All Commentary
Tuesday, April 1, 1980

Frederic Bastiat: Harmonious Warrior

Mr. Baker teaches in the school system in Lubbock, Texas.

Ah! whenever you come to pronounce these words, I BELIEVE you will be anxious to propagate your creed, and the social problem will soon be resolved, for let them say what they will it is not of difficult solution. Men’s interests are harmonious,—the solution then lies entirely in this one word LIBERTY.

Frederic Bastiat
Harmonies of Political Economy

Like a twisting, writhing snake, the Nive River cuts its tortuous descent down the treacherous northern slopes of the icy Pyrenees. It is a brutal course strewn with boulders. This is Basque country, home of picturesque, red-tiled villages and sturdy, independent mountainfolk. About four miles distant from the Bay of Biscay the Nive merges with the Adour. Complacently perched upon the confluence of these rivers lies the medieval city of Bayonne. It is said that the bayonet originated here either in the 1490s or the 1650s. No one is really quite sure which. Napoleon once met with the emperor of Spain here. In fact, it was in Bayonne that he chose to force the abdication of Ferdinand VII in favor of the coronation of his own brother, Joseph Bonaparte. Other than that, history has seemed fairly content more or less to ignore Bayonne and its robust inhabitants.

The modern traveler who jets in from Paris or who motors down from Bordeaux understandably prefers to vacation in nearby Biarritz, a fashionable spa featuring beaches, golf courses, horse racing, and casinos. It is only the occasional tourist who makes his way to Bayonne to “see the sights”: a museum, an arsenal, a fortress. Tucked quietly away and isolated from the mainstream of French political and intellectual life to be found in the major metropolitan areas, Bayonne has seen little of and contributed even less to the rough-and-tumble world of Gallican intrigue and the ineffable ferment of bold, innovative ideas.

In 1801, however, there was born to the Bastiats of Bayonne an infant who would prove no stranger to the world of ideas. Frederic (for so the youth was named) fell early prey to the seductive lure of language, literature, and the humanities. Certain it was that he read and absorbed the works of the classical economists; Smith, Malthus, Ricardo, Say: all left their mark upon him in one way or the other. And Cobden, the political practitioner of the Economists, proved an able light to the eager mind across the Channel.*

* Most strictly biographical information on Bastiat in this paper derives from the excel lent 1860 “Notice of the Life and Writings of the Author” by Patrick James Sterling, F.R.S.E. prefaced in Frederic Bastiat, Harmonies of Political Economy (London: John Murray, 1860), ix-xl.

An Ordered Universe of Majestic Harmony

Like Pythagoras before him, Bastiat saw in the world a “majestic harmony,” a divine clockwork not the Pythagorean divinity of numerical sequence and mathematical structure, but a somewhat Newtonian beauty and order of “natural law” which channeled all “legitimate” actions into industrious, harmonious endeavor. These actions of productive men of goodwill, spurred by greed and enlightened self-interest, would be guided (in the terminology of Adam Smith) by an unseen or “invisible hand” to the unquestionable welfare of the commonwealth.

The marketplace, unhindered by counterproductive restraints and heavy-handed bureaucrats, was Bastiat’s ideal. The bloody rebellions and palace revolts that rocked European society during the 1840s produced in him no illusions, no furtive hopes for a better world; armies and gunplay were unacceptable answers to the stirrings of popular discontent. In Bastiat’s mind there would be little use for barricades and power plays if only man worked in harmony with his colleagues. He believed that the market economy produced (and derived from) that essential goodwill between man and his fellow citizens.

An armed rebellion could never really be anything more than a substitution of one despotism for another. What was really needed was a radical alteration in the way people thought. As long as government was regarded as merely an instrument for seizing the rewards and production of one’s fellowman, then war and rebellion were all but inevitable, inherent defects of the establishment.

Issues Examined

Bastiat’s life was one of struggle and intellectual combat. He was a prodigious pamphleteer, hurling epithets, anathemas, rebukes at his ideological foes. For Bastiat was a shameless popularizer dedicated to the eccentric notion that the commoner had the intelligence to understand the economic doctrines so hotly debated in the legislative halls of his day. Bastiat merely stripped them of the technocratic jargon, the intellectual pretense in which they had been for so long disguised.

