Thomas Hodgskin, Socialist or Anti-Privilege Libertarian?



Abstract: Thomas Hodgskin (1797–1869) is still studied as a forerunner of modern socialism: in fact, he is typically characterized as a prominent “Ricardian socialist”. Among the most influential of Hodgskin’s works was his pamphlet Labour Defended Against the Claims of Capital (1825a), thus prefiguring with its very title announces a denunciation of capitalism. Hodgskin’s work should be considered instead in its entirety, paying proper attention to its nuances. If Hodgskin indeed chastised “capitalism,” he meant precisely what we now call “crony capitalism.” He did not condemn the “higgling of the market,” which he thought should be the sole mechanism by which resources, including human labour, are allocated. But he saw clearly that legislative meddling served specific interests and often prevented market forces to emerge and blossom. If he was unfriendly towards the “capitalist” class, it was only because he saw them as disproportionally benefiting from the favour of political power. Hodgskin denounced the idle classes but did not want to substitute the market process with any alternative distributive scheme. He considered a sound understanding of an innovation-fostering economy incompatible with archaic distribution of privilege on the part of government. His work can help to clarify how embracing the market economy did and does not entail a defence of the status quo.