All Commentary
Thursday, June 1, 2000


Plunder by Way of War Is Rooted in Man's Nature

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, free-trade activist, and member of the French legislature after the Revolution of 1848. This is a chapter from his treatise, Economic Harmonies, translated by W. Hayden Boyers, which along with his other works is available from FEE.

Among all the circumstances that have some part in giving to a people its distinctive features, its moral tone, its character, its habits, laws, and peculiar spirit, the one that overshadows all others, because it includes virtually all of them, is its manner of providing its means of existence. We owe this observation to Charles Comte,[1] and it is surprising that it has not had greater influence on the social and political sciences.

In fact, this circumstance affects the human race in two equally powerful ways: by being a constant concern, and by being the concern of everyone. Earning a living, supporting oneself, improving one’s condition, raising a family–these are not matters of taste, opinion, or choice, involving one time or one locality only; these are the daily, lifelong, inescapable preoccupations of all men at all times and in all places.

Everywhere the major part of men’s physical, intellectual, and moral forces is devoted directly or indirectly to creating and replenishing their means of subsistence. The hunter, the fisherman, the sheep raiser, the farmer, the manufacturer, the businessman, the laborer, the artisan, the capitalist, all think, first of all, in terms of keeping soul and body together (however prosaic this admission may be) and, secondly, of living better and better, if possible. That this is so is proved by the fact that it is for no other reason that they are hunters, manufacturers, farmers, etc. Similarly, the civil servant, the soldier, the magistrate enter upon these careers only in order to ensure the satisfaction of their wants. Nor should we hold it against the man who follows a vocation calling for disinterestedness and self-sacrifice if he, too, invokes the proverb: To the priest the altar is a livelihood; for before he became a priest, he was a man. And if at this very moment such an individual is writing a book against the vulgarity of this observation of mine, or rather against the vulgarity of the human condition, the sale of his book will argue against his own thesis.

God forbid that I should deny the existence of self-sacrifice. But it will be admitted that examples of it are exceptional, and this is what makes them meritorious and worthy of our admiration. For, if we consider mankind as a whole, unless we have made a pact with the demon of sentimentality, we must admit that disinterested acts cannot be compared, numerically speaking, with those that are dictated by the hard necessities of our nature. And it is because these acts, which make up the sum total of our labors, occupy so large a part of the lives of each one of us, that they cannot fail to influence greatly the phenomena of our national life.

Saint-Marc Girardin and Rousseau

M. Saint-Marc Girardin[2] says somewhere that he came to realize that political forms are relatively unimportant compared with the great general laws that are imposed upon people by their wants and by the labor they do. “Do you desire to know what any nation really is?” he asked. “Ask not how it is governed, but what it does for a living.”

As a general judgment this is correct. But the author soon gives it a false sense by turning it into a system. The importance of political forms has been exaggerated; so what does he do? He reduces it to nothing, he denies it completely, or he recognizes its existence only to laugh at it. Political forms, he says, interest us only on election day or during the hour we set aside for reading the newspaper. Monarchy or republic, aristocracy or democracy, what difference does it make? And so we must look at the conclusion he reaches. Maintaining that young nations resemble one another, regardless of their political organization, he likens the United States to ancient Egypt, because both have carried out enterprises of gigantic proportions. But I protest. When the Americans clear vast tracts of land, dig canals, build railroads, they do it all for themselves, because they are a democracy and are their own masters [The Egyptians erected temples, pyramids, obelisks, and palaces for their kings and their priests, because they were slaves! And this is only a slight difference, a mere matter of form, hardly worth noticing, or, if we do notice it, deserving only to be laughed at! Oh, the deadly contagion of the veneration for things classic! How it corrupts its superstitious devotees!

Soon after, M. Saint-Marc Girardin, still pursuing the same point, that the principal occupations of a people determine its national character, goes on to say: In the past, nations concerned themselves with war and religion; today, their chief preoccupation is with commerce and industry. For this reason the generations that preceded us had a warlike and religious character.

