Religion and the Law


 A professor of religious instruction at Brigham Young University explains how Frederic Bastiat as­sists in his classes.

"The Law"

My students come from all walks of life, nearly every state of the Union, and many foreign lands. They are the product mainly of public schools. They believe the Founding Fathers established a democracy. In most cases, the U.N., not Christ, is their hope for peace. They believe the truth can be established by ballot. They probably never have met anyone who comprehended the free mar­ket idea. To them, free enterprise is a conspiracy between rich men and crooked politicians. They are not raw material; they are the half-finished product of a machine that was confused about what it was supposed to be making. They are my challenge—the reason why I go on teaching despite the lure of greener pastures.

Teachers of the freedom phi­losophy have to be "as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves"—wise enough to induce students to listen to ideas they have been conditioned to reject.

My latest plan to stimulate thinking was to require a book report on The Law, by Frederic Bastiat, from all students seeking a top mark in my course on reli­gion. There were 413 students in­volved in this experiment. One hundred five accepted the chal­lenge, though not all of them earned A’s in the course. None objected to the project, and sev­eral stated that they read the book even though they did not report on it.

Statement of the Premise

In presenting the project to the students, I capitalized on the fact that they were voluntarily enrolled in a private university. They had prior knowledge of the univer­sity’s policies and requirements. So they were in the class by vol­untary contract. Early in the se­mester I discussed the relationship of the students to the school, to me, and to the project. This is the essence of what I said:

"This is a private university. It is not operated by public servants nor supported by taxes. Your tui­tion and fees pay for about one-fourth of the immediate costs of the education you receive here. The rest is paid out of the volun­tary contributions of the members of the Church to which most of you belong.

"You came here voluntarily as far as we know. Therefore, you are taking this course by volun­tary contract, not by compulsion.

"When two parties enter into a contract, they do so because each hopes to benefit by the contract. You hope to be spiritually and ma­terially benefited by your educa­tion here. We who pay most of the bill hope to see you saved from the misery of a life without princi­ple or spiritual direction, whichwe suppose is more apt to be the case without religious education. Ours is an intangible benefit, but it is just as real to us as anything you hope to gain. If you are not a willing party to the contract, you have no business being here. "You also have an implicit per­sonal contract with me. At regis­tration you chose my class for some reason or other. You all know your reasons. In each case you hoped to gain something by making the choice.

"Now that you are here, I owe you something and you owe me something. I owe you my sincere effort to offer you what I believe is true and good for you, and still respect your right to reject it. You owe me the respect to try to un­derstand me. You do not have to believe me, and you will not be graded on whether or not you be­lieve me. Your grade will depend in part on how well you under­stand me. I do not pretend to sit in judgment on your beliefs, your convictions, or your characters. There is no way I could do that successfully even if I wanted to. But I will try to discover how well you understand me.

"I want you to know that I be­lieve that government should be limited to the protection of life, liberty, and property. I believe in a free market economy and a re­publican form of government such as our Founding Fathers attempt­ed to establish when they met in Philadelphia to write the Consti­tution. I believe that liberty is in great jeopardy in America, that the Constitution is ‘hanging by a thread,’ and that the American people are, in large measure, liv­ing by legal plunder. I believe all of these ideas are religious in na­ture to any man who claims to be­lieve in God. Indeed, I believe religion and liberty are as in­separable as life and blood. And I believe that the solution to America‘s problems is a reawak­ened respect for God and right­eousness.

"You no doubt have heard the welfare state defended on the grounds that it is our duty to be our ‘brother’s keeper.’ To hear the other side of a matter is to be made free to decide which side is right. One of the best books I have read on ‘the other side’ of the welfare state is The Law by Fred­eric Bastiat. This book was writ­ten in 1850. As you read it, you will wonder how anyone who lived that long ago could know our times so well.

"I strongly recommend that all of you read The Law. I will not make it a requirement to pass the course. But I will expect all who are trying to demonstrate that they are A students to read it and write a report on it.

