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Meet the Italian Scholar Who Influenced Hayek and Became a Founding Father of the Libertarian Movement

Thursday, May 17, 2018 11:50
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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 particular 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 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 week’s essay in the series is the Italian classical liberal scholar Bruno Leoni, for whom the Istituto Bruno Leoni in Milan, Italy, is named. The author is the founder and director general of the institute, Alberto Mingardi.

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


Bruno Leoni was that rare thing: an Italian scholar who can be considered a founding father of the modern libertarian movement. This is largely because of Freedom and the Law, a 1961 book that had a considerable impact on the thinking of Nobel laureate and Austrian economist F.A. Hayek and on the development of the “law and economics” movement.

In contrast to most of Leoni’s works, Freedom and the Law had the good fortune to be written in English. It was immediately translated into Spanish and is now available in half a dozen languages (Portuguese, Russian, Chinese, German, French, Czech, Polish, and Georgian). In Leoni’s mother tongue, Italian, it was only published in 1995, thanks to the intellectual entrepreneurship of Professor Raimondo Cubeddu and to maverick publisher Aldo Canovari, “Liberilibri” (Freebooks), who has since published the likes of Frederic Bastiat, Herbert Spencer, Michael Novak, David Friedman, Ayn Rand, and Murray Rothbard.

Early Life, Education, and the War

He studied law under Gioele Solari, the foremost legal philosopher of his generation and a mentor to many brilliant scholars.

Bruno Leoni was born in 1913. He spent his youth and, indeed, most of his life in the northern Italian city of Turin. He studied law under Gioele Solari, the foremost legal philosopher of his generation and a mentor to many brilliant scholars. It was in these years that he first acquired a taste for classical liberalism. Among his teachers, there was the great Luigi Einaudi, the economist who, after WWII, was to be the country’s first Republican President. A scholar and a relentless publicist, Einaudi was for sixty years the voice of limited government in Italy.

Leoni was a young man when the star of Benito Mussolini was at its zenith. Fascism clearly influenced his understanding of liberty. Mussolini took power in 1922, twisting the young Italian democracy into an increasingly authoritarian regime. But during Mussolini’s entire time in power, the Italian Constitution remained the same as it was in 1848, enacted in the Kingdom of Savoy under the auspices of the liberals (in the classical, European sense). For seventy years, that Constitution allowed for a liberal—if not fully democratic—regime. (Constitutions, the rules upon which classical liberal hopes rested, can indeed be compatible with the very arbitrary rule they are designed to avoid).

Thanks to the work of Professor Teresa Serra, who has carefully studied Leoni’s early works, we now know that in the second half of the 1930s, he was already entertaining thoughts that foreshadowed his later, flamboyant individualism. But back then, Leoni wasn’t acquainted with the Austrian School of economics (of Menger, Mises, Hayek, etc.), the major influence on the subsequent development of his thought.

On July 25, 1943, Mussolini was deposed by a plot of the Fascist party leadership and the supporters of the monarchy in a desperate attempt to withdraw from the war and avoid an impending catastrophe. On September 8, the caretaker government led by Marshall Badoglio announced an armistice: Italy was de facto broken into two parts: the South, which was loyal to the monarchy, and the North, which was occupied by the Germans. Soon, the country was beset by civil war, with Mussolini playing the last act of his political life as the head of a puppet government on Lake Garda in the North.

He reached out to the British and helped them in rescuing prisoners-of-war behind enemy lines.

In that same year, Bruno Leoni made a momentous choice which changed his life. Up until 1943, Leoni was an artillery officer who served in the Italian-occupied Balkans. But in those difficult days after September 8, he crossed the lines and placed himself at the service of the Allies. He reached out to the British and helped them in rescuing prisoners-of-war behind enemy lines.

He pledged his allegiance to the Anglo-Saxon world, fighting for a certain vision of individual liberty as well as for national liberation.

Tommaso Piffer, a brilliant historian of the Italian resistance movement, is currently working on a paper about Leoni’s considerable achievements on behalf of the Allies. Thanks to Dr. Piffer, now we know that Leoni operated over the entirety of the German-occupied Italian territory, contributing brilliantly to many hazardous rescue operations. On March 30, he was caught by the Germans. Luckily, the liberation of Northern Italy happened on April 25, and he was left behind in the Nazi retreat.

