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Alberto Mingardi, “Liberty and Cynicism: Was Vilfredo Pareto a Liberal?” (November, 2018)

Alberto Mingardi, an assistant professor of the history of political thought at IULM University in Milan, Italy and director general of the free-market think tank Istituto Bruno Leoni, asks if Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) should belong in the history of classical liberalism? His answer is that Pareto’s drastic political realism—his ambition to look at politics for what it is—is not incompatible with a classical-liberal worldview, but it is incompatible with a classical-liberal program. He is joined in this discussion by Giandomenica Becchio, an assistant professor at the University of Torino; Rosolino Candela, a Senior Fellow with the F. A. Hayek Program for Advanced Study in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center at George Mason University; and Richard E. Wagner is Holbert Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University.




Alberto Mingardi, "Liberty and Cynicism: Was Vilfredo Pareto a Liberal?" (November, 2018)


Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923)


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The Debate

Lead Essay: Alberto Mingardi, "Liberty and Cynicism: Was Vilfredo Pareto a Liberal?" [Posted: November 1, 2018]

Responses and Critiques

  1. Richard E. Wagner, "Vilfredo Pareto's Scholarly Journey from Economics to Sociology" [Posted: Nov. 5, 2018]
  2. Giandomenica Becchio, "Pareto's Dilemma: The Allocation of Liberty between Rationality and Irrationality" [Posted: Nov. 6, 2018]
  3. Rosolino Candela, "An "Imperfect" Interpretation of Vilfredo Pareto's Classical Liberalism" [Posted: Nov. 7, 2018]

The Conversation

  1. Alberto Mingardi, "Pareto and the Death of Liberal Europe" [Posted: Nov. 8, 2018]
  2. Giandomenica Becchio, "Pareto's Political View: Anti-metaphysics and "Irrationality," a Clarification" [Posted: Nov. 13, 2018]
  3. Alberto Mingardi, "Democracy's Decline: Pareto and Fascism" [Posted: Nov. 13, 2018]


About the Authors

Alberto Mingardi is an assistant professor of the history of political thought at IULM University in Milan, Italy. He is director general of the free-market think tank Istituto Bruno Leoni . Mingardi is also the Presidential Scholar in Political Theory at Chapman University and an adjunct fellow at the Cato Institute. He has written monographs on Herbert Spencer (in English, 2011) and Thomas Hodgskin (in Italian, 2016) and has edited critical editions of both Hodgskin and Spencer. He translated and edited a critical edition of Vilfredo Pareto's letters to Benjamin Tucker's Liberty. He writes regularly for the Italian press and blogs at EconLog.

Giandomenica Becchio is an assistant professor at the University of Torino, where she teaches history of economics, history of entrepreneurship, and methodology of economics at both undergraduate and graduate program. She received her BA/MA in philosophy at the University of Torino and her PhD in economics from the University of Florence. Supported by research fellowships at Duke University (2009/10), Hitotsubashi University, Tokyo (2011), and VSE University, Prague (2013), she authored many publications on history of political economy, Austrian economics, gender and feminism economics, philosophy of economics.

Rosolino Candela is an associate director of academic and student programs as well as a senior fellow of the F.A. Hayek Program for Advanced in Philosophy, Politics, and Economics at the Mercatus Center. Prior to moving to George Mason University, Candela taught in the department of economics at Brown University, where he was also a postdoctoral research associate in the Political Theory Project. Candela was also visiting professor of economics at Universidad Francisco Marroquin, and a visiting fellow in the department of political and social sciences at the European University Institute.

Richard E. Wagner is Holbert Harris Professor of Economics at George Mason University. He received his Ph.D. in economics from the University of Virginia in 1966. He joined the faculty of George Mason in 1988 after having held positions at the University of California at Irvine, Tulane University, Virginia Tech, Auburn University, and Florida State University. His fields of interest include public finance, public choice, political economy, and macroeconomics. He has authored more than 200 articles in professional journals and some 30 books and monographs.


Additional Reading


LEAD ESSAY: Alberto Mingardi, "Liberty and Cynicism: Was Vilfredo Pareto a Liberal?" [Posted: November 1, 2018]

Does Vilfredo Pareto (1848-1923) belong in the history of classical liberalism? In this short essay I want to suggest that Pareto's political realism—his ambition to look at politics for what it is—is not at all at odds with liberalism. The argument is relevant because of Pareto's biography: he ended up as an early, albeit not uncritical, supporter of Benito Mussolini. But it is also relevant because classical liberalism is often dismissed as a naïve ideal compared to the harsh realities of political power, particularly when the old boundaries of political parties tend to blur and charismatic leadership (often the natural companion of so-called populism) enters the game.

In the English-speaking world, Pareto is a household name for economists and social scientists, as he introduced the notion of "optimality" and his law of distribution. His Manual of Political Economy was recently republished in a noteworthy critical edition (Pareto 2014), although his earlier works (including the Cours d'économie politique) are not available in the language of Shakespeare, Alfred Marshall, and John Maynard Keynes. Those essays are marked by a pugnacious free-trade militancy and often deal with the day-by-day of politics, fueled by outrage at corruption and privilege in the Italian ruling class.

Life and Realism

Vilfredo Pareto was born in 1848, a year of political turmoil all across Europe. His father, Raffaele, was an engineer and "guided and encouraged Vilfredo in technical studies" (Mornati 2018, 22): young Vilfredo became an engineer himself. But Raffaele, who was originally inclined towards Giuseppe Mazzini's republican nationalism before becoming nonpolitical, did not affect Vilfredo's political Weltanschauung.

Pareto claimed the person who won his mind to classical liberalism was Frédéric Bastiat.

I was approximately sixteen when I chanced to read two authors of a completely opposite nature, Bossuet and Bastiat. I heartily disliked the first, whereas the second fully pleased my sentiments, which under this respect were in utter contrast with those of the people who surrounded me at that time, such as I can state that they weren't acquired, but were a consequence of the temperament I had since my birth. (Pareto 1907, 807)

The young Vilfredo was also deeply influenced by John Stuart Mill, as thoroughly shown by Fiorenzo Mornati (2018). He admired English liberalism: the Anti-Corn Law League's successes in winning public opinion, positivism, William Gladstone's standing for free trade, sound public finance, and the lower order of society. All of these were highly congenial to Pareto.[1]

He developed liberal ideas further as a young man in Florence. Briefly the capital city of newly unified Italy, Florence was an intellectually vibrant scene at the time, and Pareto was befriended and mentored by Ubaldino Peruzzi (mayor of the city, 1869-1878) and his wife Emilia. The Peruzzis used to bring the liberal intellighenzia of the city together for regular gatherings, essentially hosting a salon. Young Vilfredo made interesting acquaintances and made his debut in the public debate: his first public speech argued for a voting system based on proportional representation as a way to balance the dangers of the despotism of majority rule.

At the time, Pareto was a man of the world, not the secluded scholar he was later to become. He worked in the iron business, in a company in which Mr. Peruzzi was one of the leading shareholders. Pareto started by managing the factory in San Giovanni Valdarno and ended up being its CEO. He had strong views and tried to implement innovation in the company's trade, the processing of pig iron, but soon he realized that regulations, particularly those related to the protectionist turn Italy was taking, were thwarting his efforts.