Bastiat dreamed of producing a book which would present his philosophy as a unified, harmonious whole. In this he was not quite successful. He died before the work had been entirely finished. The ideological passions which hounded him, the disease which eventually killed him, spurred him to superhuman lengths. But when Bastiat finally suc cumbed, the Harmonies was woefully incomplete. Bastiat’s literary remains have provoked endless debate, attracted numerous followers, and generated significant esteem among latter-day conservatives and libertarians. Of all his literary efforts, Bastiat treasured most highly his stoically written Harmonies.

The first ten chapters of the Harmonies are all that appeared during the lifetime of the author. Bastiat had intended to expand and revise his work before death intervened in 1850. In it, Bastiat laid his foundation by classifying the “mechanism of society” into “natural” organization on the one hand and “artificial” organization on the other.

Within this taxonomy, the “natural organization” of society is predicated upon the “natural laws” of the marketplace. The “artificial organization” of the “social mechanism” is the restriction of nature’s general laws by the intrusion of man-made law. This unnatural defiance of nature and its laws was bound to have adverse effects, Bastiat contended. The harmony inherent within a market society based upon a division of labor would, of necessity, be rendered impotent by the interference of “artificial” regulation.

Did man wish a favor of his fellow? Did he desire a change in the status quo? Then what recourse is available? Bastiat noted two: persuasion or the use of authoritarian force. And no amount of camouflage could obscure from Bastiat that law, whether legislated or decreed, was nothing else, in the final analysis, but raw, naked force masquerading under the cloak of respectability. Legislation, he seems to tell us, is a weapon to which we ought to resort much less frequently.

Self-Interest at Work

Personal interest, long an anathema of the socialists and the cafe intellectuals, was, to Bastiat, the “mainspring of human society.” But as expressed in the competition of the marketplace under the division of labor, cold necessity demands work, production, and want-satisfaction which all neatly coalesce and dovetail in social harmony. Few rules, no elaborate Utopias are necessary. Self-interest impels each to serve his fellowman.

Bastiat recognized two essential possibilities regarding human interaction. One was force and plunder; the other was peace and trade. Exchange was the basis of all society. It is dependent upon peaceful intentions. On the other hand, if society regards exchange, that uniquely human activity, with suspicion and disdain, then there is nothing left but plunder and fratricidal strife. Exchange is “natural”; it develops of itself. Whenever it becomes more onerous than useful, it will stop “naturally” because it will be in the interest of people to discontinue harmful practices.

Bastiat was particularly incensed by the various Utopian schemes of his day. Individually and collectively, Bastiat arraigned the promulgators of”primitive Equality” and took them to task for the unworkable communities which they prescribed as the remedy of erring man’s social ills. Considerant, Louis Blanc, Cabet—were each in his turn subject to the ruthless scrutiny of Bastiat’s withering analytic logic.

Utopian paradigms had no place in Bastiat’s philosophy. In his own words:

Men of property and leisure!—whatever be your rank in the social scale, whatever step of the social ladder you may have reached by dint of activity, probity, order, and economy—whence come the fears which have seized upon you? The perfumed but poisoned breath of Utopia menaces your existence. (Harmonies, p. 189)

Property Defended

Property was not, as the socialists and communists tended to believe, heartless theft. Landowners are not reckless malefactors who have maliciously intercepted the benefits of nature intended for the equal use of all men. They are not, Bastiat insisted, usurpers from whom restitution is due. Guided by selfish ambition and greed, men of property are (perhaps unwittingly) necessary instruments in the hands of Providence for the distribution of the “useful effects” which they had often obtained at the mere whim of nature.

To the poor, to the “men of toil and privations,” he declared that all wealth, no matter in whose hands, inclines to the amelioration of all. No step of progress can be made but that each does not share in some small way. This the Divine Architect Himself, in the skillful arrangement of “the order of things,” has so decreed. And to attack this providentially cerebrated order, to assault it in any way, is not merely homicide, but suicide. Individual property is the underpinning of civilization (and thus the division of labor) itself.

To the men of philanthropy and “defenders of the suffering classes” Bastiat warned against the unwisdom of impugning all “received wisdom” and unsettling all established interests. What would become of human liberty if “artificial” or Utopian schemes were adopted and executed according to plan? In fact, does God want for wisdom and insight? Does Providence need you (Bastiat queried the reformers) to accomplish His sacred purposes? God does not trust to the communalistic craftiness of collectivist philosophers but to the principle of enlightened self-interest. This, and only this, is what accounts for civilization, productivity, community.

