Frédéric Bastiat: Two Hundred Years On Frédéric Bastiat: Two Hundred Years On

The following article was written by Joseph R. Stromberg and published by The Ludwig von Mises Institute.

I. General Neglect of Bastiat

French laissez faire liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat (June 30, 1801-December 24, 1850) has suffered over the years from a particularly bad press. Karl Marx called him “the shallowest and therefore the most successful representative of the apologists of vulgar economics.” This portrait may have stemmed from Marx’s resentment towards a political writer whose writing was clear and who gained a large audience in his lifetime. There is no body of literature asking What Bastiat Really Meant, whereas a cottage industry arose in the case of Marx. And of course Bastiat was a great enemy and trenchant critic of socialism.

Bastiat has been dismissed by those who might have been expected to be friendlier towards him. Thus Joseph Schumpeter wrote: “I do not hold that Bastiat was a bad theorist. I hold that he was no theorist.” English-speaking economists generally have regarded Bastiat as a “mere popularizer” of the ideas of the great Adam Smith.

One of the few writers who had any thing good to say of Bastiat was Franz Oppenheimer, the German sociologist and state theorist. He wrote that “Bastiat clearly distinguishes between ‘production’ and ‘spoliation’ (as John Rae [did] between production and acquisition) and names as the chief forms of spoliation: war, slavery, theocracy, and monopoly.” Further, Bastiat “even defines monopoly entirely correctly as my only predecessor known to me: it carries force into competition and thereby falsifies the correct relation between services received and services earned.”

II. Bastiat’s Life and Writings

Frédéric Bastiat was born in June 1801 in Bayonne. He worked in his uncle’s business from 1818 to 1825, when he inherited his father’s property and set himself up as “a gentleman farmer.” While so occupied, Bastiat read the works of the political economists – Jean-Baptiste Say, Adam Smith, Destutt de Tracy, Charles Comte (perhaps his favorite writer), and Charles Dunoyer. He emerged from this reading a tireless exponent of laissez faire liberalism.

Bastiat began publishing in the Journal des Économistes in 1844, and wrote pamphlets and articles for newspapers. His Sophismes Économiques, in two volumes, appeared in 1844 and 1845.

Bastiat met Richard Cobden in 1845 and threw himself into the French movement for free trade in 1846. With the Revolution of 1848, Bastiat became a member of the legislative assembly, sitting on the Left. There he defended civil liberties but also argued against the restrictionist economic policies of Right and Left alike.

Bastiat’s fullest theoretical statement on economics came in his Harmonies Économiques, part of which appeared after his death. His writings had much influence outside France, in Belgium, Italy, Sweden, and Prussia. The Italian laissez faire liberal Francesco Ferrara was especially taken with Bastiat’s analysis of political seizure of produced wealth (“spoliation”).

Bastiat’s Oeuvres Complétes (Paris: Guillaumin, [various dates of publication and reissue]) consist of seven volumes. Of this material, only something like two fifths seems to have been translated into English. The Economic Harmonies, in English, is the whole French work, but Economic Sophisms andSelected Essays in Political Economy (all three books -Irvington-on-Hudson: FEE, 1964) between them, do not reproduce all that is in the two-volume Sophismes Économiques. Untranslated are Cobden et le Ligue, Libre-Échange, and two volumes of letters and miscellaneous essays.

III. Rothbard on Bastiat’s Work and Influence

In the second volume of his history of economic thought, Rothbard observed that Bastiat and the whole French laissez faire school had fallen into disrepute and neglect. And yet Bastiat had produced a lucid and readable treatment of the pattern of exchange, which stressed human wants and consumption over production and labor (the areas in which English economics had bogged down). This approach centered on mutual benefit resulting from, and causing, exchanges.

Rothbard writes that Bastiat “point[ed] out that all goods, including material ones, are productive and are valued precisely because they produce immaterial services,” thereby helping to pull economic science out of the Smithian ditch. Bastiat’s parable of the broken window refuted Keynesian economics nearly a century before Keynes wrote. In this parable, the “third level analyst,” the economist sees beyond the proto-Keynesian sophisticate’s notion that the window-breaker has stimulated economic growth.

For Rothbard, Bastiat’s unwavering focus on plunder by the state and state-privileged interests made his political economy a weapon in the struggle for freedom as well as an important statement of welfare analysis. Bastiat’s influences on Rothbard himself seems clear; nor is it too much to say that Ludwig von Mises’s “social rationalism”owes much to Bastiat’s discussion of the nature of society and economic life.

IV. Main Themes and System in Bastiat’s Work

Bastiat’s technical writing in the Economic Harmonies must necessarily seem conversational and “unscientific” to today’s mainstream economist. Here are no absurd assumptions, which may or not be true, no modeling, no graphs or equations. There is only a grounded rationalism.

The polemical writings must seem even stranger to moderns. Bastiat proceeds by parable, humorous dialogues, fables, satire, parodies of French literature, and – perhaps best of all – reductiones ad absurdum (tongue-in-cheek legislative proposals and the like). Really, all of Bastiat’s writings, even the most technical, are in effect “popular.” Bastiat, the gentleman farmer with practical business knowledge, argues from experience by way of clear propositions to conclusions which seem obvious once he has spelled things out.

Taken as a whole, Bastiat’s writings lay out the purpose, method, and conclusions of political economy. This involved a running critique of the socialism of the Right (protectionism) and that of the Left. A survey of Bastiat’s main themes should prove rather enlightening.