His firsthand contact with bureaucracy and the unintended consequences of protectionism strengthened Pareto's free-trade views. At the same time, his frustration with the Italian ruling class was growing. For him, so-called "liberal" Italy, as historians call it today, was "liberal" in name only. (All the factions, he remarked in a letter to Liberty, share this label, which therefore doesn't mean anything. [Pareto 1888a, 957]) The Italian bourgeoisie, which was supposed to treasure liberal institutions, was in fact indifferent to whatever violation of liberty "provided the number of State-salaried offices placed annually at the disposition of their sons does not diminish," and "provided that they may continue to enrich themselves by means of economic protection." (Pareto 1888b, 929)

Herbert Spencer exerted a significant influence on Pareto. In an 1892 letter to Maffeo Pantaleoni, a lifetime friend and recipient of an endless stream of correspondence, Pareto could proclaim that "I believe, with Spencer, that human society progresses by distancing itself from the military type, to draw near to the industrial. As far as I am concerned, I shall ally myself with whoever endeavors to undermine militarism, regardless of their motives." (Pareto 1892, 255) In 1887, Italy took a strong turn in the direction of colonialism and protectionism; the two things, Pareto was taught by both Spencer and by his experience, were intertwined: they both benefitted the few in government and their cronies, jeopardized the welfare of the many, and were covered up by rousing words.

In the 1880s and 1890s Pareto was "ideologically, a crusading liberal doctrinaire." (Raico 1994, 14) He was always searching for outlets to publish his writings, eager to enter the battle of ideas against privilege and over-government. Since he ran unsuccessfully for parliament in 1882, some commentators have pointed to the psychology of a spurned lover (Stark 1963, 105) as a key to understanding his bitterness. A similar view was advanced by the Pareto scholar par excellence Giovanni Busino: since "his sporadic experience of practical politics persuaded him that power is evil, that power is corruption and malice," Pareto searched for a safe harbor in colder rationality, becoming "a sort of mere onlooker of the outside world. In sum, in every page, in every line of his, an unconscious repugnance for action can be recognised." (Busino 1964, 20)

Pareto's life experienced a definite turn when he moved into academia, succeeding Léon Walras in Lausanne, Switzerland. Fiorenzo Mornati, in the second volume of his biography of Pareto, pointed out that at the beginning Pareto believed that as a teacher he was continuing his liberal mission: feeding students with the "scientific principles" of economic freedom, hoping some of his students might pass them on to others. (Mornati 2017, 27). With time he grew more detached. As he received an inheritance, he planned to retire from active teaching to write his big books.[2] But he also suffered from being left by his wife in 1901 and became less confident in the potential success of teaching the liberal principles, that very same effort in which he was so enthusiastically involved just a few years ago. Yet the fact that Pareto thought it was far better for politics to move in the direction of Spencer's "commercial society" never blinded him to the faults, problems, and scandals of politics.

James Burnham maintained that young Pareto "defended, for some while, the point of view of orthodox 'liberal' economics … the classical liberalism of free trade and free markets. This point of view he gradually abandoned. It was not replaced by any other." (Burnham, 171-72) Others emphatically called Pareto "the Karl Marx of fascism" (Worthington 1933), a label that stuck with him. This may be due to the fact that Pareto was more and more interested in the role of force in political affairs, which at a certain point he deemed inevitable. Yet he died in 1923, only a few months after Mussolini seized power and well before fascism became a full-fledged authoritarian regime in 1925 after the assassination of Giacomo Matteotti. Pareto's relationship with Mussolini is a complex matter, far beyond the scope of this essay. Mussolini claimed he attended some of Pareto's lectures in Lausanne, in 1903-1904: there is no evidence he did. But Mussolini's claiming an acquaintance with the old sage, self-exiled in Switzerland since the 1890s and yet never oblivious to his country's political happenings, could not hurt the soon-to-be Duce's reputation.

Sympathy for fascism in the early 1920s was certainly unfortunate but not incomprehensible. The period 1919-1920 in Italy is known as "Biennio Rosso," "the two Red years." Strikes and demonstrations were so frequent and, often, violent, that they fostered an atmosphere comparable to that of a civil war. Many a liberal saw Mussolini's iron fist as the only possibility for restoring some sort of order. However, in a couple of essays in which he attempted to advise the new prime minister and his acolytes, Pareto stressed the importance of having an opposition and a free press, as absolute power weakens even those who hold it.

Optimism and the Status Quo

Pareto's political realism is thus strongly indebted to one of his youthful enthusiasms: his admiration for Frédéric Bastiat. In a sense, Pareto took Bastiat's theory of plunder and expanded it, making it a pillar of his own understanding of society. Bastiat's most famous quote, "The State is the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else," alludes to what has been at times called the classical-liberal theory of class struggle: the idea that "plunderers" always attempt to appropriate the resources of the "plundered" and do so by means of politics.

In the Course, Pareto seems to consider economists and social scientists that avoid this consideration as hopelessly compromised by government.

The censure in which plunder incurs caused economists to frequently refrain from investigating it, thus imitating amateur entomologists, who restrict themselves to only catching the most attractive butterflies. A naturalist, in contrast, does not flinch from any insect, not even the most repugnant. Plundering always existed in human societies; we can hope to considerably decrease it, but it is not certain we can ever succeed in making it entirely disappear it entirely disappear. [Pareto 1896: II, 423, § 1042]

He saw Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari as "brilliant exceptions" to the rule of economists playing amateur entomologists. (Pareto 1896: II, 423, § 1042n) In the same context, Pareto appreciated that Bastiat's views were helpful in understanding the defects of political democracy. (Pareto 1896: II, 49, § 637)

This may help explain why Pareto was so harsh on those "liberal Utopians," whose patron saint he likewise identified in Bastiat. These "Utopians" were the economists who stressed the harmonic features of economic development, which is indeed a theme dear to the author of The Law,but who forgot their master's lesson on plunder. By overemphasizing economic progress and neglecting plunder, Pareto felt, economists were becoming little more than apologists for the status quo.

Even as a young libertarian, Pareto often had little patience with his fellow travellers. For example, he did not like the anti-clericalism of Italian liberals, who were blind to the abuses against the Church and against religious liberty.[3] Not that Pareto was religious: but he thought, right from the beginning, that other political (or civic) ideologies served exactly the same purpose as religions did by giving their adherents belief in God.

If we want to come to an understanding of reality, no rationalization should go unquestioned. Indeed, in building his sociology, Pareto was ultimately making this skeptical program into a system: history and politics can't be understood by trusting the self-serving narratives of its protagonists but should be the object of a scientific inquiry that goes beyond the surface of "derivations," that doesn't stop at the reasons people provide for their own behavior. Even "rationalism" gets enlisted by Pareto among "intellectual religions." (Pareto 1920, 41) Foreign policy did not escape Pareto's dissection. Years before he thought the colonizers were not bringing civilization to uncivilized people, as they claimed, but were simply finding a nice sounding reason for conquest and exploitation. After World War I  he compared Woodrow Wilson's Fourteen Points to witchcraft and "Christian Science." Pareto also distinguished between logical and non-logical actions. "For the most part, logical action is the domain of markets while non-logical action is the domain of politics, though this mapping from action to domain is not exact." (Candela and Wagner 2016: 16)

Action is due to deep-rooted motives, which Pareto called "residues," but human beings need to rationalize them: they need justifications to make actions look rational and coherent. "Derivations" are such justifications, arguments that can be used by people to embellish their political behavior. In short, men are inclined to favor those derivations that are better attuned to their own sentiments. This understanding of political action as the product of pre-political attitudes should be amenable to contemporary evolutionary psychologists.

