All Commentary
Wednesday, June 1, 1988

Touchstone of Truth

Carl Helstrom is a member of the staff of The Foundation for Economic Education.

Frederic Bastiat wrote a book called Economic Harmonies because he thought that the basic principles of economics were intellectual guides that all men could follow to work together and improve their material and moral condition. All of Bastiat’s writings are concerned with these simple axioms and their explication. In a preface to Economic Harmonies he wrote, “The central idea of this work, the harmony of men’s interests, is a simple one. And is not simplicity the touchstone of truth?”

This is the beauty of the deductive maxims that men live by. They are elementary, yet they are “touchstones” for discerning truth from falsehood, right from wrong, good from bad, and correct from incorrect, within the realm of human action. Like the stone that tests the purity of gold and silver, a deductive theorem is a sure test to determine the value of an idea.

There are many such axioms. The Golden Rule, for example: Do unto others as you would have them do unto you. The Silver Rule of Immanuel Kant: Act only on that maxim through which you can at the same time will that it should become a universal law. Leonard Read’s motto: No man-concocted restraints on the release of creative human energy. Most people have their own short credo or proverb that is really only a simple idea, but which, for them, constitutes the test for all theft personal decisions.

Bastiat believed that adherence to the principles of economics would civilize men so that little coercion by governmental force would be needed to check the occurrence of ill-doing and to protect the integrity and property of right-acting people. For Bastiat, it was freely enterprising private citizens, and not government officials, who were the mainstay of civilization. Living by the simple truths of economics would promote moral behavior and increase the standard of wealth, without encumbrance by a patronizing bureaucracy, whether well-meaning or not.

Yet Frederic Bastiat’s ultimate touchstone was his belief in freedom. Economic laws, or “laws of Providence” as he called them, were ancillary, for “If the laws of Providence are harmonious, they can be so only when they operate under conditions of freedom, for otherwise harmony is lacking. Therefore, when we perceive something inharmonious in the world, it cannot fail to correspond to some lack of freedom or justice . . . . we must not lose sight of the fact that the state always acts through the instrumentality of force. Both the services it renders us and those it makes us render in return are imposed upon us in the form of taxes.”

A free society is a just society because men will live by the basic principles that govern human conduct in a world of scarcity—the principles of economics. Some will work because they have to eat, and because doing so will improve their material wealth. Others will labor because they believe that work is in keeping with higher ideals. But, all of them will work as harmoniously as possible because, in a free society, people own what they earn and are secure in the knowledge that a force exists to protect their earnings. No one, not even this potential force, can take their property. This is the touchstone of a free person: Is it mine? Did I earn it? Only in a truly free society can you ask yourself these questions.

Like Frederic Bastiat, I fear the potentially harmful government more than the potentially harmful criminal. The government gone awry is shielded by the guise of officialdom, but the man who commits a crime is guilty before all society. A government has the ability to force circumstances upon me that are coercive and detrimental to my principles, but the criminal has at most only temporary, terroristic control over me. When I am reasonably sure that my life and property will be protected from attack or confiscation, and that I have recourse in the event of wrongdoing, then I will be content with the role of government.

I, too, have adopted the ideas of freedom in a free society, acting in accordance with economic principles. I try to make all my decisions according to the axioms I have learned in the study of freedom. Each day I marvel at the verity of these tests, whether I am analyzing economic, moral, or social issues, and I second the teachings of Bastiat. Simplicity, indeed, is the touchstone of truth. []

Frederic Bastiat

“He alone fought socialism hand to hand, body to body, as it were, not caricaturing it, not denouncing it, not critizing under its name some merely abstract theory, but taking it as actually presented by its most popular representatives, considering patiently their proposals and arguments, and proving conclusively that they proceeded on false principles, reasoned badly and sought to realize generous aims by foolish and harmful means. Nowhere will reason find a richer armoury of weapons available against socialism than in the pamphlets published by Bastiat between 1848 and 1850.”

—The Encyclopaedia Britannica,

Eleventh Edition (1910)

  • Carl Helstrom is the current Chairman of State Policy Network. He is Executive Director of The JM Foundation and the Milbank Foundation for Rehabilitation in Princeton, New Jersey. A graduate of Grove City College (Grove City, PA), he worked with free enterprise education and research organizations for more than ten years before becoming a consultant to several private foundations and joining JM and Milbank in 1997.

    Carl is also a Trustee of the A. P. Kirby Jr. Foundation in Mendham, NJ and a Director of The Roe Foundation of Greenville, SC. He and his wife, Jane, have three sons.