Bastiat, Socialism, and the Blank Slate

James Peron

“It is evident,” the French economist and parliamentarian Frédéric Bastiat wrote a century and a half ago, “that the socialists set out in quest of an artificial social order only because they deemed the natural order to be either bad or inadequate; and they deemed it bad or inadequate only because they felt that men’s interests are fundamentally antagonistic, for otherwise they would not have recourse to coercion. It is not necessary to force into harmony things that are inherently harmonious.”1

Nobel laureate F. A. Hayek made a similar point: “Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective coordination of human activities without deliberate organization by commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each individual.”2

Bastiat spoke of a “natural harmony” between men, a “natural and wise order that operates without our knowledge.”3 Again this is similar to Hayek’s observation, drawn from the Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Ferguson, that social order is the result of “human action but not of human design.”

Bastiat argued that his views were based on reality and not on some ideological view of how man ought to be. The major difference between economists—by which he meant liberal market economists—and socialists was: “The economists observe man, the laws of his nature and the social relations that derive from these laws. The socialists conjure up a society out of their imagination and then conceive of a human heart to fit this society.”4

This is the crux of difference between advocates of the freedom philosophy and advocates of socialism. The ability to imagine a perfect world inspires the socialists and their sympathizers. During Robert F. Kennedy’s 1968 presidential campaign, a poster quoted him: “Some people see things as they are and ask ‘why?’; I dream of things that never were and ask ‘why not?’” The quote, commonly attributed to Kennedy, was borrowed from the British playwright George Bernard Shaw, a leading Fabian socialist.5

Dream-making helps explain a striking feature on the left—while advocating love and peace it promotes hatred and war. Bastiat said that while collectivists “have a kind of sentimental love for humanity in their hearts, hate flows from their lips. Each of them reserves all his love for the society that he has dreamed up; but the natural society in which it is our lot to live cannot be destroyed soon enough to suit them, so that from its ruins may rise the New Jerusalem.”6 Aldous Huxley made the same point when he noted that “faith in the bigger and better future is one of the most potent enemies to present liberty: for rulers feel themselves justified in imposing the most monstrous tyranny on their subjects for the sake of the wholly imaginary fruits which these tyrannies are expected to bear some time in the distant future.”7

This conflict between Bastiat and the socialists couldn’t be more stark. For him, man was born with specific needs. Nature endowed him with certain faculties, and only by the application of such faculties is man able to sustain himself. For the socialist, man is merely, as Steven Pinker titles his new book, a “blank slate,” which can be written on as the planners wish in order to achieve the New Jerusalem. Pinker notes that Marx and Engels “were adamant that human nature has no enduring properties. It consists only in the interactions of groups of people with their material environments in a historical period, and constantly changes as people change their environment and are simultaneously changed by it. The mind therefore has no innate structure but emerges from the dialectical process of history and social interaction.”8

Mao Zedong wrote: “A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it.”9 Soviet writer Maxim Gorky said that to Lenin the working classes are “what minerals are to the metallurgist.”10

Bastiat, in his last work, The Law, understood this early on: “Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations.”11 The variant of socialism is unimportant. As Pinker points out, “Nazism and Marxism shared a desire to reshape humanity. ‘The alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary,’ wrote Marx; ‘the will to create mankind anew’ is the core of National Socialism, wrote Hitler.”12 The gradualist democratic socialist Shaw saw things the same way: “There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough.”13

This desire to recreate the world according one’s own wishes and dreams has been at the root of collectivist thinking from the start. Jean-Jacques Rousseau, seen by many as the founding father of the left, admitted this tendency in himself. But it is one thing to dream of a new world and another to actually try to create that world. Bastiat was correct in noting that such a tendency reveals a hatred of man as he is. Of course, this tendency is not confined to the left.

