This Thinker Was the "Czech Bastiat"

Karel Havlíček was a Czech journalist and economic thinker who dared to challenge the authority of the Austrian Empire.

Nothing is so contagious as example; and we never do any great good or evil which does not produce its like – Francois de la Rochefoucauld (1613-1680).

Heroes for liberty are not peculiar to any region of the world or to a particular time period or to one sex. They hail from all nationalities, races, faiths, and creeds. They inspire others to a noble and universal cause – that all people should be free to live their lives in peace so long as they do no harm to the equal rights of others. They are passionate not solely for their own liberty, but for that of others as well.

In my last book, Real Heroes: Inspiring True Stories of Courage, Character and Conviction, I wrote about 40 individuals whose views, decisions and actions served this cause in various ways. That book planted the seed for this new weekly series to be published each Thursday at FEE.org. But this time, others from around the world will do the writing, and I’ll be content to do the editing while keeping that to a minimum to preserve the author’s voice. It is my hope that when all is said and done some months from now, the literature of liberty will be greatly complemented by this collection of short biographies. The authors will be writing about heroes for liberty who are (or were) citizens of each author’s own country. Each week’s installment will be added to the collection here.

The subject of this sixth essay in the series is Czech classical liberal economist Karel Havlíček and the co-authors are twin brothers from Prague, Tomáš and Lukáš Nikodym, great friends who have translated many FEE publications for distribution in their country.

--- Lawrence W. Reed, President, Foundation for Economic Education


On the occasion of Karel Havlíček’s 180th birthday in 2001, one economist called him “The Czech Bastiat.” It was a reference, of course, to the great French author of The Law and many other powerful, timeless defenses of freedom and free markets. This is an honor of which we believe both Havlíček and Bastiat would be proud.

We find many similarities between these two men, otherwise separated by 650 miles across Europe. They both died young of tuberculosis (Havlíček at age 34, Bastiat at 49). But most importantly, both possessed a great ability to explain economic phenomena in a very simple, compelling way. FEE president Lawrence Reed labeled Bastiat “Liberty’s Masterful Storyteller” and we believe Havlíček is his Czech counterpart. Both men were also economists, journalists, and statesmen. Havlíček was a poet as well.

Early Life

Karel Havlíček was born in 1821 in the village of Borová, close to the small city of Deutschbrod, which was renamed Havlíček’s Brod in 1945. This fact attests to his importance in that town and our country. From today’s perspective, the renaming of the city for a consistent classical liberal may appear quite ironic in 1945. It was a time when socialism, first in its Nazi form and then in its Soviet form, was dominant.

Determined that liberal political and economic thought should be heard, Havlíček did not give up. In 1838, after high school studies, Havlíček decided to attend a philosophy seminar in Prague. After only two years, he reconsidered his plans for a career in philosophy and considered theology. That ended when, after a short period of time, he decided that his freethinking, liberal ideas didn’t fit the life of a clergyman.

Next, he started his self-education in languages and the literature and history of Slavic nations, especially the history of Poland and Russia. Havlíček was heavily influenced by the idea of Pan-Slavism and became a Russophile. It was quite common and naïve at that time to support Pan-Slavism which regarded czarist Russia as a natural leader of all Slavic nations. Almost none of the proponents of Pan-Slavism had ever been to Russia, however. Havlíček seized a chance to accept a tutorship in Moscow in 1843 where disillusionment with how the Russian aristocracy treated its people changed his views within a year. He returned to Prague and became an Austro-Slavist, meaning that he supported a federation of free and equal nations within the Austrian empire.

Havlíček’s increasingly liberal views (in the classical sense) made him quite unpopular among representatives and supporters of the absolutist monarchy. He fought its authoritarian principles, its censorship, and its repression. He defended free speech and open criticism of policies and ideas. The monarchy fought back, accusing Havlíček many times of violating the strict laws regulating the press. A newspaper he started, National News, was forced to close in January 1850. With patience and courage, he declared, “We are so liberal that we will never mark our opponents as heretics for their thoughts.”

Determined that liberal political and economic thought should be heard, Havlíček did not give up. He started a new journal, The Slav, which officially satisfied all the regulations but put forth his views as boldly as he felt safe to print. He focused much of his writing on educating the people on the economics of free markets.

Political Thought

Havlíček was a devotee of František Palacký, the “founding father” of Czech democratic politics and its liberal orientation. Both Havlíček and Palacký understood history as a clash between external authority and free, inner reason. Free reasoning, they believed, led directly to individual self-determination, which was in sharp contrast with the more German view of the national State as the highest authority and the embodiment of the highest collective good. To Havlíček, the individual was completely lost and denigrated in the collectivist “en masse” perspective.