V. Scope and Method of Economics

Bastiat gives his notion of political economy near the beginning of his Economic Harmonies: “For if there are general laws that act independently of written laws, and whose action needs merely to be regularized by the latter, we must study these general laws; they can be the object of scientific investigation, and therefore there is such a thing as the science of political economy” (Economic Harmonies [EH], p. 2). If, on the other hand, society is entirely an instituted order founded by great geniuses, as claimed by Rousseau, then there could be no political economy. Bastiat rejects this alternative.

From this rather praxeological beginning, Bastiat looks into the “social mechanism” of multilateral exchanges, which enables each individual to receive from his efforts “a million times more than he could have produced; yet no one has robbed anyone” (EH, pp. 4-5). This astounding fact rests on “a natural and wise order that operates without our knowledge” (EH, p. 6). It is precisely the work of economics to understand this order.

This complex order is grounded on self-interest, the very thing that the utopians reject when making arbitrary plans for social betterment (EH, pp. 7-8). Bastiat observes: “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” (EH, p. 523). Political economy – economics – does take self-interest into account. Hence Bastiat’s definition: “Political economy has as its special field all those efforts of men that are capable of satisfying, subject to services in return, the wants of persons other than the one making the effort, and, consequently, those wants and satisfactions that are related to efforts of this kind” (EH, p. 31, Bastiat’s italics [and throughout this essay]).

Political economists wish to understand the order resulting from voluntary, self-interested action. They expect that people will act on this knowledge. Sounding a great deal like Mises, Bastiat says that economics does not state, “‘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 than an unwillingness to be burned to death is a basic, innate attitude that it did not create and that it cannot alter” (EH, p. 527).

To those who held that economics was mere theory in some bad sense, Bastiat answered that their proposals themselves rested on implicit theories of some kind. Further: “Our theory is so little opposed to practice that it is nothing else than practice explained. We observe that men are motivated by the instinct for self-preservation and a desire for progress, and what they do freely and voluntarily is precisely what we call political economy…. As we never cease to point out, each man is in practice an excellent economist, producing or exchanging according as he finds it more advantageous to do the one or the other. Everyone gains a knowledge of this science through experience; or rather, the science itself is only this same experience accurately observed and methodically interpreted” (Economic Sophisms [Sophisms], p. 84).

But, of course, Bastiat asks rhetorically, who was he to talk? After all, “it is now an accepted fact that I am a heartless, pitiless man, a dry philosopher, an individualist, a bourgeois – in a word, an economist of the English or American school” (Selected Essays on Political Economy [Essays], p. 142). Evidently, the custom of referring to opponents of state intervention as cruel plutocratic shills for the wealthy (who wish to run down widows and orphans and ethnic minorities, etc., with their air-conditioned SUVs) did not begin in recent years in North America.

VI. Bastiat on Society, Production, and Exchange

Despite the handicap of being a heartless bourgeois, Bastiat kept on writing about the market order based on private property. He starts from the existence of human wants; economics is about want-satisfaction. In seeking to fulfil their needs, men learnt that “there are two kinds of utility” (EH, p. 27). Some things are simply given in nature; others require transformation by human activity to make them useful: “It is not given to man, in fact, to add to or subtract from the existing number of molecules. His role is confined to modifying or combining for his use the substances he finds everywhere about him” (EH, p. 62; Bastiat credits J.-B. Say with the formulation).

Human wants, however, are not fixed. This is important because “[i]t is impossible to find a good solution to the problem of the machine, foreign competition, and luxury, as long as wants are considered as an invariable quantity, or their capacity for indefinite multiplication is not taken into account” (EH, p. 43). To satisfy our progressively increasing wants, we apply labor to material objects. In this process, “certain moral virtues such as orderliness, foresight, self-control, thrift, contribute directly to the improvement of our way of life” (EH, p. 55).

Contrary to such writers as Montaigne and Rousseau, men were not happier when they – hypothetically – lived separately. They improve their lot in society and improve it most when their society rests on uncoerced reciprocal relations. Thus, exchangeis political economy. It is society itself, for it is impossible to conceive of society without exchange, or exchange without society” (EH, p. 59). Exchange increases our prosperity and our power over raw nature. Without it, we could hardly live at all. “If this is true, society is our natural state, since it is the only state in which we can live at all” (EH, p. 60, my emphasis).

Given the endless reiteration of the claim that it was the laissez faire liberals who coldly abstracted people into asocial, atomized individuals in order to arrive at absurd claims, it is interesting that Bastiat does something entirely different. Of Robinson Crusoe, sometimes used by economists to throw light on certain topics, Bastiat observes that Crusoe’s creator, Defoe, stuck close to reality by having his character “save from the shipwreck a few indispensable objects such as provisions, gunpowder, a rifle, an ax, a knife, rope, boards, iron, etc. – decisive evidence that society is man’s necessary milieu, since even a novelist cannot make him live outside it” (EH, p. 64).

Further: “And note that Robinson Crusoe took with him into solitude another social treasure worth a thousand times more, one that the waves could not swallow up: I mean his ideas, his memories, his experience, and especially his language, without which he could not have communicated with himself or formed his thoughts” (EH, p. 64). Now there is a realistic view of the relation of individuals and society, even if I can hardly delve into that interesting hermeneutic/epistemological turn at the end of the sentence. The proper understanding of society was always in the foreground with classical liberals like Bastiat.