"I urge you to read The Law with an open mind. I consider it one of the dozen books that have had the most profound effect on my life. I do not ask you to be­lieve it; but I do ask you to un­derstand it. In your report I want you to demonstrate that you un­derstood the book and that you see why I consider it a fit supple­ment for this course in religion."

The Students Respond

Four of the 105 who reported on The Law wrote adverse crit­icisms. Three said they believed Bastiat was right but that his ideas wouldn’t work. About twenty confined their remarks to an ac­curate, knowledgeable report of the contents of the book. But the vast majority were enthusiastic in their praise. Following are some typical statements:

"Evidently I am one of many individuals who has been duped into believing that, without the law to instigate and enforce public education, charity, civil rights, etc., the general population would be too lackadaisical and stupid to initiate these and similar needs on their own… He has stirred my imagination enough that I want to continue my reading and find an­swers to my questions. I believe in his theory, but now I need more information to rearrange my pres­ent thinking."

 "The Law, written by the nine­teenth century economist and statesman, Frederic Bastiat, is a short and powerful pamphlet that serves as a yardstick for the validity of any government that has existed or ever will exist….

"The one most important thing that this book declares is that truth and righteousness in gov­ernment are as simple as truth in anything else no matter what the time or the circumstances. If the law is perverted, justice no longer exists."

 "The Law by Frederic Bastiat is a very outstanding book. It opened my eyes to the real aim of legislators and government. It also brought to my realization the true meaning of liberty, and that it is the most precious thing to everyone. We should guard our liberty as a priceless possession; therefore, we should learn what true liberty is. The Law helps one to really understand liberty, law, and government so that we may know the good and the bad of the society in which we live.

"I can see from reading this book why Mr. Pearson has said so much about the government, the United Nations, education, and politics."

 "Just as The Law was a book for the people of France in 1850, it is a book for the people of America in 1965. As I read The Law, I realized more than ever that men create their own prob­lems. Because of this, problems usually are the same, even over a long period of years. In 1850 Fred­eric Bastiat mentioned what he termed legal plunder. Unknowing­ly, Americans engage in this very thing almost daily…. Often we hear politicians say, "I’ll look after you." We need to fear these words now, just as Bastiat did in his day. Passiveness leads to dic­tatorship."

This forceful thesis gives a very thought provoking and pen­etrating message…. I believe that every citizen should read this book and become seriously ac­quainted with all it advocates."

 "One cannot help but look a­round and see the many evidences of legal plunder in the United States. People seem to have the attitude that government should do what one cannot do for him­self, yet they have let it go many steps farther than that. Through their greed, they are anxious and willing that the government should do the many things for them that they are unwilling to do for them­selves. As the daughter of a farm­er, I am well aware of the protec­tive tariffs and subsidies that the farmer receives from the govern­ment. But, because they do benefit us, we justify them. The people themselves are their own enemy, the enemy of freedom….

"The material presented in this book can serve as a warning to us that we can destroy ourselves as the civilizations of old did through their greed."

"Unless we return to the orig­inal purpose for which govern­ments have been established, we will be pushed further into the socialistic state. Mr. Bastiat has prophetically warned us of the dangers and the road to political and moral destruction. Those that think we have nothing to fear should listen to the words of our President: ‘We are going to try to take all of the money that we think is unnecessarily being spent and take it from the haves and give it to the have nots that need it so much.’ "

"We can see throughout the United States the effects of com­placency toward the law. We seem to care not what it does as long as it seems to be aiding us—and therein is the fallacy of social­ism."

"Little did I suspect when I sat down to read The Law the en­joyment and enlightenment which I would receive…. Never before had I stopped to seriously consider the misuse of the ‘law’ here with­in our own United States…. "Having recently read the book entitled Animal Farm, having spent a year living in a socialistic country [Norway], and having just completed a research paper for economics on capitalism vs. so­cialism, The Law had a deeper meaning for me. The greatest hatred I have ever found develop within me has been against so­cialism in watching it in action. [I know this boy well and am sure he is devoid of real hatred. He is one of the most loving and kindly souls I have ever known.] And I agree completely with Mr. Bastiat that ‘protectionism, socialism, and communism are basically the same plant in three stages of its growth.’ "

Many of the best comments were too deeply involved in the personal religion of the students to make them quotable. The lives of these students will never be the same for having read The Law. Even the four students who rejected the general thesis of the book praised it in part and said it had spurred them on to greater thought.