Pareto thought different tendencies always coexisted within a society: one tendency toward decentralization, one toward centralization of power. Moreover, he distinguished between two different types within the boundaries of the ruling classes. On the one hand, you have people who value stability and tend to oppose change and newcomers. They tend to live on land-rent or fixed income. Their characteristic "residue" goes by the name the "persistence of aggregates." On the other hand, you have people who thrive on change and seek innovation but also master manipulation and can turn the government to their own good. The residue behind them Pareto labels "instinct for combination," which indeed suggests an ability to come up with ever new things.

To be sure, Pareto thought that both types were needed for society to flourish. Yet in "demagogic plutocracy" (the label Pareto used for countries like early 20th-century Italy and France) the second type, the speculators, predominated. In those countries the governing elite unscrupulously exploited the general public by devices akin to what we call "crony capitalism." As Walter Grinder and John Hagel noted, "The politicizing of economic relationships which emerges as a prominent characteristic of state capitalist systems leads to a disharmony of interests that is manifested in constant tension, confrontation and finally violence" (Grinder and Hagel 1974, 274).

Liberty and Realism

Pareto's Trattato di sociologia generale (Mind and Society, 1916) aimed to strip social life of all metaphysical pretensions and easy rationalizations. In a sense this was implied in his appreciation of Bastiat's denunciation of plunder. The central fact of politics is the truth that whenever you have politics, you have someone governing and someone obeying: politics, indeed, allows somebody to take advantage of somebody else. Such truth is unpleasant: even liberal economists of the Utopian kind prefer to close their eyes to it. People want to believe things are different and they hold ideologies that allow them to avoid considering unpleasant truths. Such Pareto realism dismantled the ideological pretenses that democracy is different from and better than all other regimes; therefore it was considered an indirect aid to the anti-democratic movements then rising.

Why and to what extent is political realism incompatible with classical liberalism? Should not a liberal aim for institutional arrangements that make individual liberty and government compatible instead of disparaging such arrangements?

In the liberal tradition two elements coexist. For one, you have Bastiat on plunder and Pareto on the ruling class—more generally speaking, thinkers who see the state as the ultimate device for exploitation. But you also have thinkers who stress that the market economy tends to multiply bread and fishes, thereby providing an optimistic perspective on the present and future. Superficially, the one worldview may imply the falseness of the other, but this ought not be the case. The fact that we have economic progress should not necessarily blind us to the exploitative nature of government. In a sense, economic progress is precisely what makes that exploitation nowadays more bearable, even though, measured in the percentage of GDP devoured by taxation, the exploitation is much greater than in the past.

The true problem lies elsewhere. Pareto's drastic realism is not incompatible with a classical-liberal worldview: it is incompatible with a classical-liberal program. In Pareto's times, that program consisted in seeking to obtain a constitution from the rulers and pursuing one kind of reform, in particular one aimed at widening the franchise. Was that sufficient to shackle political power? Hardly so, and 20th-century liberals (think of Hayek or even the realists Buchanan and Tullock) tried to update and perfect that program, make it more resilient, figure out better constitutional restraints.

Political realism both teaches us the importance of institutions—and their limits. Digging deeper into the psychology of individuals to understand political action, Pareto focused on the latter element. A response to his lesson can certainly be political nihilism: nothing works, so anything works. But another response can also be a richer and deeper understanding of politics, as a matter of rules but also behaviors and prejudices, ideas and irrationality. This is a lesson that will not lead to enlarging the sphere of action of political power.


[1.] He later described his own views at this time: "Political economy, as it was established by the so-called classical economists, was a perfect, or almost-perfect, science; [what only remained was] to put into practice its principles. That required imitating Cobden's League, the most fruitful and loftiest example for mankind in centuries. In politics, the sovereignty of the people was an axiom, liberty a universal cure-all." (Pareto 1907, 809)

[2.] However, he never stopped writing short articles, including in the very last years of his life.

[3.] Somewhat understandably: Italy was unified against the Catholic Church and by liberals.



1. Richard E. Wagner, "Vilfredo Pareto's Scholarly Journey from Economics to Sociology" [Posted: Nov. 5, 2018]

Vilfredo Pareto graduated in civil engineering in 1869, having written a thesis titled "Principles of Equilibrium in Solid Bodies," which Pareto surely carried forward to some degree when he turned to economics in the mid-1880s. Even as an engineer, Pareto was an outspoken liberal in objecting to the regulations he encountered. After turning to economics, Pareto maintained his liberal opposition to state regulation. Alberto Mingardi is surely right to assert that Pareto has a secure place within the pantheon of liberal political economists.

Pareto was a liberal for sure, but it was his interest in scientific explanation that animated his efforts. Pareto's political economy looks different from that of most of his contemporaries. It resembles engineering with such constructs as equations of forces and stresses. Pareto's interest in economics stemmed more from his scientific interests than from a desire to advocate for liberal values and practices. Sure, Pareto engaged in plenty of advocacy on behalf of liberalism. Still, Pareto was more a theorist than an advocate. For Pareto, advocacy must be reconciled with theory and not the other way around.

One can accept a claim on behalf of the social beneficence of free trade while at the same time recognizing that free trade is not the practice of the day. The posture of the activist, which was often the posture Pareto took in the earlier years, would be to engage in adventures in persuasion. All the same, the weakness of the support for free trade presents a scientific question for examination: if free trade is truly superior to restricted trade by some reasonable metric, how can the dominance of restricted trade be explained? This latter type of question came increasingly to engage Pareto's attention.

Indeed, Pareto turned his attention primarily in this direction when he embarked on his sociological studies. Pareto was convinced that a social system based on free and open competition was superior to any of the options where the few dominated the many. Yet free and open competition showed no signs of winning any kind of popularity contest. This situation led Pareto to wonder how he could account for the ability of an inferior social system to dominate a superior system. Wearing his scientific hat while doing so, moreover, Pareto had to engage in explanation and not in exhortation.

In doing this, Pareto imported his understanding of science into his economics. Where economists had mostly started from utilitarian introspection, Pareto thought that economics should be purged of metaphysics. Rather than starting with some metaphysical vision of the human agent, economics for Pareto would start from observed human actions. One can observe what people do and also observe what rationalizations people might give for their actions, which Pareto described as derivations, but one cannot observe states of mind.

Starting economic theory from observations and not from introspection about marginal utilities was a difficult theoretical challenge, as Pareto recognized. Among other things, the observed space of actions is but a small part of the potential space, and generalization from observations is difficult without some way of filling the missing spaces. This is the problem of the integrability of demand functions. Regardless of the obstacles to starting from actions, Pareto thought that economic theory should recognize that actions but not motives are observable. Why people really do what they do is not observable, though people can be inventive in rationalizing their actions. Given our inability truly to know what animates us, we tell ourselves stories about these matters to enable us to feel good about ourselves. Pareto once remarked in this respect that derivations are huge in number while the residues that animate people are few. 

Pareto turned increasingly to sociology after 1900, publishing his four-volume Treatise on General Sociology in 1912. Where his earlier books sought to explain how a social system grounded on freedom of exchange would enable exploitation of the gains from social interaction more fully than the socialist-style systems then in play, his sociological work began from the puzzle of explaining the weak popularity of social systems based on free exchange. Pareto was convinced of the superior merits of free exchange and turned to his sociological inquiries to better understand the limited hold that liberalism exercised over the moral imaginations of Italians despite what Pareto accepted as liberalism's beneficial social value.

