A professor of religious instruction at
My students come from all walks of life, nearly every state of the
Teachers of the freedom philosophy have to be "as wise as serpents and as harmless as doves"—wise enough to induce students to listen to ideas they have been conditioned to reject.
My latest plan to stimulate thinking was to require a book report on The Law, by Frederic Bastiat, from all students seeking a top mark in my course on religion. There were 413 students involved in this experiment. One hundred five accepted the challenge, though not all of them earned A’s in the course. None objected to the project, and several stated that they read the book even though they did not report on it.
Statement of the Premise
In presenting the project to the students, I capitalized on the fact that they were voluntarily enrolled in a private university. They had prior knowledge of the university’s policies and requirements. So they were in the class by voluntary contract. Early in the semester I discussed the relationship of the students to the school, to me, and to the project. This is the essence of what I said:
"This is a private university. It is not operated by public servants nor supported by taxes. Your tuition and fees pay for about one-fourth of the immediate costs of the education you receive here. The rest is paid out of the voluntary contributions of the members of the Church to which most of you belong.
"You came here voluntarily as far as we know. Therefore, you are taking this course by voluntary contract, not by compulsion.
"When two parties enter into a contract, they do so because each hopes to benefit by the contract. You hope to be spiritually and materially benefited by your education here. We who pay most of the bill hope to see you saved from the misery of a life without principle or spiritual direction, whichwe suppose is more apt to be the case without religious education. Ours is an intangible benefit, but it is just as real to us as anything you hope to gain. If you are not a willing party to the contract, you have no business being here. "You also have an implicit personal contract with me. At registration you chose my class for some reason or other. You all know your reasons. In each case you hoped to gain something by making the choice.
"Now that you are here, I owe you something and you owe me something. I owe you my sincere effort to offer you what I believe is true and good for you, and still respect your right to reject it. You owe me the respect to try to understand me. You do not have to believe me, and you will not be graded on whether or not you believe me. Your grade will depend in part on how well you understand me. I do not pretend to sit in judgment on your beliefs, your convictions, or your characters. There is no way I could do that successfully even if I wanted to. But I will try to discover how well you understand me.
"I want you to know that I believe that government should be limited to the protection of life, liberty, and property. I believe in a free market economy and a republican form of government such as our Founding Fathers attempted to establish when they met in
"You no doubt have heard the welfare state defended on the grounds that it is our duty to be our ‘brother’s keeper.’ To hear the other side of a matter is to be made free to decide which side is right. One of the best books I have read on ‘the other side’ of the welfare state is The Law by Frederic Bastiat. This book was written in 1850. As you read it, you will wonder how anyone who lived that long ago could know our times so well.
"I strongly recommend that all of you read The Law. I will not make it a requirement to pass the course. But I will expect all who are trying to demonstrate that they are A students to read it and write a report on it.
"I urge you to read The Law with an open mind. I consider it one of the dozen books that have had the most profound effect on my life. I do not ask you to believe it; but I do ask you to understand it. In your report I want you to demonstrate that you understood the book and that you see why I consider it a fit supplement for this course in religion."
The Students Respond
Four of the 105 who reported on The Law wrote adverse criticisms. Three said they believed Bastiat was right but that his ideas wouldn’t work. About twenty confined their remarks to an accurate, knowledgeable report of the contents of the book. But the vast majority were enthusiastic in their praise. Following are some typical statements:
"Evidently I am one of many individuals who has been duped into believing that, without the law to instigate and enforce public education, charity, civil rights, etc., the general population would be too lackadaisical and stupid to initiate these and similar needs on their own… He has stirred my imagination enough that I want to continue my reading and find answers to my questions. I believe in his theory, but now I need more information to rearrange my present thinking."
"The Law, written by the nineteenth century economist and statesman, Frederic Bastiat, is a short and powerful pamphlet that serves as a yardstick for the validity of any government that has existed or ever will exist….
"The one most important thing that this book declares is that truth and righteousness in government are as simple as truth in anything else no matter what the time or the circumstances. If the law is perverted, justice no longer exists."
