All Commentary
Thursday, April 1, 1965

The State

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was an economist, statesman, and author during a period when France was drifting rapidly toward socialism. His clear description of that trend and its evil conse­quences, written in 1849, merits serious consideration in the United States of America today.

Frederic Bastiat

I wish someone would offer a prize—not of a hundred francs but of a million, with crowns, medals, and ribbons—for a good, simple, intelligible definition of the term, The State.

What an immense service such a definition would render to society!

The State! What is it? Where is it? What does it do? What should it do? We only know that it is a mysterious being; and, it is certainly the most petitioned, the most harassed, the most bus­tling, the most advised, the most reproached, the most invoked, and the most challenged of any being in the world.

Translated and condensed by Mallory Cross, formerly of the Foundation staff, from “L’Etat” in Sophismes Economiques, Volume I. Paris: Guillaumin, 1878. See also Miss Cross’s article on page 56 of this issue.

I have not the honor of knowing my reader, but I would stake ten to one that sometime in the last six months you have designed Uto­pias, and if so, that you are look­ing to The State for the realiza­tion of them.

But alas! That poor unfortunate being, like Figaro, knows not which plea to hear nor where to turn. The hundred thousand mouths of the press and of the platform cry out all at once—

Organize work and the workmen. Cover the country with railways. Irrigate the plains.

Reforest the hills.

Establish model farms.

Colonize Algeria.

Educate the youth.

Assist the aged.

Equalize the profits of all trades.

Lend money without interest to all who wish to borrow.

Emancipate Italy, Poland, and Hungary.

Encourage the arts, and train mu­sicians and dancers for us.

Restrict commerce, and at the same time create a merchant marine.

Discover truth, and put a bit of sense into our heads. The mission of The State is to enlighten, to develop, to ennoble, to strengthen, and to sanctify the soul of the people.

“Wait, Gentlemen! A little pa­tience,” says The State beseech­ingly. “I will try to satisfy you, but for that I must have some re­sources. I have prepared plans for five or six entirely new taxes, the mildest in the world. You will see how gladly people will pay them.”

But then a great hue and cry arises: “No! No! A fine thing—doing something with resources! This is hardly worthy of The State! Instead of loading us with new taxes, we call upon you to re­peal the old ones. Decrease the salt tax, the liquor tax, the stamp tax, customhouse duties, monopoly li­cense fees, and tolls.”

In the midst of this tumult, the people have changed their govern­ment two or three times for fail­ing to satisfy all their demands. To date, everything presenting it­self under the name of The State is soon overthrown by the people, precisely because it fails to fulfill the somewhat contradictory fea­tures of its platform.

I fear we are, in this respect, the dupes of one of the strangest illusions which has ever taken possession of the human mind.

The Origin of Plunder

Man recoils from effort, from suffering. Yet, he is condemned by nature to the suffering of pri­vation if he does not make the effort to work. He has only a choice then, between these two: privation, and work. How can he manage to avoid both? He always has and always will find, only one means: to enjoy the labor of others; to arrange it so that the effort and the satisfaction do not fall upon each in their natural proportion, but that some would bear all the effort while all the satisfaction would go to others. This is the origin of slavery and plunder, whatever form it takes—whether wars, impositions, vi­olences, restrictions, frauds, etc., monstrous abuses, but in accord with the idea which has given them birth.

Slavery is subsiding, thank heaven, and our disposition to de­fend our property prevents direct and open plunder from being easy. However, there remains the un­fortunate, primitive inclination in all men to divide the lot of life into two parts, throwing the trouble upon others and keeping the satis­faction for themselves. Let us ex­amine a current manifestation of this sad tendency.

The Intermediary

The oppressor no longer uses his own force directly upon his victim. No, our conscience has be­come too sensitive for that. There is still the tyrant and his victim, but between them is an intermedi­ary which is The State—the Law itself. What could be better de­signed to silence our scruples and—more important—to overcome all resistance? Thus do all of us, by various claims and under one pretext or another, appeal to The State:

“I am dissatisfied with the ratio between my labor and my pleas­ures. In order to establish the de­sired balance, I should like to take part of the possessions of others. But that is a dangerous thing. Couldn’t you facilitate it for me? Couldn’t you give me a good post? Or restrain my competitors’ busi­ness? Or perhaps lend me some in­terest-free capital, which you will have taken from its rightful own­ers? Or bring up my children at the taxpayers’ expense? Or grant me a subsidy? Or assure me a pen­sion when I reach my fiftieth year? By this means I shall achieve my goal with an easy con­science, for the law will have acted for me. Thus I shall have all the advantages of plunder, without the risk or the disgrace!”

All of us are petitioning The State in this manner, yet it has been proven that The State has no means of granting privileges to some without adding to the labor of others.

The State is the great fiction through which everybody endeav­ors to live at the expense of every­body.

