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Friday, October 27, 2006

The Libertarian Nobel Peace-Prize Winner


Last week, with the awarding of the Nobel Peace Prize to Muhammad Yunus and the Grameen Bank, I underscored the historical-philosophical link between freedom of commerce and peace in classical liberalism. (The article is here.) What I did not know at the time, and what I have since learned thanks to Auburn University philosopher Roderick T. Long, is that one of the first winners of the Nobel Peace Prize was a man who consciously placed himself in the liberal tradition of Frederic Bastiat and Richard Cobden.

He was Frederic Passy of Paris (1822-1912). The first year the Peace Prize was awarded, Passy shared the honor with Henry Dunant, founder of the International Committee of the Red Cross and originator of the Geneva Convention (which gives him a special relevance today). Passy must have been highly esteemed indeed for the Nobel committee to have awarded him and Dunant the Prize.

Here’s how the Nobel Foundation’s website describes Passy’s prize-winning achievements.

Educated as a lawyer, Freacute;deacute;ric Passy entered the civil service at the age of twenty-two as an accountant in the State Council, but left after three years to devote himself to systematic study of economics. He emerged as a theoretical economist in 1857 with his . . . collection of essays he had published in the course of his research, and he secured his scholarly reputation with a series of lectures delivered in 1860-1861 at the University of Montpellier and later published in two volumes. . . . An admirer of Richard Cobden, he became an ardent free trader, believing that free trade would draw nations together as partners in a common enterprise, result in disarmament, and lead to the abandonment of war. Passy lectured on economic subjects in virtually every city and university of any consequence in France and continued a stream of publications on economic subjects. . . . For these contributions, among others, he was elected in 1877 to membership in the Acadeacute;mie de sciences morales et politiques, a unit of the Institut de France.

The Nobel biography points out that Passy was not content just to write, but actively worked for his ideals. Following Cobden’s example, he devoted much effort to establish arbitration as an alternative to war and conventional diplomacy: In 1867, encouraged by his leadership of public opinion in trying to avert possible war between France and Prussia over the Luxembourg question, he founded the ‘Ligue internationale et permanente de la paix.’ When the Ligue became a casualty of the Franco-Prussian War of 1870-1871, he reorganized it under the title ‘Socieacute;teacute; franccedil;aise des amis de la paix’ which in turn gave way to the more specifically oriented ‘Socieacute;teacute; franccedil;aise pour l’arbitrage entre nations,’ established in 1889.

Passy also served in the Chamber of Deputies from 1881-89, pressing his agenda against colonization and for arbitration. (He also supported some labor legislation, including an act relating to industrial accidents.)

Around this time Passy helped found the Interparliamentary Union and was one of its first presidents. According to the Nobel biography, The Union, still in existence, established a headquarters to serve as a clearinghouse of ideas, and encouraged the formation of informal individual national parliamentary groups willing to support legislation leading to peace, especially through arbitration.

Passy’s work is reminsicent of another classical liberal’s, William Rappard (1883-1958). (See The Freeman article William E. Rappard: An International Man in an Age of Nationalism by Richard Ebeling.)

Friend of Molinari

Passy was a friend of the libertarian writer Gustave de Molinari, and in 1904 wrote a prefatory letter to the English edition of Molinari’s book The Society of the Future (sometimes translated as The Society of To-morrow, first published in French in 1899). Passy praised Molinari as

the doyen of our economists — I should say of our liberal economists — of the men with whom, though, alas! few in number, I have been happy to stand side by side during more than half a century. Their principles were proclaimed and defended in England through the mouths of Adam Smith, Fox, Cobden, Gladstone, and Bright. In France they were championed by Quesnay, Turgot, Say, Michel Chevalier, Laboulaye, and Bastiat. And my belief grows yearly stronger that, but for these principles, the societies of the present would be without wealth, peace, material greatness, or moral dignity.

In the book Molinari wrote, The sovereignty of the individual will — to conclude — be the basis of the political system of the future community. This sovereignty no longer belongs to the associated owners of a territory and its inhabitants, slave or subject; nor to an idealised entity inheriting from the political establishment of its predecessor, and invested with his unrestricted claims upon the life and property of the individual. It will belong to the individual himself, no more a subject but proper master and sovereign of his person, free to labour, to exchange the products of his labour; to lend, give, devise, do all things as his will directs him.

The Nobel website’s biography of Passy concludes:

Passy’s thought and action had unity. International peace was the goal, arbitration of disputes in international politics and free trade in goods the means, the national units making up the Interparliamentary Union the initiating agents, the people the sovereign constituency. Through his prodigious labors over a period of half a century in the peace movement, Passy became known as the apostle of peace. He wrote unceasingly and vividly. . . . Passy was a renowned speaker, noted for the intellectual demands he made on his audiences, as well as for his powerful voice, his ample gestures, and his majestic and dignified manner. [Emphasis added.]

Even 105 years after the fact, freedom advocates should be delighted to learn that an eloquent and influential libertarian won such recognition for his work.


  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.