History

Government Power Was His Mortal Enemy

Lawrence W. Reed

Each week, Mr. Reed will relate the stories of people whose choices and actions make them heroes. See the table of contents for previous installments.


 “Sometimes standing against evil is more important than defeating it,” wrote novelist N.D. Wilson. “The greatest heroes stand because it is right to do so, not because they believe they will walk away with their lives. Such selfless courage is a victory in itself.”

In the last six of his 49 years of life, brought to an untimely end by tuberculosis, the classical liberal Frenchman Frédéric Bastiat produced an astonishing volume of books and essays in defense of free markets and free people. He towered over the smug intellectuals and politicians of his native France, most of whom were mentally mired in the country’s ancient traditions of statist central planning of the economy.

“Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws,” he reasoned. “On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”

Bastiat also gave us perhaps the world’s most succinct description of the redistributive apparatus of government: “The State is the great fiction through which everyone lives at the expense of everyone else.

The world in the 21st century is beset with economic fallacies that are, for the most part, modern versions of those that Bastiat demolished 16 decades ago.

If a posthumous Nobel Prize were to be awarded to just one person for crystal-clear writing and masterful storytelling in economics, no one would be more deserving of it than Bastiat. Here is the great pity of his short time on this earth: while he lived and ever since, his own country never possessed the collective wisdom to give him the honor and attention he deserved. His selfless courage in expressing timeless, irrefutable truths while almost all around him wallowed in fallacy constitutes a great moral victory indeed.

Bastiat was born in the port village of Bayonne on the Bay of Biscay in southern France. He was just 14 when the French defeat at Waterloo dispatched the dictatorship of Napoleon Bonaparte and put the old monarchy back in place.

At 17, Bastiat was working for his family’s export business, where he experienced firsthand the absurdity of protectionism and other wealth-stifling trade restrictions of the French government. Of this period in Bastiat’s life, economist Jim Powell writes,

While he didn’t want a commercial career, he was interested in the civilizing influence of commerce and the many ways that laws hurt people. He observed, for instance, how the 1816 French tariff throttled trade, resulting in empty warehouses and idle docks around Bayonne. In 1819, the government put steep tariffs on corn, meat, and sugar, making poor people suffer from needlessly high food prices. High tariffs on English and Swiss cotton led to widespread smuggling.

Inheriting the estate of his grandfather upon the elder’s death in 1825, Bastiat could afford to devote considerable time to the thought, reading, and debates with friends that a few years later would yield an explosion of wit and wisdom from a prolific pen. He was elected to two minor public positions in the early 1830s: justice of the peace and county assemblyman.

Bastiat published his first article in 1844. He was 43 years old, but he understood the economic world better than almost anyone twice his age, and he knew better than anybody how to explain it with an economy of words. He employed everyday language, conversational tone, and an innate clarity that flowed from his logical and orderly presentation. Nothing he wrote was stilted, artificial, or pompous. He was concise and devastatingly to the point. To this day, nobody can read Bastiat and wonder, “Now what was that all about?”

He was unequivocal in his opposition to limitless government. “It is not true,” he wrote, “that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person.”

David Hart is the editor of Liberty Fund’s English translation of The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. He writes,

Bastiat thought the modern bureaucratic and regulatory State of his day was based on a mixture of outright violence and coercion on the one hand, and trickery and fallacies (sophisms) on the other. The violence and coercion came from the taxes, tariffs, and regulations, which were imposed on taxpayers, traders, and producers; the ideological dimension that maintained the current class of plunderers came from a new set of “political” and “economic sophisms” that confused, misled, and tricked a new generation of “dupes” into supporting the system. The science of political economy, according to Bastiat, was to be the means by which the economic sophisms of the present would be exposed, rebutted, and finally overturned, thus depriving the current plundering class of its livelihood and power.