"The Law by Frederic Bastiat is a very outstanding book. It opened my eyes to the real aim of legislators and government. It also brought to my realization the true meaning of liberty, and that it is the most precious thing to everyone. We should guard our liberty as a priceless possession; therefore, we should learn what true liberty is. The Law helps one to really understand liberty, law, and government so that we may know the good and the bad of the society in which we live.
"I can see from reading this book why Mr. Pearson has said so much about the government, the United Nations, education, and politics."
"Just as The Law was a book for the people of
This forceful thesis gives a very thought provoking and penetrating message…. I believe that every citizen should read this book and become seriously acquainted with all it advocates."
"One cannot help but look around and see the many evidences of legal plunder in the
"The material presented in this book can serve as a warning to us that we can destroy ourselves as the civilizations of old did through their greed."
"Unless we return to the original purpose for which governments have been established, we will be pushed further into the socialistic state. Mr. Bastiat has prophetically warned us of the dangers and the road to political and moral destruction. Those that think we have nothing to fear should listen to the words of our President: ‘We are going to try to take all of the money that we think is unnecessarily being spent and take it from the haves and give it to the have nots that need it so much.’ "
"We can see throughout the
"Little did I suspect when I sat down to read The Law the enjoyment and enlightenment which I would receive…. Never before had I stopped to seriously consider the misuse of the ‘law’ here within our own
Many of the best comments were too deeply involved in the personal religion of the students to make them quotable. The lives of these students will never be the same for having read The Law. Even the four students who rejected the general thesis of the book praised it in part and said it had spurred them on to greater thought.
Four Critics—Six Points
Three of the critics agreed that Bastiat was right, but thought his ideas wouldn’t work. This is to say that the truth either won’t work, or that it isn’t right after all. It denies the validity of Jesus’ statement that "Ye shall know the truth and the truth shall make you free." It denies the idea that the human race can improve its standards and conditions or work toward the perfection enjoined by the Sermon on the Mount.
This damning of the truth "with faint praise" is, in essence, the argument of expediency. Some people believe in principle whatever the consequences. Others are what a colleague of mine calls "card players." They make their decisions on the basis of what they think is best for themselves at the moment. This is living by policy instead of principle.
In dealing with this attitude, I find that it pays to get the student to think through an extreme prototype of the expediency argument. What prototype you choose will have to be determined by your convictions and those of your students. One that has never failed me goes like this:
Teacher: Do you believe it is good for women to bear children? Student: Yes.
Teacher: Suppose all women conspired to stop bearing children; would you then advocate the use of rape as a means of solving the problem?
Usually the point is seen without elaboration: resorting to violence is never justified no matter what good you think you can accomplish by it. Most people see this when it is graphically explained to them. Freedom does not demand that all think alike, only that all are protected from plunder alike; we can afford to let the few who do not see the point go on in their darkness.
The Cry of Anarchy
Another common adverse criticism was that The Law advocated a lawless or anarchic society. One of the students who made this accusation was rather vague. His paper was mostly a matter-of-fact review of the book. Then, in his concluding paragraph, he stated, "This book has given me an appreciation of the so-called ‘conservative position’ of our present day. I can correlate many of the teachings of religion with Mr. Bastiat’s…. I do not agree fully, however, in all of Mr. Bastiat’s postulations. I think he shows, at times, signs of anarchism. Again, I state that my appreciation and understanding of the conservative position is greatly enhanced."
There was no hint as to what other "postulations" he disagreed with. Of course, Bastiat does not "postulate" anarchy; but the cry of anarchy is a common complaint against those who believe in the free market.
It isn’t the quantity of law and regulation which determines whether a state of anarchy exists. It is the quality of the law. If there were no law but this, I will not rob another man of his property nor control what he does with it—and if that law were written on all men’s hearts, it wouldn’t have to be in a book, and we would need very little else as a legal framework on which to build a truly "great society."
No, Bastiat cannot be called an anarchist—either of the so-called far left or the so-called far right. He believed in strong governmental protection of life, liberty, and property. He believed in strong voluntary adherence to God’s law and natural law. And he believed in strong protection of the natural rights of all men when those rights were endangered by the lawless who sought to live by plunder—legal or illegal.
Let’s Be Constructive
A third adverse criticism of The Law followed a common cliché of our times: "He is good at criticism; but he offers no solution to the problem." Many think that, if they can label a man as one who has offered no solution, they have destroyed the value of his criticism. They demand that there be some kind of a state plan for agriculture, education, and so on.
