Freud: The Accidental Classical Liberal

Vienna, the capital of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, had, during the period from the 1870s to the 1930s, a liberal and cultural atmosphere which nurtured intense activity by an intellectual elite.

The roots of psychoanalysis have major convergences with liberalism.

Not only in literature with Stefan Zweig, music with Gustav Mahler, and psychology with Sigmund Freud and the creation of psychoanalysis, but also in research in economy with the Austrian School of Economics represented by its founder Carl Menger, Ludwig Von Mises and Friedrich Hayek, as highlighted by Professor Guido Hülsmann in his biography of Mises The Last Knight of Liberalism, and the researcher Erwin Dekker, author of The Viennese Students of Civilization.

What is not so well known, however, is that not only a nexus between Freud and certain Austrian economists existed, but moreover, psychoanalysis can be considered as having multiple ramifications for liberal thinking! Such connections would certainly be much greater in number than with Marxism, even though there were several failed attempts to forge a “Freudo-Marxism” marriage between the two revolutionary theories during the 20th century. The “Freudo-Marxist” psychoanalyst heirs of Freud failed to reconcile psychoanalysis centered on the individual, with the ideal of collectivist freedom.

“Subjective Theory of Value” accentuates the subjective dimension of an individual.

Freud: Liberal Inside

After an in-depth study of the history of ideas, it seems that the roots of psychoanalysis have major convergences with liberalism.

Freud, heavily influenced by an education which was incontestably liberal, was in turn influenced by enlightenment philosophy and major thinkers of the liberal movement. By virtue of his education and Viennese culture, he was not very far from liberalism even if he didn’t write much on the subject.

In fact, one day he declared that he was an “old school liberal.” From a letter he wrote in his youth, one can see that he considered Adam Smith’s magnum opus The Wealth of Nations to be a fundamental work (in The Letters of Sigmund Freud to Eduard Silberstein). Furthermore, it is worth noting that in his youth he translated several works by the liberal thinker John Stuart Mill.

The Missing Link

How did Freud come to translate Mill? Thanks to the Aristotelian philosopher and psychologist Franz Brentano, who presented one of his philosophy students, the assiduous Freud, to a publisher who was looking for a translator! Franz Brentano, therefore, constitutes, symbolically, the missing link between liberalism and psychoanalysis. The propitious environment for intellectual stimulation in Vienna at the end of the 19th century saw the creation of both Freudian psychoanalysis and the Austrian School of Economics, sometimes called the “psychological school”! Why this term? Probably because its founder, the economist Carl Menger, was a close friend of Franz Brentano, whose most well-known work is: Psychology from an Empirical Standpoint.

Mises understood the nature of human action; purposeful behavior entails acts of choice.

Carl Menger developed his “Subjective Theory of Value” which accentuates the subjective dimension of an individual. At the same time, the history of ideas reveals some unexpected filiations: Freud was an assiduous student of Brentano who without a doubt influenced him! Brentano particularly concentrated his reflections on intentionality; how we can represent things that don’t exist outside of the mind. The concept was taken up by his disciple Husserl, the founder of phenomenology.

Although in his above-mentioned work, Franz Brentano seems to be categorically opposed to the notion of the unconscious. Freud was very much influenced by his master and close to him in terms of methodology; Brentano defended an empirical approach, based on observation. However, it has been demonstrated that Freud wanted to go much further.

Freud does not allude to Brentano in his works, but as researchers have demonstrated, he was thinking about him when he refers to “philosophical objections to the unconscious." In fact, we can consider that “in reality Freud continues in the direction taken by Brentano, being that of scientific psychology; he completes and goes even further than the project described by Brentano” (as explained by Maria Gyemant in Dictionnaire Sigmund Freud, Ed Robert Laffont).

Ludwig Von Mises: Freud's First Liberal Admirer 

It is not by chance that Ludwig Von Mises, a disciple of Menger, was probably the first liberal economist to have written in glowing terms about psychoanalysis and Freud (See article from Jeffrey A. Tucker Why Ludwig von Mises Admired Sigmund Freud).

According to Mises, the psychoanalytic approach based on the unconscious and pulsions does not undermine the rational approach of homo economicus. The latter is rational in its choices because it is responsible for them. Psychoanalysis, however, poses the question as to why we make certain choices. This is what Mises understood in his praxeology theory, being the science of the nature of human action; purposeful behavior entails acts of choice.

