Classical Liberalism and the Industrial Working Class: The Economic Thought of Thomas Hodgskin

Were Hodgskin alive today, it is likely—from Mingardi’s telling—that he would rail not against capitalism but against what we now call crony capitalism.

Winter 2021 • Cato Journal

The temptation for political movements to claim venerable thinkers from the past among their own is sometimes irresistible. But the truth is often more complicated. That seems to be the case with Thomas Hodgskin (1787–1869), the radical English writer and campaigner of whom Alberto Mingardi has recently written a highly readable intellectual biography. Even though Hodgskin’s Wikipedia entry continues to describe him as a socialist, Mingardi shows that many of his views on the rights of workers and the benefits of commercial society were highly sympathetic to classical liberals.

Hodgskin was an autodidact who grew up poor yet rose to become senior editor of The Economist, rubbing shoulders with the most prominent thinkers of his time, such as Jeremy Bentham, Jean‐​Baptiste Say, and Herbert Spencer. An early stint in the Royal Navy, which he was sent off to join at age 12 by his well‐​off but spendthrift father, seared him with a lifelong dislike of coercion and arbitrary power. His earliest published work, An Essay on Naval Discipline, was a reaction to this experience. In it, he made an uncompromising case against impressment—forced enlistment—which Hodgskin believed unjust, inefficient, and based on the erroneous assumption that Britons would not voluntarily sign up to defend their country.

Mingardi ably situates Hodgskin’s life and writings in their historical context. It was not advocacy for the dictatorship of the proletariat that made Hodgskin a radical, but his opposition to aristocratic ­privileges that tipped the scales against workers and the poor. Even though some of his writings had socialist‐​sounding titles (such as Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital and Popular Political Economy), Hodgskin’s critique of capitalists focused on their use of the legislative process to alter economic outcomes in their favor, different from what they would have been in a truly free market. Were Hodgskin alive today, it is likely—from Mingardi’s telling—that he would rail not against capitalism but against what we now call crony capitalism.

Many of Hodgskin’s views aligned with those of modern libertarians. He was a lifelong free trader and an optimist regarding the gradual improvement of man’s condition thanks to industrialization. He vehemently opposed Malthusian fatalism, arguing that “the foundation of all national greatness is the increase of the people.” Unlike many later socialists, Hodgskin was not enamored of the notion of benevolent government monopolies, believing for instance that the Bank of England’s pre‐​eminent position owing to its unique charter had caused “inconceivable mischief.” Nor was he against paper currency, so long as competitive issue could check its inflationary abuse. By illuminating this and other aspects of Hodgskin’s prolific writing, Mingardi paints an intellectual portrait that is hard to assign to any conventional political tribe, although it is closer to liberalism than past accounts have recognized.

Being himself a scholar of classical liberal thought—as well as a Cato fellow—Mingardi can spot facets of Hodgskin’s oeuvre that more generalist writers might miss, such as his implicit recognition of the special role of entrepreneurship in value creation, separate and distinct from those of capital and labor. So also with Hodgskin’s views on the role of the state: while his intense skepticism that politics could ever lead to betterment pushed him toward anarchism, he stopped “a step shy of openly advocating the extinction of the state.” He did so, Mingardi writes, out of a belief that letting society develop spontaneously was preferable to “detailed recipes” for change. But, by the same token, Hodgskin mocked the supposedly “scientific government” of Prussia—which he had a chance to study during his travels to Germany—concluding that the “abundance of orders” to which such government gave rise actually impeded the healthy development of society.

Hodgskin’s wariness of legislation as a tool for general improvement also caused him to be less optimistic about the expansion of the franchise. He went so far as to write that “the people, whether middle or lower classes, are not made wise by sharing in the power of Government.” And if Hodgskin welcomed the European revolutions of 1848 as sounding the death knell on government “by the cat-o’-nine-tails and the gallows,” that did not stop him from haranguing France’s revolutionary government for instituting a program of public benefits that lured idle workers into Paris. Far from leveling the playing field between masters and workers, such “class legislation” only flipped the inequality. He likewise ridiculed French leader Lamartine’s vow to transform political economy into “the science of fraternity” as “the most extraordinary instance of ignorance and assumption in a public man we have ever met with.”

The picture that emerges from Mingardi’s account is of an intellectual maverick who had strong views and expressed them clearly. Hodgskin was not a socialist, other than by the loose standards of his time, according to which anyone opposed to the status quo was one. But Mingardi concludes that Hodgskin’s association with the workers’ movement made him less influential with later liberal thinkers than he might—and perhaps should—have been. He did influence Herbert Spencer, a friend and brief Economist colleague whose work gained greater notoriety and following than Hodgskin’s, but apparently Spencer did not adequately acknowledge the connection. Yet one can also hear echoes of Hodgskin in F.A. Hayek’s case against central planning, based on the argument that the central authority invariably lacks essential information about the particular circumstances of the agents it is attempting to direct.

Mingardi’s perceptive analysis thus succeeds at revealing a different character from the one that previous biographies have described—no less than “the advocate of an uncompromisingly radical kind of classical liberalism.” For that reason alone, this book deserves to be called “definitive.”

About the Author
Diego Zuluaga
Former Associate Director of Financial Regulation Studies, Center for Monetary and Financial Alternatives