Rousseau had earlier declared that concern with one’s mere existence was the dominant interest of only a few nations, and those of a most unimaginative kind; that other nations, more worthy of the name, had devoted themselves to nobler pursuits.

Were not M. Saint-Marc Girardin and Rousseau perhaps the victims of one of the illusions of history? May they not have mistaken the amusements and the diversions, that is, the devices and instruments of despotism, in which some of the citizens indulged, for the occupations of the entire nation? And may not this illusion be due to the fact that historians are always talking about the class that does not work and never about the classes that do, so that eventually we come to identify the entire nation with the leisure class?

Cultivating Force and Fraud

I cannot help thinking that among the Greeks, as among the Romans and in the Middle Ages, men were just as they are today, that is, subject to wants so strong, so recurrent, that it was necessary to provide for them on pain of death. Therefore, I cannot help concluding, that then, as now, these wants were the chief and most absorbing preoccupation of the great majority of the human race.

What does appear certain is that a very small number of men managed to live without working, supported by the labor of the oppressed masses. This small leisured group made their slaves construct sumptuous palaces, vast castles, or somber fortresses. They loved to surround themselves with all the sensuous pleasures of life and with all the monuments of art. They delighted in discoursing on philosophy and cosmogony; and, above all, they carefully cultivated the two sciences to which they owed their supremacy and their enjoyments: the science of force and the science of fraud.

For beneath this aristocracy were the countless multitudes occupied in creating, for themselves, the means of sustaining life and, for their oppressors, the means of surfeiting them with pleasures. Since the historians never make the slightest mention of these multitudes, we forget their existence; they do not count for us at all. We have eyes only for the aristocracy. It is this class that we call ancient society or feudal society. We imagine that such societies were self-sustaining, that they never had recourse to anything so mundane as commerce, industry, or labor; we admire their unselfishness, their generosity, their love of the arts, their spiritual qualities, their disdain for servile occupations, their lofty thoughts and sentiments; we declare, with a certain quaver in the voice, that at one time the nations cared only for glory, at another only for the arts, at another only for philosophy, at another only for religion, at another only for virtue; we very sincerely weep over our own sorry state; we speak of our age with sarcasm because, unable to rise to the sublime heights attained by such paragons, we are reduced to according to labor and to all the prosaic virtues associated with it so important a place in our modern life.

Let us console ourselves with the thought that it played a no less important role in ancient life. The only difference was that the labor that a few men had managed to escape fell crushingly on the oppressed masses, to the great detriment of justice, liberty, property, wealth, equality, and progress; and this is the first of the disturbing factors to which I must call the reader’s attention.

Securing the Means of Existence

The ways by which men provide their means of existence cannot fail to exert a great influence on their physical, moral, intellectual, economic, and political condition.

If we could observe a number of primitive tribes, one of which had devoted itself exclusively to hunting, another to fishing, a third to agriculture, and a fourth to navigation, who could doubt that these tribes would present considerable differences in their ideas, opinions, habits, customs, manners, laws, and religion? No doubt we should find human nature basically the same everywhere. Therefore, their laws, habits, and religions would have many points in common, which, I believe, could well be called the general laws of human society.

However, in our great modern societies all or nearly all the processes of production—fishing, agriculture, industry, commerce, the sciences, and the arts—are at work simultaneously, although in varying proportions in different countries. For this reason the differences among nations are not and cannot be as great as they would be if each nation devoted itself exclusively to one occupation.

But if the nature of a people’s occupations greatly influences its morality, it is also true that its desires, its tastes, and its morality exert in their turn a great influence on the nature of its occupations, or at least on their relative importance. I shall not add anything more to this observation, which has already been presented elsewhere in this work, and thus I reach the main subject of this chapter.

A man (and the same may be said of a people) can secure the means of existence in two ways: by creating them or by stealing them.

