Frédéric Bastiat’s writings truly are a gift that keeps on giving. His economic analysis from the early 19th century still reverberates today, more than 150 years after his untimely death in 1850 from tuberculosis.
Reading through his works is like walking through a garden overflowing with fruit ripe for picking. The hardest part is deciding which fruit to pick.
This time on my walk through Bastiat’s garden, I decided to pick one of his fruits from The Law on the topic of protectionism.
Protectionism is hardly a debate particular to the age of Trump; it has been hotly contested for centuries. Writing in France in 1846, Bastiat puts his stake in the ground in his satirical essay “The Candlemaker’s Petition.” The essay is a stinging and humorous criticism of the arguments in favor of protectionism, wherein Bastiat argues that we should block out the sun to benefit the industries surrounding candlemaking and other forms of illumination. Obviously, nobody in their right mind would argue in favor of this, but it is an absurd conclusion we would reach if we followed the logical extent of protectionism.
Four years after that essay, Bastiat released his magnum opus: The Law, a treatise on natural rights written two years after the third French Revolution. In the book, Bastiat observes the similarities between socialism, communism, and protectionism.
It is to be pointed out, however, that protectionism, socialism, and communism are basically the same plant in three different stages of its growth. All that can be said is that legal plunder is more visible in communism because it is complete plunder; and in protectionism because the plunder is limited to specific groups and industries. Thus it follows that, of the three systems, socialism is the vaguest, the most indecisive, and, consequently, the most sincere stage of development.
The commonality of the three systems, Bastiat points out, is “plunder.” A more common word we would use nowadays would be “theft” or “coercion,” all of which are well outside the proper domain of law, as Bastiat says. If the main purpose of the law is to protect individuals from having their persons, life, and property violated, and taxation/plunder is a violation of property, then taxation being legal is a perversion of the law.
Even more than being a violation of property rights, Bastiat argues it is the opposite of property rights. On using the term “plunder,” he says:
I use it in its scientific acceptance—as expressing the idea opposite to that of property [wages, land, money, or whatever]. When a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns it—without his consent and without compensation, and whether by force or by fraud—to anyone who does not own it, then I say that property is violated; that an act of plunder is committed.
Accepting Bastiat's definition, we then have a foundational argument against all three systems, whether they be Republican-backed, Democrat-backed, or independently-backed. The exigencies specific to “new” problems, issues, or political demands need not matter when refuting systems of socialism, communism, or protectionism. The thing that matters is the principle.
Any system that violates the rights of the individual is an unjust system. It doesn’t matter if there is a “trade deficit” or “income inequality.” So long as man labors for his bread, he should decide to do with it what he wants. Any policy based on coercing the individual into forfeiting his bread is unjust, Bastiat says. The means of coercion—the barrel of a gun versus the threat of jail time or property confiscation—do not matter. Nor do the ends for which the plunder is taken.
FEE founder Leonard E. Read echoed Bastiat when he said, “Anything That’s Peaceful.” (“Anything Peaceful” is the current adaptation, and one of FEE’s mottos.) Any system or action based on peace and non-coercion is acceptable. As for systems based on legalized plunder, Bastiat says:
As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose—that it may violate property instead of protecting it—then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder. Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious. To know this, it is hardly necessary to examine what transpires in the French and English legislatures; merely to understand the issue is to know the answer.
Bastiat's words are just as true today as when he wrote them with a quill pen in 19th-century France. How much of the clamoring, bickering, and anger we see today is the result of factions, each vying for their preferred forms of taxation or economic protection?
Those who believe government to be the chief provider of services seem to demand “proper funding” for an infinite amount of perpetually underfunded services. Here’s the kicker: Nothing will ever be properly funded if the government is in charge of doing so. This is the result of the law not being confined within its proper domain, where plunder is both morally and legally encouraged.
Heeding Bastiat’s Words
The tie between socialism, communism, and protectionism is plunder, and its acceptability is the cause of most of our political squabbling. We should heed Bastiat’s words and keep the law within its proper domain—the collective organization of the individual right to defend our persons, liberty, and property. Anything more than that is an improper function of the law.