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Friday, August 29, 2008

The Bastiat Solution

The election season, which — sigh — is only just beginning, makes me want to reread Frederic Bastiat’s The Law. It is the best antidote for the toxic demagoguery that issues forth from across the political spectrum.

While the candidates are busy outcompeting one another in proposing new ways to spend our money (while promising to cut taxes), I take refuge in Bastiat’s sound philosophy. Where is he when we need him? Here are some gems from The Law that are particularly apt as the campaigns heat up.

What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense…. If every person has the right to defend — even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right.

This is straightforward return to basics. Each person owns his or her life, and from this it follows that self-defense is legitimate. And since that is the case, people have the “collective right” to get together to make self-defense more effective against those who would try to deprive of us life, liberty, or property. Few people would say they disagree with this. Strategically, this gives us something to build on.

Bastiat adds that the principle he’s outlined imposes a logical limit on the use of physical force. And here is where the disagreement sets in.

And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.

This principle — that a group can have no rights not possessed by the individual members — is consistent and simple. It defies all challenges. Yet it is radical in its implications for political systems throughout the world. Bastiat goes on to elaborate.

Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?

Think of how many things people in government do that they could not do outside the government. Those things Bastiat calls “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. [Emphasis added.]

If taking a person’s property — let’s say, his money — under threat of force is a violation of freedom when the thief holds no government office, it can’t be perfectly all right when he does hold such office. The act is either right or wrong. What political alchemy can turn wrong into right?

When a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns it — without his consent and without compensation, and whether by force or by fraud — to anyone who does not own it, then I say that property is violated; that an act of plunder is committed.

I say that this act is exactly what the law is supposed to suppress, always and everywhere. When the law itself commits this act that it is supposed to suppress, I say that plunder is still committed, and I add that from the point of view of society and welfare, this aggression against rights is even worse.

No Exemption for Politicians

But what if it only looks like plunder? If people have voted for the political officeholders who distribute others’ belongings by force, doesn’t that make it different from crime? How could it? If individuals and the groups they join have no right to take people’s belongings by force, then they cannot logically delegate to someone else a right they don’t have. We may each distribute our own property any way we like. But in dealing with other people and their property, we have but one legitimate method at our disposal: persuasion. No one — dash the political titles — can be morally exempt from that principle.

Bastiat is patient with those who are undeterred in finding ways to legitimize the illegitimate.

Why should not law be used [to organize labor, education, and religion ]? Because it could not organize labor, education, and religion without destroying justice. We must remember that law is force, and that, consequently, the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.

That is, self-defense.

Finally, Bastiat demolishes the welfare-state assumption that people are incapable of running their lives without meddling coercive government to help them, but are qualified to elect their leaders.

The people who, during the election, were so wise, so moral, and so perfect, now have no tendencies whatever; or if they have any, they are tendencies that lead downward into degradation….

If people are as incapable, as immoral, and as ignorant as the politicians indicate, then why is the right of these same people to vote defended with such passionate insistence?

The election season will subject us to a nonstop barrage of platitudes about the need for “leadership” and a government that “cares.” Luckily, we have Bastiat to turn to for solace. But even more important, we have Bastiat’s implicit strategic advice. Our family, friends, and neighbors would never think to threaten force to get their way because they know it is wrong. We just need to show them that the rules are the same for politicians. With logic and moral sense on our side, how can liberty not prevail?

  • Sheldon Richman is the former editor of The Freeman and a contributor to The Concise Encyclopedia of Economics. He is the author of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families and thousands of articles.