Four Critics—Six Points

Three of the critics agreed that Bastiat was right, but thought his ideas wouldn’t work. This is to say that the truth either won’t work, or that it isn’t right after all. It denies the validity of Jesus’ state­ment that "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." It denies the idea that the human race can improve its standards and conditions or work toward the perfection enjoined by the Sermon on the Mount.

This damning of the truth "with faint praise" is, in essence, the argument of expediency. Some people believe in principle what­ever the consequences. Others are what a colleague of mine calls "card players." They make their decisions on the basis of what they think is best for themselves at the moment. This is living by policy instead of principle.

In dealing with this attitude, I find that it pays to get the stu­dent to think through an extreme prototype of the expediency argu­ment. What prototype you choose will have to be determined by your convictions and those of your stu­dents. One that has never failed me goes like this:

Teacher: Do you believe it is good for women to bear children? Student: Yes.

Teacher: Suppose all women conspired to stop bearing chil­dren; would you then advocate the use of rape as a means of solv­ing the problem?

Usually the point is seen with­out elaboration: resorting to vio­lence is never justified no matter what good you think you can ac­complish by it. Most people see this when it is graphically ex­plained to them. Freedom does not demand that all think alike, only that all are protected from plunder alike; we can afford to let the few who do not see the point go on in their darkness.

The Cry of Anarchy

Another common adverse criti­cism was that The Law advocated a lawless or anarchic society. One of the students who made this accusation was rather vague. His paper was mostly a matter-of-fact review of the book. Then, in his concluding paragraph, he stated, "This book has given me an ap­preciation of the so-called ‘con­servative position’ of our present day. I can correlate many of the teachings of religion with Mr. Bastiat’s…. I do not agree fully, however, in all of Mr. Bastiat’s postulations. I think he shows, at times, signs of anarchism. Again, I state that my appreciation and understanding of the conservative position is greatly enhanced."

There was no hint as to what other "postulations" he disagreed with. Of course, Bastiat does not "postulate" anarchy; but the cry of anarchy is a common complaint against those who believe in the free market.

It isn’t the quantity of law and regulation which determines whether a state of anarchy exists. It is the quality of the law. If there were no law but this, I will not rob another man of his prop­erty nor control what he does with it—and if that law were written on all men’s hearts, it wouldn’t have to be in a book, and we would need very little else as a legal framework on which to build a truly "great society."

No, Bastiat cannot be called an anarchist—either of the so-called far left or the so-called far right. He believed in strong govern­mental protection of life, liberty, and property. He believed in strong voluntary adherence to God’s law and natural law. And he believed in strong protection of the natural rights of all men when those rights were endangered by the lawless who sought to live by plunder—legal or illegal.

Let’s Be Constructive

A third adverse criticism of The Law followed a common cliché of our times: "He is good at criti­cism; but he offers no solution to the problem." Many think that, if they can label a man as one who has offered no solution, they have destroyed the value of his criti­cism. They demand that there be some kind of a state plan for agriculture, education, and so on.

In economic matters, the best plan is to have no master plan. Leonard Read has explained this in Any­thing That’s Peaceful, chapter twelve, "The Most Important Dis­covery in Economics." He sums it up in a sentence: "Let the pay­ment for each individual’s con­tribution be determined by what others will offer in willing exchange."¹ In essence, this is the plan that Bastiat offered. It not only is a brave idea, but it is so foreign to the thinking of those who deem the state the instigator of all good action and the provider of all goods and services that they may miss the point entirely.

From one young man’s paper, I got the impression that he visual­ized the government as a sort of flexible under girding, an air mat­tress under the body-politic. But unlike the usual air mattress, in this case instead of the air depart­ing to areas of less pressure when you walk on it, it would rush to the spot where you place your foot and hold you on an even plane with the rest of the mattress. Thus, when some part of society fails to produce the contribution expected, the government will step in and take care of the deficit. The stu­dent applied this principle especial­ly in schooling. He was sure that if the government were not there to keep things going, there would be no education. He agreed that it would be well if this could be done without the government, but thought there must be a powerful government waiting to rush in to prevent civilization from crumb­ling when "society" fails.

