All Commentary
Tuesday, February 1, 1972

On Re-reading THE LAW

Mr. Colvard teaches at Clairemont High School in San Diego.

The story, perhaps apocryphal, is told of a young man who had a long, earnest conversation with his father on the eve of the son’s departure for the university. When he was graduated, he talked with his father again. As the youth described it: It was amazing how much the old man had learned in four years.

A few years ago, when I received a copy of The Law from Dr. George C. Roche III, then Director of Seminars for the Foundation for Economic Education, I was not immediately impressed. The ideas appeared logically sound to me, but with application limited to places and times other than modern America. Robert L. Heilbroner in The Worldly Philosophers placed Frederic Bastiat, the author of The Law, in “the underworld of economics.”

The Law is a disturbing book, however. I read it again. Before the fall of the old regime, Voltaire had made an acid observation that “in general, the art of government consists in taking as much money as possible from one class of citizen to give to the other.” Bastiat called this exchange “legal plunder.” He pointed out: The plunderers are within the law, acting benignly, with the best of motives, under the glow of “false philanthropy.” It made sense — but.

In this matter of education, the law has only two alternatives: It can permit this transaction of teaching-and-learning to operate freely and without the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter by taking from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are appointed by government to instruct others, without charge. But in this second case the law commits legal plunder by violating liberty and property.

Now that was just too much. Back in the foothills of rural North Carolina during the first half of this century the tradition of the summer “protracted meeting” was firmly fixed in fundamentalist congregations. Visiting revivalists of a fire-and-brimstone bent attempted to electrify hot, sleepy listeners by cataloguing the alleged sins of erring neighbors. Over in the “amen corner” Deacon Jones munched his seasoned bolus of Star Plug tobacco and accompanied the preacher by nodding his placid agreement.

“… the sin of young men drinking…”


“… the sin of young women smoking…”


“… the sin of old men chewing…”

At this point Deacon Jones rose out of his seat, sputtering. “Now just a minute, Reverend,” he objected angrily. “Now you’ve quit preaching and started meddling.”

This portion of The Law seemed absurd: public education being linked with legal plunder. Just what do economists think teachers do? Don’t they know we loose the glorious, exuberant spirits of students? We encourage discovery. We produce scientists, entrepreneurs and statesmen who maintain the nation’s economic and political stability. We prepare citizens to become contributing, rather than dependent, members of a complex, competitive industrial democracy.

Somewhere from the dusty past I seemed to hear a soft chortle and low whisper: “false philanthropy.” This was ridiculous, I thought. It’s my ox that’s being gored now. It’s all right to question the propriety of industrial monopolies, protective tariffs, and agricultural subsidies. Leave education to educators. The National Education Association’s campaign for a National Department of Education is in full swing. With the right Secretary in the Presidential Cabinet, public education could be run efficiently, like the post office. With enough power educational leaders could enforce academic freedom for all teachers, defend martyrs like Peter Abelard and Socrates. I tried not to remember at this point that Abelard got himself into trouble playing around with a nubile teen-ager and Socrates really had been “corrupting the youth.”

A Skeptical Student

During the week of the FEE seminar that summer I remained skeptical of Bastiat’s freedom philosophy, at least that part about public education, though he was quoted respectfully by the 3-R’s of the seminar: Read, Russell, and Roche. (For clarification and lest I appear lacking in respect, may I amend this remark to: Mr. Leonard Read, Dr. Dean Russell, and Dr. George C. Roche III.) I listened to them, but I was not fully convinced. I re-read The Law more carefully, however, when I returned home.

“Look at the madhouse of a world,” Frederic Bastiat had suggested in an early work. The world “goes to enormous efforts to tunnel underneath a mountain to connect two countries and then it sets duties and custom guards at each entrance to make passage as difficult as possible.” Interesting.

The latest, fourteenth edition of Encyclopaedia Britannica allows Frederic Claude Bastiat two dozen tepid lines. However, going back to the eleventh edition, published in 1910, I found this magnificent tribute:

He alone fought socialism hand to hand, body to body, as it were, not caricaturing it, not denouncing it, not criticizing under its name some merely abstract theory, but taking it as actually presented by its most popular representatives, considering patiently their proposals and arguments, and proving conclusively that they proceeded on false principles, reasoned badly and sought to realize generous aims by foolish and harmful means.

I was beginning to discover that Bastiat was, indeed, quite a man.

A Very Good Year!

The year 1776 was a vintage one for freedom. It brought forth the master work of Thomas Jefferson and Adam Smith. In the vernacular of today’s bright youth, “Groovy! Everybody has rights and everybody should do his own thing.” The concept of liberty which came out of the enlightened eighteenth century and achieved wide popularity in the nineteenth has lost ground in the twentieth. The political term, “liberal,” has shifted in meaning from those who would break government’s hold on its citizens to those who advocate greater government controls be placed on individuals. The great utopian appeal of collectivism, even in the modern extremes of fascism and communism, is the fond hope of equality. Collectivism proclaims high ideals and promises reforms. Literacy and public enlightenment are laudable goals for us to undertake in public education. Can this be “legal plunder”? One might as well imagine Santa Claus an “enemy agent.”