Bastiat, in summing up political economy as understood by the French liberal school, presented its ideas ably, with a few new wrinkles of his own. On value theory he quotes Condillac that in any exchange their must be “two gains”; otherwise an exchange would not take place. Bastiat seeks to go behind this statement, but does so by arguing that value arises from the exchange of “services” for other “services” (cf. Essays, pp. 160-161).

Of exchange, Bastiat notes that it “produces two phenomena: the joining of men’s forces and the diversification of their occupations, or the division of labor” (EH, p. 67). “Roundabout barter”can widen the sphere of trade between parties, but it is “indirect exchange” which allows exchange relations to improve human life exponentially. Here “two services are also appraised [an interesting word] but in comparison with… the intermediate commodity, which is called money” (EH, p. 75).

Extension of this form of social cooperation enlarges men’s powers and consumption. Thus, “[t]he general nature of exchange is to lessen the amount of effort in relation to the satisfaction” (EH, p. 76). Life becomes both richer and easier. The “disutility of labor” (Mises), that is, “the pain and drudgery” of producing exchangeable goods (EH, p. 482) does not go away, but the time involved and the conditions of labor improve.

Another offshoot of wider exchange networks is increased human interdependence. Bastiat writes that “the sort of dependence that results from exchange… is a reciprocal dependence. We cannot be dependent on a foreigner without his being dependent upon us. Now, this is what constitutes the very essence of society” (Sophisms, p. 99). Thus, when economic nationalists complain of dependence on foreign goods, they are calling in fact for reduction of mutually beneficial social relations.

Turning to a major teacher of error, Bastiat notes that Rousseau’s view that “the law should transform persons and should create or not create property. In my opinion, society, persons, and property exist prior to the law [not prior to society!], and… I would say: Property does not exist because there are laws, but laws exist because there is property” (essays, p. 97).

Bastiat asks “whether the right to property is not one of those rights which, far from springing from positive law, are prior to the law and are the reason for its existence. This is not, as might be thought, a theoretical and idle question. It is of tremendous, of fundamental importance.”

“Economists believe that property is a providential fact, like the human person.… The law does not bring the one into existence any more than it does the other. Property is a necessary consequence of the nature of man” (Essays, pp. 98-99).

Further: ‘[M]an is born a proprietor, because he is born with wants whose satisfaction is necessary to life, and with organs and faculties whose exercise is indispensable to the satisfaction of these wants. Faculties are only an extension of the person; and property is nothing but an extension of the faculties. To separate a man from his faculties is to cause him to die; to separate a man from the product of his faculties is likewise to cause him to die” (Essays, p. 99).

Present French law miscasts things owing to a fundamental mistake in Roman law: “The Romans could not fail to consider property anything but a purely conventional fact – a product, an artificial, of written law. Evidently they could not go back, as political economy does, to the very nature of man and perceive the relations and necessary connections that exist among wants, faculties, labor, and property.” To do so “would have been absurd and suicidal for them” since “they lived by looting, when all their property was the fruit of plunder, when they had based their whole way of life on the labor of slaves…. They had recourse to a purely empirical definition of property…. (Essays, p. 101).

Steeped in Roman ideology, the jurists claim that property stems from law. But “whereas the jurists’ principle involves virtual slavery, the economists’ principle implies liberty. Property, the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor, the right to work, to develop, to exercise one’s faculties, according to one’s own understanding, without the state intervening otherwise than by its protective action – this is what is meant by liberty” (Essays, pp. 109-110).

Hence “free trade has never been a question of customs duties, but a question of right, of justice, of public order, of property” (Essays, p. 111). Any encroachment on property undermines it in the direction of communism. In Bastiat’s opinion it was idle to separate liberty and property:

“I consider the right to property to consist in the freedom to dispose first of one’s person, then of one’s labor, and finally, of the products of one’s labor – which proves, incidentally, that, from a certain point of view, freedom and the right to property are indistinguishable from each other” (Essays, p. 210).

It follows, then, that “the rights of the state can be nothing but the regularizing of pre-existent personal rights. For my part, I cannot conceive a collective right that does not have its foundation in an individual right or presuppose it (Essays, p. 211). Bent on defending private property from its detractors, Bastiat undertakes an extended critique of those writers who have attacked land rent. He finds the justification for rent in services provided by landowners who have brought land in productive use (EH, 236-283).

On all these grounds, Bastiat claims “that the state is not and should not be anything else than thecommon police force instituted, not to be an instrument of oppression and reciprocal plunder, but, on the contrary, to guarantee to each his own and to make justice and security prevail” (Essays, p. 151). Of course, public provision of security was fraught with danger, dangers on which Bastiat spent much of his time. These dangers grew out of sundry mistakes in thinking, and we turn first to those, before closing in on Bastiat’s discussion of political plunder.

VII. Bastiat’s Syllabus of Economic Errors

Bastiat’s famous essay on “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen” displays his method in a clear light (Essays, 1-50). It is crucial for analysts to get past immediate, apparent (“seen”) consequences into the less obvious (“unseen”) consequences. The latter involve rights violated, economic opportunities foregone, that is, costs imposed on society by political means. The mistake is imagine that such costs do not exist. (Memo this to Two Major Parties.)

Bastiat notes that in the policy debates of his time, it was common for opponents of economic liberty to say, in effect, “Oh, we accept your point in general, but the case of the weavers, the oil producers, or whomever, things are different.” This amounted to saying there are “no absolute principles” (Essays, p. 202, and cf. Sophisms, pp. 96-98). This was a recipe for wildly shifting policies, for a weird mixture of communism and private property settled by the ups and downs of partisan politics – a word, today’s welfare-warfare state, which Francis Fukuyama famously claims as the End of History. In Bastiat’s terms, it is only the death of good sense.

