Classical liberalism, the forgotten Italians
By Alberto Mingardi
I’m reading Liberalism. The Life of an Idea by Edmund Fawcett. I like the idea behind the book, which is providing a history of classical liberalism through vignettes of its great champions, but I have some problems with the underlying notion of liberalism. The authors considers “liberalism” very broadly, in its laissez faire and in its anti-market variety: by doing so, he inevitably waters it downs.
Fawcett does a good service by rediscovering names such as the great Richard Cobden, or Eugen Richter, or Paul Leroy Beaulieu, who are almost forgotten by the general public.
In one chapter, he deals with Marshall and Walras, presenting the latter as a champion of “free trade and free competition.” I was rather surprised that he doesn’t mention Vilfredo Pareto, Walras’ successor in Lausanne. Pareto was far more of a libertarian, deeply influenced as he was in his youth by Frédéric Bastiat and Herbert Spencer.
In discussing the extensions of suffrage and thus “liberal democracy,” Fawcett refers to Robert Michels, a German sociologist (although he taught economics) who ended up living and teaching in Italy. However, he doesn’t mention either Pareto or Gaetano Mosca, both of whom equally contributed to elite theory more than Michels himself.
Fawcett doesn’t want to make of liberalism an exclusively Anglo-Saxon story, and devotes much attention to German and French thinkers.
Italy was never home to a great classical liberal political movement, but had many remarkable classical liberal thinkers. To mention but a few, in the 19th century Francesco Ferrara was a major economic theorist, and the staunchest libertarian. Father Antonio Rosmini illuminated the intertwined relationship between liberty and property. Between the two centuries, Pareto wasn’t the only important economist Italy housed. The Italians (from Maffeo Pantaleoni and Ugo Mazzola to Amilcare Puviani and Achille Loria) studied public finance in depth, perhaps because of the ever perilous conditions of Italian public finances. Some of these authors foreshadowed public choice and were well-known to the late James M. Buchanan.
In the 20th century, Luigi Einaudi was a very prolific and wise writer (now Palgrave is meritoriously publishing a few of his essays). Historian Guglielmo Ferrero has written a remarkable trilogy on political power and legitimacy. Legal scholar Bruno Leoni added much to an “Austrian” understanding of legal institution (see this beautiful article by Todd Zywicki at libertylawsite.org).
In more recent years, Sergio Ricossa, perhaps the only Italian economist who had some sympathy for Hayek and the Austrian school in the post WWII period, wrote a splendid essay on Keynes, Marx and “the end of economics”, that would deserve to be more widely known.
Not for a nationalistic fetish, but it is somehow sad that all these great people are largely forgotten in the public conversation in the English language. Perhaps some initiative to revive the interest in their work is worth thinking about. Suggestions welcomed.