liberté, egalité …

Professor Marcus is teaching a French civ course this semester. She asked me to throw something together on politics, the Left, the Right, the forgotten French liberal tradition, etc.

Here’s what I came up with. Most of it is from Wikipedia. The middle section is by me.

Two important political terms we get from the French:

  • laissez faire
  • left-wing (/right-wing)

LAISSEZ FAIRE (from Wikipedia)

Laissez-faire is short for “laissez faire, laissez passer,” a French phrase meaning to “let things alone, let them pass”. First used by the eighteenth century Physiocrats as an injunction against government interference with trade, it is now used as a synonym for strict free market economics. Laissez-faire economic policy is in direct contrast to statist economic policy. Adam Smith played a large role in popularizing laissez-faire economic theories in English-speaking countries, though he was critical of a number of aspects of what is currently thought of as laissez-faire.

Laissez-faire (imperative) is distinct from laisser faire (infinitive), which refers to a careless attitude in the application of a policy, implying a lack of consideration, or thought.

LEFT WING (from Wikipedia)

Although it may seem ironic in terms of present-day usage, the original “leftists” during the French Revolution were the largely bourgeois supporters of laissez-faire capitalism and free markets. As the electorate expanded beyond property-holders, these relatively wealthy elites found themselves clearly victorious over the old aristocracy and the remnants of feudalism, but newly opposed by the growing and increasingly organized and politicized workers and wage-earners. The “left” of 1789 would, in some ways be part of the present-day “right”, liberal with regard to the rights of property and intellect, but not embracing notions of distributive justice, rights for organized labor, etc.

RIGHT WING (from Wikipedia)

In politics, right-wing, the political right, or simply the right, are terms which refer, with no particular precision, to the segment of the political spectrum in opposition to left-wing politics.


Originally (in the 18th century), laissez-faire liberalism, progressivism and left-wing policies were all the same thing. The original Left was a predominantly bourgeois movement.

Those on the original Right were the beneficiaries of political privilege under the Ancien Regime — aristocrats and protectionists. They wanted to conserve privilege and hierarchy — thus the label conservative. (Note that liberals on the Left and conservatives on the Right might sound familiar but did not mean two centuries ago what any of those four terms mean in contemporary American politics!)

In the 19th century, a new political philosophy was invented, called socialism. Socialists claimed to be the new, true progressives. Liberals, the socialists claimed, were old news and now occupied a position between the reactionary Right wing and the new progressive Left. As the old conservatives died off, what we now call “classical liberalism” came to occupy the right wing of parliamentary assemblies while the socialists dominated the literal left wing of those same assemblies. (Note however that archliberal Bastiat, in the mid-19th century, refused to cooperate with this reshuffling of seats. Refusing to be associated with conservatism or the Ancien Regime, he sat in the left wing — the sole liberal surrounded by socialists — while his political allies sat on the right.)

The French liberal school of laissez-faire economics began in the 18th century, was the dominant school for the first three quarters of the 19th century and lasted until WWI. Because the French educational system is run by socialists, the liberal tradition has been erased from the history books.

And since “right-wing” means only anti-Left, the terminology has been used to conflate authoritarian politics, such as fascism, with their opposite. At this point, the term “right wing” or “the Right” means only opposition to egalitarian socialism.


Originally, the laissez-faire progressive Left of French politics stood for both liberty and equality. The liberal tradition held liberty as its priority, believing that equality of rights and opportunities would follow (though not equality of results). The socialist tradition that took over the French Left put equality (of results) above individual liberty. Some on the French Right believe that liberty and equality are opposites (as do most on the French Left), but contemporary political ideologies are better understood if represented on a two-dimensional map than on a simplistic one-dimensional “spectrum”:

The French invented both laissez-faire liberalism (as the name implies) and also modern socialism.


Claude Henri de Rouvroy, Comte de Saint-Simon (October 17, 1760 – May 19, 1825) was the first theorist of economic central planning.

Pierre-Joseph ProudhonPierre-Joseph Proudhon (January 15, 1809 – January 19, 1865) agreed with the socialists in rejecting private property but unlike most socialists, Proudhon also rejected the State. He shared with liberalism the belief that individual liberty is paramount, but where liberals saw property as the basis of liberty, Proudhon saw property as anti-liberty.

Famous Proudhon quotation:

“Property is theft!”

Proudhon was the first writer to describe himself as an anarchist.


Benjamin Constant (October 25, 1767 – December 8, 1830) was born in Lausanne, Switzerland, to descendants of Huguenots.

He was active in French politics as a publicist and politician during the latter half of the French Revolution and between 1815 and 1830. […] A classical liberal author, he pleaded for individual liberty, restrictions on government authority on the individual, and increasing voting rights. He is well-known for his theory of modern liberty. This theory says that modern social organization, above all the rise of commercial social relations, makes it historically necessary that moderns enjoy individual liberty and political participation. He set modern liberty in contrast to the ancient liberty of the ancient Greeks and Romans, which gave citizens great participation in public affairs, but at the expense of their individual freedom. Constant thus attacked Napoleon’s martial appetite on the grounds that it was illiberal and no longer suited to modern commercial social organization. [from Wikipedia]

Fr�d�ric BastiatClaude Fr�d�ric Bastiat (June 30, 1801 – December 24, 1850) was a French classical liberal author and political economist. Bastiat embodied the “Harmonic” school of libertarians, who consider utilitarian and natural law arguments as two complementary aspects of a same world. Bastiat did not take part in the anarchist-minarchist debate (he arguably died too early for that); he seems to have considered the State as something inevitable as far as immediate practical things matter, something that ought to be taken into account as long as it existed. He also explicitly deplored violent revolution as a way to get rid of governments. Finally, his friend Gustave de Molinari did publish his foundational work on free market anarchism in 1849, and Bastiat, knowing that, did declare on his death bed that Molinari was his spiritual heir. Bastiat was the author of the satirical document best known as the “Candlemakers’ petition” which presents itself as a petition from candle-makers to the French government to block out the Sun to prevent its unfair competition with their products. Bastiat was also the author of The Law, originally published as a pamphlet in 1850. [from Wikipedia]

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3 Responses to liberté, egalité …

  1. iceberg says:

    An informative, lengthy post, but quite brief in comparison to Ralph Raico’s “< HREF="" REL="nofollow">Authentic German Liberalism of the 19th Century<> which took me the better part of hour to digest.

  2. Sorry, Charlie. Left- and right-wing are <>much<> older than that. They derive from the ancient Roman Senate, where plebes (non-land-owners) sat on the left and patricians on the right. The main issue — should government rob the rich to help the poor, and how much — hasn’t changed in 2400 years.The basic idea of socialism, of course, is much older than that. There have been equalitarian rebels as long as there have been dictatorships, probably all the way back to before our ancestors were intelligent. After all, the chimps Jane Goodall studied organize their society exactly that way.The French did invent the use of “left bank” to denigrate people and places as being socially inferior (from which comes the use of <>gauche<>, literally “left”, in English). Maybe you were thinking of that.

  3. Dagny Taggart says:

    <>Who is John Galt?<>

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