Another source of grave error was classical education, as taught in 19th-century France. To combat these errors, Bastiat jokingly calls for the abolition of academic degrees. This led him into a long discussion of “the abuse of classical studies” (Essays, p. 244). The problem lay in “sending the youth of France, with the intention of preparing them for labor, peace, and freedom, to drink in, and become imbued and saturated with, the feelings and the opinions of a nation of brigands and slaves.” Socialism and communism stemmed from uncritical study of ancient Rome, whether state or church provided this education.

But so-called Roman “patriotism,” held up for the admiration of moderns, came down to “[h]atred of foreigners, the destruction of all civilization, the stifling of all progress, the scourging of the world with fire and sword, the chaining of women, children, and old men to triumphal chariots….” To reproduce Roman “morality” now, there would have to be “in the heart of Paris, an organization of men who hate to work, determined to satisfy their wants by deceit and force, and consequently at war with society” (Essays, p. 248). Of course Bastiat did believe that such men could be found in Paris)

Men “at war with society” would naturally reintroduce key Roman ideas about society. The first was that “society is a condition outside of Nature, the result of a contract.” This was not wholly untrue in the ancient world: “Rome and Sparta were indeed two associations of men having a common and definite end: pillage; they were not exactly societies, but armies” (Essays, p. 249). The second bad classical notion undergoing contemporary revival was that “law creates rights,” so that great lawmakers – Lycurgus, Solon, Numa, and Plato (on the level of theory) – were the real founders of nations (ibid.).

Bastiat examines a series of French writers and statesmen (some of them certifiable loonies), who had sought to bring to the French the benefit of these antique fallacies, including Fénelon, Rollin, Montesquieu, Rousseau, Mably, Robespierre, and Saint-Just (Essays, pp. 252-264). Now, these writers had their merits, but providing a political doctrine suitable to modern society was not among them. Worse, the false Roman model had affected even jurists like Vattel.

Restated by Rousseau, classical teachings become even more destructive. Rousseau creates an “antithesis between liberty and property.” Only the first is natural. Property, however, is conventional and artificial, subject to endless legislative tinkering as with “the right to employment, the right to poor relief,and the progressive income tax” (Essays, p. 268).

Bastiat comments that Mirabeau’s and Rousseau’s concession to the Legislator of authority over the very definition of property involved no stopping-point. “If the law that creates and disposes of property can take one step toward equality, why not take two? Why not achieve absolute equality?” (Essays, p. 269). Why not indeed? Here Saint-Just surpassed Robespierre and Babeuf surpassed Saint-Just. Could Plato’s militarized communism be far behind?

The mania for classical “republicanism” went so far during the French Revolution that Saint-Just could write that “republican government is founded on virtue, if not on terror” and, further: “Trade ill becomes the true citizen. The hand of man was made only to till the land and to bear arms” (quoted in Essays, p. 270). So much for the complex social order resting on private property and exchange! The Roman ideal amounted to a respectable charter for socialism of one kind or another. We will come back to these matters in the section, below, on social planning.

Bastiat treats other intellectual errors which were not as pernicious. These came down to sloppy thinking or the mere special pleading of interest groups. Here we find misbegotten metaphors of the kind that protectionists use when branding a welcome influx of commodities as a “flood” or “invasion” of foreign goods (Sophisms, pp. 116-119).

Bastiat turned his wit against these second-level errors in such essays as the one on the candle-makers’ petition to blot out the sun for unfair competition (Sophisms, pp. 56-60). In another classic he “argues” for obstructing presently navigable rivers on the protectionist claim that trade impoverishes society (Sophisms, pp. 92-93). Best of all is Bastiat’s argument that if breaks in railroad lines are good because a break leads to more local storage and cartage, then the best railroad of all would be a “negative railroad” consisting entirely of gaps! (Sophisms, pp. 94-95). (Memo to Al Gore.)

VIII. The Theory and Practice of Plunder

Of course Bastiat knew that public policy rested less on venial intellectual error than on deliberate perversion of government from provision of protection to creation of privilege. He wrote much on “spoliation,” of which “plunder” is a fitting translation. The insight that plunder is central to political life was one that Bastiat shared with French laissez faire liberals generally. His use of the concept was very telling.

Remarking claims that plunder is infrequent and localized, Bastiat answers that “however well disposed or optimistic one may be, one is compelled to recognize that plunder is practiced in this world on too vast a scale, that it is too much a part of all great human events, for any social science – political economy least of all – to be able to ignore it” (Sophisms, p. 129). Where plunder was well entrenched, it raised up “a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it” (Sophisms, p. 130). Here one can espy a non-Marxist formulation of the famous base/superstructure problem.

The chief forms of plunder were war, slavery, theocracy, and monopoly. Monopoly disrupted “voluntary exchange of service for service” (Sophisms, p. 132). Everyday theft was everywhere condemned, but theft linked to the warrior ethic enjoyed an unjustified prestige. Plunder in the name of country earned “honors, fame, and glory,” while what little protest arose came from the plundered, in some other country, and had little effect (Sophisms, p. 133).

Plunder followed its own “Malthusian law”: “It tends to expand in proportion to its means of existence and to live beyond its means, and these are, in the last analysis, nothing but the substance of the people.” A state left to follow its natural bent would, in time, destroy “private enterprise, wealth, happiness, independence, personal dignity” (Sophisms, p. 141). In some nations people “would feel themselves lost if they were not governed and administered every step of the way” (Sophisms, p. 143). Not surprisingly, such nations suffered from steady expansion of state power and consequent political instability.