Praxeology explains the action of an individual, and psychoanalysis provides the same individual if so desired, with an interpretation of the motivation behind the origin of the action. They are two different but complementary domains, as Mises clearly explains in his masterpiece, Human Action.

Freud hoped that science would signal progress for civilization, and help save the world.

Furthermore, Mises was the first to perceive that psychoanalysis had developed because it had escaped being controlled by the state! He insisted, for example, on the fact that Freud, like him, was a “Privatdozent," a university lecturer who received fees from his students rather than a university salary paid for by the Austrian State education system. To my knowledge, no historian of psychoanalysis or biographer of Freud has expounded on Mises’ writings on this subject.

We are, however, certain that Freud and Mises communicated with each other, at least in an epistolary manner. Two letters were addressed by Freud to Mises. Unfortunately, these letters formed part of his working papers and library which were confiscated from his apartment by the Nazis during the Anschluss in Vienna in 1938 (as explained by Guido Hülsmann in The Last Knight of Liberalism).

Hayek and Freud: A Misunderstanding

Experts on liberalism will object that Friedrich Hayek, the best known of the “Austrian School” economists and a disciple of Mises, was very critical of Freud. For my part, I consider that Hayek did not really read Freud’s works, apart from The Future of An Illusion, one of his most political books. And Hayek seems to ascribe Freud to the latter’s Freudo-Marxist heirs, whom he considered to be dangerous. Because of that, he puts Freud in the same camp as the social constructivists, like Marx.

Psychoanalysis is primarily an individual act.

It is true that given the pessimistic context that reigned prior to the outbreak of the Second World War, Freud hoped that science, as a source of progress for civilization, would save the world from the current destructive tendencies at that time. Nevertheless, Hayek was interested in the unconscious, a word he also used, in terms of the economy and to clearly show “what we see and what we do not see," according to the famous expression by Frédéric Bastiat. It seems to me that this way of dealing with economic problems is not too far removed from the Freudian approach, which breaks with the previous dominant form of medical mechanism, and opens new perspectives to understand psychic phenomena.

There is substantial evidence to support the theory where psychoanalysis and liberalism work well together, as we will see in the next part of the article.


Psychoanalysis and Liberalism: Same Combat

It is, therefore, permitted to consider that psychoanalysis constitutes, to some extent, a branch of traditional liberalism. A branch which “turns in on oneself and investigates oneself” as suggested by the Canadian preeminent historian of psychoanalysis Paul Roazen in Freud’s political and social thought.

To be clear, Freud didn’t want any state involvement at all.

In reality, what is psychoanalysis? Psychoanalysis, or depth psychology, remains a powerful therapeutic exercise and a disruptive interpretation system which puts words to individual or collective problems. Whether practiced by purists, taught as part of a philosophy course, used by psychiatrists alongside other therapies, or used in a variety of different ways, psychoanalysis is still an important branch of psychology and continues to influence other disciplines.

Psychoanalysis is primarily an individual act: an individual decides to follow a course of therapeutic treatment to create personal empowerment and self-mastery to resolve their problems. A person undergoing psychoanalysis carried out between the analyst and the “analysand” (the person who is being psychoanalyzed), who, verbally expresses their deepest inner feelings, can attempt to reappropriate their personal history and generate a new feeling of freedom.

Psychoanalysis is a process where individuals attempt to increase their own freedom and to regain self-ownership. This simple definition of psychoanalysis is indisputably close to the family of liberal thinking. Liberalism relies on the pre-eminence of the individual, the importance of the individual’s freedom, which goes together with individual responsibility and the notion of property.

Psychoanalysis: A Scalable Startup!

Freud developed his discipline in the same way as one would launch a startup on the international scene. He showed a real entrepreneurial attitude by making a disruption in the healthcare market with the introduction of his Psychoanalysis startup. He had a vision, an intense production activity through his numerous published works, an approach almost like the founder of a franchise network with the International Psychoanalytical Association, and he controlled as much as possible education and training.