There is profound danger in cultivating the cult of equality. Tocqueville, the great admirer of American democracy, warned of the danger during his travels in the United States in the Jackson era. Democracy would, he foresaw, pose an irreconcilable dilemma to Americans. They who treasured both freedom and equality would eventually choose to give up the former to gain the latter.

The Need for Rules

Man must live by rules, but they should be rules of his own choosing. Ludwig von Mises stated this concept beautifully in his Human Action:

Liberty and freedom are the conditions of man within a contractual society…. As far as he gives and serves other people, he does so of his own accord in order to be rewarded and served by the receivers. He exchanges goods and services, he does not do compulsory labor and does not-pay tribute. He is certainly not independent. He depends on the other members of society. But this dependence is mutual.

The late jurist, Learned Hand, wrote about the benevolent “beast in us” which leads us to destroy liberty for others. “Liberty,” he noted, “is an essence so volatile that it will escape any vial however corked.” The logic of Bastiat, von Mises, and Hand at this point seems virtually irrefutable.

The public school system is an institutionalized cork restraining human freedom. It makes use (benevolently, of course) of the worst elements of socialism and protectionism. In truth, we teachers are in the jail business. Educators, like a majority of the adult population, defend compulsory attendance laws which are in fact nothing more than bills of attainder against our young.

We illogically uphold these extra-judicial canons despite their expressed ban by Sections 9 and 10 of Article I of the Constitution of the United States. This basic constitutional injunction has been blandly ignored. In Brown vs. Board of Education the Supreme Court appeared to actively favor compulsion. In the words of the Court, “Compulsory school attendance laws and the great expenditures both demonstrate our recognition of the importance of education to our democratic society.” We are wildly inconsistent in defining “liberty.” First we confront youth with our terrible dictum: You have no inalienable rights. Then we expect him to become law-abiding while he is, himself, outside the law. We expect him to achieve a mature autonomous level in personal growth without exercising the right of free choice. We expect him to develop value judgment stripped of a compulsion for responsibility. A frenetic reality exists in compulsory education. We guard students possessively as they attempt to escape our bureaucracy. They are not allowed to become nonconsumers in our educational monopoly. We employ “Keystone” cops called “truant officers” or more euphemistically, “attendance coordinators,” to chase them when they attempt to decline our services.

Twentieth century school systems have come to be blatant examples of nineteenth century enterprise. Writing about anachronous industries, Henry Hazlitt noted: “It is just as necessary to the health of a dynamic economy that dying industries be allowed to die as that growing industries be allowed to grow.” A like case could be made for abandoning outmoded compulsory institutionalized education.

Candlemaker’s Petition

Bastiat’s masterpiece of economic satire was the tongue-in-cheek petition to the Chamber of Deputies requesting that owners of houses be made to do without doors and windows. He berated sunlight as a foreign, low-cost, unfair source of illumination and asked that it be shut out to create a demand for artificial light which would benefit French manufacturers of lamps, tallow, and candles. We educators today are logical targets for the Bastiat philosophy as we defend our right to a monopoly of artificial enlightenment.

It is my belief that the services rendered by teachers in public schools are a primary economic good. Our professional expertise is of such value that it need not be forced on anyone. In learning’s free market, demand exceeds supply. Young people need not be compelled by legal entails to come to school. It’s a compulsion they have reason to hate. They have a valid case in history. Tea-loving Colonists refused to drink tea when it was forcibly pressed on them by a benevolent England. The Boston Tea Party made America a nation of coffee drinkers.

Public education as it exists today is economically unsound and patently unfair. Schools offer contracts for services to youths, but students have no legal way of enforcing the obligation. In even the relatively modest school districts, teachers report to principals who report to area directors who report to assistant superintendents who report to associate superintendents who eventually report to the superintendents who are solely responsible to the boards of education. Each level above the pedestrian classroom teacher is insulated from students. Every educator position above the teacher level in the system is political. Public relations know-how is the criteria for successful performance. Quality of the product that reaches the consumer is of small concern to middle management in educational enterprises. Managers are never partners in concerns which are without entrepreneurs. Educators are men of means, not of ends, and the means at their disposal are collectivism, centralization, and compulsion.

Bastiat made a wild and wonderful suggestion to us: “Let us now try liberty.”

Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

In my latest reading of The Law there emerges a classic framework of freedom: the belief in a harmony in human nature, the knowledge that individual aspiration if left unfettered contributes to the general good, the sober understanding that man is not God.

The story is told that at the moment of Fredric Bastiat’s passing he whispered something. The sound was virtually inaudible, but the listening priest thought the whisper was, “Truth, truth…” What else could it have been!