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Thursday, November 1, 2001

Bastiat and Unionism

Bastiat Saw That Unionism Was Nothing Special


The June issue of this magazine celebrated the 200th anniversary of the birth of the great French classical-liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850). Missing was a discussion of Bastiat’s views on unions. I intend partly to fill that gap.

On November 17, 1849, Bastiat delivered a “Speech on the Suppression of Industrial Combinations” in the Legislative Assembly. He spoke in favor of repealing legislation that prevented workers from organizing unions and calling strikes. The speech startled both his traditional adversaries on the left (the socialists) and his occasional allies on the right (the conservatives). To the delight of the left and the chagrin of the right, he seemed to change sides. The truth is he simply consistently applied the same principles of classical liberalism that informed all of his positions on political economy.

He asked how the formation of “combinations” of workers could be an offense since they are examples of freedom of association.

It is said: “It is the combination itself that constitutes the offense.” I cannot accept this doctrine because the word combination is synonymous with association; it has the same etymology and the same meaning. Combination in itself, aside from the end it aims at and the means it employs, cannot be considered as an offense.

How about strikes? According to Bastiat, to say that a collective refusal to work is an offense in itself is tantamount to saying “that whoever refuses to work at wage rates that he does not accept will be punished.” He then said:

[I]s there any conscience that can admit that the strike is an offense in itself, independently of the means employed? Does a man not have a right to refuse to sell his labor at a rate that does not suit him?

The reply to me will be: “All this may be true when only a single individual is involved, but it is not true when men have associated together for this purpose.”

But . . . an action that is innocent in itself is not criminal because it is multiplied by a certain number of men. . . . I do not understand, then, how one can say a strike is criminal. If one man has the right to say to another: “I don’t want to work under such and such conditions,” two or three thousand men have the same right; they have a right to quit. This is a natural right, which should also be a legal right.

Bastiat’s approval of a strike in the sense of a group of like-minded workers each agreeing not to work under unacceptable terms and conditions of employment cannot be read as an endorsement of strikes as we know them today. Bastiat would call them legal plunder since pro-union statutes typically permit workers who refuse to work to try, through violence and threats of violence, to prevent other workers from taking their place. They permit strikers to trespass against the natural rights of association of others. In his words, “This then, is the offense: the well-known pressures—violence and intimidation. This is the offense; this is what you ought to punish.”

The Law is a short book first published in 1850 in which Bastiat lays out, in characteristically clear and concise prose, his political philosophy based on God-given natural rights. It is here that he explains the proper (limited) scope of government and in so doing makes the distinction between illegal and legal plunder. For example, when government uses force to organize human activity it commits legal plunder.

When justice is organized by law—that is, by force—this excludes the idea of using law (force) to organize any human activity what ever, whether it be labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry, education, art, or religion. The organizing by law of any one of these would inevitably destroy the essential organization—justice. For truly, how can we imagine force being used against the liberty of citizens without it also being used against justice, and thus acting against its proper purpose?

The job of the law is to protect all individuals from trespasses against their natural rights by other individuals. Justice means that all receive equal treatment by the law in its defense of those natural rights. When government does its job properly, the organization of labor (as well as the other items listed) arises spontaneously out of the decisions, plans, and actions of individuals in the legitimate pursuit of their self-interest. If government imposes an organization of labor through legislation, justice is destroyed.

Monopoly Unionism as Legal Plunder

Bastiat explicitly cited monopoly unionism as an example of legal plunder. “If the special privilege of government protection against competition—a monopoly—were granted only to one group in France, the iron workers, for instance, this act would so obviously be legal plunder that it could not last for long.”

Bastiat reiterated his opposition to using law to organize labor on the grounds that legitimate law is negative while any law regulating labor is positive.

[T]his negative concept of law is so true that the statement, the purpose of the law is to cause justice to reign, is not a rigorously accurate statement. In fact, it is injustice, instead of justice, that has an existence of its own. Justice is achieved only when injustice is absent.

But when the law, by means of its necessary agent, force, imposes upon men a regulation of labor . . . it acts positively on people. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own wills; the initiative of the legislator for their own initiatives.

Bastiat emphasized that his insistence on negative law and the right of individuals to abstain from associations they dislike do not imply that he was opposed to associations per se.

[W]e repudiate only forced organization, not natural organization. We repudiate the forms of association that are forced upon us, not free association. We repudiate forced fraternity, not true fraternity. We repudiate the artificial unity that does nothing more than deprive persons of individual responsibility. We do not repudiate the natural unity of mankind under Providence.

Although unionism was a new phenomenon in the first half of the nineteenth century, Bastiat saw that it was nothing special. It could and should be subject to the few simple rules of classical liberalism. That it wasn’t made generations of workers worse off than they otherwise would have been.


  • Charles Baird is a professor of economics emeritus at California State University at East Bay.

    He specializes in the law and economics of labor relations, a subject on which he has published several articles in refereed journals and numerous shorter pieces with FEE.