Leoni practiced his English as he sent dispatches, working to make himself understood by his new comrades. English soon became very important to him. It became sort of the language of liberty, as it allowed him to master the literature of classical liberalism and take part in the international classical liberal conversation after the war.

A famous comic strip by Giovannino Guareschi (the author of the worldwide bestseller “Don Camillo”) pictured millions of Italians becoming “anti-fascists” overnight and claiming impeccable credentials as opposers of the regime after having served it silently. In post-war Italy, anybody who fought in the resistance wrote or spoke endlessly on the subject. Leoni was parsimonious of words on the subject, probably because he actually did fight in the field. He preferred to consider that chapter of his life closed and worked hard for reconstruction.

Life as an Educator and Author

In the 1950s, Leoni became dean of the Department of Political Science of the University of Pavia. He lectured on Political Philosophy (then called, with a label that smelled of fascism, “Doctrine of the State”) and the History of Political Thought. He kept himself current on new developments in his field as he built friendships and alliances all around the Western world.

For Il Politico, Leoni wrote a continuous stream of book reviews.

But he was an institution-builder, too. He founded the journal Il Politico, still a point of reference for political scientists in Italy. If you look at the table of contents of the issues of Il Politico under Leoni’s editorship, you’ll quickly recognize a veritable hall of fame of classical liberalism: contributors included D.H. Robertson, F.A. Hayek, Wilhelm Röpke, Ludwig von Mises, Gordon Tullock, Helmut Schoeck, and Jim Buchanan.

For Il Politico, Leoni wrote a continuous stream of book reviews. One is easily astonished by what he read and reviewed: history, philosophy, current affairs— particularly on events behind the Iron Curtain—and even works on art and tourism and dictionaries, too. He was a curious man and a committed learner.

The Mont Pelerin Society, founded by Hayek in 1948, allowed Leoni to befriend scholars he immensely admired (Hayek and Mises, in particular) and to partake in contemporary debates. He was to be Secretary and, briefly, President of the Society in the very year he died.

Leoni was a dynamo who, had he lived longer, may have become a point of reference for the liberty movement, rejuvenating it in his native country.

Simultaneously with his scholarship, he ran a successful legal practice and wrote extensively for newspapers. It is surprising that this busy a man found time to fall in love and eventually marry his lovely wife Silvana, who passed away just last year (in 2017) fifty years after him. She was a dashing beauty he met on a business trip to Piacenza. They settled in a beautiful villa in Turin, where Leoni, a veritable renaissance man, had personally designed (or at least substantially inspired) some of the rooms.

Leoni died young, at only 54, in 1967, murdered by a tenant. A man who survived many acts of bravery during the war ended up a victim of human evil of the most banal kind. Leoni was a dynamo who, had he lived longer, may have become a point of reference for the liberty movement, rejuvenating it in his native country. Italian classical liberalism never recovered.

Leoni’s Legacy

When he died in 1967, Leoni’s ideas were quickly forgotten in Italy. Soon, one-third of the voters were freely choosing the Communist Party at the ballot. It was a season of intense political fights culminating in the terrorism of the 70s and 80s. The country didn’t have a taste for economic rationality. Nonetheless, Leoni’s major contributions possess a relevance that surpasses national boundaries today.

Leoni advanced two great research projects, although he couldn’t bring either to completion, given its untimely death.

Thinkers in the classical liberal tradition have long argued that law could be considered a “spontaneous order,” but they were a bit vague on the subject. Norms could be understood as evolving naturally over time. Indeed, the best legislation could be traced back to conventions that preceded explicit agreement and the gathering of assemblies. This way of reasoning, however, seemed to place the “spontaneous” origin of norms at the dawn of times. The higgling of the market could produce positive, unintended consequences, like the emergence of standards. Law from government bodies, however, seemed all-powerful and remote: an artifact of legislatures, something that government should enforce, above and before “petty” market transactions.

Leoni advanced two great research projects, although he couldn’t bring either to completion, given its untimely death. They were of the highest importance, particularly given the historical context in which they were developed. After WWII, a few thinkers attempted to rediscover the origins of law as the safeguard of human liberty against arbitrary government. They reopened the venerable book of reflections over the best constitutional arrangements.