Reflecting on the plundering process led Bastiat to formulate his famous definition of the state: “The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else” (Essays, p. 144). The growing tendency toward “personification of the state” would lead to many “calamities and… revolutions” (Essays, p. 146). The 1848 program of the Socialist Democratic party, which amounted to saying“[t]he state should give a great deal to the citizens and take little from them,” illustrated the problem (Essays, p. 149).

In such a state of public discourse, politicians brought forward all manner of good deeds for the state to do: “Organize labor and the workers. Root out selfishness. Repress the insolence and arrogance of capital. Make experiments with manure and with eggs. Furrow the countryside with railroads. Irrigate the plains. Plant forests on the mountains. Establish model farms. Establish harmonious workshops. Colonize Algeria. Feed the babies. Instruct the young. Relieve the aged. Send the city folk into the country. Equalize the profits of all industries. Lend money, without interest, to those who desire it. Liberate Italy, Poland, and Hungary. Improve the breed of saddle horses. Encourage art; train musicians and dancers. Restrict trade, and at the same time create a merchant marine” (Essays, pp. 140-141).

Not bad for mid-19th century France. Either of our two venal and corrupt political parties could run on such a platform. Oh, I’m sorry, they already have.

The forms of political plunder were legion. “We have, first of all, licenses of all kinds. No one can become a barrister, a physician, a teacher, a broker, a deal in government bonds, a solicitor, an attorney, a pharmacist, a printer, a butcher, or a baker without encountering legal restrictions” (Essays, p. 181). The result was (and is) fewer competitors and higher prices.

Bastiat continues: “Next comes the attempt to set an artificial price” through tariffs. “This is evidently an effort to destroy the equivalence of services….” Then “comes taxation. It has become a much sought-after means of livelihood.” The constant growth of state employment comes about the more that people want their needs met “by that fictitious being, the state, which signifies a collection of salaried bureaucrats” (Essays, 182).

Not only was protectionisman important form of plunder, by setting a precedent for state intervention in the exchange system, it encouraged more radical programs: “Protectionism has been the forerunner ofcommunism; … it has been its first manifestation” (Essays, p. 114). The latter alarmed the protectionists, for it filled them “with horror” when it became “a matter of sharing their own property, too”; it was at that point that they began circulating books in favor of property (Essays, p. 195).

Building on mercantilist fallacies, protectionists wished to block imports and foster exports. Hence, “[t]heprotectionist system and the colonial system are, then, simply two aspects of one and the same theory.Preventing our fellow citizens from buying from foreigners and forcing foreigners to buy from our fellow citizens are simply two consequences of one and the same principle” (Sophisms, p. 86). If this doctrine were correct, “the general welfare depends upon monopoly, or domestic plunder, and conquest, or foreign plunder” (Sophisms, p. 87). The connection between domestic corporatism and overseas empire has never been more concisely put.

The United States flourished in the relative absence of state-driven plunder. But even there, two institutions of plunder threatened the public happiness: slavery and tariffs. This “two-fold legal scourge, a sad heritage of the Old World,” might in time lead to disruption of the union (Essays, 59-60).

The “prevailing illusion… that is possible to enrich all classes at the expense of one another,” would soon lead to “mak[ing] plunder universal under the pretext of organizing it” (Essays, p. 61). There were three possible paths: “partial plunder” associated with restricted suffrage, “universal plunder” allied to universal suffrage, and “absence of plunder,” the liberal ideal not yet realized (Essays, p. 63).

Although it was economic impossibility, the French public persisted “in seeing an increase in wealth in what the inhabitants steal from each other” (Sophisms, p. 195). Under such circumstances, even revolution could not deliver France from aggravated state plunder. Any foreseeable revolution would issue in further expansions of the state (EH, p. 453).

Some would argue, Bastiat observes, that because the plundering class has to spend its gains somewhere, it will demand “in greater quantity, the services of the classes it has plundered” (EH, p. 464). This would create employment and general social benefit. Needless to say, Bastiat did not think much of this proto-Keynesian multiplier effect. (We might call it the Lockheed theory of history.)

Bastiat points out that men “can secure the means of existence in two ways: by creating them or by stealing them” (EH, p. 479) – precisely Franz Oppenheimer’s central thesis and the reason he regarded Bastiat as his forerunner. To the extent that either creation or predation outweighs the other in a society, we shall find differences in their societies; this is the difference between “industrial” and “militant” societies, to use Herbert Spencer’s terms.

Of course the plunderers must allow some production to take place. In the nature of things, plunder “presupposes” production. Further, instead of “adding to the enjoyments of mankind, it decreases them, and, moreover, it allots them to those who have not deserved them” (EH, p. 480). Plunderers, too, have costs and outlays. They must specialize in force and deceit. But their way of life succeeds up to the point at which that they render production by others completely futile.

Plunder has been widespread. Bastiat comments that there is probably no people on earth inhabiting lands which were not, earlier, the home of other people. Under modern conditions, war, perhaps the highest form of plunder even burdened future generations by lumbering them with increased public debt (EH, p. 514). There was, however, one thing that might prove even worse than generalized, organized plunder. This menace was coerced “fraternity”: the program of the world-improvers and social planners.