The purpose of government was the protection of life, liberty, and property — not the manipulation of people. Havlíček’s concepts of individualism and freedom were close to those of John Locke, a pioneer of the foundational view shared by most libertarians today. Locke wrote that “freedom is not, as we are told, ‘a liberty for every man to do what he lists’ … but a liberty to dispose, and order as he lists, his person, actions, possessions, and his whole property, within the allowance of those laws under which he is, and therein not to be subject to the arbitrary will of another, but freely follow his own.”

We can find similar ideas in Havlíček’s work, such as “freedom is not unbounded lawlessness, but natural individuality that no authority could interfere with on either personal matters or the free actions of its citizens.” As he saw it, the purpose of government was the protection of life, liberty, and property — not the manipulation of people to serve the ends of the State.

Economic Thought

In Havlíček’s day, early in the Industrial Revolution, many people believed that machinery and factories were taking work away from the workers. While he fully realized that machinery could cause the decline of some specific industries or types of production, he understood, as Bastiat did, that there is more to the story than just the people who lost their jobs to a machine.

“Every factory was harmful to certain craftsmen but it was beneficial for every person who had previously bought the expensive craftsman’s goods,” he wrote. He argued that the success of factories was a clear sign that the number of the people who benefited from the existence of factories exceeded the number of people who suffered hardship because of them. They were keys to great production and progress.

From his liberal perspective, it was unnatural to live in a society without private ownership of property. A free-market environment was needed, Havlíček maintained, to benefit fully from the existence of the factory. That included the reduction or abolition of prohibitions and tariffs on foreign goods. Those in business who demanded protectionist policies were, to him, a kind of aristocracy because aristocracy has always been connected with the misuse of the political and legal power of the State. “We see how our entrepreneurs are getting wealthier under the shadow of protectionism, due to monopoly and not their ability to serve the people,” he wrote.

So what is the cause of wealth and economic progress according to Havlíček? “Wealth and progress come from freedom and rule of law. Everyone is working for his own and is not forced to share his gains, everyone is seeking his own job; no laws and administrations are unduly binding him.” These were, in Havlíček´s opinion, the roots of the prosperity of the United States of America.

Havlíček used the English Corn Laws (tariffs on the importation of grain) as an example of wrong-headed economic policy: “Corn Laws caused the extreme rise of prices of corn. As a result, people bought less bread. Meanwhile, the aristocracy got wealthier and wealthier.”  

Freedom, argued Havlíček, is a necessary precondition of economic prosperity, as well as peace in society. “It may sound strange, but peace and the certainty of protection of each individual’s property are features of the free countries.” There, he said, instead of the strife that regularly afflicted the unfree countries, economies are spared the turmoil of disruptive uncertainty and violent uprisings.

Karel Havlíček also warned society of the specter of communism. From his liberal perspective, it was unnatural to live in a society without private ownership of property. He deemed it might be possible for certain groups of people to live according to communist principles voluntarily, though it would be a ”foolish” idea. Imposing it on people by force would be an instant disaster. Communists, he said, are never content to leave people alone but instead, “are trying to make of people something ‘better’ or something ‘worse,’ but always something different than human.”

He even claimed that every absolutist government, whatever its ideology, was, in fact, a communist government because of the lack of guarantees of individual property. “The absolutist government is taking under the name of taxes, confiscation, expropriation, etc., the property of others and no one can even protest it. The government is taking the property of some and giving it to its supporters, together with other privileges. Isn’t that communism?”

The Bitter End

In November 1851, Havlíček was accused again of violating the press law. His liberal ideas and courageous fight for freedom were the cause. Luckily, he was freed by the local court but the story did not end there. One month later he was arrested by police — without any charge or trial — and deported to the small city of Brixen in South Tyrol, with no possibility to leave. Due to his ideas, which he expressed so brightly and clearly, and his criticism aimed at the government, he was meant to spend the rest of his life in exile.

Despite his early death, Karel Havlíček is a great inspiration for Czechs to this day. After a few months, his wife and daughter were allowed to move into Brixen with him. They lived together until 1854 when his wife had to leave after contracting tuberculosis. In spite of forced exile and his wife’s illness, he did not stop his work. He decided to humorously describe his arrest and his adventurous journey to Brixen in Tyrol Laments and a blistering parody of statism called The Baptism of Saint Vladimir, his final work.

In the spring of 1855, he learned the sad news of his wife’s death. It broke him both mentally and physically. He himself died of the same illness a few months later, in 1856. He was just 34.

Despite his early death, Karel Havlíček is a great inspiration for Czechs to this day. He is widely regarded as a founder of Czech journalism, a powerful exemplar of liberal values and personal courage. “A person like Havlíček does not change his convictions. The danger lies solely in his pen,” wrote a police officer into Havlíček’s police records.

Because of his thoughts and ideas and the way in which he expressed them, some see Havlíček as a revolutionary, but that’s only accurate in a nonviolent, intellectual sense. In his own words: “I am the enemy of the revolution with weapons. I believe in revolution in heads and in hearts, because an uneducated nation bloodied in revolution will never achieve freedom from the rule of law, but will be swindled and brought back to despotism.”

Further Reading

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