Today, as in the past, nearly everyone would like to profit by the labor of others. No one dares admit such a feeling; he even hides it from himself. So what does he do? He imagines an in­termediary; he appeals to The State, and every class in its turn comes and says to it: “You, who can do so justifiably and honestly, take from the public; and we will partake of the proceeds.”

Alas! The State is only too much disposed to follow this dia­bolical advice; for it is composed of ministers and officials—of men, in short—who, like all other men, desire in their hearts and eagerly seize every opportunity to increase their wealth and influence. The State quickly perceives the advan­tages it can derive from the role entrusted to it by the public. It will be the judge, the master of the destinies of all. It will take a lot: then much will remain for it­self. It will multiply the number of its agents, and increase its functions, until it finally acquires crushing proportions.

The Great Illusion

But the most remarkable thing is the astonishing blindness of the public while all this takes place. In the past, when victorious sol­diers reduced the vanquished to slavery they were barbarous, but they were not foolish. Their ob­ject, like ours, was to live at the expense of others; but they suc­ceeded, where we fail. What are we to think of a people who never seem to realize that reciprocal plunder is no less plunder because it is reciprocal; that it is no less criminal, because it is carried out legally and peacefully; that it adds nothing to the public good, but rather diminishes it by the amount of the cost of that ex­pensive intermediary we call The State?

And this great illusion we have placed, for the edification of the people, as a frontispiece to the Constitution. Here are the first words of the preamble:

France has constituted itself a Republic to… raise all the citizens to an ever-increasing degree of morality, enlightenment, and well-being.”

Thus it is France—an abstrac­tion—which is to raise the French—or realities—to morality, well­being, and so on. Isn’t it our blind attachment to this strange delusion that leads us to expect everything from a power not our own? Isn’t it suggesting that there is, apart from the French people, a virtuous, enlightened, rich being who can and should bestow its favors upon them?

The American Ideal

The Americans develop a dif­ferent idea of the relationship of the citizens with The State, when they placed these simple words at the beginning of their Constitu­tion:

“We, the people of the United States, in order to form a more perfect Union, establish Justice, insure domestic Tranquility, pro­vide for the common defence, pro­mote the general Welfare, and se­cure the Blessings of Liberty to ourselves and our Posterity, do ordain….”

Here is no shadowy creation, no abstraction, from which the citi­zens may demand everything. They expect nothing except from themselves and their own energy.

I contend that the personifica­tion of The State has been in the past and will be in the future, a fertile source of calamities and revolutions. There is the public on one side, The State on the other, considered as two distinct beings; the latter obligated to bestow upon the former, the former hav­ing the right to claim from the latter a flood of human benefits. What must happen?

The State has two hands, one for receiving and the other for giving—a rough hand and a smooth one. The activity of the second is necessarily subordinate to the activity of the first. Strictly speaking, The State can take and not give back. This can be seen and can be explained by the porous, absorbing nature of its hands, which always retain part and sometimes all of what it touches.

But that which is never seen, which never will be seen, and which cannot even be imagined, is that The State can return more to the people than it has taken from them. Therefore it is ridic­ulous for us to appear before The State in the humble attitude of beggars. It is utterly impossible for it to confer a specific benefit upon some of the individuals who make up the community, without inflicting a greater injury upon the community as a whole.

A Great Dilemma: Many Benefits and No Taxes

Our demands, therefore, place The State in an obvious dilemma! If it refuses to grant the request­ed benefit, it is accused of weak­ness, and incapacity. If it tries to grant their requests, it is obliged to load the people with in­creased taxes—to do more harm than good—and to bring upon it­self general displeasure from an­other quarter.

So, the public has two hopes, and The State makes two prom­ises: many benefits and no taxes—hopes and promises, which, being contradictory, can never be real­ized.

Is not this the cause of all our revolutions? For between The State, which lavishly promises the impossible, and the public, whose hopes can never be realized, there come to interpose two types of men: the ambitious and the Uto­pians. The circumstances give them their cue. These office seekers need only cry out to the people: “The authorities are deceiving you. If we were in their place, we would load you with benefits and exempt you from taxes.”

And the people believe, and the people hope, and the people substi­tute a new government for the old.

No sooner are their friends in charge of things, than they are called upon to redeem their pledge. “Give us work, bread, assistance, credit, instruction, colonies,” say the people, “and meanwhile deliver us, as you promised, from the clutches of the tax gatherer.”

The Problem Persists

The new government is no less embarrassed than the former one, for it is easier to promise the im­possible than to do it. It tries to gain time which it needs for ma­turing its vast projects. First it makes a few timid attempts: On one hand, it slightly expands pri­mary education; on the other, it makes a small reduction in the liquor tax. But the contradiction always confronts the administra­tion: If it would be philanthropic, it must attend to its treasury; if it neglects the treasury, it must give up being philanthropic.

