All Commentary
Sunday, August 1, 1971

A Reviewer’s Notebook – 1971/8

The year was 1848. The country was not the United States, it was France. The man who was calling upon the government to become the employer of last resort was not Jacob Javits or Eugene McCarthy, he was Louis Blanc. The leader who endorsed the principles of freedom in general, yet who championed more and more interventionist social welfare laws in particular, was not Richard Nixon, he was the post-legislator Lamar tine. And the mobs in the streets, including the students, were like the modern SDS or May Day Tribe, even though they weren’t known to the headline writers by any of the acronyms or nicknames that bewilder us today.

In a period very much like the present, France, in 1848, was em­barked on the short-lived experi­ment of the Second Republic. The experiment failed for the very sim­ple reason that few Frenchmen had any workable theory of the limitations of government. The middle classes had been living off the state, by a complicated system of subsidies and protected monopo­lies; the workers, angered by the favoritism, wanted to cut in on the distribution of the goodies. The na­tion’s administration was centered in Paris, and the provinces were sullen but not yet mutinous. As for the aristocrats, whose still living members had been impoverished by the Great Revolution, the wars of Napoleon and the overthrow of the Bourbons in 1830, they were powerless to take the responsibility which their forebears had flubbed throughout the eighteenth century. With more and more people at­tempting to live by government bounty, there was simply not enough tax money to pay the costs of Louis Blanc’s National Work­shops. The socialists—and they were pre-Marxian socialists—who had taken over France had run things into the ground. And the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon—”Napoleon the Little”—was just around the corner.

Who, at the time, had a thorough grasp of what was going on? Alexis de Tocqueville, who had studied the American adventure in limited government for his Democracy in America, had some inkling of the causes of the tragedy that was un­folding. But only one man, the political economist and philosopher who is now the subject of George Charles Roche III’s Frederic Bas­tiat: A Man Alone (Arlington House, $6.95), had the wide-rang­ing intelligence to trace effects back to their real causes in imper­fect human understanding of the proper role of government. The life and the thought of Frederic Bas­tiat are convincingly set forth by Dr. Roche in a study that benefits greatly from the author’s ability to swing back and forth between two ages that are so very similar.

A Time of Preparation

If the “life” aspects of this study are not very exciting insofar as Bastiat’s younger years are concerned, the fault is not Dr. Roche’s. For Bastiat, from the time of his birth in southwestern France in 1801 up until the early eighteen forties, lived the quiet and mainly contemplative life of a country gentleman. He dabbled in scientific agriculture without much aptitude for it; he acted as a justice of the peace; he married briefly (the circumstances of his union with a country girl do not come clear from the extant rec­ords); and he traveled in Spain and Portugal. This was his “ac­tive” life during his younger ca­reer; his real life was in the mind—and it is Dr. Roche’s exploration of a mind that makes this book an exciting document for a period that needs Bastiat’s thinking just as much as it was needed during the turbulence of the late eighteen forties in France.

Bastiat was, by temperament, a man who valued truth more than comfort. He had the ability that is given to few men of divining the secondary consequences of an ac­tion when the first consequences are bemusing almost everybody into thinking a problem has been solved rather than compounded. The port of Bayonne, where Bas­tiat went to school, had suffered by the English blockade during the Napoleonic wars, and after 1815 the controls imposed by the French government on commerce didn’t seem to effect much of an improvement. Seeking an explana­tion for the continuing depression, Bastiat found it in the works of Jean-Baptiste Say and Adam Smith.

He might have left it at that if, after his return to his family country seat at Mugron, he had found nobody but clods with whom to converse. But, as luck would have it, a brilliant young intellec­tual, Felix Coudroy, lived on a neighboring estate. Coudroy was a socialist, a follower of Rousseau, and, as George Roche puts it, “a challenging specimen of every­thing wrong with nineteenth-cen­tury French thought.” But he was amenable to reason, and in the end Bastiat converted him to the “freedom philosophy.”

Then Bastiat Was “Called”

For twenty years Coudroy and Bastiat studied and conversed on a daily basis. Bastiat had no idea that this long novitiate in careful analysis and exposition would ever have any practical application. But the upheaval in the eighteen forties would not leave quiet scholars alone. Bastiat suddenly found himself in the middle of an argument about the British free trade movement. He wrote an arti­cle about the influences of English and French tariffs on the future of the two countries, the article was printed, and the country gen­tleman of Mugron forthwith dis­covered that he had a mission in life.

The mission necessarily involved a move to Paris, which had always drained the provinces of their talents. In his subsequent career as journalist, legislator, organizer of a free trade movement, and au­thor of systematic works on polit­ical economy, Bastiat eventually came to value the pursuit of truth more than he valued life itself. He literally burned up his lungs in his efforts to warn his fellow citizens of the eighteen forties against the effects of the preachings of Louis Blanc, Proudhon, Blanqui, and a whole rabble of socialists and an­archists. Instead of taking care of himself during the early stages of tuberculosis, Bastiat wrote around the clock. His marvelously aphoristic work, harvested in a few brilliant volumes (Economic Harmonies, Economic Sophisms, The Law), did not convince enough Frenchmen in time to avoid the revolutionary excesses of the Sec­ond Republic or the dictatorship of Louis Napoleon (history re­peating itself on the plane of farce, as Karl Marx described it), but it has provided a standard to which we may rally in our own day, hopefully in time to prevent the coming to Washington of a Louis Napoleon in late-twentieth cen­tury “mod” dress.

A Faith in Freedom

Dr. Roche, out of his own sub­stantial scholarship, does a bril­liant job of “penetrating the twisted trail of ‘conservative-libertarian’ thought as reflected in Bastiat.” Bastiat was not quite an Edmund Burke, for he cared less about tradition than Burke. On the other hand, he was not one to insist on imposing rational blueprints, even those of his own devising, on anybody by the polit­ical means. He believed in prog­ress, but not in the idea that the human race could perfect itself. God had put us here on earth to choose between good and evil, and the prime hope was that, in the generations to come, we might choose a little more of the good. But the choice had to be left to the individual. If “planners” were allowed to impose their concep­tions of “virtue” on the rest of us, they would be usurping the place of God. This is not something that fallible man should ever be per­mitted to do.

American conservative thought in recent times has given too much to Edmund Burke and not enough to Bastiat. Without taking any credit away from Burke, it re­mains true that Bastiat’s thought is more in the American, or Madi­sonian, vein. Lacking a feudal background, we have always been more of a libertarian than a con­servative people. Dr. Roche’s study brings this home to us anew, and one hopes that it will be widely read, particularly with an eye to salvaging that wing of the New Left that has some native libertarian instincts and might be converted to the “freedom philos­ophy” as Bastiat once converted Felix Coudroy.

  • John Chamberlain (1903-1995) was an American journalist, business and economic historian, and author of number of works including The Roots of Capitalism (1959). Chamberlain also served as a founding editor of The Freeman magazine.