Freeman

PERSPECTIVE

Bastiat's Birthday

There Was No Greater Champion of Liberty Than Frederic Bastiat

JUNE 01, 2000 by SHELDON RICHMAN

Frederic Bastiat was born 199 years ago this month. If anyone can be described as the guiding spirit of the Foundation for Economic Education, it would be Bastiat. Thanks to the Foundation, his works, The Law, Economic Sophisms, Economic Harmonies, and Selected Essays on Political Economy, have been kept in print. They remain some of the best writing on the workings of the free society and the fallacies of statism, or what he called “legal plunder.”

Bastiat is most famous for his essays defending free international trade, pointing out the unseen harm of intervention, and satirically puncturing statist fallacies. His facility at explaining complex ideas clearly and entertainingly won him plaudits from his intellectual heirs. Henry Hazlitt called him a “master of the reductio ad absurdum.” F. A. Hayek dubbed him a “publicist of genius.” Murray Rothbard said he was “a truly scintillating advocate of an untrammelled free market.”

If one reads only his essays, however, one is in danger of seeing Bastiat as “just” a highly effective economic journalist, although that is no mean feat. The essays are but the tip of the iceberg. Beneath the surface is Bastiat’s comprehensive view of law and political economy, which he did not put in writing until his final days. In Economic Harmonies, Bastiat shows that the question for economists is not: Is there natural beneficent economic regularity? It can’t be doubted! The signs are everywhere! Paris gets fed—everyday!—permitting everyone to enjoy an array of consumer goods that no one person alone could produce in a thousand years. The economist’s job is to explain how that unplanned regularity can exist.

Israel Kirzner, in The Economic Point of View, notes that Bastiat’s approach was not shared by all economists. J. E. Cairnes, for example, thought Bastiat was unscientific because he did not first prove the existence of regularity. For Cairnes, “science has no foregone conclusions.” Kirzner sides with Bastiat: recognition of “the large degree of efficiency empirically evinced by the [market] system . . . hardly deserves the suspect position of a ‘foregone conclusion.’” Did Newton have to ask if objects fall to the ground?

Three decades after his death, Bastiat’s approach was incorporated into Austrian economics. In his magnum opus, Human Action, Ludwig von Mises put himself in the Bastiat tradition when he wrote, “In the course of social events there prevails a regularity of phenomena to which man must adjust his actions if he wishes to succeed.”

Bastiat managed to produce much of his impressive volume of work while battling for freedom in the French National Assembly during the turmoil that began in the revolutionary year of 1848. Gravely ill, he struggled desperately to expose the seductive fallacies of socialism and authoritarianism. He died of tuberculosis in 1850, just before Napoleon III transformed the Second Republic into an empire.

There was no greater champion of liberty. Bastiat’s legacy continues to inspire.

* * *

It is generally thought that the airline industry was deregulated many years ago. This misconception permits people to believe that poor service is what competition has wrought. Robert Poole resolves the paradox.

Can you tell how much competition there is in an industry by the number of firms? That’s how the lawyers in the Justice Department’s Antitrust Division sort it out. Henry Demmert relates an experience from his days in the division.

A prominent school of constitutional interpretation holds that judges should look to the intent of the framers. Easier said than done, writes Wendy McElroy.

The War on Drugs moves into the realm of free speech with legislation pending in the U.S. Congress. Paul Armentano warns that the First Amendment seems slated to be the next war casualty.

Throughout history, trade and freedom have gone hand in hand because trade is what people do when left alone. Thomas DiLorenzo surveys some of the distinguished people and events in the annals of the free-trade struggle.

The warrior societies of the past did not disprove the natural law that human beings must labor to satisfy their wants. Far from it, as Frederic Bastiat explains in the chapter titled “War” from his treatise, Economic Harmonies, which we reprint in honor of the 199th anniversary of his birth.

Since the marketplace is us, those who complain about capitalism are really complaining not about a system but about free people. Christopher Lingle reinterprets common grievances in that light.

It’s no accident that capitalism evolved at a particular place at a particular time and not in other places. Jim Peron examines the prerequisites for the emergence of freedom.

Most people would agree that no one should be punished for the offenses of another. So why does the law increasingly ignore that principle? Russell Madden ponders the question.

Every religion teaches the Golden Rule. Yet just as commonplace is the disdain for business. William Peterson puzzles at the failure to see the connection between two simple ideas.

In the columns department, Donald Boudreaux takes another look at greed. Lawrence Reed finds some good arguments against taxing electronic commerce. Doug Bandow surveys Kosovo after NATO’s triumph. Dwight Lee says it’s the margin that matters. Mark Skousen delves into the minds of millionaires. Russell Roberts doubts the Garden of Eden is imminent. And William Shughart, also hearing demands for Internet taxation, shouts back, “It Just Ain’t So!”

In the book section, reviewers have perused volumes on foreign policy, Microsoft, harmful humanitarianism, environmental cancer, orphanages, and global capitalism.

—Sheldon Richman

ASSOCIATED ISSUE

June 2000

ABOUT

SHELDON RICHMAN

Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and TheFreemanOnline.org, and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families.

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