These two promises are always and inevitably clashing with one another. To live upon credit, that is, to exhaust the future, is cer­tainly a temporary method of rec­onciling them—an attempt to do a little good now, at the expense of a great deal of harm in the fu­ture. But this procedure calls forth the specter of bankruptcy, which puts an end to credit. What is to be done then? Why then, the new government defends itself boldly. It unites its forces to maintain it­self: It smothers opinion, has re­course to arbitrary measures, ridi­cules its former slogans, declares that it is impossible to govern ex­cept at the risk of being unpopu­lar; in short, it proclaims itself governmental.

And this is what other candi­dates for office are waiting for. They exploit the same illusion, fol­low the same course, obtain the same success, and are soon swal­lowed up in the same abyss.

The Great Society!

The latest manifesto of the Montagnards, which they issued at the time of the presidential elec­tion, concludes with these words:

—”The State ought to give a great deal to the people, and take little from them.” It is always the same tactics, or rather, the same mis­take. The State must:

Give free instruction and educa­tion to all the citizens.

Give a general and professional education, as much as possible adapted to the needs, talents, and capacities of each citizen.

Teach every citizen his duty to God, to man, and to himself; develop his perceptions, his aptitudes, and his faculties; teach him, in short, the skill of his trade; make him un­derstand his own interests, and give him a knowledge of his rights.

Place within the reach of all lit­erature and the arts, the heritage of thought, the treasures of the mind, and all those intellectual possessions which elevate and strengthen the soul.

Give compensation for every dis­aster, fire, flood, etc., experienced by a citizen. (The et cetera means more than it says.)

Act as mediator in the relations between capital and labor, and be­come the regulator of credit.

Give substantial encouragement and effectual support to agriculture.

Purchase railroads, canals, and mines—and doubtless administer them with its characteristic indus­trial ability!

Encourage useful experiments, promote and assist them by every means likely to make them success­ful. As a regulator of credit, it will have extensive control over indus­trial and agricultural associations in order to assure their success.

The State must do all this, in addition to the services to which it is already pledged! For instance, it is always to maintain a menac­ing attitude towards foreigners. The signers of the manifesto say that: “Bound together by this holy union, and by the precedents of the French Republic, we carry our wishes and hopes beyond the bar­riers which despotism has raised between nations. The rights which we desire for ourselves, we desire for all those who are oppressed by the yoke of tyranny; we desire that our glorious army should, if necessary, again be the army of liberty.”

You see that the gentle hand of The State—that good hand which gives and distributes—will be very busy under the direction of these reformers. You think per­haps it will be the same with thorough hand—that hand which penetrates and takes from our pockets?

Political Promises

Do not deceive yourselves. The politicians would not know their trade, if they had not the art, when showing the gentle hand, to conceal the rough one. Their reign will assuredly be the jubilee of the taxpayers!

“It is luxuries, not necessaries,” they say, “which ought to be taxed.”

Won’t it be wonderful that the treasury, in overwhelming us with favors, will content itself with curtailing our luxuries!

This is not all. This party of re­formers intends that “taxation shall lose its oppressive character, and be only an act of brother­hood.” Good heavens! I know it is the fashion to thrust brotherhood in everywhere, but I did not im­agine it would ever be put into the proclamations of the tax gatherer.

Well, I ask the impartial reader, is this not childishness, and more than that, dangerous childishness? Is it not inevitable that we shall have revolution after revolution, if it is once decided never to stop till this contradiction is realized: “Give nothing to The State and receive much from it”?

Citizens! At all times, two political systems have been in existence, and each can justify itself with good reasons. According to one of them, The State should do a lot, but then it should take a lot. Ac­cording to the other, this twofold activity ought to be limited. We have to choose between these two systems.

But the third system, which partakes of both the others, and consists in exacting everything from The State without giving it anything, is chimerical, absurd, childish, contradictory, and dan­gerous. Those who advocate such a system are only flattering and deceiving you, or at least are de­ceiving themselves.

As for us, we consider that The State is and ought to be nothing whatever but community force or­ganized, not to be an instrument of oppression and mutual plunder among citizens, but, on the con­trary, to guarantee to each his own, and to cause justice and se­curity to reign.

Reprints available, 10 cents each.



Government’s First Duty

Such a lawless seizure of property no government worthy of the name will tolerate or condone…. When any individual or organization under whatsoever name attempts to use force to gain his or its ends, they are attempting to usurp governmental functions. This attempt unless promptly and effectively re­strained by legally constituted authority leads to lawlessness, disorder, and anarchy, which is the very negation of all gov­ernment. The law cannot temporize with lawlessness. The first duty of government is to govern, that is, to maintain law and order at all hazards and regardless of expense; only by doing this does it fulfill its legitimate function, which is the protec­tion of life, liberty, and property.

Chief Justice Maxey, Supreme Court of Pennsylvania
Carnegie Illinois Steel Corp. vs. United Steelworkers
America. [353 Pa. 420, 45 A. ²d 857 (1946)]

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