IX. The Nightmare World of the Social Engineers

The would-be social planners’ programs rested on a set of mistaken notions from the ancient world, as modified by such thinkers as Rousseau. Fortunately, “social planners… lack the force to subject humanity to their experiments….. [E]ven in Russia, even in Persia and Tartary, men must to some extent be taken into account. If the Czar of Russia took it into his head to alter the moral and physical nature of his subjects,” he would soon be out of a job (EH, pp. 9-10). Bastiat, then, could not foresee of the idealistic careers of Stalin and Mao.

The idea that fundamental alteration of human beings and their societies was either possible or desirable owed much to Rousseau’s claim that society was entirely conventional. Bastiat notes that Rousseau’s Social Contract was “useful in showing what characterizes artificial social orders. Start with the idea that society is contrary to Nature; devise contrivances to which humanity can be subjected; lose sight of the fact that humanity has its motive force within itself; consider men as base raw materials; propose to impart to them movement and will, feeling, and life; set oneself up apart, immeasurably above the human race – these are the common practice of the social planners. The plans differ; the planners are all alike” (EH, p. 17).

Unlike political economy, which knows that “society is purely an association… capable of improvement as man himself improves,” the planners’ “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” (EH, pp. 17 and 525). The planners “do not want natural society. What they want is an artificial society, which has come forth full-grown from the brain of its inventor” (EH, p. 526).

Socialism was the codification of ancient and modern error: “Socialism, like the ancient political philosophy from which it emanates, confuses government with society. That is why, every time that we do not want a thing to be done by the government, the socialists conclude that we do not want the thing to be done at all. We are opposed to state education; hence, we are opposed to all education. We object to state religion; hence, we do not want any religion at all…. It is as if they accused us of not wanting to eat, because we oppose the cultivation of grain by the state” (Essays, p. 68).

Acceptance of Rousseau’s and Robespierre’s “Roman” notion that liberty is natural, but property is conventional would “open an unlimited field to the imagination of the utopians.” Worse luck, it would “arouse in all these dreamers a thirst for power” (Essays, p. 104). Such were the dangers of social engineering, whether intended to reconstruct an ancient Spartan or Roman ideal or to realize a utopian form of egalitarianism.

X. Concusions: Pessimism of the Intellect, Optimism of the Will?

20th and 21st -century statism would have appalled Bastiat, but it would not necessarily have surprised him. The fusion of plunder and social betterment has proven politically unbeatable, at least in the short run. While he might never have foreseen the sheer scale of contemporary statist intrusions into civil society, Bastiat did put forward interesting analyses of the consequences of the statist syndrome.

Bastiat writes: “Once an abuse exists, everything is arranged on the assumption that it will last indefinitely; and, as more and more people come to depend upon it for their livelihood, and still others depend upon them, a superstructure is erected that soon comprises a formidable edifice.”

Reform of an abuse was politically difficult: “The moment you try to tear it down, everybody protests; and the point to which I wish to call particular attention here is that those who protest always appear at first glance to be in the right, because it is easier to show the disorder that must accompany reform than the order that should follow it” (Sophisms, p. 176).

Like the tyrant protrayed by Étienne de la Boétie, who buys many friends and allies, the modern state has clients who will mobilize to prevent de-statizing any enterprise. Bastiat writes: “The supporters of the abuse are able to cite specific facts; they can name the particular persons, as well as their suppliers and workers, who will be injured by the reform – while the reformer, poor devil, can refer only to the general good that is to be gradually diffused among the masses. This does not produce nearly so great an effect” (Sophisms, p. 176).

The growth of state-provided public welfare demoralizes society. “Here, we have a peasant who has married late in life, in order to avoid being overburdened with children, forced to care for other people’s offspring. And another who has always practiced continence, we find is taxed to pay for the support of bastards. From the religious point of view, his conscience is clear, but humanly speaking, he must say to himself that he is a fool….” (EH, p. 509). Given this state-made moral hazard, it is unlikely that future generations will conduct themselves by the old moral code. Rousseau had led the way. Bastiat recounts that Rousseau said that “‘[i]n abandoning my children to public education [that is, the orphanage]… I regarded myself as a member of Plato’s republic’” – as well he might, given the promiscuity inherent in Plato’s system of social militarism (Essays, pp. 264 and 247).

Intervention would usher in a general breakdown of public and private ethics. Thus, one might think it impossible “that a whole nation should agree in seeing an increase in wealth in what the inhabitants steal from one another.” But, no, “[w]e have completely accepted this view in France, and are continually devising and improving methods of reciprocal robbery under the name of subsidies and protective tariffs” (Sophisms, p. 195).

How, in Bastiat’s view, could advocates of freedom carry on the fight against economically destructive and socially demoralizing statism? In the first place, they must go forward on the basis of firm principles, principles of morality and political economy. The common political cliché that “there are no absolute principles” amounted to saying: “I do not know which is true and which is false; I have no idea what constitutes good or evil. I do not trouble myself about such questions. The immediate effect of each law on my personal well-being is the only principle that I consent to recognize” (Sophisms, p. 104).

This anti-principled, pragmatic, shifting platform calls to mind the “compassionate conservatism” much in vogue these days. The above sentence could indeed be endorsed, with few exceptions, by every Republican office-holder in the country. Such an open embrace of No Principles would clear the public air and would still leave the Democratic party free to attack the GOP from a more advanced Platonist, Rousseauian, and Robespierrean standpoint.

