All Commentary
Monday, April 1, 1974

The Motive Force of Society

This unfinished manuscript, written in 1850 during the final months of his life, is part of Bastiat’s effort to explain man’s role in a harmonious universe. It appears as Chapter 22 in Economic Harmonies, translated by W. Hayden Boyers, edited by George B. deHuszar, available in paperback from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y. 10533, $3.50.

It is not within the province of any branch of human knowledge to give the ultimate reason for things.

Man suffers; society suffers. We ask why. This is equivalent to asking why God has given man feeling and free will. We know on this subject only what is revealed to us by the faith in which we believe.

But whatever may have been God’s plan, what we do know as a positive fact, what human knowledge can take as a starting point, is that man was created a sentient being endowed with free will.

This is so true that I defy anyone who may be astonished at it to conceive of a living, thinking, desiring, loving, acting being —of anything, in a word, resembling man — yet lacking in sensibility or free will.

Could God have done differently? Of course, our reason says yes, but our imagination will forever say no; so radically impossible is it for us to think of man as being without this double attribute. Now, to be sentient is to be capable of receiving identifiable sensations, that is, sensations that are pleasant or painful. Hence well-being and suffering. By the very fact of creating sensibility, God permitted evil or the possibility of evil.

In giving us free will, He has endowed us with the faculty, at least to a certain extent, of avoiding what is evil and seeking after what is good. Free will presupposes intelligence and is associated with it. What good would it be to have the power to choose, if the power to examine, to compare, and to judge were not joined to it? Thus, every man born into the world possesses a motive force and an intellect.

The motive force is that inner, irresistible drive, the very essence of all our energy, which impels us to shun evil and to seek after the good. We call it the instinct of self-preservation, personal interest, or self-interest.

This impulse has sometimes been decried, sometimes misunderstood, but there can be no question as to its existence. We seek indefeasibly everything that to our mind can improve our lot; we avoid everything that is likely to impair it. This fact is at least as certain as that every molecule of matter possesses centripetal and centrifugal force. And even as this double movement of attraction and repulsion is the great motive force of the physical universe, so the double impulse of human attraction toward happiness and human aversion to pain is the great motive force of the social machine.


But it is not enough that man should be irresistibly disposed to prefer good to evil; it is also necessary for him to distinguish between them. And this God has provided for by giving man the complex and marvelous mechanism called intelligence. To direct our attention, to compare, to judge, to reason, to relate cause and effect, to remember, to foresee — such are, if I may so express myself, the moving cogs of this wonderful machine.

The driving force that is in each of us moves at the direction of our intellect. But our intellect is imperfect. It is subject to error. We compare, we judge, we act accordingly; but we can be wrong, make a bad choice, turn toward evil, mistaking it for the good, or we may shun the good, mistaking it for evil. This is the first source of social discord; it is inevitable for the very reason that the mainspring of human nature, self-interest, is not, like attraction in the material world, a blind force, but one guided by an imperfect intellect. Let us therefore clearly realize that we shall find harmony only with this restriction attached to it. God has seen fit to establish the social order, or harmony, not upon the basis of perfection, but upon that of man’s perfectibility. Yes, if our intellect is imperfect, it is also perfectible. It develops, enlarges, corrects its errors; it repeats and verifies its operations; at every instant experience sets it right, and responsibility holds over our heads a whole system of punishments and rewards. Every step that we take toward error plunges us more deeply into suffering, so that the warning signal does not fail to make itself heard, and our decisions, and consequently our acts, are sooner or later inevitably set aright.

Under the impulse that actuates him, man, eager to pursue happiness, quick to seize hold of it, is quite likely to seek his own good in another’s harm. This is a second and fertile source of discordant social relations. But their field is limited; they are inevitably eliminated by the law of solidarity. The activity of one individual thus misdirected provokes the opposition of all other individuals, who, being hostile to evil by their nature, reject injustice and punish it.