Robert Owen, the man many credit with coining the term “socialism,” was clearly an advocate of remaking humanity to create utopia. “Any general character, from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of the proper means; which means are, to a great extent, at the command and under the control of those who have influence in the affairs of men.” This utopia, Owen said, “could be attained only [through] the scientific arrangement of the people.”14

Owen believed in the blank slate. For him no human being “is responsible for his will and his own actions.” Instead “his whole character—physical, mental and moral,—is formed independently of himself.”15 This led Owen to conclude that “it is futile to call individuals to account for their behavior. Instead, society should recognize its power to shape each of its members into a person of high character.”16 If Owen were allowed to “scientifically” arrange people, “There will be no cruelty in man’s nature, the animal creation will also become different in character.” The result would be a “terrestrial paradise . . . in which harmony will pervade all that will exist upon earth.”17

Like many utopian dreamers, Owen spent hours planning how he could manipulate humans into becoming a super race. He used his vast fortune to build a community along socialist lines and promised that the result of his social engineering would be “men and women of a new race, physically, intellectually and morally; beings far superior to any yet known to have lived upon the earth.”18

Owen’s experiment failed dismally. Men and women of ability avoided his community, but those seeking a handout flocked to it. New Harmony revealed little harmony and a great deal of conflict. It collapsed after Owen could no longer subsidize it with his own wealth.

Marxists and Nature

Hard-core Marxists simply dismissed nature. In the Soviet Union the study of genetics was banned as a fascist enterprise. Instead, science interpreted through Marxist-Leninist lenses was imposed. “Marxism claims, above all, to be a ‘scientific’ philosophy, one which applies the principles of science to politics and science,” the British journalist Jasper Becker wrote.19 Marxists believed their ideas were the one true “science” and the core science at that. Any other alleged science was interpreted in accordance with political ideology. Trofim Lysenko, the Marxist who ran Soviet science for decades, “rejected the ‘fascist’ theories that plants and animals inherited characteristics which selective breeding can develop. Lysenkoists believed that, on the contrary, environmental factors determine the characteristics of plants and animals. Just as communists thought that people could be changed by altering their surroundings, so Lysenko held that plants acquired new characteristics when their environment is changed.20

In his book Heaven on Earth, Joshua Muravchik notes that many socialists believed that nature, manipulated according to socialist political theory, could create a new paradise. The early French socialist Charles Fourier went further, predicting the domestication of the lions and whales whose strength would free humans from most work.”21

Francis Bacon said, “Nature, to be commanded, must be obeyed.” For the Marxists, nature, or reality, was what one dreamed, not what actually existed. The entire world was theirs to remake in their own image, according to their own whims. Had the world listened to Bastiat a century and a half ago, much human misery could have been avoided.


  1. Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Harmonies (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996), p. xxiv.
  2. F. A. Hayek, Studies in Philosophy, Politics and Society (London: Routledge Kegan Paul, 1967), p. 167.
  3. Bastiat, p. 6.
  4. Ibid., p. xxv.
  5. Steven Pinker, The Blank Slate: The Modern Denial of Human Nature (New York: Viking, 2002), pp. 287–88.
  6. Bastiat, p. xxiv.
  7. Quoted in John Jewkes, Ordeal by Planning (London: Macmillan, 1948) p. 106.
  8. Pinker, p. 155.
  9. Ibid., p. 156.
  10. Ibid.
  11. Frédéric Bastiat, The Law (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996 [1850]), p. 31.
  12. Pinker, p. 157.
  13. Ibid.
  14. Quoted in Max Beer, A History of British Socialism, vol. I (London: G. Bell and Sons, Ltd., 1911), pp. 164, 171.
  15. Quoted in Joshua Muravchik, Heaven on Earth: The Rise and Fall of Socialism (San Francisco: Encounter, 2002), p. 37.
  16. Ibid., p. 37.
  17. Ibid., pp. 38, 39.
  18. Ibid., p. 25.
  19. Jasper Becker, Hungry Ghosts: Mao’s Secret Famine (London: John Murray, 1996), p. 61.
  20. Ibid., p. 65.
  21. Muravchik, p. 29.

Related Articles

The Ideals of Tyranny

James Peron - March 01, 2001

The Contradictions of Capitalism

James Peron - August 01, 2002

The Evolution of Capitalism

James Peron - June 01, 2000

When Safety Nets Fail

James Peron - October 01, 2005