Economics these days can be dull and lifeless, larded with verbosity and presumptuous mathematics. Bastiat proved that economics doesn’t have to be that way, or at least that the core truths of the science can be made lively and unforgettable. In literature, we think of good storytelling as an art and stories as powerful tools for understanding. Bastiat could tell a story that pierced you with its brilliance. If your misconceptions were his target, his stories could leave you utterly, embarrassingly disarmed.

Bastiat was unequivocal in his opposition to limitless government.

One of his most memorable analogies comes from “The Candlemaker’s Petition,” in which candlemakers protested to the government “the unfair competition of a foreign rival. This foreign manufacturer of light has such an advantage over us that he floods our domestic markets with his product. And he offers it at a fantastically low price.”

That competitor turns out to be the sun, which provides free light in competition with the makers of candles. Bastiat wittily demolished the proposed “remedy” of the protectionist candlemakers — forbidding windows or requiring that they be painted black — and explained that it is to society’s advantage to accept all the free sunlight it can get and use the resources that might otherwise go to candles to meet other needs.

Protectionist arguments such as those from the candlemakers came under relentless assault by Bastiat. Why should two countries that dig a tunnel through their mountainous border to facilitate travel and trade then seek to undo its advantages by imposing burdensome taxes at both ends? If an exporter sells his goods abroad for more than they were worth at home, then buys valuable goods with the proceeds to bring back to his homeland, why would anyone in his right mind condemn the transactions as yielding a balance of trade “deficit”? If you’re a protectionist before reading Bastiat, you’ll either repent after reading his work or forever remain in darkness with no excuse that you weren’t instructed otherwise.

Bastiat’s 1850 essay, “That Which Is Seen and That Which Is Not Seen,” introduced his famous parable of the broken window. It’s a brilliant exposition of what would later become known as “opportunity cost,” a core concept in economics. If a hoodlum breaks a baker’s window, the economy in general is not “stimulated” because the baker must now do business with a glazier. Less visible but just as real is the fact that to replace the broken glass, the baker must cancel his plans to buy other things, such as a suit of clothes. The act of destruction means a gain for the glazier, but that gain is more than offset by the losses of the baker and the tailor.

Bastiat served the last two years of his life in France’s Constituent and Legislative Assemblies, where he worked tirelessly to convince fellow members of the merits of freedom and free markets. They proved to be his toughest audience. Most were far more interested in selfish and ephemeral satisfactions (such as power, money, reelection, and the dispensing of favors to friends) than in eternal truths.

He could be devilishly brilliant in his denunciations of his colleagues with political power who presumed to plan the control the lives of others, as in this admonition:

Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don't you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough.

Or in this one, my personal favorite:

If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?

His most famous work is The Law, which appeared the year he died. Were it required reading in schools today, it would transform the world, as it has opened minds and changed lives for many decades.

Bastiat was interested in the civilizing influence of commerce and the many ways that laws hurt people.

Inspired by The Law and other contributions of Bastiat, a “network of principled business leaders” now bears his name: The Bastiat Society.

The world in the 21st century is beset with economic fallacies that are, for the most part, modern versions of those that Bastiat demolished 16 decades ago. The answers to the vexing problems those fallacies produce are rarely to be found in proposals that empower bureaucracy while imposing tortuous regulations on private behavior. It’s far more likely that the answers lie in the profound and permanent principles that Frédéric Bastiat did so much to illuminate, and to which Powell offers these words of tribute:

And so that frail Frenchman whose public career spanned just six years, belittled as a mere popularizer, dismissed as a dreamer and an ideologue, turns out to have been right. Even before Karl Marx began scribbling The Communist Manifesto in December 1847, Frédéric Bastiat knew that socialism is doomed. Marx called for a vast expansion of government power to seize privately owned land, banks, railroads, and schools, but Bastiat warned that government power is a mortal enemy, and he was right. He declared that prosperity is everywhere the work of free people, and he was right again. He maintained that the only meaningful way to secure peace is to secure human liberty by limiting government power, and he was right yet again. Bastiat took the lead, he stood alone when he had to, he displayed a generous spirit, he shared epic insights, he gave wings to ideas, and he committed his life for liberty. He earned his place among the immortals.

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