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.
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