But Leoni knew the experience of Italy, where Mussolini established a dictatorship without formally amending or repealing a liberal constitution. For this reason, Leoni was not persuaded that the old-style constitutionalism could be good grounds to secure individual liberty. He was equally unimpressed with the newly-minted republican Constitution that, promulgated in 1948, was essentially conceived as a fungible document, that could be good either for a liberal or a then-called “popular” (populist) democracy.

First, he established a link between legislation and economic interventionism, and, by contrast, between the common law system and market interactions.

His reflections on “freedom and the law” offer a broader view.

First, he established a link between legislation and economic interventionism, and, by contrast, between the common law system and market interactions. Planning and regulation were not “economic” phenomena: they needed statutes, laws, rules to be approved and enforced by states. Such rules may fit the requisite of being “general,” aiming homogeneously at all kind of situations (think, for example, of price controls over rents), and yet they jeopardize economic activity, even if they are “general” and uniformly applicable.

Leoni deeply admired Hayek, but he thought Hayek was wrong when, in his Cairo lectures (that formed the core of The Constitution of Liberty), he argued for the rule of law as being the product of general norms.

For Leoni, the rule of law offered legal certainty, but that wasn’t necessarily the result of uniformly applicable laws, or even of “written” laws.

He distinguished between short-term and long-term legal certainty. The first is secured by the fact that norms are written and accessible. “But the legislative process is not something that happens once and for all. It takes place every day and is continually going on,” he wrote.

Long-term legal certainty goes back, according to Leoni, to the Romans, who had “a concept of the certainty of the law that could be described as meaning that the law was never to be subjected to sudden and unpredictable changes.”

His second great, and far less explored, contribution was his attempt to come to a general theory of the law.

This was what Leoni found in the British common law, that he understood as law discovered by judges. The complex fabric of precedents was in sharp contrast with the possibility for legislators to change law by fiat. In a system in which “if you can do harm, I can sue you,” judge-discovered law may better fit the concrete needs of individuals, and act far less as a brake on innovation.

On top of that, the judicial process by which judges venture to discover what’s harmful and what’s not is a “discovery procedure” far more similar to the market process than decrees issued by a Parliament.

We don’t know how Leoni would have reacted to contemporary judicial activism nor to the growth of the administrative state where regulation-making becomes a specialized activity of unaccountable agencies. But he claimed that even ostensibly accountable bodies such as national assemblies were, in fact, politicizing the law and prone to subordinate it to very contingent needs.

His second great, and far less explored, contribution was his attempt to come to a general theory of the law. This goes by the overtly obscure name of “law as individual claim.”

In a 1964 essay, aptly reprinted as an appendix in the Liberty Fund edition of his book Freedom and the Law, Leoni argues that:

The legal process always traces back in the end to individual claim. Individuals make the law, insofar as they make successful claims. They not only make previsions and predictions, but try to have these predictions succeed by their own intervention in the process. Judges, juris-consults, and, above all, legislators are just individuals who find themselves in a particular position to influence the whole process through their own intervention.”

The essence of the law thus lies in human interactions, not in government holding the power of lawmaking. People do “make law” by mutually pretending “respect” for certain claims of theirs: their property, their autonomous sphere of action. This view, economist Todd Zywicki pointed out, makes for the idea that

the common law is a ‘spontaneous order’ similar to the market—there is sort of back and forth between individuals making individual claims, judges resolving those claims and improving the law to better meet individual demands, and that coming back in as an input into people’s decision-making, as well as an ongoing conversation among different judges.”

The last few years show a resurgence of Leoni’s scholarship. The Institute that bears his name, established in 2004, is now publishing, in eBook form, his collected works: a total of 11 volumes. Another anthology of his essays has been published in English, together with numerous translations of Freedom and the Law around the globe.

Leoni proved a lasting influence on scholars such as Randy Barnett, Richard Epstein, and Todd Zywicki. The late Henry Manne always recognized him as an inspiration for the burgeoning law and economics movement. He was, indeed, one of the first scholars who considered the economists’ toolkit relevant to understanding the law.

Leoni’s work was the object of careful monographs such as Antonio Masala’s and Carlo Lottieri’s, so far only available in Italian. But, outside the circle of specialists, Leoni’s name bounced back in blockbuster books as in Hernando de Soto’s The Mystery of Capital and Nassim Taleb’s Antifragile.

Had Leoni lived longer, his legacy may have been even more conspicuous. But it is still impressive how many seeds he planted in his short, frenzied, brave life.


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