I’m very pleased to be leading the discussion in this month’s “LibertyMatters“. The topic is Vilfredo Pareto.

Today, Pareto’s name is well known but his thinking less so. An engineer by training, he  made notable contributions to economics (he succeeded Leon Walras in the latter’s chair in Lausanne and contributed much to the formalization of economics), political science, and sociology. As a young man, he “plunged into a one man crusade against the state and statism” (Rothbard) but later he seemed to be less and less convinced of the viability of the old liberal programme. He developed a realistic look at politics, aiming to understand its irrational substrata and weary of the regularities of the political game, regardless of its apparent changes.

Pareto died in the summer of 1923, roughly speaking two years before the assassination of socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti, a turning point in the consolidation of the fascist Italian regime. He certainly did not see, then, Mussolini becoming the dictator he was. And yet he sympathized with early fascism, though he reminded the movement of the importance of a free press and of an opposition (without which, a political regime becomes weaker). Such support may be seen as an example of “dangerous” political realism, meaning in this sense the ability to choose between two evils (the other was the possibility of a communist revolution in Italy), but is certainly at odds with liberal sentiment.

But Pareto was a political realist in another, much more important sense. He tried to look at politics for what it is, to study its dynamics scientifically, refusing to believe in the different justificatory attempts that may embellish government action. This means a certain dose of skepticism also on some justification devices that come from classical liberalism itself: the idea that having a constitution may make government legitimate and respectful of its people at once, for example.

In my first intervention, I provide a biographical sketch of Pareto and try to argue that his political realism is not at odds with his younger liberalism, but rather its consequence.
The conversation will soon by joined by Giandomenica Becchio, Rosolino Candela, and Richard E. Wagner. I’ve read their essays, and they are all fantastic and far more thought-provoking than mine. Please check them out, as soon as they’re on line.