In Defense of Freedom: Frederic Bastiat
OCTOBER 01, 1979 by ROBERT G. BEARCE
Mr. Bearce is a free-lance writer In Houston, Texas.
June 1848 found Paris in turmoil as revolutionary mobs marched through the streets chanting an ominous: "We won’t be sent away! . . . We won’t be sent away! .. ." The French National Assembly had just abolished the National Workshops —the socialistic plan to "guarantee work for every citizen." The workshops had proven to be a social, political, and economic failure just one of many idealistic schemes advocated by socialist demagogues. Now, armed members of the disbanded National Workshops were building barricades and preparing to fight for their lost "rights."
The June Revolution of 1848 was thwarted, but a year later France still faced the threat of socialism. The National Assembly echoed with impassioned speeches for the salvation of the French people. One of the Deputies to the Assembly who consistently and intelligently opposed the demagoguery of the social theoreticians was Frederic Bastiat—a modest, quiet-spoken Frenchman who was courageous in his defense of individual liberty.
Leaving the quiet life of a country gentleman for the feverish life of a legislator, Bastiat took with him an indomitable belief that individuals would work harmoniously together for the benefit of all so long as government intervention did not destroy free choice and voluntary exchange. With great clarity of thought, he defined the rightful purpose of government authority (the law):
"What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.
"Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties?
"If every person has the right to defend—even by force—his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right—its reason for existing, its lawfulness—is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force—for the same reason—cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups."
Bastiat continually emphasized the proper relationship between individual rights and government authority:
"Individuals cannot possess any right collectively that does not preexist in every person as an individual. If; then, the use of force by an individual is justified only in self-defense, the fact that government action is always based on the use of force should lead us to conclude that the proper functions of government are necessarily limited to the preservation of order, security, and justice. All actions of government beyond this limit are by usurpation."
Bastiat comprehended why governments were allowed to usurp their powers. He was well-read in politics, history, philosophy, and religion—subjects which gave him profound insight into human nature. Human nature was the root of government usurpation. He saw how individuals have a tendency to reject personal responsibility and to look elsewhere for the necessities of life:
"Man recoils from effort, from suffering. Yet, he is condemned by nature to the suffering of privation if he does not make the effort to work. He has only a choice then, between these two: privation, and work. How can he manage to avoid both? He always has and always will find, only one means: to enjoy the labor of others: to arrange it so that the effort and the satisfaction do not fall upon each in their natural proportion, but that some would bear all the effort while all the satisfaction would go to others . . ."
As Bastiat continues, he speaks to current attitudes in America: "Today, as in the past, nearly everyone would like to profit by the labor of others. No one dares admit such a feeling; he even hides it from himself. So what does he do? He imagines an intermediary; he appeals to The State, and every class in its turn comes and says to it: ‘You who can do so justifiably and honestly, take from the public; and we will partake of the proceeds.’ "
In other words: "The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else."
When individuals refuse to accept accountability and responsibility for their own welfare, they allow the State (the government) to corrupt the real purpose of the law:
"Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few—whether farmers, manufacturers, shipowners, artists, or comedians. Under these circumstances, then certainly every class will aspire to grasp the law, and logically so."
While we suffer the consequences of government regulation and interference in our daily lives, Bastiat would ask us again to grasp the reality of human nature:
"Thus do all of us, by various claims and under one pretext or another, appeal to The State: ‘I am dissatisfied with the ratio between my labor and my pleasures. In order to establish the desired balance, I should like to take part of the possessions of others. But that is a dangerous thing. Couldn’t you facilitate it for me? Couldn’t you give me a good post? Or restrain my competitors’ business? Or perhaps lend me some interest-free capital, which you will have taken from its rightful owners? Or bring up my children at the taxpayers’ expense? Or grant me a subsidy? Or assure me a pension when I reach my fiftieth year? By this means I shall achieve my goal with an easy conscience, for the law will have acted for me. Thus I shall have all the advantages of plunder, without the risk or the disgrace!’
"All of us are petitioning The State in this manner, yet it has been proven that The State has no means of granting privileges to some without adding to the labor of others."
The process of "plunder" by the State is easily seen in current events. Bastiat asks us a question and provides us with a clear, precise answer:
"But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime."
And, we are advised that "legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways. Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on. All these plans as a whole—with their common aim of legal plunder—constitute socialism."
While Bastiat was a Deputy in the National Assembly, he spoke forcefully against socialism and communism. Weakened by tuberculosis, he had to use his pen rather than his voice to carry on the fight for freedom. Using a style that was direct, vivid, and entertaining, he advocated sound monetary policies, limited government, a balanced budget, individual freedom, and free trade.
Throughout his comprehensive writings, he returned to the theme of law and liberty. "It is not true," he said, "that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person."
As to the matter of individual liberty, Bastiat believed that individuals had both the ability and responsibility to plan their own lives as they best saw fit . . . without government interference. He believed individuals were capable of making sound judgments and acting upon those judgments. At a time when the economy and consumerism occupy so much of our news commentary, Bastiat’s view on individual choice, the free market, personal judgment, and the "public interest" should be well received.
"It is necessary to treat economics from the viewpoint of the consumer. All economic phenomena, whether their effects be good or bad, must be judged by the advantages and disadvantages they bring to consumers."