Freud was incredibly liberal in his vision of the role the State should play in his discipline. To be clear, he didn’t want any state involvement at all. He supported psychoanalysis by laymen, meaning practiced by people who were not medical doctors. He even says it in the text, and simply, in two words. Wanting only one thing from the state for his discipline: laisser faire, quoting with French words the famous expression by Gournay and Turgot in his book The Question of Lay Analysis! He judged that « interventionism by public authorities » was less efficient than « natural development ». He was wary of the tendency to instinctively make people subject to a guardianship order, and the excesses of legal actions and interdictions.

In France and in England, it is possible to demonstrate that free competition between different movements and different schools of psychoanalysis has allowed the discipline to see substantial growth and development during the 50s and 60s, and to become popular. It is worth noting that famous psychoanalysts can clearly be classed as being liberal.

The most explicit on the subject is the American Psychiatrist Thomas Szasz, who was close to Ayn Rand’s libertarian philosophical group. In his essay, The Ethics of Psychoanalysis: The Theory and Method of Autonomous Psychotherapy, he considered that the role of a therapist is to help their patient, with whom they have a contract, to become, as an individual, free and owner of their life. He considers that a psychoanalysis which allows individuals to better understand themselves and increase their free thinking and self-confidence is similar to a liberal reform at the state level!

The most surprising, however, was the famous French pediatrician and psychoanalyst Françoise Dolto (see for instance Les Étapes majeures de l’enfance — « Major stages of childhood -), who did a lot to democratize the Freudian practice in France, including presenting a radio program. She used the same words with regard to children that liberals or entrepreneurs would use relative to startups or management in general! She strongly recommended that the education of children should be made in a climate of liberty that was a source of confidence, with a set of rules, of course, but limited to those necessary for their security.

Psychoanalysis + Liberalism = Freudo-Liberalism

On top of the pleasure of absorbing the intellectual history of ideas and trying to establish as yet unknown connections, it could be useful to analyze the Freudo-Liberal approach, as conceptualized in my essay, Freudo-Liberalism the liberal sources of psychoanalysis, which consists of cross-fertilising liberal ideas with psychoanalysis.

The unconscious will remain the ultimate property of each individual.

States that have become too big and have too much debt, hindrances to entrepreneurial freedom, monopolies over the issuance of “paper” money, the rise of fundamentalism… are so many threats which would scare Benjamin Constant who defended « individual freedom in everything: in religion, philosophy, literature, industry, and politics ». So many problems which need solutions. Let’s take the examples of the welfare state and transhumanism.

A Relevant Analysis of the Welfare State

Authors have used psychoanalysis to explain more symbolically the problems they are confronted with, particularly in France where the welfare state is the rule. In Big Mother Psychopathology of Political Life, the ex-senior civil servant and psychoanalyst Michel Schneider asked questions concerning France, the only country which continues to have « enormous State involvement which is expensive, powerless and ineffectual »… a sort of nanny state.

In La France Adolescente, « Teenaged France », the co-authors Mathieu Laine, a French expert in liberalism, and Patrick Huerre, a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst, compare France to a teenager who has a lot of potential but is in the middle of a crisis. They advocate therapy treatment and work to « regain confidence in our capacities and abilities, and to relearn how to act and behave like adults».

Liberal Countervailing Power Faced with Transhumanism

The rapid development of nanotechnology, biotechnology, computer systems and cognitive science will, perhaps, allow those who are interested in becoming superhumans or post-humanists. Some of us will, perhaps, one day become hybrid beings, half man, half machine, with the ability to live much longer.

When faced with absolutism, liberalism will always advocate the rule of law and the establishment of countervailing powers. Therefore, psychoanalysis remains a formidable concept of individual countervailing power, which allows man to think about himself and others.

The unconscious — our personal history, that of our grandparents, our childhood, our desires — will remain the ultimate property of each individual. It is improbable that we will be able to translate into digital data, and subsequently interpret using big data, the productions of the unconscious, such as desire or repression…


Having to confront a world that is more and more uncertain and complex, where freedoms are that much more fragile, it is necessary to resort to transversal approaches with contributions from different theories and social sciences. For instance, the psychologist Professor Daniel Kahneman’s Nobel Prize in 2002 and his work on cognitive biases, have had a major influence on economic sciences in recent years. Using the two consanguineous « software » of psychoanalysis and liberalism, in particular, the liberal Austrian School of Economics, is fully part of this plural-disciplinary approach.

Reprinted from Medium.