Pareto distinguished between logical and non-logical action. This distinction does not mean that Pareto flirted with irrationality. It means simply that Pareto distinguished between the generic form of rational action and the substance of action. Pareto thought substance varied with the environment in which people acted, anticipating some of the work associated with Gird Gigerenzer (2008) in the process. Market environments prompted logical action; political environments prompted non-logical action, which should not be confused with irrational action. Non-logical action has regularity about it; irrational action is chaotic, even in the subject's consideration.

In market environments people work with their own money, whether in their capacity as consumer or business owner. Action in this setting resembles the formation and testing of a scientific hypothesis. A person has money to spend, and several possibilities appear in the mind's eye. A person in this position faces the standard problem of rational action: images must be formed of the options and the one that is anticipated to provide the greatest satisfaction then selected. The chooser might later regret the choice. These things happen. Such happenings, moreover, encourage the formation of secondary markets in used merchandise.

People will doubtlessly differ among themselves in how much attention they pay to the choices they make. People take different approaches to exercising the cares associated with their daily lives. Whatever the associated levels of care a person might take, it occurs within an environment where the chooser gains from wise choices and loses from foolish choices. This is the nature of logical action within market environments. In all environments Pareto regarded people as acting to attain what they viewed as the best among the attainable options. James Buchanan didn't cite Pareto when Buchanan wrote Cost and Choice, but he could have because both thought similarly about human action as seeking to select the best among available options, with availability stressed because political environments present different options for choice than do market environments.

Political environments are different from market environments. People do not bear the value consequences of their political choices. Choosing between candidates is nothing like choosing between products or inputs. One might express a preference for one candidate over the other, but that expression does not yield the product or the input that might have been associated with that candidate. This situation does not mean that action is irrational. It means only that the rationality of action manifests differently in political environments. There can still be reasons for selecting one candidate over the other, only it has nothing to do with products or inputs. It has to do with images and the penumbra of associations those images carry in their wake.

In this respect, Pareto, and also his compatriot Gaetano Mosca, treated political competition as a process by which candidates sought to articulate ideological images that resonated more strongly with voters than the images set forth by other candidates. The result of this competitive process was the possibility of inferior outcomes dominating superior outcomes. Along these lines, Jürgen Backhaus (1978) explained how importing some implications of Pareto's thought into public choice theory could lead to a sharper understanding of how acceptable political programs would have been rejected under market arrangements, with Patrick and Wagner (2015) amplifying Pareto's scheme of analysis.

Michael McLure (2007) provides a careful and masterful survey of Pareto's scheme of thought in relation to other Italian public-finance theorists of Pareto's time. The friendly debates among these thinkers concerned the extent to which the gulf between economic and political action could be bridged. Theorists like Pareto and Gino Borgatta thought the gulf unbridgeable. Theorists like Maffeo Pantaleoni, Antonio de Viti de Marco, and Luigi Einaudi labored under the belief that a bridge could be developed. All of these Italians contributed to the development of an explanatory treatment of public finance and anticipated public choice thinking, with Buchanan continuing that scheme of scholarship mostly in the vein of Pantaleoni, de Viti, and Einaudi.

To a passionate supporter of liberalism, Pareto must have seemed aloof and even cold. Yet that view is surely superficial. One of Pareto's most avid students, Mauro Fasiani, published a lengthy survey of Pareto's scholarship on the theory of public finance in the 1949 issue of Giornale degli Economisti. In closing his essay, Fasiani recalled Pareto being asked whether he thought society would be better if more people shared Pareto's belief in the value of scientific detachment. Pareto responded negatively, declaring that most people live on faith and need to believe in the goodness of their efforts at persuading one another. Societies need some people imbued with scientific spirit, but mostly they need people who have faith in their efforts at mutual persuasion.


2. Giandomenica Becchio, "Pareto's Dilemma: The Allocation of Liberty between Rationality and Irrationality" [Posted: Nov. 6, 2018]

Alberto pointed out many aspects of Vilfredo Pareto's intellectual biography in order to question whether the Italian social scientist belongs to the tradition of classical liberalism, albeit he has been recognized as a major figure in the tradition of political realism. Alberto's answer is that Pareto belonged to the classical-liberal worldview but not to the classical-liberal program.

I second Alberto's analysis, and I would suggest consideration of another aspect of Pareto's vision, which was only mentioned: the role of human irrationality in Pareto's thought and how it became central to his intellectual transition from economics to sociology, which has to be seen as a natural development of his philosophical vision.[4] As modern moralists have taught us, irrationality is linked with the power of persuasion, and persuasion can be fatal for individual freedom and for a free society as well.

Pareto as a Modern Moralist

Pareto has been always aware that individuals are not only rational (economic) agents, as described in his Cours d'Économie Politique (1896) and Manuale di Economia Politica (1906, English translation 2014); individuals are also ideological agents who use rationality not to discover the truth but to manipulate it. When constrained within social dynamics, individuals tend to act in a non-logical way by following non-logical actions because they are biased by subjective motives (residuals) such as sentiments, instincts, and so forth. Nevertheless, non-logical actions driven by non-logical causations might be extremely powerful: they give individuals the illusion of being able to rationalize ex-post (derivations) their choices.

Pareto belonged not only to the two traditions mentioned by Alberto (classical liberalism and political realism) but also to the tradition of modern moralists (Montaigne, Bayle, Mandeville, Bentham) who focused on the analysis of human passions and irrational motivations of human behavior. In his Les systèmes socialistes (1902-03) as well as in his Trattato di sociologia generale, Pareto described the dynamic between conscious and unconscious motivations of human action; he attacked the distinction between public and private utility; and he strongly underlined the relevance of the role of persuasion among political competitors when getting political power. These three elements directly came from the tradition of modern moralism, albeit Pareto went deeper in scrutinizing the nature of residuals.

Pareto grounded the sociological dimension of political power on the dynamics between residuals and derivations. His elite theory explained the role of elites in governing complex political systems: in a truly dynamic society, the most virtuous individuals would be involved in elites; but in actual societies, individuals who belong to elites are those able to adopt force and persuasion as well as to strategically use their wealth and family connections, which are often far from virtuous.

The Role of Persuasion in the Emergence of Socialism

In Les systèmes socialistes, Pareto explained the origin and the nature of political ideology. The ideology behind socialism was the best example of human irrationality covered by rationality: grounded on feelings and faith, it pretended to be the rational development of history by following the well-known dynamic à la Hegel-Marx. Hence, according to Pareto, socialism is the ideology of the irrationality of human action based on residuals and justified by derivations.

His book on socialism and its several forms (from utopian socialism to Marxism) became for Pareto a laboratory to test what would become the fundamental axiom of his Trattato di sociologia generale: "those who accept a proposition, too often accept it because it fits their feelings." (Pareto 1916, §78)

Pareto analyzed any form of ideology by considering its degree of persuasion and utility -- which led him to an inconvenient truth. On one side, a theory based on facts and logically described cannot be persuasive, and consequently, it is useless to describe social dynamics. On the other side, a non-logical theory based on irrational feelings and emotions can be very persuasive and useful to generate forms of social integration which seem to work in the short run, yet they are dangerous in the long run because they decrease economic development and erode individual liberty. Both socialism and fascism are good examples of this mechanism which combines rationality and irrationality: in fact, Pareto interpreted political theories as ex-post ways of rationalization and camouflage.

