Montaigne famously held that one person’s profit always involves another person’s loss, and this apothegm has won him some hostility from libertarians; see Mises, for example, here, here, and here. But I think Montaigne’s meaning has been misunderstood. When the claim is taken out of context, it is easy to assume, first, that Montaigne is attacking profit, and second, that he is saying that in any exchange one party wins and another loses – so that, in effect, the person who profits does so by causing the other person’s loss.
But when read in context, Montaigne’s point turns out to be rather different. Here’s what Montaigne actually says:
Demades the Athenian condemned one of his city, whose trade it was to sell the necessaries for funeral ceremonies, upon pretence that he demanded unreasonable profit, and that that profit could not accrue to him, but by the death of a great number of people. A judgment that appears to be ill grounded, forasmuch as no profit whatever can possibly be made but at the expense of another, and that by the same rule he should condemn all gain of what kind soever. The merchant only thrives by the debauchery of youth, the husbandman by the dearness of grain, the architect by the ruin of buildings, lawyers and officers of justice by the suits and contentions of men: nay, even the honor and office of divines are derived from our death and vices. A physician takes no pleasure in the health even of his friends, says the ancient Greek comic writer, nor a soldier in the peace of his country, and so of the rest.
First of all, then, Montaigne is evidently not attacking profit, since the reason he offers for thinking that Demades’s position is “ill-grounded” is that if it were correct, we would have to condemn all profit – an implication Montaigne obviously finds unacceptable. Second, it is clear from Montaigne’s examples that the loss that Montaigne thinks is linked with profit is not a loss that results from exchange but one that precedes it. His point is that X would not be able to make a profit from Y if Y were not already suffering from some form of need or lack which X then proceeds to relieve. It’s not that Y loses by the ensuing exchange, but rather that Y’s pre-existing ill fortune is what necessitates the exchange.
Admittedly Montaigne does find this situation morally problematic – not, however, because he thinks Y fails to benefit from the exchange, but rather because the dependence of X’s profit on Y’s need gives X an interest in hoping for and valuing Y’s distress, a morally unlovely consequence. And perhaps Montaigne is open to criticism here for not observing that there is a limit to the extent of distress that X can prudently wish upon Y, since, for example, X will not want Y to be so impoverished as not to be able to afford X’s services. But in any case Montaigne is not making the elementary economic mistake that is so often imputed to him.
Rousseau, in discussing Montaigne’s remark, draws from it the following moral:
It will perhaps be said that society is so formed that every man gains by serving the rest. That would be all very well, if he did not gain still more by injuring them. There is no legitimate profit so great, that it cannot be greatly exceeded by what may be made illegitimately; we always gain more by hurting our neighbours than by doing them good.
But this gloomy conclusion seems to me to go far beyond anything Montaigne is saying in the passage in question.
It turns out that Rothbard pushes this line also, in a piece titled “The Skeptic as Absolutist: Michel de Montaigne.” (Even assuming he didn’t ghost-write the Discourse of Voluntary Servitude, how anyone could interpret Montaigne as an absolutist is beyond me!) What’s so frustrating about the piece is that Rothbard quotes enough of the Montaigne passage to make it obvious that the anti-trade interpretation of it is mistaken – and then proceeds to give the anti-trade interpretation anyway! I love me some Rothbard, but his bizarre interpretations of his predecessors (Plotinus, Smith, Hayek, etc.) drive me crazy sometimes.