A Book about Thomas Hodgskin by Alberto Mingardi

An old mill in Somerset, England ( The Bristol Nomad / Getty Images)

I thought I’d write a quick post about two men: Alberto Mingardi and Thomas Hodgskin. The former is a friend of mine; the second I knew nothing about until Alberto wrote a book about him.

That book is Classical Liberalism and the Industrial Working Class: The Economic Thought of Thomas Hodgskin.

Alberto is an Italian intellectual, the executive director of the Bruno Leoni Institute, a classical-liberal think tank in Milan. He is also an authority on music. In a blurb for Alberto’s book, Vernon Smith, the Nobel laureate in economics, says that Alberto is “a prominent European scholar of free peoples and institutions.”

According to Wikipedia, “Thomas Hodgskin (12 December 1787 — 21 August 1869) was an English socialist writer on political economy, critic of capitalism and defender of free trade and early trade unions.” He is sometimes seen as a forerunner to Marx. Contradicting this view, Mingardi draws a line between Hodgskin and Hayek (whatever detours it may take).

“My love affair with Thomas Hodgskin began in my university years,” writes Mingardi. The affair has taken the form of this new book.

Hodgskin lived a very interesting, and not very easy, life. He was blessed with a good mother. His father, unfortunately, was a different story. Thomas was an intellectually precocious child. He had to quit school at twelve, as his father sent him to sea.

Thomas Hodgskin spent twelve years in the Royal Navy. “One universal system of terror,” he said, describing the navy’s way of discipline. The abuse of authority — cruelty, randomness, subjugation — was appalling. This was not so much discipline as sadism. Stupid, counterproductive sadism.

What Hodgskin saw, and experienced, in the navy affected his political views ever after. He hated tyranny and prized individual rights.

In 1813, Hodgskin wrote a pamphlet called “An Essay on Naval Discipline, Shewing Part of Its Evil Effects on the Minds of the Officers, on the Minds of the Men, and on the Community.” Alberto Mingardi says that the essay “is both a scathing critique of the brutality of naval discipline and a plea to the civil authorities for radical reform.”

Have a taste of what Hodgskin said about naval courts: “composed of men comparatively destitute of education; corrupted by power, and often strangers to religion and morality.”

Hodgskin himself was deprived of formal education for a long while. But he educated himself, however he could. When he was 26, he was able to enroll at the University of Edinburgh. In due course, he met many worthy and influential people, including Jean-Baptist Say. He did the Grand Tour (of Europe) — “on foot and generally alone,” he wrote.

At home in England, Hodgskin became a journalist. He was one of the first writers at The Economist, founded in 1843. His views are hard to pigeonhole, or label. Mingardi writes,

Hodgskin is still considered one of the first anticapitalistic authors. He had great concern for the problems and demands of workers, with whom he sympathized profoundly. The sailor-turned-journalist signed himself “A Labourer.” But his view of the great transformation was far more positive than most of his contemporaries.

By “the great transformation,” Mingardi means the Industrial Revolution.

Mingardi wrote his dissertation on Herbert Spencer. In the conclusion of his new book, he says, “Spencer thought that you could not have any idea of liberty without a sentiment of liberty,” because, without this sentiment, a person is hardly equipped to resist “interference with individual action, whether by an individual tyrant or by a tyrant majority.” Those last words are from Spencer himself.

“This liberal sensibility,” writes Mingardi, “is perhaps stronger in Hodgskin than in any other author.” In sum, “classical liberalism is the tradition in political thought to which Thomas Hodgskin belongs, and of which he should be considered a genuine champion.”

Alberto’s book is chockfull of ideas, like the author himself — and like his subject, Hodgskin. Would that they could talk together, in the continuation of the affair!

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