Pareto used his theory of residuals and derivations to explain the psychology behind social equilibrium in the political realm too. In his analysis, Pareto anticipated the critique of constructivism developed later by Mises and Hayek, but also the critique of holism and organicism later developed by Popper and Kelsen: any form of social engineering which is aimed at modifying the complexity of a social system is bound to fail.

The Transformation of Liberal-democratic Systems and the Rise of Fascism

The fundamental role of irrationality in humans as individuals as well as in social groups made Pareto skeptical about the success of liberal-democratic systems, which he thought were doomed to a fatal transformation as a consequence of human irrationalism. Before Mannheim, Pareto recognized the transformation of liberalism from utopia to ideology; and he used his narrative of the political and social transformation of liberal democracy to elucidate the emergence of embryonic fascism. Pareto, who rejected the theory of class struggle, adopted the theory of spoliation to explain the emergence of any governing group that seizes power either in legal or illegal ways. His theory of elites is the broader application of this mechanism to politics. Elites can vary in their compositions, but they are all oligarchic. Influenced by the emergence of the phenomenon of "trasformismo," which specifically involved members of the two major political parties in the Italian parliament,[5] Pareto introduced the notion of "bourgeois parliamentarism" as a form of degeneration of classical liberalism, which in Italy led to the rise of fascism.

Two articles by Pareto are useful to understand his attitude toward early fascism as a direct consequence of the degeneration of parliamentarism (Pareto 1966a; 1966b); they also show that his initial sympathy for early fascism has been overestimated and probably had been manipulated by the regime. The first article was written in January 1922 (before the March on Rome, which occurred on October 28, 1922); the second was written after the March on Rome. In these writings, Pareto clarified the common traits between socialism and fascism: the use of extra-legal force and the ambiguous use of the term liberty in a nationalistic sense (fascism) or in an international sense (socialism). He also claimed that the success of both fascism and socialism was linked with the failure and weakness of parliaments: while fascism is a consequence of a logical mistake about nationalist sentiments in sociological terms, socialism is a consequence of a logical mistake about international feelings in sociological terms.

Pareto passed away in 1923 without having found a solution to his lifetime dilemma: if democracy is a continuous experiment to approach a political optimum, which is not possible to reach in a stable form because of the combination of rationality and irrationality, as it has been expressed in the dynamics of residuals and derivations, where is the place of freedom?


[4.] Pareto's Trattato di sociologia generale (1916), translated into English as Mind and Society (1935), is an enlargement of traditional sociology to include both logical and non-logical actions. (Zafirowski and Levine 1997) It represented the final stage of Pareto's thought, as rightly underlined by some recent literature (Aspers 2001; Dalziel and Higgins 2006), against Parsons's interpretation -- endorsed by Schumpeter (1949) -- of a separation between economics and sociology in Pareto's reasoning.

[5.] Trasformismo was the practice adopted in the Italian parliament during the late 18th century by the two major antagonist parties: they converged in approving or rejecting laws in order to isolate minority parties, especially on the left-wing of parliament, such as socialists, radicals, and republicans.


3. Rosolino Candela, "An "Imperfect" Interpretation of Vilfredo Pareto's Classical Liberalism" [Posted: ]

The title of my contribution to this conversation is not meant to suggest a flaw in Dr. Mingardi's fine and thought-provoking essay. Rather, the title is meant to point out an important and underemphasized understanding of Vilfredo Pareto as an "imperfect" classical liberal.

By this, I do not mean that Pareto was flawed in his analysis as a theorist or as a man. Rather, if we can trace the etymology of the word "imperfect" back to its Latin roots, we find that imperfect means "incomplete," or to be more precise, "not thoroughly done." I raise this point to suggest, in concord with Mingardi, that Pareto's understanding of social interaction is more akin to one of a process towards completion under a particular set of institutional arrangements, not as an equilibrium outcome, or state of affairs. The implications of Dr. Mingardi's essay are particularly important because, as he mentions, Pareto is better known as a Walrasian general-equilibrium theorist, whose association with the notion of "optimality" in economics is already well-known. Mingardi's essay introduces an important point in the political economy of Pareto, which I further extend here. In doing so, I wish to reinforce some important implications of Mingardi's thesis.

The point of extension I raise here begins with a characterization of Pareto made by Joseph Schumpeter, which relates not only to Pareto's political realism but more broadly his theory of social interaction: "primarily and fundamentally his sociology was a sociology of the political process" (emphasis added). (Schumpeter 1949,168) This would seem to suggest that Pareto's economics and his broader social theory are separate rather than overlapping parts of a broader theory of human action. As he points out, in "political economy itself, theories of pure or mathematical economics have to be supplemented – not replaced – by the theories of applied economics." (Pareto 1916 [1963], 20) This "logico-experimental" method of social science, according to Pareto, applied not only to his understanding of economics but also applied no less to the other social sciences, particularly political science.

The logico-experimental method, according to Pareto, traces the unintended consequences of social interaction under alternative institutional arrangements (i.e., the realm of applied theory) back to the choices of individuals, who are attempting to fulfill their separate ends through the purposive applications of means to such ends (i.e., the realm of pure theory). Though Pareto distinguishes between logical action and non-logical action, the distinction is not between rational action and irrational action. Rather, the terms describe the pure form of human action, the substance of which is manifested under different institutional contexts. Whereas logical action manifests itself in the realm of markets within a context of private property and price signals, non-logical action manifests itself in the realm of politics, which is outside the context of market exchange and price signals. Thus, the outcomes in Pareto's general theory of human action, or sociology as he refers to it, is not based upon an aggregation of atomistic individuals, maximizing given means to given ends in isolation. This would be the case if Pareto collapsed his understanding of "pure economics," or what Hayek refers to as the "pure logic of choice," onto the outcomes of social interaction. Yet no one-to-one relationship between rational action and outcomes exists in Pareto's sociology. The link between the two is bridged by an institutional analysis of time and circumstance. Therefore, to conclude that Pareto's general theory of human action was based upon the "perfection" of Walrasian general equilibrium only characterizes his understanding of pure theory and cannot be superimposed upon his broader understanding of political economy.

I raise this brief, and admittedly oversimplified, view of Pareto to reinforce the important connection Mingardi makes between Pareto and Bastiat. Though Mingardi refers to Bastiat's The Law(1850a [2012]) with regard to the Pareto's criticism of "liberal Utopians" and their neglect of Bastiat's theory of legal plunder, another important influence on Pareto's political realism can be drawn from Bastiat's "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen." (Bastiat 1850b [2017]) In that essay, Bastiat argues that good economists take into account not only the intended consequences of public policy but also its unintended consequences. This lesson is also implied in Pareto, where he writes that "social enactments have, in general, some effects that are beneficial and others that are negative and harmful." (1916 [1963], 1299) Pareto's defense of classical liberalism is not a normative critique of the intentions of policymakers. Rather, Pareto's defense of classical liberalism is entirely consistent with his political realism, as Mingardi argues, because the imperfections inherent to political decision-making that Pareto highlights are analytic in nature. That is, the process of political decision-making, however well-intended, will generate a set of unintended consequences that the policy-maker could never anticipate. If political or market processes were perfect, institutional contexts would be irrelevant as a guide to decision-making.