The Source of Progress

In this way progress is achieved, and it is nonetheless progress for being dearly bought. It is the result of a natural, universal drive that is innate, directed by an intellect that often errs, and subject to a will that is often perverse. Halted in its course by error and injustice, it surmounts these obstacles with the all-powerful aid of responsibility and solidarity — a help that is ever present, since it stems from the obstacles themselves.

This inner, indestructible, universal motive force that resides in every individual and makes of him an active being, this tendency of every man to seek happiness and to shun misery, this product, this effect, this necessary complement of sensibility, without which the latter would be merely a meaningless burden, this primordial phenomenon which is the origin of all human action, this attracting and repelling force which we have called the mainspring of the social machine, has been disparaged by most social philosophers and political theorists; and this is certainly one of the strangest aberrations to be found in the annals of science.

It is true that self-interest is the cause of all the evils, as well as all the benefits, that can fall to the lot of man. This cannot fail to be the case, since self-interest determines all our actions. Certain political theorists, seeing this, have conceived of no better way to cut off evil at its roots than to stifle self-interest. But, since by this act they would also destroy the very motive force of our activity, they thought it best to endow us with a different motive force: devotion and self-sacrifice. They hoped that henceforth all social transactions and arrangements would be carried out, at their bidding, on the principle of self-abnegation. People are no longer to seek their own good but others’; the admonitions of pain and pleasure are no longer to count for anything, any more than the punishments and rewards of responsibility. All the laws of nature are to be overturned; the spirit of self-sacrifice is to take the place of the instinct of self-preservation; in a word, no one is ever to consider his own personality except to hasten to sacrifice it to the common good. It is from in their own hearts so that it is this complete transformation of the human heart that certain political theorists, who believe themselves to be very religious, expect the coming of perfect social harmony. They forget to tell us how they propose to carry out the indispensable preliminary, the transformation of the human heart.

Let Them Try It

If they are mad enough to undertake it, they will certainly not be strong enough to achieve it. Do they desire the proof? Let them try the experiment on themselves; let them try to stifle self-interest no longer evidenced in the most ordinary acts of their lives. They will not be long in admitting their own inability to do so. How, then, do they presume to impose upon all men, without exception, a doctrine to which they themselves cannot submit?

I confess that it is impossible for me to find anything religious, except in outward appearance and at the very most in intention, in these affected theories, these impracticable maxims, to which their authors give lip service while they continue to act like the common run of humanity. Is it true religion that inspires in these Catholic economists the presumptuous thought that God has done His work badly and that they must set it right? Bossuet¹ was not of this opinion when he said, “Man aspires to happiness; he cannot do otherwise.”

Tirades against self-interest will never have great scientific significance; for by its very nature it is indestructible, or at least it cannot be destroyed within man without destroying man himself. All that religion, morality, and political economy can do is to enlighten us regarding this impulse, to show us not only the immediate but also the ultimate consequences of the acts that it prompts within us. Greater and constantly increasing satisfaction following a momentary sensation of pain; long and constantly aggravated suffering following a momentary pleasure: this, in the last analysis, is moral good and evil. What determines man’s choice in favor of virtue must be his higher, enlightened self-interest, but basically self-interest it will always be.

If it is strange that people have decried self-interest, not only in its immoral abuses, but also as the providential motive force of all human activity, it is even more strange that they have not taken it into account and have felt that they could work in the social sciences without reference to it.

With the unaccountable folly of self-pride, political theorists have, in general, considered themselves the guardians and directors of this motive force. For every one of them the point of departure is always the same: Assuming that humanity is a flock of sheep and that I am the shepherd, how shall I set about making humanity happy? Or else: Given, on the one hand, a certain quantity of clay, and on the other, a potter, what must the potter do to make the best possible use of the clay?

Our political theorists may differ on how to decide who is the best potter, or who can mold the clay most effectively; but they agree on this point, that their function is to mold the human clay, just as it is the role of the clay to be molded by them. They establish between themselves, in their capacity as the lawgivers, and the rest of mankind a relationship analogous to that of guardian and ward. It never occurs to them that man is a living body, feeling, willing, acting in obedience to laws that it is not their province to invent, since these laws already exist, even less to impose, but rather to study. It does not occur to them that mankind is composed of a great host of beings in every way similar to themselves, in no way their inferiors or subject to them; that their fellow men are endowed both with an impulse to act and with intelligence to choose; that in everything men do they are affected by the promptings of responsibility and solidarity; and that, finally, from all these phenomena there results a pattern of already existing relations that it is not the province of the social sciences to create, as these theorists imagine, but to observe.

