All Commentary
Saturday, September 1, 1984

Socialism Is Legal Plunder

Dr. Russell, recently retired from a full schedule of academic work, continues free lance consulting, lecturing and writing from his home in Westchester County, New York.
      This is one of a series of articles examining current interventions of the welfare state in the light of warnings from the French economist anti statesman, Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850).

Frederic Bastiat, a member of the French Chamber of Deputies in the 1840s, is the author of perhaps the most damning definition of government ever penned: “The state is the great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everybody else.”

When Bastiat made that statement to his fellow-legislators, they ignored him as usual, and continued to design and implement still more welfare programs to be financed by taking money from some people and transferring it to other people as a gift from government. Bastiat called that process “socialism,” and he fought against it throughout his career as editor, author, farmer, teacher, and legislator.

Bastiat’s classical commentary on government, The Law, was published in 1850, a few months before his death. In that short book he explained his concept that plunder is plunder, whether done illegally by a robber who hopes to profit directly, or legally by a group of legislators who profit indirectly by thus maintaining their government jobs.

Actually, since Bastiat was as much a philosopher as he was a political economist, his writings tend to deal with universal principles on the proper organization of government, and what is (and is not) a proper governmental activity, and why.

The opening quotation from The Law concerns a frightening development in government Bastiat detected in France almost 150 years ago—a development you may recognize as applicable to many of the activities of our own government. “The law [government] perverted. And the police powers of the state perverted along with it. The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose. The law become the weapon of every kind of greed. Instead of checking crime, the law [government] itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish.

“If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me to call the attention of my fellow citizens to it.”

The governmental activities and projects he opposed in the 1840s in France are still with us today in the United States (as well as in France and every other nation). It is not that today’s problems are somewhat similar to those Bastiat discussed in his day—they are identical, merely dressed in new clothes and grown much bigger.

The destructive effects of those governmental activities as predicted by Bastiat a century and a half ago are visible everywhere, in the United States as in France—huge deficits, increasing taxes, inflation, more crime, an enormous growth in government, a decline in moral values, and so on. As a result of the accuracy of Bastiat’s predictions, there has been a resurgence of inter-est in his works in his own country. And the same phenomenon is occurring here in the United States.

Legal and Illegal Plunder

To get to the heart of the matter, here’s Bastiat’s basic concept on plunder, both illegal (theft) and legal (socialism):

There are two kinds of plunder: legal and illegal. I do not think that illegal plunder, such as theft or swindling that the penal code defines and punishes, can be called socialism. It is not this kind of plunder that systematically threatens the foundations of society. Anyway, the war against . . . illegal plunder has been going on since the beginning of mankind. Long before the Revolution—long before the appearance even of socialism itself—France had provided police, judges, prisons, and scaffolds for the purpose of fighting illegal plunder. The law itself conducts this war, and it is my wish and opinion that the law should always maintain this attitude toward plunder.

But it does not always do this. Sometimes the law defends plunder and participates in it. Thus the beneficiaries are spared the shame and danger that their acts would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, and prisons at the service of the plunderers—and treats the victim, when he defends himself, as a criminal. In short, there is legal plunder . . . .

But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

Then abolish that law without delay. For it is not only an evil in itself but also a fertile source for further evils because it invites reprisals and imitation. If such a law—which may be an isolated case—is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system . . . .

Legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways. Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs, subsidies, progressive taxation, government schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on and so on. All these plans together—with their common aim of legal plunder—constitute socialism . . . .

If you wish to be strong, begin by rooting out every particle of socialism that may have crept into your legislation. This will be no light task . . . .

This question of legal plunder must be settled once and for all, and there are only three ways to settle it: First, the few plunder the many. Second, everybody plunders everybody. Third, nobody plunders anybody.

We must make our choice among limited plunder, universal plunder, and no plunder. The law can follow only one of these three.

Limited legal plunder: This system prevailed when the right to vote was restricted. Some would turn back to this system to prevent the invasion of socialism.

Universal legal plunder: We have been threatened with this system since the franchise was made universal. The newly enfranchised majority have decided to formulate law on the same principle of legal plunder that was used by their predecessors when the vote was restricted.

No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim this principle with all my strength . . . .

In all sincerity, can anything more than the absence of plunder be required of the law? Can the law—which necessarily requires the use of force—rationally be used for anything except protecting the equal right of everyone? I defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without perverting it and, consequently, turning might against right. This is the most fatal and most illogical social perversion that can possibly be imagined. It must be admitted that the true solution—so long searched for in the area of social relationships—is contained in these simple words: Law is organized justice.

Now this must be said: When justice is organized by law—that is, by force—this excludes the idea of using law [government] to organize any human activity whatever, whether it be labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry, education, art, or religion. The organizing by law of any one of these would inevitably destroy the essential organization—justice. For truly, how can we imagine force being used against the liberty of peaceful citizens without it also being used against justice, and thus acting contrary to its proper purpose?

Here I encounter the most popular fallacy of our times. It is not considered sufficient for the law to be just; it must be philanthropic. Nor is it sufficient that the law should guarantee to every citizen the free and inoffensive use of his faculties for physical, intellectual, and moral self-improvement. Instead, it is demanded that the law should directly extend welfare, education, and morality throughout the nation.

This is the seductive lure of socialism. And I repeat: These two uses of the law are in direct opposition to each other. We must choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free.

In the above discussion on legal plunder (socialism), Bastiat identifies at least 16 specific areas in which it was found in France in 1848. After that listing, he adds, “and so on and so on.” Every one of those listed programs and projects is widely sponsored by our own government today, including many additional “legal plunder schemes” to be found under Bastiat’s catch-all phrase, “and so on and so on.” These will be discussed in subsequent articles.