However, in an imperfect world, the "perfection" or "completion" of political processes will generate entirely different outcomes from market processes precisely because the differing institutional incentives in each context will generate different expectations regarding the costs and benefits of pursuing different forms of rational action. To illustrate this point, Pareto writes:

When the engineer has found the best machine, he has little difficulty in selling it, and even without dispensing with derivations altogether, he can for the most part utilize arguments that are logico-experimental. Not so for the statesman. For him that situation is precisely reversed. His main resort must be derivations, often times absurd ones. [Pareto 1916 [1963], 1299]

To quote Professor Richard Wagner, the reality of politics is that it is just a peculiar form of business. (Wagner 2016) In markets, producers are residual claimants of their decision-making; they absorb the profits and losses of responding correctly or incorrectly to consumer demand. If entrepreneurs in the marketplace fail to deliver a product consistent with the plans of consumers, appeals to derivations (i.e., justifications) inconsistent with consumer demand will only generate further losses in revenue directly and fully borne by the producer. The indirect, though beneficial effect will be for market processes to free up misallocated resources and reallocate them to more-valued uses. In politics, policymakers are just as entrepreneurial in that they are "selling" different policies that benefit their respective constituencies, but the costs of implementing a particular policy in terms of the unproductive rent-seeking activity that it generates are not directly concentrated on the political decision-maker.  Thus, Bastiat's characterization of legal plunder via the state is a normative critique that has an analytic grounding in Pareto's general sociology.

This brings me to another point, which is to engage Mingardi's claim that Pareto's political realism "is not incompatible with a classical liberal worldview: it is incompatible with a classical-liberal program." What's unclear, and I hope we take this up further in the discussion, is whether Mingardi equates the classical-liberal program held by Pareto with the vision of the classical-liberal program of his time.

Having said this, I would like to suggest that they are both compatible with Pareto once we interpret them through the "imperfect" lens I've suggested. Here I am on tenuous grounds of misinterpreting Mingardi's use of terminology, but if a classical-liberal worldview implies that individuals hold a set of diverse ends that must be realized through the self-directed application of means, this implies "imperfection" in the sense that the pursuit of one's human flourishing is a process towards completion that requires freedom to realize. However, human flourishing is not an activity pursued by isolated automatons; rather, it is the normative basis for realizing the gains from productive social cooperation under the division of labor.

From this perspective, Pareto's vision of a classical-liberal program was not imperfect because it was flawed but because it was incomplete. As Mingardi mentions, Pareto's alleged association with fascism was implied by his increasing interest in force. However, from a Paretian perspective, force is another set of means to compete for scarce resources that can be traced back to logical action. If Pareto's classical liberalism was inconsistent, it is only because it was imperfect in the sense of his failure to complete his positive analysis of human interaction by carrying it to its logical conclusion, which was to modify the political rules of the game in a way that minimizes the gains from rent-seeking.

I would like to conclude here with a statement by Frank Knight often quoted by Buchanan, which is the notion that a situation that is hopeless is a situation that is ideal. If there are any imperfections that Buchanan (and Tullock) updated and perfected in Pareto, as Mingardi suggests, it would be because Pareto, ironically, failed to be Paretian. That is, precisely because political processes are not ideal, there is hope. And that hope for improvement has a non-normative basis, as Buchanan suggested in Paretian fashion: "the political economist's task is completed when he has shown the parties concerned that there exist mutual gains 'from trade'" (emphasis added). (Buchanan 1959, 129) Such mutual gains from trade can be achieved only when the political economist takes the political status quo as given and suggests Pareto-improving rule changes from that status quo as a point of analytical departure, as Pareto might suggest. This is consistent with the classical-liberal vision of expanding the scope of productive social cooperation under the division of labor.


1. Alberto Mingardi, "Pareto and the Death of Liberal Europe" [Posted: Nov. 8, 2018]

I've learnt a lot from the wonderful contributions of Giandomenica Becchio, Rosolino Candela, and Richard E. Wagner. One thing they all convey to the reader is that Pareto's work is a tremendously rich mine and that it can provide us with many takeaways, even when limiting the exploration to the seemingly narrow subject of Pareto and political realism.

In his beautiful essay, Professor Wagner argues that "Pareto was a liberal for sure, but it was his interest in scientific explanation that animated his efforts." In a sense, such a remark in part completes and in part defies my own portrait of Pareto's journey between classical liberalism and political realism.

Wagner points out that, ever since his youth, Pareto always strove to achieve the greatest scientific accuracy:

"Pareto's interest in economics stemmed more from his scientific interests than from a desire to advocate for liberal values and practices. Sure, Pareto engaged in plenty of advocacy on behalf of liberalism. Still, Pareto was more a theorist than an advocate."

In a 1913 letter, Pareto himself says that "I set out with accepting the theories of the so-called classical economics, as they seemed—and still seem—to me more scientific than those of their rival schools." (Pareto 1913, 801) Recalling his youthful efforts "in defence of economic freedom," which he dismisses as "all wasted time," Pareto remarks that they were written when he still "did not understand the profound difference that exists between the operating [operare] and the knowing; a difference so profound in social sciences, that one thing is the often the opposite of the other." The ambition for scientific veracity produced very different approaches in Pareto as an economist (with his commitment to the idea of equilibrium)[6] and as a social scientist at large (with his emphasis on the role of irrationality).

Giandomenica Becchio notes:

"Pareto belonged not only to the two traditions mentioned by Alberto (classical liberalism and political realism) but also to the tradition of modern moralists (Montaigne, Bayle, Mandeville, Bentham) who focused on the analysis of human passions and irrational motivations of human behavior."

Wagner and Becchio thus seem to call for very different readings of Pareto. Was he a scientist or a moralist? I think Wagner and Becchio are both right: he was both. Becchio reminds us of the role of irrationality in Pareto's sociological thinking; Wagner underlines how this happened at the times of his classical-liberal militancy: "Pareto was convinced that a social system based on free and open competition was superior to any of the options where the few dominated the many. Yet free and open competition showed no signs of winning any kind of popularity contest."

Could it anyway?

As we agree that there is—broadly speaking—no contradiction between Pareto's younger, committed liberalism and his later, more dispassionate look at political facts, I'd like to spend a few words on his relationship with, so to say, "official liberalism." This may also help in clarifying, as Rosolino Candela asked me to do in his generous and profound piece, what I meant by saying that Pareto's political realism is not incompatible with a classical-liberal worldview, but is so with a classical-liberal program.

Pareto's direct contacts with politics, and his following it closely in the context of his free-trade advocacy, clearly played a role in shaping his political realism. But in understanding how "free and open competition didn't win any popularity contest," the performance of self-described liberal parties may have played a crucial role.

I've already mentioned Pareto's stance on anti-clericalism. Fiorenzo Mornati speaks of Pareto's "religious liberalism." Pareto thought the separation of church and state meant that the state should ignore the church, leaving it alone, rather than actively meddling in religious matters. On the contrary, he saw freedom of religion being "under attack by 'materialists and idealists' in the name of the age-old doctrine of the all-powerful state." (Mornati 2018, 134) Hence Pareto, right from the beginning, was alert to the possible shortcomings of his fellow travellers.