Rousseau’s Error

Rousseau was, I believe, the political theorist who most naively exhumed from antiquity this idea, which had already been resurrected by the Greeks, of the omnipotence of the lawgiver. Convinced that the social order is a human invention, he compares it to a machine. Men are the cogs; the prince makes it run. The lawgiver invents it at the bidding of the political theorist, who thus, in the last analysis, activates and controls the human race. That is why the political theorist never fails to address the lawgiver in the imperative mood; he orders him to give the orders: “Establish your nation on such and such a principle; give it good manners and customs; make it bow to the authority of religion; orient it toward war or commerce or agriculture or virtue, etc., etc.” The more modest among them hide behind the anonymity of the passive voice. “Idlers will not be tolerated in the republic; the population will be suitably distributed between the cities and the country; steps will be taken so that there will be neither rich nor poor; etc., etc.”

These formulas attest to the inordinate presumption of those who use them. Implicit in them is a conception of man that leaves the human race not one shred of self-respect.

I know of no doctrine more false in theory or more disastrous in practice. On both scores it leads to lamentable consequences.

It gives rise to the view that the social economy is an artificial arrangement that has sprung from the brain of an inventor. Every political theorist, therefore, constitutes himself an inventor forthwith. His greatest desire is to win acceptance for the machine he has invented; his greatest preoccupation is to represent all other proposed social orders as detestable and especially that which springs spontaneously from the nature of man and the nature of things. Books conceived according to this plan are and can be only a long tirade against society.

This false science does not study the concatenation of cause and effect. It does not investigate the good and the evil that acts produce, leaving it afterwards to the motive force of society to select the course to be followed. No, it enjoins, it restrains, it imposes, and if it does not have the power to do these things, at least it gives advice; like a physicist who would say to a stone, “There is nothing to hold you up; therefore I order you to fall, or at least I advise you to fall.” It is on this principle that M. Droz2 has said, “The aim of political economy is to make prosperity as general as possible”; a definition very favorably received by the socialists because it opens the door to every utopian scheme and leads to regimentation. What would people think of M. Arago3 if he began his course of lectures in this fashion: “The aim of astronomy is to make gravitation as general as possible”? It is true that men are animate beings, endowed with will power and enjoying freedom of choice. But there is also a kind of inner force in them, a kind of gravitation; the question is to know toward what they gravitate. If it is inevitably toward evil, then there is no remedy, and certainly none will come from the political theorist, who as a man is subject to the same unfortunate tendency as the rest of mankind. If it is toward the good, the motive force is ready made; science has no need of replacing it with coercion or advice. Its role is to enlighten men’s free will, to show the relation between cause and effect, confident under the influence of truth, “prosperity tends to become as general as possible.”

A Crushing Responsibility

In practice, the doctrine that places the motive force of society, not in all mankind and in the nature of man, but in lawgivers and in governments, has even more unfortunate consequences. It tends to weigh down the government with a crushing responsibility that does not belong to it. If there is suffering, it is the fault of the government; if there is poverty, the government is to blame. For is not the government the universal motive force? If this motive force is not good, we must destroy it and choose another. Or else the blame is placed on political economy itself, and in recent times we have heard it repeated ad nauseam: “All the suffering of society can be attributed to political economy.”4 Why not, when it is presented as having for its goal the securing of men’s happiness without any effort on their part? When such ideas are current, the last thing that occurs to men is to turn their gaze upon themselves, and to see whether the real cause of their woes is not their own ignorance and injustice — their ignorance, which exposes them to the law of responsibility; their injustice, which brings down upon them the action of the law of solidarity. How could men dream of blaming themselves for their woes when they have been persuaded that by nature they are inert, that the source of all action, and consequently of all responsibility, lies outside themselves, in the will of the sovereign and of the lawgiver?