In economic matters, the best plan is to have no master plan. Leonard Read has explained this in Anything That’s Peaceful, chapter twelve, "The Most Important Discovery in Economics." He sums it up in a sentence: "Let the payment for each individual’s contribution be determined by what others will offer in willing exchange."¹ In essence, this is the plan that Bastiat offered. It not only is a brave idea, but it is so foreign to the thinking of those who deem the state the instigator of all good action and the provider of all goods and services that they may miss the point entirely.
From one young man’s paper, I got the impression that he visualized the government as a sort of flexible under girding, an air mattress under the body-politic. But unlike the usual air mattress, in this case instead of the air departing to areas of less pressure when you walk on it, it would rush to the spot where you place your foot and hold you on an even plane with the rest of the mattress. Thus, when some part of society fails to produce the contribution expected, the government will step in and take care of the deficit. The student applied this principle especially in schooling. He was sure that if the government were not there to keep things going, there would be no education. He agreed that it would be well if this could be done without the government, but thought there must be a powerful government waiting to rush in to prevent civilization from crumbling when "society" fails.
Fixing the Responsibility
A fourth criticism of The Law was a variant of the third. One student said that Bastiat failed to make anyone responsible for education. This presumes that education is something that is given, not received or sought for, and that it must be formal to be effective. It also presumes that you can educate someone against his will, that you can educate the uneducable, and that passing from one grade to another is education.
There is a natural responsibility for education. The responsibility lies in part with the man and wife who brought the child into the world. They can enter into voluntary relationships with like-minded people to take care of part of this responsibility. Since all education is religious education no matter what the field or what you try to do with it, it follows that religious societies are a natural focal point for parents to unite in the education of their children.
The greatest responsibility for education lies with the individual himself. As he emerges into more and more of an independent personality and agent, he must assume this responsibility. In fact, he does assume it no matter what the state or his parents may try to do to prevent it. All they accomplish is a wasteful frustration of his will and productive capacity when they try to force their will upon him.
Only one student of 105 bewailed Bastiat’s failure to fix the responsibility for education, while scores noticed that he had the ideal solution to the problem. Especially did they quote and enlarge upon his statement to the effect that the socialists accuse us of being against education simply because we are opposed to education based upon legal plunder.
A fifth adverse comment criticized The Law as being propaganda. This boy defined propaganda as something which is written to generate action. If one agrees with that definition and with the student’s further assumption that all propaganda is evil, then The Law is what he concluded it was, an evil book. In that case, so is the Bible. Anyone who knows much about the methods of propaganda will recognize this as a clumsy attempt to use propaganda methods to discredit The Law.
Propaganda is a big subject. Obviously it isn’t necessary to say much about it here. But there is one idea that I will attempt to impart to this young man if I get another chance: The use of propaganda becomes increasingly dangerous and sinister as it becomes increasingly the tool of the most powerful agency in any given community. Or, put another way, the potential danger in propaganda methods is proportionate to the potential power of the agency using it. The Law has no coercive power behind it. But who can say how dangerous it is? The truth has destroyed empires and caused the schemes of wicked men to come to naught.
The sixth objection to The Law was highly personal and tied up in the student’s religious views. It was more of a total rejection of his teacher’s religious philosophy than of Bastiat’s views on economics and morality.
In summation, I have no evidence that the reading of The Law did anyone any harm. All but the propagandist seemed to profit greatly from it. The high percentage of warm acceptance is a tribute to the power of truth to win out over error when it has a chance to be heard. The experiment will be continued.
The Law and Education
You SAY: "There are persons who lack education," and you turn to the law. But the law is not, in itself, a torch of learning which shines its light abroad. The law extends over a society where some persons have knowledge and others do not; where some citizens need to learn, and others can teach. 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.
Frederic Bastiat, The Law (1850)
¹ Leonard E. Read, Anything That’s Peaceful (Irvington-on-Hudson, N. Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1964), p. 154. I consider this book a logical sequel to The Law. It answers all objections to The Law raised by my students and gives a more complete and up-to-date rationale for the principles of liberty.