It is therefore fitting, Bastiat reasoned, that men’s interests are indeed harmonious, provided, of course, that “right prevail.” And right can only prevail if services are freely and voluntarily exchanged, removed from the fear of confiscation and seizure. It is in this principle, then, that all proprietors (including the worker who is after all, “proprietor” of his own labor) and reformers of all schools ought to unite. If all men have the full right to their own services produced by their own labor (or that of their benefactors), then there can no longer be any question whatever of a collective right to education, employment, credit, or assistance.

To Bastiat there could not be any thought of “community” under communism. Community cannot exist under communism because the otherwise natural harmony of man is disrupted in a society of seizure by the arbitrary substitution of forcibly imposed political will for liberty and freedom. Such a community is at perpetual war with itself, a festering carcass of running sores, contagiously dangerous. Partisanship, not harmony, is its predictable legacy.

The Free Market

The only legitimate and feasible form of human interaction was laissez faire. It angered and exasperated Bastiat that the socialist had been thus far successful in tarring the market society with onerous and unpalatable insinuations. Liberty does not lead to monopoly, Bastiat argued. Laissez faire society is not really the questionable collection of heartless felons and odious parasites portrayed by unthinking propagandists. Indeed, it is only in a society which has as its chief value property that “community” is at all possible. And all this, Considerant, Cabet, and Louis Blanc notwithstanding.

It bears noting that practically all Utopian schemes put into practice during the nineteenth century failed. Mostly they foundered upon the same rock which Bastiat had observed: that individual men have individual minds and individual wills of their own, deeply rooted in self-interest. When the Utopian communities were erected, they seldom lasted very long. Bickering over tasks, hours, and remuneration took its toll in these authoritarian hamlets. Even the so-called libertarian or anarchist Utopias dedicated to collectivist theory rarely endured beyond a few agonizing years.

What is one to think of the Harmonies? Bastiat generously invoked the Deity a trifle too often for scientific and analytical comfort. It was God who gave man his materials, talents, wants, desires, and values. God fashioned the conditions and laws by which man lived. Bastiat relied too heavily on such enlightenment concepts as “natural law,” rarely bothering to pause and define his terms. One might, like Schumpeter, be tempted to write Bastiat off, dismissing him as little more than a popular journalist passionately wedded to the elucidation of a technical subject beyond his ken. Blunders, contradictions, naive indiscretions—they are all there in full force lurking implicitly in the brashest terminology.

Yet. And yet. It is hard to fault an author, and an iconoclast at that, for adhering to some of the ideologies, ambiguities, and methodologies of his own day. It would be unduly harsh rigorously to insist that Bastiat be judged solely (if at all) by the criteria of the irreverent twentieth century.

Individual Sovereignty

It is perhaps enough to acknowledge his unwavering intellectual and moral support of the sovereign individual in an age of growing governmental paternalism. In Bastiat’s own mind the germ of all “social harmonies” was included in two principles: liberty and property. The fratricidal strife, the domestic rivalry which characterized the “socialist commonwealth” was the civil dissonance inspired by statist “spoliation” and political oppression. There is no justice but the prevention of injustice, he averred; anything more or less than this cometh of evil.

The great tragedy of Frederic Bastiat was the genius that permitted him a glimpse of the work yet to be done, and then, shown the glimmer of the Promised Land, denied entry. Crushed by the “mass of harmonies” that struggled for expression in his illimitable prose, the dying Bastiat had to content himself with the bitter bread of what might have been. It was cold comfort. The intelligence which allowed him the vision also permitted him the realization that his death could not be much longer evaded. He was possessed by the driving necessity to complete his work. The Harmonies was at once fiend and ideal; perhaps in the end it even destroyed him.

Much work yet remained. A study of man was needed, he felt, then an investigation of economics, then . . . then there was no longer any time. He had wanted to paint a picture; he succeeded only in penciling a sketch. But what a sketch it was!

By 1850 Bastiat knew he had little left. His breath came in tortured, painful gasps, and he could only with great difficulty force anything down his constricted throat. He battled valiantly to finish the Harmonies but his good moments were now few and far between. These last days were filled with futile flight, searching for the right climate, the right resort, the right location, the elusive panacea that would restore his drained and pallid vitality.

Perhaps, thought his physicians, the fabled waters of the Pyrenees would do him some good. When that failed, he withdrew to Pisa in a desperate attempt to bolster his sagging health. But he fared no better there than in the Pyrenees. Mustering his ebbing reserves he journeyed to The Eternal City. He suffered there in Rome, broken and emaciated, an old man of forty-nine. It was his final struggle. On Christmas Eve he breathed his last. The long fight was over.