Yet the situation got much worse. In a sense, Pareto's own trajectory parallels Herbert Spencer's. Spencer entered adult life when classical liberalism was on the winning side: the Corn Laws had just been abolished; the spirit of the age was that of liberal reforms; more government retrenchment seemed possible if not likely. Spencer's understanding of social evolution as unfolding differentiation and increasing complexity did not necessarily require but went well with such attitudes.

An older man, in the 1880s, Spencer came to think that "most of those who now pass as Liberals, are Tories of a new type." If liberalism used to be about freeing people from government intervention, later "liberalism has to an increasing extent adopted the policy of dictating the actions of citizens."

In "The New Toryism," the first of the essays that he put together in The Man versus the State, Spencer offers a charitable explanation of the phenomenon:

For what, in the popular apprehension and in the apprehension of those who effected them, were the changes made by Liberals in the past? They were abolitions of grievances suffered by the people, or by portions of them: this was the common trait they had which most impressed itself on men's minds. They were mitigations of evils which had directly or indirectly been felt by large classes of citizens, as causes to misery or as hindrances to happiness. And since, in the minds of most, a rectified evil is equivalent to an achieved good, these measures came to be thought of as so many positive benefits; and the welfare of the many came to be conceived alike by Liberal statesmen and Liberal voters as the aim of Liberalism. Hence the confusion. The gaining of a popular good, being the external conspicuous trait common to Liberal measures in earlier days (then in each case gained by a relaxation of restraints), it has happened that popular good has come to be sought by Liberals, not as an end to be indirectly gained by relaxations of restraints, but as the end to be directly gained. And seeking to gain it directly, they have used methods intrinsically opposed to those originally used.

Spencer considers this a confusion as being originated by the very successes of liberalism itself. He spots serious intellectual errors, like the idea that popular government changes the nature of government, so that a democracy's limitations of individual liberty are no longer considered akin to limitations, and points them out. He is certainly alert to the importance of special interests, and he certainly thinks of the importance of irrationality and pre-rational attitudes, but sees the fallacies of contemporary liberals as conceptual mistakes and therefore tries to correct them.

Pareto sensed continental Europe to be in the midst of a similar trend—and perhaps a stronger one, for Italy and Germany never had a Richard Cobden. But he offered a slightly different explanation. Let me refer to a 1903 article, significantly entitled "The Eclipse of Freedom":

Liberal doctrine is optimistic, as it presupposed men can cease pillaging each other. Before experience decided the issue, this hope could appear something else than a chimerical one, but facts shew at an advantage that, at the very least, the times are not ripe for its being made a reality. Thus, whoever cannot directly oppose being a victim of plunder, cannot but follow the example he is provided with and take after the dog that started with guarding his master's meal and then—realising he was too weak to do it—ended up with stealing his share. [Pareto 1903, 388-89]

So in a sense the problem lies with the very political game: if you take part in it, you can't but end up playing by the rules. And the rules entail a competition for other people's resources that liberalism should have limited but ultimately failed to curb.

What underpins this view is a neatly classical-liberal conception of freedom. Pareto quotes Gustave de Molinari, one of his favorite economists, pointing out that "as liberty decreases, so decreases the fraction of one's own goods that the individual can freely dispose of, and grows the fraction available to the government." (Pareto 1904, 399)

This view of liberty is basically the liberty of being left alone. And such liberty was challenged, as the century was turning, by those very parties that traditionally claimed to be its champions. One theme Pareto held dear, and this sounds truly prescient in times like ours, is that of freedom of expression being limited in the name of freedom of expression. Advocates of secularism calling for government meddling with church activities; "free thinkers" calling for punishment of university professors who "dare challeng[e] the benefits of divorce" (Pareto 1904, 403), to Pareto, all of this sounded awfully similar to conservatives limiting freedom to buy alcohol or shopping on Sundays.

If I must find a point of disagreement with Professor Wagner, it is that I do not think that Pareto ever sounded "aloof and even cold." He was a student of political passions, and a passionate man too. He wanted to be "scientific" and cold in dissecting politics, but was also loyal to a concept of liberty that he thought was hopelessly out of fashion , as self-styled liberals do not believe in it anymore: :

If we attempt to more or less roughly appraise how the notion of liberty changed in time, we'll see that in the times when they are in a state of subjection—and the countries where they currently are subjugated—popular parties call liberty the freedom of acting, as this freedom benefits their fellow subjects; whereas when they are the masters—and in the countries they rule—they call liberty the banning of action, as this prohibition benefits the rulers. [Pareto 1904, 406]

This seems to me to be a profound remark that considers the "statist" evolution of liberalism as a result of democratization and the enlargement of the franchise, causes that liberals of the old kind they themselves championed without foreseeing their ultimate, unintended consequences. It is in this context that "all past privileges are revived again" (Pareto 1904, 408): people considered entitlements of the sovereign arrogant and unbearable when such sovereign was clearly identifiable with a king or a small coterie of aristocrats. But when all people can somehow partake of those same entitlements, their judgment changes and the idea that we should do away with the entitlements fades.

The greatness of the Italian theory of the ruling class lies precisely here: in understanding the basic dynamics of politics as something which is not truly modified by changes in the way in which politics seek legitimization. This was a bold idea, particularly when democracy was younger and perhaps more radiant and sincere.

A side note: on Facebook, Bill Evers reminded me of the following quote from Murray Rothbard : "Vilfredo Pareto was a militant laissez-faire liberal and battler for free trade, heavily influenced by the French anarcho-capitalist Gustave de Molinari. Despairing of freedom and the free market after the turn of the twentieth century, Pareto retreated into cynical critiques of political action, but he was never not interested in political economy." (Rothbard 1993) With this reference to "cynical critiques of political action," this quote seems quite apropos to our discussion -- it indeed evokes its very title. In his History of Economic Thought, Rothbard indeed calls Pareto a "pessimistic follower of Gustave De Molinari." (Rothbard 2006, 455) A realist is a pessimist in the eye of an optimist, I suppose. But no matter what you call it, a realist or pessimist is equipped with something an optimist often lacks: a tragic understanding of politics. This, I think, reinforces Giandomenica's suggetion to consider Pareto as a modern moralist.


[6.] Rosolino Candela rightly reminds us of Bastiat's "What Is Seen and What Is Unseen." That little essay lies deep at the heart of Pareto's own understanding of economics. Once Pareto claimed that "Bastiat's Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas [what is seen and what is unseen] emerges from" Walras's formulas. (Pareto 1895, 424). I hope my economist friends and fellow discussants may pick up the point.


2. Giandomenica Becchio, "Pareto's Political View: Anti-metaphysics and "Irrationality," a Clarification" [Posted: Nov. 13, 2018]

Richard Wagner, who pointed out the crucial efforts made by Pareto in building economics as a science, reminded us that Pareto thought that economics urgently needed to be purged of metaphysics.  This is true indeed, and metaphysics was the keyword for Pareto the economist. He described "pure economy" as human actions which follow some regular patterns "qui constituent des lois naturelles." (Pareto 1896, 397) Differently from Walras, who had adopted an exclusively deductive approach based on the internal coherence of the logical procedure without any concern about the realism of initial hypotheses, Pareto applied a combination of experimentalism and deductive method to build an economic theory free from any metaphysical residuals.[7] The necessity of handling empirical material was fundamental to his move toward realism.