Each of these two main means of procurement includes a variety of procedures.

We can create means of existence by hunting, fishing, farming, etc.

We can steal them by bad faith, violence, force, fraud, war, etc.

If, remaining within the limits of either one of these two main categories, we observe that the predominance of one or another of the procedures appropriate to it is sufficient to give rise to considerable differences among the nations, how much greater must not this difference be between a people that lives by producing and a people that lives by plundering!

For there is not one of our faculties, of whatever order, that is not called into use by our need to provide for our existence; and what can we conceive of that is more likely to modify the social condition of a nation than that which modifies all the human faculties?

This consideration, in spite of its importance, has received so little attention that I must pause to comment on it for a moment.

In order for man to obtain a satisfaction, he must have performed a certain amount of labor; hence, it follows that plunder, in all its varieties, far from excluding the act of production, presupposes it.

And this thought, it seems to me, is such as to moderate somewhat the infatuation of the historians, the poets, and the novelists for those heroic ages past when, according to them, what they call industrialism did not yet dominate society. In those days, as in our own, people had to live; then, as now, labor performed its hard task. But some nations, some classes, some individuals had succeeded in loading off onto other nations, other classes, other individuals, their portion of the general toil and drudgery.

Production or Plunder

The characteristic feature of production is, so to speak, to create out of nothing the satisfactions that sustain and beautify life, so that an individual or a people is enabled to multiply these satisfactions indefinitely without inflicting privation of any kind on other men or other peoples; quite the contrary: for careful study of the economic mechanism of a free society has shown us that the success of one man in his work improves the chances of success for others in their work.

The characteristic feature of plunder is its inability to provide any satisfaction without a corresponding privation, for it does not create; it diverts to its own ends what has already been created by the labor of others. It entails the absolute loss of all the effort it itself costs the two parties concerned. Far from adding to the enjoyments of mankind, it decreases them, and, moreover, it allots them to those who have not deserved them.

In order to produce, we must direct all our faculties toward the conquest of Nature; for it is Nature that must be fought, mastered, and subjugated. That is why iron beaten into a plowshare is the emblem of production.

In order to plunder, we must direct all our faculties toward the conquest of men; for they are the ones we must fight, kill, or enslave. That is why iron beaten into a sword is the emblem of plunder.

As great as is the difference between the plowshare that feeds and the sword that kills, so great must be the difference between a nation of workers and a nation of plunderers. It is not possible for there to be any common ground between these two. They cannot have the same ideas, the same standards, the same tastes, the same character, the same customs, the same laws, the same morality, or the same religion.

And surely one of the saddest sights that can present itself to anyone who loves mankind is that of a productive age bending all its efforts to infect itself—by way of education—with the thoughts, the sentiments, the errors, the prejudices, and the vices of a nation of plunderers. Our age is often accused of a lack of consistency, of a failure to show any correlation between the ideals it professes and the way of life it pursues. The criticism is just, and I believe that I have here indicated the principal reason why this situation prevails.

Plunder by War

Plunder by way of war, that is, rudimentary plunder, simple and undisguised, has its roots in the human heart, in man’s nature, in the universal motive force that actuates the social world—his attraction toward satisfactions and his aversion to pain; in a word, in that motivating force that we all have within us: self-interest.

And I am not distressed at now being the one to indict self-interest. Until now the reader may well have believed that my veneration of this principle amounted to idolatry, that I attributed to it only happy consequences for humanity, perhaps that I even placed it above altruism, devotion, self-sacrifice. No, I have not passed any judgment on it; I have merely noted that it exists and that it is all-powerful. I should poorly appreciate its all-powerful nature and I should be guilty of contradicting myself in calling self-interest the universal motive force of mankind, if I did not now point it out as a source of discord, just as I previously indicated that it was the source of the laws that govern the harmony of the social order.

