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Friday, September 25, 2009

Bastiat in Poland

Last week I mentioned that I traveled to Warsaw, Poland, to participate in the Liberty Weekend Devoted to the Life and Legacy of Frédéric Bastiat. I can report now that the conference, sponsored by PAFERE, the Polish-American Foundation for Economic Research and Education, was a smashing success. Poland has a solid core of freedom-philosophy advocates, and when that country eventually becomes truly free in all respects, that group of scholar-activists will be a big part of the explanation.

I was honored to be a part of the event, and I warmly thank my hosts, especially  Pawe? Tobo?a-Pertkiewicz and Jan Malek, for their kind hospitality. They are most eager to bring FEE to the attention of the Polish public, so they arranged for me to be interviewed by an Internet television host, a radio reporter, and a business-newspaper reporter. They also arranged for me to speak to a gathering of students who were eager to hear the libertarian perspective on the financial turmoil. A lively discussion followed. All this occurred immediately after my overnight flight and arrival in Warsaw, but the enthusiasm was a tonic for this weary traveler. (Pawel’s pictures of the events are here.)

It was certainly a pleasure to see such enthusiasm for Bastiat and his work in Poland. The two-day conference drew 90 highly motivated people. I learned, among other things, that Bastiat was first translated into Polish in the 1860s. So the Poles are not newcomers to the great French liberal economist, who lived from 1801 to 1850. American and French fans of Bastiat have long been amused by the fact that he is better known in the United States than in France. Apparently he is better known in Poland too. Pawe?, who organized the conference, explained that when he asked the French Institute in Warsaw about holding the conference there to honor a French economist, the official was delighted by the request. He had just one question: Who is this Bastiat?

The passion for liberalism (libertarianism), Bastiat, and Austrian economics that I saw during my brief visit bowled me over. After Bastiat’s, the most common picture at the conference was Ludwig von Mises’s. The conference audience couldn’t have been more eager to exchange ideas and ask questions of the speakers. Thanks to Pawel, the great liberal works are being translated into Polish, including FEE founder Leonard Read’s I, Pencil and FEE president Lawrence Reed’s Great Myths of the Great Depression. The latest to be translated are the collected works of Bastiat, in two beautifully produced volumes.


Lack of Respect

Although I’ve read a lot about Bastiat over the years, I learned much from the lectures. Professors Jan Klos of John Paul II Catholic University  and Witold Kwasnicki of Wroclaw University spoke about Bastiat’s place in the modern world and in economic education. Unfortunately Bastiat has not gotten the respect he deserves in surveys of the history of economic thought. Joseph Schumpeter, for example, dismissed him as a mere journalist. On the other hand, Murray Rothbard had glowing praise for Bastiat’s work, though it lacked critical insights related to subjectivism and marginalism later developed by Carl Menger, founder of the Austrian school. (See Henry Hazlitt’s two-part discussion here and here. For an interesting discussion of what is missing from Bastiat’s theoretical framework, see Roderick Long’s article here.)

Robert Gwiazdowski, a lawyer and economist, and Mateusz Machaj of the Institute of Economic Sciences and a policy analyst with the Polish Mises Institute spoke on Bastiat’s economic theories, particularly his emphasis on the economic harmony of all “classes” in the free market. Kris Mauren of the Michigan-based Acton Institute for the Study Religion and Liberty, drawing on unpublished correspondence, discussed Bastiat’s struggle and eventual coming to terms with his Catholic faith. Jaroslaw Romanchuk, president of the Scientific Research Mises Center in Belarus, spoke about the nature of pro-freedom reform in the former Soviet-bloc countries, offering a radical program including free banking and competitive courts.

My own lecture covered Bastiat’s classic The Law, in which he argued that the only legitimate function of law is the protection of life, liberty, and property. When law is used in opposition to those things — when it authorizes “legal plunder” — it is destructive of the good and prosperous society, regardless of motives. I applied Bastiat’s thinking to some current issues, including the housing-financial turmoil and the push for government-run medicine. I also participated in a spirited panel with Romanchuk and activist-blogger Janusz Korwin-Mikke on the nature, role, and future of government. In response to comments by Korwin-Mikke, I emphasized that the first modern peace movement was launched by the liberals, such as Bastiat (who sat on the left side of the French Assembly with “socialist” Pierre-Joseph Proudhon), and his free-trade counterparts in England, Richard Cobden and John Bright.

The conference concluded with a summation by Jacques de Guenin, founder and president of the Circle Frédéric Bastiat in France. I was gratified to hear Jacques twice praise FEE for its long-time promotion of Bastiat’s ideas.

A high point of the conference was the screening of the Acton Institute’s latest film, The Birth of Freedom, a sweeping and stirring look at the historical evolution of individual liberty. Kris Mauren led an energetic discussion at its conclusion.


Scant Economic Reform

The former communist countries have made only halting progress in the transition to freedom since 1989. They have more political freedom but have made much less headway in reforming their economies. State businesses have often been privatized more in appearance than fact. The same goes for Poland, where the government holds life-and-death control over business through the central bank and licensing power. In a long dinner discussion with a Polish businessman, I learned that 20 years after the fall of communism there, the government still pervades the economy, dispensing favors and burdens in order to reward and cultivate friends and punish opponents. The economy is far from free. In some cases, the same people who ran businesses under the communist regime run them today. They’ve simply changed hats.

The lesson here is that firms’ outward forms are of secondary importance. What matters is who controls them. Nominal private ownership under political control is essentially the same as direct state ownership. Regular people are still victimized — by being denied economic opportunity and a chance for a better standard of living. All the while, they are told the regulation is for their own good. This leads me to conclude that politics is the art of seducing people into cooperating in their own exploitation.

This is why it is a hopeful sign that Bastiat is being promoted in Poland. If his essays, which are so effective at conveying basic economic lessons in terms accessible to everyone, can be disseminated and discussed widely, perhaps people will understand the damage done by government and demand that the politicians stop the legal plunder.

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