If I had to point out the characteristic trait that differentiates socialism from the science of economics, I should find it here. Socialism includes a countless number of sects. Each one has its own utopia, and we may well say that they are so far from agreement that they wage bitter war upon one another. Between M. Blanc’s organized social workshops and M. Proudhon’s anarchy, between Fourier’s association and M. Cabet’s communism, there is certainly all the difference between night and day. What, then, is the common denominator to which all forms of socialism are reducible, and what is the bond that unites them against natural society, or society as planned by Providence? There is none except this: They do not want natural society.

What they do want is an artificial society, which has come forth full-grown from the brain of its inventor. It is true that each one desires to play Jupiter to this Minerva; it is true that each one fondly caresses his own invention and dreams of his own social order. But what they have in common is their refusal to recognize in mankind either the motive force that impels men toward the good or the self-healing power that delivers them from evil. They quarrel over who will mold the human clay, but they agree that there is human clay to mold. Mankind is not in their eyes a living and harmonious being endowed by God Himself with the power to progress and to survive, but an inert mass that has been waiting for them to give it feeling and life; human nature is not a subject to be studied, but matter on which to perform experiments.

The Economic Approach

Political economy, on the contrary, after first establishing the fact that within every man are the forces of impulsion and repulsion that together constitute the motive power of society, after making certain that this motive force tends toward what is good, does not propose to destroy it and to replace it with another of its own creation. Political economy studies the highly varied and complex social phenomena to which this motive force gives rise.

Does this mean that political economy has no more to do with social progress than the study of astronomy has to do with the actual movement of the heavenly bodies? Certainly not. Political economy deals with beings who possess intelligence and free will and as such — let us never forget — are subject to error. Their tendency is toward the good; but they can be mistaken. The utilitarian function of science, therefore, is not to create causes and effects, not to change man’s natural bent, not to foist upon him social orders, injunctions, or even advice, but to show him the good and the evil that results from his own decisions.

Thus, political economy is a science concerned exclusively with the observation and description of phenomena. It does not say to men: “I urge you, I advise you, not to get too close to the fire”; or: “I have thought up a social order; the gods have inspired me to create institutions that will keep you far enough away from the fire.” No; political economy notes that fire burns, announces the fact, proves it, and does the same for all similar phenomena of the moral or economic order, convinced that this is all that is necessary. It assumes that an unwillingness to be burned to death is a basic, innate attitude that it did not create and that it cannot alter.

Differences by which Men Grow

Political economists cannot always be in agreement, but it is easy to see that their differences are of quite another kind from those that divide the socialists. Two men who devote themselves to observing the same phenomenon and its effects, like rent, for example, or exchange or competition, may not arrive at the same conclusion; but this proves nothing except that one of the two, at least, has observed badly. The work will have to be done over. With the help of other investigators the chances are that the truth will finally be discovered. That is why — provided only that every economist, like every astronomer, keeps himself informed on the advances his predecessors have made — this science cannot fail to contribute to progress and consequently to be ever more useful, constantly correcting past errors in observation, and continually adding new observations to those already made.

But the socialists — isolating themselves from one another, so that they may concoct, each one on his own, artificial contrivances out of their own imaginations —could go on pursuing their investigations in this way through all eternity without ever coming to an agreement and without one man’s work ever in any way helping another’s. Say profited from Smith’s investigations; Rossi, from Say’s; Blanqui and Joseph Gamier, from those of all their predecessors. But Plato, Sir Thomas More, Harrington,5 Fénelon, Fourier may revel to their heart’s delight in drawing up their Republics, their Utopias, their Oceanas, their Salentes, their Phalansteries, without there ever being any connection between any one of these flights of fancy and the others. These dreamers draw it all, men and things alike, out of their own heads. They dream up a social order not connected with the human heart; then they invent a new human heart to go with their social order…

  • Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) was the great French liberal economist, philosopher, polemicists, and journalist.