As for the content of a principled defense of the social order resting on free exchange and private property, Bastiat favored reintegration of two ethical systems which were tending to become separated from one another. The first was religious ethics, which dealt with ultimate things; the second was utilitarian, or economic, ethics, resting on the conclusions of political economy (Sophisms, p. 150). “These two systems of ethics, instead of engaging in mutual recriminations, should be working together to attack evil at each of its poles” (Sophisms p, 153).

Here Bastiat addresses and, I think, resolves, the supposedly troublesome problem of choosing between rights-based and consequentialist analysis, a problem much mooted lately in libertarian circles. Further, in a passage which might well have been intended for today’s conservatives who attribute moral decay to the market, Bastiat says, “[w]ould not a society that, without being intrinsically virtuous, was nevertheless well regulated by the action of the economic system of ethics (by which I mean nothing more than knowledge of political economy), offer opportunities for the progress of religious morality?” (Sophisms, p. 154).

For Bastiat, there was no insuperable conflict between essential moral teachings and economic science. His system reconciled theism, free will, natural law, and voluntary social action. Of free will, Bastiat wrote that he found its existence self-evident, needing (at least from him) no set of proofs (EH, p. 494). As for theism, he found there firmer ground than that held by certain economists. These said, in effect, “[w]e have little faith in God, for we see that the natural laws lead to disaster, and yet we say: Laissez faire!because we have even less faith in ourselves, and we realize that all human efforts to halt the operation of these laws merely hasten the day of catastrophe” (EH, p. 487).

Such a despairing, half-hearted “defense” of free society, based ultimately on pessimism, had no attractions for Frédéric Bastiat. As Henry Hazlitt wrote, “We could use more Bastiats today. We have, in fact, desperate need of them.”

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13 responses to “Frédéric Bastiat: Two Hundred Years On

  1. I am myself a firm Bastiat fan. I dearly wish every person in the country would somehow read, and reflect upon his clear, lucid explanations of the market and common fallacies that drive anti-market rhetoric.

    I also agree with the Rothbardian view that the bafflingly deified Adam Smith was a tepid free marketeer, and basically an overrated poltroon who threw Anglic economics onto the wrong path. Even Smith’s most famous example (that bloody “pin factory”) was plagiarised from the French Encyclopede, and his obsession with division of labour has been ruinous in Anglospheric economic thought, as it leads people into this disastrous trap of treating “labour” as an homogenised commodity suitable for (centralised) deployment, rather than as individuals with unique skills who need to seek their own best deployment in the marketplace.

    I’d much prefer that there be a Bastiat Institute than an Adam Smith one. For most people who are not economics nerds, what Bastiat wrote is all they really need to know. As noted above, he debunked Keynes a century before Keynes.

  2. Thank you for an illuminating article on Bastiat. In case you are not aware of two titles by and about him, “The Man and the Statesman: Correspondence and Articles on Politics” (ed. Jacques de Guenin), and “The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850″ (ed. Jacques de Guenin), published in quality cloth and soft cover editions (very reasonably priced) by the Liberty Fund in Indianapolis, I provide a link to the Fund’s site here. Both titles feature Dennis O’Keefe as translation editor and David Hart as academic editor.

  3. Good post and good comments.

    Bastiat at first seemed to be wining in the war of ideas.

    For example he inspired A.L. Perry – the best selling American economist of the mid and late 19th century, and the leading voice for free trade in American economics.

    In France the “liberal school” (of the Say family, Bastiat and others) was indeed, as Ian B, says, better than the main British economists of the time.

    They even had some political influence – with Napoleon III (of all people) making some free trade moves. By the way Karl Marx had trouble classifying Napoleon III and his regime.

    Napoleon III could not seriously be claimed to be the representative of the “capitalists” (as the French factory owners wanted taxes on imports to keep out competition), nor could he be said to be a representative of the Feudal landowners (what Feudal landowners? in France the vast majority of land was directly owned by the farmers).

    But, in the Marxist scheme of thought, every government must represent a “class” – and Napoleon III could not be said to represent the farmers and workers, so what to do?

    In the end Karl Marx solved his theoretical problem by saying that Napoleon III’s regime represented the class of the criminals and lay-abouts the “lumpen proletariat” .

    Karl solved the problem of dealing with his rivals, the French socialists, even more simply – they were subhuman, Jews (The Red Prussian had a magical ability to forget his own ethnic origins “the businessman is an inwardly circumcised Jew” and on and on) and “niggers”. “The Jewish Nigger L….. represents that part of Paris that includes the zoo, which is entirely appropriate as he is that bit closer to the animal kingdom than the rest of us” (and on and on).

    I sometimes wonder how much the modern P.C. Frankfurt School “Critical Theory” Marxists (including Barack Obama) actually know about their hero. Still back to Bastiat …

    How did it all fall apart?

    How did American economics get taken over by people like the (German educated) Richard Ely – with A.L. Perry becoming a forgotten name, and the Austrian School Frank Fetter side lined (with Irving Fisher being pushed forward as the FAKE voice of the free market)?

    French economics remained liberal (in the classical sense) the forces of Social Justice did not succeed in corrupting French Liberal School economics – but the government just BYPASSED them, by creating a new subject “Public Administration” (which served the same purpose as German Historical School “economics”).

    Even as a late as the 1920s French thought was still seen (for example by the French educated American Irving Babbitt) as a pro freedom alterative to German thought – not just in economics, but in the general liberal arts (Jacques Barzun, who recently died in Texas, was perhaps the last living representative of this humanist French thought – of a time when the term “French culture” did not mean left bank intellectuals sitting about mixing Marxism with other drivel).