Fixing the Responsibility

A fourth criticism of The Law was a variant of the third. One student said that Bastiat failed to make anyone responsible for edu­cation. This presumes that educa­tion is something that is given, not received or sought for, and that it must be formal to be effec­tive. It also presumes that you can educate someone against his will, that you can educate the un­educable, and that passing from one grade to another is education.

There is a natural responsibility for education. The responsibility lies in part with the man and wife who brought the child into the world. They can enter into volun­tary relationships with like-mind­ed people to take care of part of this responsibility. Since all edu­cation is religious education no matter what the field or what you try to do with it, it follows that religious societies are a natural focal point for parents to unite in the education of their children.

The greatest responsibility for education lies with the individual himself. As he emerges into more and more of an independent per­sonality and agent, he must as­sume this responsibility. In fact, he does assume it no matter what the state or his parents may try to do to prevent it. All they ac­complish is a wasteful frustration of his will and productive capacity when they try to force their will upon him.

Only one student of 105 be­wailed Bastiat’s failure to fix the responsibility for education, while scores noticed that he had the ideal solution to the problem. Es­pecially did they quote and en­large upon his statement to the effect that the socialists accuse us of being against education simply because we are opposed to educa­tion based upon legal plunder.


A fifth adverse comment criti­cized The Law as being propa­ganda. This boy defined propagan­da as something which is written to generate action. If one agrees with that definition and with the student’s further assumption that all propaganda is evil, then The Law is what he concluded it was, an evil book. In that case, so is the Bible. Anyone who knows much about the methods of propaganda will recognize this as a clumsy attempt to use propaganda meth­ods to discredit The Law.

Propaganda is a big subject. Obviously it isn’t necessary to say much about it here. But there is one idea that I will attempt to impart to this young man if I get another chance: The use of propaganda becomes increasingly dangerous and sinister as it be­comes increasingly the tool of the most powerful agency in any given community. Or, put another way, the potential danger in prop­aganda methods is proportionate to the potential power of the agency using it. The Law has no coercive power behind it. But who can say how dangerous it is? The truth has destroyed empires and caused the schemes of wicked men to come to naught.

The sixth objection to The Law was highly personal and tied up in the student’s religious views. It was more of a total rejection of his teacher’s religious philoso­phy than of Bastiat’s views on economics and morality.

In summation, I have no evi­dence that the reading of The Law did anyone any harm. All but the propagandist seemed to profit greatly from it. The high percent­age of warm acceptance is a trib­ute to the power of truth to win out over error when it has a chance to be heard. The experi­ment will be continued.

The Law and Education

You SAY: "There are persons who lack education," and you turn to the law. But the law is not, in itself, a torch of learning which shines its light abroad. The law extends over a society where some persons have knowledge and others do not; where some citizens need to learn, and others can teach. In this matter of education, the law has only two alternatives: It can permit this transaction of teaching-and-learning to operate freely and with­out the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter by taking from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are appointed by government to instruct others, without charge. But in this second case, the law commits legal plunder by violat­ing liberty and property.

Frederic Bastiat, The Law (1850)

Foot Notes

¹ Leonard E. Read, Anything That’s Peaceful (Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1964), p. 154. I consider this book a logical sequel to The Law. It answers all objections to The Law raised by my students and gives a more complete and up-to-date rationale for the principles of liberty.


April 1965

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December 2014

Unfortunately, educating people about phenomena that are counterintuitive, not-so-easy to remember, and suggest our individual lack of human control (for starters) can seem like an uphill battle in the war of ideas. So we sally forth into a kind of wilderness, an economic fairyland. We are myth busters in a world where people crave myths more than reality. Why do they so readily embrace untruth? Primarily because the immediate costs of doing so are so low and the psychic benefits are so high.
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