Man, as we have said, strives irresistibly to assure his own preservation, to improve his lot, and to attain, or at least to come as near as possible to attaining, happiness as he conceives it. For the same reason he shuns pain and suffering.

Now, labor, the operation that he must perform upon Nature in order to produce anything, is itself pain and drudgery. For this reason he is averse to labor and resigns himself to it only when it is the means of avoiding an even greater evil. Taking the philosophical point of view, there are those who say that labor is a boon. They are right if we consider its results. Relatively speaking, it is a boon; in other words, it is an evil that spares us greater evils. And that is precisely why men have such a great tendency to avoid labor, when, without recourse to it, they believe they can reap its rewards.

Others say that labor is in itself a boon; that apart from the results it brings in terms of production, it strengthens man morally and physically and is a source of happiness and health. All this is very true, and reveals once again the marvelous fecundity of God’s providential design so abundantly evident in all His handiwork. Yes, even apart from its results in terms of production, labor promises man, as its supplementary rewards, strength of body and joy of soul; and since we have said that idleness is the mother of all vices, we must also recognize that labor is the father of many virtues.

But while all this is very true, it in no way changes the natural and irresistible bent of the human heart nor the attitude that causes us not to seek work for its own sake. We always compare our labor with its results. We do not devote more effort to a given task if we can accomplish it with less; nor, when confronted with two toilsome tasks, do we choose the greater. We are more inclined to diminish the ratio of effort to result, and if, in so doing, we gain a little leisure, nothing will stop us from using it, for the sake of additional benefits, in enterprises more in keeping with our tastes.

The Roots of War

Man’s universal practice, indeed, is conclusive in this regard. Always and everywhere, we find that he looks upon toil as the disagreeable aspect, and on satisfaction as the compensatory aspect, of his condition. Always and everywhere, we find that, as far as he is able, he places the burden of his toil upon animals, the wind, steam, or other forces of Nature, or, alas! upon his fellow men, if he can gain mastery over them. In this last case, let me repeat, for it is too often forgotten, the labor has not been lessened; it has merely been shifted to other shoulders.[3]

Man, thus confronted with a choice of pains, the pains of want and the pains of toil, and driven by self- interest, seeks a means of avoiding them both in so far as possible. And it is then that plunder presents itself as the solution to his problem. He says to himself: It is true that I have no means of procuring the things necessary for my preservation and my enjoyment—food, clothing, and shelter—unless these things have previously been produced by labor. But they need not necessarily be produced by my labor. They need only have been produced by someone, provided I am the stronger.

Such is the origin of war.

I shall not dwell long on the consequences.

When things come to this pass, when one man or one nation labors while another man or another nation lies in wait, ready to spring and to seize the fruits when the labor is completed, the reader can appreciate at a glance what a loss of human energy is entailed.

On the one hand, the plunderer has not been able, as he had hoped, to avoid every kind of labor. Armed plunder itself requires effort and sometimes tremendous effort. Thus, while the producer devotes his time to creating the objects fitted to yield satisfactions, the plunderer uses his time in preparing the means of stealing them. But when the work of violence has been consummated or attempted, the objects of satisfaction are neither more nor less plentiful. They may satisfy the wants of different persons, but they cannot satisfy a greater number of wants. Thus, all the efforts that the plunderer has expended for plunder, and in addition those that he has not expended for production, are entirely lost, if not for him, at least for mankind.

Nor is this all. In the majority of cases a similar loss is involved for the producer. It is not at all likely that he will passively await, without taking precautionary measures, the event that threatens him; and all his precautions, weapons, fortifications, munitions, drill, are labor, and labor forever lost, not only for him who looks to it for his security, but for the human race.

But, if the producer does not feel that, by thus undergoing double labor, he will be strong enough to resist the threatened invasion, the situation is much worse, and the waste of human energies is on an even larger scale; for in that case his work stops altogether, since no man is disposed to produce merely to be plundered.