Bastiat always had individuals (consumers) in mind when he wrote about monetary policy, banking, transportation, exports and imports, profits, labor, and wages. Whenever he approached these matters, he upheld individual liberty and opposed oppressive government interference. Above all, he kept one basic truth before him:
"In the economic sphere an act, a habit, an institution, a law produces not only one effect, but a series of effects. Of these effects, the first alone is immediate; it appears simultaneously with its cause; it is seen. The other effects emerge only subsequently; they are not seen; we are fortunate if we foresee them.
"There is only one difference between a bad economist and a good one: the bad economist confines himself to the visible effect; the good economist takes into account both the effect that can be seen and those effects that must be foreseen.
"Yet this difference is tremendous; for it almost always happens that when the immediate consequence is favorable, the later consequences are disastrous, and vice versa. Whence it follows that the bad economist pursues a small present good that will be followed by a great evil to come, while the good economist pursues a great good to come, at the risk of a small present evil."
Bastiat’s insight into what is seen and not seen contrasts sharply with much of the stodgy, ponderous writing on economics of his day. He had the ability to present serious economic principles in a way that was easily read and understood by the average citizen. Although he possessed a keen intellect and sense of concentration, he expressed himself in simple, frank language. Often, he combined his vigorous logic with humor, satire, irony, and wit.
Although he was an optimistic defender of liberty, he was fully aware of where his native France was heading—just as he knew where any nation was headed when politicians were allowed to create a centralized, all-powerful government to achieve social objectives. Witnessing the political demagoguery in the National Assembly, he was prompted to write:
"This must be said: There are too many ‘great’ men in the world—legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and riling it."
Today, we have the same breed of legislators and leaders—individuals who are the cause of the political struggle that confronts all free people. Bastiat focuses our attention upon this ideological warfare, urging us to place liberty in perspective:
"Actually, what is the political struggle that we witness? It is the instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty. And what is this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat faster and shakes the world? Is it not the union of all liberties—liberty of conscience, of education, of association, of the press, of travel, of labor, of trade? In short, is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm other persons while doing so? Is not liberty the destruction of all despotism—including, of course, legal despotism? Finally, is not liberty the restricting of the law only to its rational sphere of organizing the right of the individual to lawful self-defense; of punishing injustice?" Yes, that is the true meaning of liberty, but now we are experiencing the perversion of the law—law which is supposed to defend individual freedom, not destroy it. Government—the law—has assumed an illusionary omnipotence, omnipresence, and omniscience in socio-economic matters.
"How," asks Bastiat, "did politicians ever come to believe this weird idea that the law could be made to produce what it does not contain—the wealth, science, and religion that, in a positive sense, constitute prosperity? Is it due to the influence of our modern writers on public affairs?
"Present-day writers—especially those of the socialist school of thought—base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: They divide mankind into two parts. People in general—with the exception of the writer himself—form the first group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!
"In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people have within themselves no means of discernment; no motivation to action. The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped—by the will and hand of another person—into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.
"Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs, hesitates to imagine that he himself—under the title of organizer, discoverer, legislator, or founder—is this will and hand, this universal motivating force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these scattered materials—persons—into a society."
The Law Perverted
Bastiat understood the motivation and mentality of social architects who corrupt the law. Although he did not question the good intentions held by many legislators, he stressed what happens to individuals when the law is perverted:
"It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own wills; the initiative of the legislator for their own initiatives. When this happens, the people no longer need to discuss, to compare, to plan ahead; the law does all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless prop for the people; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their property."
Human degradation and misery will be the tragic result when self-appointed caretakers of society begin to regulate . . . inspect . . . tax . . . coerce . . . bridle . . . control .. . organize .. .
"The claims of these organizers of humanity," said Bastiat, "raise another question which I have often asked them and which, so far as I know, they have never answered: If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?"
We should be asking these same questions of our own politicians, government officials, members of the media, and educators—whoever would use government to further their particular beliefs for organizing our health, education, and daily welfare. To the extent that we depend upon government to direct our lives, we will see the deterioration of freedom.
"Away, then," says Bastiat, "with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!"
A Continuing Problem
Bastiat’s exhortation comes at a time when freedom is on the defense. Government continues to expand and become more oppressive. Legislative and Administrative commissions, boards, committees, departments, and agencies abuse their power—drawing us further into socialism.
In 1848, Bastiat had no illusions about the socialistic road France was taking. Although many of the politicians of his day honestly denied they were socialists, their beliefs and actions were, nevertheless, undermining freedom. Ideological and political labels aside, many of our own public officials and "opinion molders" are working against freedom, not realizing that their actions are basically socialistic. We need to stand firm for freedom as Bastiat did—exposing socialism and making certain that our individual lives are guided by personal responsibility, accountability, voluntary cooperation, and individual initiative.
As we accept the responsibilities of freedom, we can share Bastiat’s hope for the present and future:
"And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works."
Editor’s Note: Unfortunately for all of us, Bastiat died of tuberculosis at the height of his battle for freedom in 1850. Those who would carry on the task might well begin with The Law by Bastiat ($1.00) and Frederic Bastiat: A Man Alone, a biography of the man and his times by George C. Roche III ($3.00). These, as well as other books by and about Bastiat, are available from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10533.