RIP Sergio Ricossa, lonely voice for freedom in Italian academia
By Alberto Mingardi
Last week we received the sad news that economist Sergio Ricossa died at age 88, after a long illness. Ricossa was the doyen of Italy’s libertarians. A couple of decades ago he was better known in international circle, as he was active in the Mont Pelerin Society (he joined its Board of Directors in 1976). He was later made a lifetime member of the Society.
He was a tremendously talented man: a well-trained economist, a scholar with a true passion for economic history, a connoisseur of the history of ideas, a phenomenal, Henry Hazlitt-style popularizer.
For some forty years, he was one of the very few voices that constantly defended individual liberty and free markets in the Italian public debate. Antonio Martino, a professor at the University of Rome and later twice member of the Italian Cabinet, joked that Italian free-marketers were so few that they should never take the same plane, lest an accident extinguish the movement in one stroke.
Free-marketers were scarce indeed. Bruno Leoni, who befriended young Ricossa and introduced him in the Mont Pelerin Society, was killed in 1967. The following years strongly discouraged any kind of “intellectual entrepreneurship” on the free market side: Italy was having its Marxist hangover that culminated in the bloody parable of the Red Brigades.
Ricossa never gave up his classical liberal preaching. He was a scholar and a committed populariser, particularly successful because of his pristine writing style.
An econometrician at the beginning of his career, he warmed up to the Austrian school, particularly thanks to Friedrich von Hayek. His many books included an impressive “Dictionary of Economics,” and wonderful popular works such as “Impariamo l’economia” (Let’s Learn Economics) and “Cento trame di classici dell’economia” (One Hundred Plots of Classics of Economics – by the way, a very amusing title, besides being a most useful tool). In 1974, Ricossa had published a little book called “Storia della fatica” (A History of Toil). He argued that, contra the stereotypical view that the Industrial Revolution disenfranchised workers, it actually marked the harbinger of “the great enrichment.”
Ricossa’s masterpiece dates to 1986. It is called “La fine dell’economia,” (The End of the Economy), and is a powerful debunking on both Marx’s and Keynes’s “economic millenarism.” The book evoked themes similar to those of Deirdre McCloskey’s trilogy, and Thomas Sowell’s powerful “A Conflict of Visions.”
In a wide-ranging overview of the history of European political and economic thought, Ricossa identifies a “seigneurial mindset” that considers market relationships as essentially debased and ill-mannered.
For Ricossa, this mindset goes hand-in-hand with a hubristic attitude that considers the rise of an immutable order free of change (and exchange) as desirable and possible. The seigneurial mindset considers “the pursuit of utility” in striking contrast to “the quest for the true and righteous” and sees profit-seeking as inherently corrupt.
The seigneural mindset goes a long way, as it still dominates our vision of propriety in society. To Ricossa, socialism is in some sense a kind of application of the “seigneurial mindset” to the modern times. It is based upon historiographical myths that, from Arnold Toynbee to the Hammonds, internalise “the seigneurial tradition of historiography.”
After having built a refined criticism of this “seigneurial mindset” in the first part of his book, in the second, Ricossa explains why such attitudes drive the “self-anointed”, to borrow Sowell’s term, to buy into social engineering and the dream of building Heaven on Earth. This paradise, Ricossa explains, is “static”: it is a world freed at last from that attitude to embrace change and betterment that he sees as typical of the bourgeois, mercantile way of thinking.
He points out, quoting from the 1844 Manuscripts, that Marx was horrified by seeing that “every person speculates on creating a new need in another… The increase in the quantity of objects is therefore accompanied by an extension of the realm of the alien powers to which man is subjected, and every new product represents a new potentiality of mutual swindling and mutual plundering”.
What “perfectionists” (so Ricossa called them), either from the left or from the right, cannot stand is precisely innovators multiplying goods and services available for all individuals, and people autonomously deciding if they like them or not. The “seigneurial mentality” finds economic change vulgar, and consumers irrational. “Imperfectionists”, on the other hand, are happy to have the common people give it a go.
Ricossa writes in the tradition of Smith and Hayek. “La fine dell’economia” is a brilliant and genuinely erudite work, which unfortunately is not available in English. If it were, I bet it’d be considered a classic. In 1980, Ricossa sketched some of the same concepts in a shorter pamphlet, entitled “Straborghese“. While the Italian cultural environment was still completely dominated by Marxism, he sent to the presses a book that was a lively vindication of the “bourgeois virtues”. I bought a copy in a second-hand bookstore many years ago, and was impressed by the inscriptions of the first reader of the book, who spilled hate page after page.
In 2002, Enrico Colombatto and I edited a Festschrift for Ricossa (Il coraggio della libertà) which included, among others, contributions by Anthony de Jasay, Israel Kirzner, Ralph Raico and Thomas Szasz.
Ricossa has lots to do with why I’m a libertarian. So I hope you’ll bear with a few personal considerations. For one thing, Ricossa’s columns on “Il Giornale” were gems, splendid exercises in the economic way of thinking. He wrote many book reviews, and one of his reviews brought me to read David Friedman’s “The Machinery of Freedom” and, for me, that was it. For many, a Ricossa’s column was the first step into libertarianism. In the late 1990s, he turned “anarco-phile”, helping with his prestige in the translation and diffusion of hard-core libertarian works.
Far more important, however, it was for me the fact that Sergio was a schoolmate of my grandfather for some ten years. One of our biggest PR problems is that the free market is often associated with the defence of the status quo, a tool of the big and powerful. My grandfather came out of the ranks of the very petty bourgeosie, and yet he felt immensely prosperous as compared with Sergio. Ricossa took notes in classes, not to kill time but because he couldn’t afford books. He finished his high school studies in accounting together with my grandfather, but different than him he went on to university. He never attended a class, because he had to provide for himself. But his brilliance did nonetheless earn him an academic career.
My grandfather and Sergio did’t meet for some 50 years after leaving high school, and yet my grandfather always remembered with sympathy that friend of his, so poor and so bright. His stories somehow vaccinated me forever from the idea that the free market was for the rich and powerful.
Sergio, of solid working class background, thought a market economy was best precisely for those of humble origins. He cared for the imperfect yet pretty good world of humanely possible improvements. Not by chance, at Mont Pelerin meetings he soon befriended Ralph Harris of the IEA, who had a similar working class background, as his colleague Arthur Seldon did too.
This background made them stronger and more credible in making their case for the free society. I hope this is not lost on a new generation of readers, who get to their writings without fully appreciating their biographies.