Between 1900 and 1902 a well-known debate, hosted by the Giornale degli Economisti, occurred between Pareto and Benedetto Croce[8] around the scientific nature of economics and the urgency of purging it of any metaphysics. In a very peculiar Italian style, the philosopher Croce paradoxically attacked the economist Pareto of being metaphysical in reducing economic phenomena to physical facts. (Croce 1900; 1902) In his replies, Pareto claimed that any science, including economics, deals with functional relations, not with metaphysical causalities as implied by Croce. (Pareto 1901; 1902)

Nonetheless, Pareto took Croce's objection very seriously, and he admitted that "something else" can affect economic phenomena. To explain this "something else," in his following works Pareto presented the distinction between logical and non-logical actions. Candela rightly noted that this is not a distinction between rational and irrational actions, and Wagner stated that "this distinction does not mean that Pareto flirted with irrationality." I am not sure what "flirting with irrationality" means, but I must say that, on one side, Pareto gave a rational explanation of non-logical actions as derivations and residuals, and, on the other side, he regarded the residuals as bunches of irrationalities in human behavior which are rationally justified. In Pareto's time, irrationality meant instincts, sentiments, feelings, and anything else that is not measurable. This leads us to Pareto's liberalism. The act of starting any investigation with a critique of misunderstandings, irrationalities, and mistakes previously accepted belongs to the classical-liberal tradition. Think about Bacon's purge of idola, Bentham's fight against fallacies, Whately's battle against failures, and Mill's classification of fallacies. For those thinkers, the political arena is the best stage to see how human actors combine rationality and irrationality, residuals and derivations, driven by logical fallacies.

As Aron (1970) clearly claimed, Pareto did not speak for any particular group: he had enemies on both sides of the theoretical arena (philosophers in search of ultimate principles as well as scientists focused on science as an ultimate truth), as well as – I would add -- supporters on several sides of the political arena (fascists, classical liberals, revolutionists). Pareto was a liberal not only because he had advocated a particular political or economic doctrine, but because he embraced the inner nature of liberalism, which is freedom of investigation within a rational framework. As Alberto Mingardi wrote in his rejoinder, Pareto's "view of liberty is basically the liberty of being left alone."


[7.] For example, between the publication of his Cours and his Manuale, he discarded the notion of ophélimité as the measure of pure economic satisfaction and he started to use indifference curves to represent ordinal preferences.

[8.] Croce has been depicted as the fiercest advocate of liberalism, at least within the Italian philosophical tradition, which, to be honest, seems to me quite problematic because the rationalist Pareto, is usually considered a proto-fascist while the classical liberal Croce  was a Hegelian.

3. Alberto Mingardi, "Democracy's Decline: Pareto and Fascism" [Posted: Nov. 13, 2018]

A few words are perhaps due regarding what Rosolino Candela calls Pareto's "alleged" association with fascism. Giandomenica Becchio points out that "his initial sympathy for early fascism has been overestimated and probably had been manipulated by the regime."

Indeed, too much has been made of such sympathy, though it is a fact that Pareto supported the fledgling fascist movement.

For one thing, Pareto passed away a few months after the March on Rome and a few months before the assassination of the socialist MP Giacomo Matteotti, which showed the true color of fascism for all to see. So he can certainly be excused for not having predicted the evolution of the regime. In his essay "Pochi punti di un futuro ordinamento costituzionale," in which he reflects on the sort of reforms the fascist government might undertake, he writes:

To only govern with the consent of a majority, however large, cannot be done.… To only govern with force, for any length of time, cannot be done. It is necessary to know whether the consent—at least implicit—of the larger number does exist. For this a House of Representatives is quite useful.… A broad freedom of the press is indispensable.… Care should be taken lest one yields to the temptation of strongly curbing it. [Pareto 1923, 797]

This sort of plea for freedom of expression is certainly in contrast with the ambitions, and the practice, of fascists.

Still, what is more interesting, as Giandomenica remarked, is that Pareto's interest in fascism was grounded in his understanding of the crisis of democracy. This was the crisis he styled as "demagogic plutocracy."

It may be worth quoting Pareto on how this particular political arrangement came to be (Pareto 1920, 83-83):

  1. A very large increase of wealth, of savings, of "capital" directed to production.
  2. Such a distribution of wealth that inequality persists. Some contend that [inequality] increased, others that it decreased; it is likely that the average distribution did not change.
  3. The steadily increasing importance of two social classes, namely the wealthy speculators and the workers.… "Plutocracy" is seen to grow and prosper, when one looks at the first of these occurrences, "Democracy" is seen to increase when one focuses on the second….
  4. A partial alliance between these two elements, which becomes particularly remarkable since the end of the 19th century. Despite speculators' and workers' interests being not entirely coincident, still part of the first and part of the second find working in the same direction to be profitable for both, with the goal of capturing the government and exploiting the remaining social classes. It also follows that plutocrats achieve this alliance by cunning means, availing themselves of the sentiments (residues) which obtain in the common people…
  5. While the power of these two classes grows, likewise declines the power of the remaining two, namely the wealthy or affluent owners which are not speculators, and the military; in fact, the power of these is by now quite negligible….
  6. Slowly and steadily, the recourse to force passes from the superior to the inferior classes….
  7. Parliaments turn out to be a very effective tool of demagogic plutocracy….

Notice that Pareto did not focus on the opposition between employers and employees: he saw an alliance between some of them, an alliance established on a common interest and kept alive by political myth-making.

He considered World War I a consequence of demagogic plutocracy, with profiteers benefiting from military spending and part of the working class cheering entry into the war, hoping for a better life afterward. The very triumph of demagogic plutocracy foreshadowed a crisis of this kind of regime. Plutocracy feeding demagogy entails a dangerous equilibrium: it means feeding ever-bigger demands for new benefits and special privileges. For Pareto, when a ruling class weakens, it becomes at the same time less efficacious in defending its own power but also more greedy: "on the one hand its yoke gets heavier, on the other hand it has less strength to keep [the yoke on society]." (Pareto 1900, 206; Zetterberg trans., p. 59)

The crisis of democracy in Italy was strongly felt during the so-called "Biennio Rosso," the "Red two years," with violence dominating the political scene. A Bolshevik-style revolution or a nationalist reaction was possible, but so was a continuous crisis in which the old ruling class tried to cope with ever-growing popular demands by multiplying giveaways in the hope of preserving its old interests.

One thing fascism certainly did was replace the old rulers with a new elite.

This—admittedly awfully simplified—summary may highlight a couple of things that are relevant for reading today's politics too. First, distributive coalitions underpin many political phenomena, but they are not necessarily the most obvious ones. Second, distributive coalitions need to be fed with both government giveaways and a comforting ideology: striking a balance between the two isn't easy. Third, we certainly like to talk about times changing, novelties in government, "the people" regaining center stage; but more often than not, what we are actually facing is a competition between wannabe masters. Pareto knew it well: "It is an illusion to believe that now stands, in front of the ruling class, the people; what stands in front of it is a new and future aristocracy, which leans on the people, and actually you can already see some marks of contrast between that new aristocracy and the rest of the people." (Pareto 1900, 218; Zetterberg trans., p. 72.)

To be blunt, in this age of rampant populism (for lack of a better word), it is appalling to me how often opinion makers take the populists at face value, assuming they are something "new" on the basis of their rhetoric. More interesting would be to look at what interest they represent (not necessarily to what interest they claim to represent) and to what ideological chords they aim to strike.



Online Resources

[to come]


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Last modified November 13, 2018