Vilfredo Pareto’s Contributions to Modern Social Theory: A Centennial Appraisal, Christopher Adair-Toteff, ed. (Routledge, 208 pp., $170)

Last year marked the 100th anniversary of the death of Italian economist and polymath Vilfredo Pareto. He died in August 1923, less than a year after Benito Mussolini’s coup d’etat in October 1922. His magnum opus, Trattato di sociologia generale (In English, Mind and Society), published a few years before in 1916, had failed to win him a massive following, but it did enhance his aura of prestige. Indeed, Mussolini claimed (falsely) that he attended some of Pareto's lectures in Lausanne, thus attempting to present himself as a pupil of the social thinker. After their rise to power, the fascists also offered Pareto appointment as a senator in the upper house of parliament, an invitation to which he never responded. Pareto’s reputation ever since has been shadowed by accusations that he was a fascist and is therefore unworthy of serious consideration.

A new volume of essays seeks to reconsider that judgment and shed new light on Pareto’s legacy. Edited by Christopher Adair-Toteff, a fellow at the Center for Social and Political Thought at the University of Florida, the book brings together an impressive collection of writers. Allegations of Pareto’s fascist sympathies are assessed by, among others, Clayton Fordahl (who writes on Pareto and democracy), Giandomenica Becchio (on Pareto and liberalism), and Adair-Toteff himself (on Hannah Arendt’s misinterpretation of Pareto).

Pareto was born in Paris in 1848, when hopes for a more liberal future were at their zenith. He died after the First World War had wrecked those hopes. Accordingly, his thought arced from liberal optimism in his youth to political skepticism in old age. It was not until he was well into his forties that Pareto became a university professor—that is, a person paid to think, write, and teach. His father was a Genoese engineer forced to flee to Paris because of his involvement in political conspiracies (evidently unsuccessful ones) but returned to Italy after the Piedmontese King granted amnesty to him and his comrades. An aristocratic young man, Pareto studied engineering and was well versed in the “hard” sciences, which he applied from managerial positions in the railways and in ironworks. His business career was shepherded by Ubaldino Peruzzi, mayor of Florence and one of the grandees of the newly unified Italy, whose (classical) liberal sentiments were perhaps stronger than those of others in Italy’s ruling class.

The young Pareto flirted with a political career (albeit unsuccessfully) and wrote and proselytized often on the virtues of the free market over the corruption of protectionism. His writings gathered insights from his natural political instincts (which bordered on anarchism), readings on economics, and his business experience. But the enemies of free trade were gaining the upper hand in Italian politics; from the 1880s onward, the Italian government tended to protectionism and interventionism, both suiting the interests of the ruling class, which had little to fear from voters, given Italy’s limited franchise. The blue-blooded Pareto, whose aristocratic temper made him intolerant of even a whiff of corruption, despaired at this turn of events and came to consider himself a political loser.

Moving to Switzerland to take up an academic post vacated by the economist Leon Walras, Pareto looked to use his position to teach young men good economics. As often happens to teachers, he soon grew disillusioned with his idealistic project.

This is the background against which we should consider Pareto’s political and sociological theory. Pareto’s “elitism,” as Fordhal points out, was not “normative.” He did not believe the world should be led by elites; he just acknowledged the reality that it was. As for sociology, Pareto insisted that irrationality was fundamental to human nature and believed that people’s ideas were epiphenomena of their instincts. He did not, however, advise leaders to appeal to people’s irrationality.

In the volume’s introduction, Adair-Toteff quotes a comment by the left-wing historian of political thought Norberto Bobbio that Pareto had two qualities that “are usually contradictory: ‘an analytical talent bordering on pedantry, a curiosity for facts akin to gossip.’” The first applied to the second may explain why many initially deemed Mind and Society an unreadable book. But Pareto is also perhaps easy to misinterpret because he tried, in his mature years, to be a scholar detached from partisanship: an even-tempered scientist studying politics and society. Yet he was devoured by political passions; he hardly abstained from writing on whatever he deemed interesting (or scandalous) and did not hide his sadness that Europe was forgetting its liberalism.

In his essay in the volume, Adair-Toteff contrasts Hannah Arendt’s dismissal of Pareto, characterizing him inaccurately as a preacher of violence, with S. E. Finer’s vigorous defense of Pareto in 1968—which Arendt quoted but perhaps did not read closely, resorting instead to vague, second-hand memories of the man. Finer and Adair-Toteff quote in full a passage from one of Pareto’s letters, from which Arendt cherry-picked to suggest that Pareto endorsed political violence:

After the victory of the Dreyfussards, however, I was amazed to see them employing against their opponents the same villainous methods that they themselves had denounced. At that point I comprehended in all its fullness that if certain persons like myself had been following principles, most people had done just the opposite, and had their eyes fixed on their interests. And I saw the same thing happen when the workers obtained freedom of association. What in today’s language is styled “freedom” grew, as what in yesterday’s language was “freedom” diminished—by which I mean the power to act: which shrinks every day, save for the criminals, in the so-called free and democratic countries. And from that I learned an additional thing: namely that former liberals had been toiling to obtain the exact opposite of what they desired. 

Arendt writes of Pareto’s “despair of the working classes,” perhaps not realizing that Pareto sided with them in the struggle against “bourgeois socialism,” which today we might call “crony capitalism.” In fact, in the passage above, Pareto was revealing the disappointment of a true liberal, who understood that liberty was too precious to be entrusted to “liberals,” many of whom pursued their own interests more energetically than the cause of liberty itself. Such people criticize power when it is held by others but deem it perfectly benevolent when they hold it themselves.

In our era of obsessive partisanship, such political skepticism is perhaps hard to understand. Adair-Toteff reminds us that Pareto was “anti-socialist, anti-state intervention, anti-colonialism, anti-militarism, anti-racism, and anti-anti-Semitism.” This series of “antis” may define the man more than any single political label.

Pareto was thus no Carl Schmitt, though he has often been portrayed in a similar light. Stephen Turner’s essay gives an interesting account of how Carl Friedrich “cancelled” Pareto at Harvard, being uneasy with the latter’s unmasking of political ideologies; Friedrich himself was hard at work fashioning a mask “of democracy worn over bureaucratic rule, the one thing he believed in.”

The book’s essays touch on many other thinkers’ readings of Pareto (Joachim Stark writes on Raymond Aron’s, for example), making the case for his enduring importance. Economists frequently cite Pareto as a founder of neoclassical economics, and sociologists and political scientists see him as a forerunner of their fields. Perhaps it would be better, though, if he were cited less and read more.

Photo: Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons


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