essays

Dec 1, 1980

Society, State, and Right in Proudhon

“Since the problem was the State, it was logical that Proudhon advocated natural, rather than positive law.”

“Natural Right in the Political Philosophy of PierreJoseph Proudhon.” Journal of Libertarian Studies 4(Winter 1980):77–91.

Pierre-Joseph Proudhon’s (1809–1865) philosophy of law and natural right stands in contrast to the “hopeless confusion of contemporary political theory,” whose un-unclear notions of justice stem either from social contract theorists or advocates of state socialism. For Proudhon justice and law derived from norms which “express the fundamental will of people organized within voluntary relationships which they create in the course of living their lives.” Morality and justice related to mutual respect for human dignity.

Proudhon attacked Rousseau because he saw him as “chiefly responsible for advocating ‘an infantile dependence upon governmental paternalism.’” Rousseau had little trust for individuals and denied the capacity of people for self-government. The State, which would insure equality, was outside and above society.

Proudhon, on the other hand, saw that the State bureaucracy, and centralization had undercut the family and other voluntary associations. Despite his comment that “property is theft,” Proudhon’s toleration [49]and lack of dogmatism is much closer to the spirit of liberal thinkers, such as Adam Smith, than to the state socialism of Karl Marx. For anarchists such as Proudhon, freedom, or liberty resembled its meaning to libertarians such as F. A. Hayek, “a relationship of men to each other that permits the individual the greatest possible room for privacy and initiative in all undertakings.”

Since the problem was the State, it was logical that Proudhon advocated natural, rather than positive law. Economics must be subordinated to ethics and not controlled by political power. His separation of State and Society reflected the use of later scholars such as sociologist Franz Oppenheimer, who taught that the State represents coercion and privilege, and Society a cluster of voluntary and natural relationships. Decentralization was fundamental to such an outlook. Social pressures might exist, but they lacked the coercive mechanism of state power.