As for the moral consequences, the manner in which both parties are affected, the result is no less disastrous. God decreed that man should wage war only against Nature, peacefully, and should reap directly from her the fruits of victory. When he gains dominion over Nature only through the indirect means of dominion over his fellow men, his mission has been perverted; he has turned his faculties in a wrong direction. Just consider, for example, the virtue of foresight, the anticipatory view of the future, which in a certain manner elevates us to the realm of Providence, for to foresee, to look ahead, is also to provide, to look out for;[4] consider how differently it is employed by the producer and by the plunderer.

The producer must learn the relation between cause and effect. To this end, he studies the laws of the physical universe and seeks to bring them more and more to his aid. If he observes his fellow men, it is for the purpose of foreseeing their desires and providing for them, in the hope of a return.

The plunderer does not observe Nature. And if he observes his fellow men, it is as a hawk spies out its prey, seeking a way to weaken it, to take it unawares.

The same differences are to be observed in the other faculties and extend to men’s ways of thinking.

Plunder by means of war is not an accidental, isolated, temporary phenomenon; it is a very widespread and constant fact. Only labor is more permanent.

Show me, then, a place on the globe where two races of men, one a race of conquerors, and the other a race of conquered, are not superimposed. Show me in Europe or in Asia or in the islands of the sea a favored spot still occupied by its original inhabitants. If the migrations of peoples have spared no land, it is because war has been a universal phenomenon.

The traces war has left are equally widespread. Apart from the blood it has spilled, the booty it has captured, the minds it has warped, the faculties it has perverted, it has everywhere left scars, and among them must be listed slavery and aristocracy.

Man has not been content to plunder wealth as rapidly as it is produced; he has seized upon wealth already created, capital in all its forms. He has especially cast his eyes upon its most stable form, landed property. And finally, he has seized upon man himself. For since human faculties are a means of production, he has found it quicker to seize them than to seize their products.

What powerful disturbing factors these great events have been, what obstacles to the natural progress destined for mankind! If we take into account the extent to which labor has been wasted by war, if we consider the extent to which what remained of the product of labor has been concentrated in the hands of a few conquerors, we can well understand why the masses are destitute, for their destitution cannot be explained in our day on the hypothesis of liberty.

How the Warlike Spirit Is Fostered

Aggressor nations are subject to reprisals. They often attack; sometimes they have to defend themselves. When they are on the defensive, they feel that justice is on their side, and that their cause is holy. Then they laud courage, devotion, patriotism. But, alas! They carry these ideas over into their wars of aggression. And in that case what is patriotism?

When two races, one victorious and idle, the other conquered and humiliated, occupy the same land, everything that arouses likes and desires is the portion of the former. To it belong the leisure, gala affairs, love of the arts, wealth, military pomp and parades, grace, elegance, literature, poetry. To the conquered belong calloused hands, desolate hovels, repulsive clothing.

The consequence is that the ideas and attitudes of the dominant race, always associated with its military ascendancy, determine public opinion. Men, women, children, all place the soldier’s way of life above that of the worker, war above labor, plunder above production. The conquered race itself shares this sentiment, and when it overcomes its oppressors, it shows itself in its process of readjustment disposed to imitate them—more than disposed, indeed, for this imitation becomes a frenzy.

How War Ends

Since the spirit of plunder, like the urge to produce, has its origin in the human heart, the laws of the social world would never be harmonious, even in the limited sense that I have indicated, if in the long run the urge to produce were not destined to overcome the spirit of plunder.


  1. Charles Comte (1782-1837), French economist, son-in-law of J. B. Say. Co-editor, with Charles Dunoyer, of Le Censeur européen.—Translator.
  2. Saint-Marc Girardin (1801-1873), literary critic and scholar, professor of literature in the Sorbonne, member of the French Academy, also active in political life.—Translator.
  3. We forget this when we ask: Is slave labor cheaper or more expensive than free labor?
  4. In French, prévoir and pourvoir.—Translator.

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