    French thought still produced noted economists great general liberal (real liberal – enemies of Social Justice) thinkers such as Bertrand de Jouvenel (whose influence upon the modern writer Antony De Jasay is clear) – yet the modern history of France (like the modern history of Britain and the United States) has been the history of defeat. Ideologically the Social Justice supporters have won control of the education system and the media – and politically they dominate.

    Why did we lose?

  4. Why is Bastiat virtually forgotten – yet the nonentity Karl Marx held up as a great thinker?

    Why (in the modern age) are such people as Bertrand de Jouvenel and Antony De Jasay almost unknown names – yet nonentities, such as John Rawls, are celebrated?

    This is the riddle of the long death of our civilisation.

  5. Why is Bastiat virtually forgotten – yet the nonentity Karl Marx held up as a great thinker?

    Because Bastiat was an honest man who described reality, whereas Marx and his ilk promise Utopia; and worse, a nonsensical pseudo-academic Utopia that appeals to pseudo-intellectuals.

  6. Agreed Ian.

    And much the same could be said of John Rawls – with income in return for…. well in return for NOTHING, Because as a member of a society someone has a right to the stuff of other people.

    And if someone thinks theft is wrong? Have no fear “beyond the veil of ignorance” you will no longer have “ideas of the good”

    A bit like a radical lobotomy.

  7. Julie near Chicago

    I think M. Bastiat must have borrowed Doc Brown’s DeLorean and driven (flown?) it up here for a spell.

    Paul — I’ve never liked that “marketplace of ideas” metaphor for some reason. (Everyone relax, I won’t go into the psychology of it.) “War of ideas” is much more apt.

    W.P., thanks for posting Mr. Stromberg’s piece. Downright inspiring. I’m wondering if the attention-spans of certain persons of my acquaintance are up to it.

  8. Yes Julie – how can it be a “market place” when people are not spending their own money? It is like (to take words from Mises) playing with a train set in the antic – and thinking one is running a real railroad company.

    To give a couple of examples….

    On monetary policy Frank Fetter was right and Irving Fisher was wrong – yet in the 1920s the universities (and the Federal Reserve) choose the ideas of Irving Fisher over Frank Fetter – and even decades later Milton Friedman was still claiming that Fisher (who was astonished by the bust of 1921 and by the bust of 1929) was “the greatest American economist of the 20th century”.

    Not much of a marketplace of ideas there – because teaching students nonsense has no negative consequences (not for the person doing the teaching).

    If I go and buy rat poison and drink it I am unlikely to do the same thing again (even if I survive). But if I teach “Irving Fisher was the greatest American economist of the 20th century” – how am I harmed? This is not a market place.

    It is the same in political philosophy – there is no down side for teaching that the ideas John Rawls supported were wonderful (again there in no market feedback here – it is not a market place).

    At least when I went to collage the leftists held up John Rawls as the leading ANTI libertarian in modern political philosophy – the leading justifier of statist “distribution” of income and wealth. They just said he was a great mind and that his ravings (most notably “A Theory of Justice” which Hayek never studied – but which I had to read) were the highest level of political philosophy.

    But why not go further? Why not say that the ideas of John Rawls(actually ideas that go back thousands of years before Rawls) are not the enemy of Classical Liberalism and libertarianism – why not say they are the basis of Classical Liberalism and libertarianism? Why not say that the Moon is made of cheese and that water is dry and circles are square (as with “compulsory charity”).?

    Nothing is going to happen to someone who lies like this. Other than promotion and celebration as a “leading intellectual”.

    This is not a market place – it has nothing to with a market place.

  9. Paul, I suppose it comes down to the reality in the “marketplace of ideas” that most people want to hear not truth but soothing words. So they prefer Keynes to Mises, or Rawls to Bastiat.

    The irony being that Rawls (for instance) has made a career out of promoting “fairness”, when in fact the libertarian society is far more fair than anything promoted by his kind. It’s depressing.

  10. Julie near Chicago

    But it doesn’t sound fair. “Equal shares for all, and everybody gets the same” sounds fair.

    But when somebody puts in more effort, or gets better results (not necessarily the same thing — which in itself is unfair, but that’s life), he’s vaguely disappointed if he doesn’t get at the least a little pat on the back. A larger slice of cake would be even nicer. And that’s “only fair.”

    So those two conceptions of fairness, or measures of fairness, are completely at odds. How do you square that circle? You can’t, it’s impossible.

  11. Yes Ian – it is depressing, but we have reality on our side. A terrible ally (the ally of Kipling’s “The Gods of the Copybook Headings”), but an ally just the same.

    Their system will collapse – it runs against objective reality, So if we die (and all people die) we will die vindicated.

    Julie – the central question is (as you know) one of ownership.

    If the “pie” really did belong to kind Daddy collective – then talk of “fair shares” would have meaning. But income and wealth come into existence already owned – and not owned by the collective.

  12. Julie near Chicago

    Yes, Paul, that’s a good way to put it. If the average Joe Doakes is in the midst of making something, and somebody comes along and tries to grab it out of his hand, he is not going to look kindly on that. And he will put up a fight, to hold onto his property–even though the thing isn’t entirely “made” yet–unless the other guy is holding a gun on him or something. The thing he’s making isn’t finished yet–but it’s his.

    The “collective” has nothing to do with it.

    Human beings are not ants. We have a different nature.

  13. Julia, you may enjoy a previous comment of mine on ants-

    Or not.