Disharmony” – a talk given at the AIER (20 January, 2020). In this nearly book-length paper I explore the connection between harmony and disharmony in the thought of Bastiat. The interconnections between the two show that Bastiat was never a crude “optimist” as many of his critics have argued. Given the presence of “plunder” and “disharmony” in human relations throughout history Bastiat understood that harmony could and had been disrupted or prevent from occurring – hence his desire to write a book on The History of Plunder to explain how this had taken place and what it had meant for human flourishing. In spite of these impediments, the potentially “harmonious” nature of human relationships kept bursting through in the form of markets and other social interactions between individuals. He thought this needed to be described and explained in at least two works – one on “social harmony” broadly understood (legal, social, political), and another on the very important subset of harmony, namely “economic harmonies”. In Bastiat’s theory of history there was a constant tension between the forces or factors tending towards “disharmony” (disturbing factors) and those tending towards “harmony” (restorative factors) which I explore in some detail. The end result I believe is a very sophisticated and rich social theory which has not been properly appreciated by historians of thought in general and libertarians in particular. See the lecture in HTML and PDF 5.9MB; as well as the lecture slides PDF. The video of the proceedings is here and on Youtube.

Following the talk, I was interviewed by Jeff Tucker on the life and thought of Frédéric Bastiat which appears in three parts.

  1. Part 1: “Who was Claude-Frédéric Bastiat?” Part1
  2. Part 2: “Who was Claude-Frédéric Bastiat” Part 2
  3. Part 3: “Insights into Bastiat’s Libertarianism” Part 3

(3.) Singapore: “Understanding Class Divisions in Society: A Classical Liberal Approach”

In Singapore I gave a talk on how classical liberal class analysis can explain many of the divisions which have arisen in modern societies; and was interviewed on the history of the classical liberal tradition and what this political tradition still has to offer us today.

“Understanding Class Divisions in Society: A Classical Liberal Approach”. This talk is part of the Philosophy, Politics and Economics (PPE) Series co-organised by the Adam Smith Center and the School of Social Sciences, Singapore Management University (20 Jan. 2020). According to socialists and Marxists, tensions and conflicts within society are the result of the very essence of the existence of private property and free market relationships between individuals (especially wage labour). In a “capitalist” society these tensions become so great that they give rise to “classes” which contend for power and profits and eventually result (according to the Marxists) in class warfare and ultimately revolution. The classical liberal tradition on the other hand also has a theory of class and class conflict, but these tensions and conflicts are the result of political and other coercive interventions in the economy. In this talk I explore the kinds of problems and tensions created by government intervention the economy, how they give rise to “class conflict” (class here being defined politically rather than economically), and how this different way of looking at the world can help us understand and explain the cause of many tensions and conflicts which are afflicting societies today. The five examples of social tensions and conflicts caused by governments which I discuss in the talk include:

  1. different groups fighting over control of limited resources (taxes) in order to get benefits for themselves
  2. different groups trying to get laws passed by the government to further their own vision of “the good society” and to exclude or harm groups they oppose
  3. different regions of nation states trying to free themselves from central control and taxation, and seeking autonomy
  4. groups which oppose the “capitalist system” (the free market and liberal society) and which seek to either overthrow it or radically change it so it conforms to their ideas of how a future society should be structured and run
  5. the most powerful groups in society who wish to use the power of the state to pursue their own interests at an international level

See the lecture in [ HTML ] and [ PDF ]. A video of the talk is on Facebook.

I was also interviewed by Bryan Cheang, head of the Adam Smith Centre , on the history of the classical liberal tradition (not yet online).

(4.) The Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, Perth, Western Australia: “An Introduction to the Classical Liberal Tradition: People, Ideas, and Movements”.

“An Introduction to the Classical Liberal Tradition: People, Ideas, and Movements”. A talk given at the Mannkal Economic Education Foundation, Perth (30 January, 2020). In this talk I survey for Mannkal’s incoming students (for northern hemisphere readers the academic year in Australia starts at the end of summer, i.e February/March) the long history of the classical liberal tradition and its key ideas. I discuss the long history of the Classical Liberal tradition (CLT) which goes back over 400 years; how it has evolved over this period in reaction to the different kinds of oppression people have suffered under; and the problem we in the present face with defining what is meant by “liberalism” (hence the need for what I call “hyphenated” liberalism.” I argue that there have been 4 main periods in the evolution of CL ideas, beginning in the 1640s and continuing into 1680s (the English Civil War and Revolution in the 1640s (1647-49); and the “Glorious Revolution” of 1688-89); the 1750s-1790s (the “trans-Atlantic” Enlightenment and the American and French Revolutions; the liberal reforms of the19th century 1815-1914 (the period of so-called “Classical Liberalism”; and the post-WW2 liberal / libertarian renaissance. I argue that there are two sets of ideas wee have to take into account: the things CLs were Against and the things they were For. It is in relation to the latter that I present my list of the “Twelve Key Concepts of CL”. Although the achievements of the CLT have been immense, it seems that that CL might be losing the battle of ideas today.

I have given versions of this talk for over a decade and I am currently re-writing and expanding it (as well as adding a section on liberalism in Australia). See the documents listed here “Study Guides on the Classical Liberal Tradition”, especially the section on “The 12 Key Concepts of Liberty”. An important summary of CL ideas and movements can be found in the Cato Institute’s The Encyclopedia of Libertarianism (2008) which is now online, along with my selection (with links) of the key entries and also here.
See also the PDF of my Mannkal talk overheads and Further Reading.

In addition to the talk, I ran a workshop for the Mannkal students in which we conducted a close reading of my new translation and edition of Bastiat’s perhaps best-known essay “The Law” (1850). See “Frédéric Bastiat, The Law (June 1850): A New Translation by David M. Hart with a Reader’s Guide to the Text” (with discussion questions and key passages) PDF.