Introducing Bastiat’s “The Law”   Leave a comment

I read a lot, but I had somehow not read Bastiat’s “The Law” until a few years ago when I started listening to Patriot’s Lament. I read “That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen” back in college, but Josh reminded me of it and after I had reread it, I discovered “The Law.” I highly recommend it. When I finished my survey of “Economics in One Lesson” I wanted to continue the educational love, and this seems so appropriate to the time we live in today.

Frédéric Bastiat’s classic essay, “The Law.” was first published in 1850 by the great French economist and journalist. It is a clear a statement on the original American ideal of government, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence — that the main purpose of any government is the protection of the lives, liberties, and property of its citizens.

Bastiat believed that all human beings possessed the God-given, natural rights of individuality, liberty, property. These three gifts from God precede all human legislation. Yet, writing in the late 1840s, Bastiat was alarmed to see how the law had been “perverted” into an instrument of what he called “legal plunder”. Rather than protecting individual rights, the law was increasingly used to deprive one group of citizens of their inherent rights for the benefit of another group, and especially for the benefit of the State itself. (When I use the word “State” here, I mean the government at all levels). Bastiat condemned the legal plunder of protectionist tariffs, government subsidies of all kinds, progressive taxation, public schools, government “jobs” programs, minimum wage laws, welfare, usury laws, and more.

Bastiat’s warnings of the dire effects of legal plunder remain relevant today. The system of legal plunder, even within a system of democracy, “will erase from everyone’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice”. He saw that the plundered classes would eventually figure out how to enter the political game and plunder their fellow man. Legislation will never be guided by any principles of justice, but only by brute political force.

Bastiat also forecast the corruption of education by the State. Those who held “government-endowed teaching positions” would rarely criticize legal plunder because it would affect their bottom line.

Bastiat believed the system of legal plunder would greatly exaggerate the importance of politics in society. He recognized the unhealthiness of this because it would encourage even more citizens to seek to improve their own well-being not by producing goods and services for the marketplace but by plundering their fellow citizens through politics.

Bastiat anticipated what modern economists call “rent seeking” and “rent avoidance” behavior, referring to the phenomena of lobbying for political favors (legal plunder), and engaging in political activity directed at protecting oneself from being the victim of plunder seekers.We see this today in the steel industr’s call for high tariffs on imported steel while at the same time, industries that use steel lobby against high tariffs on steel. There’s a high opportunity cost involved in these conflicting efforts – the more time, effort and money that is spent by businesses trying to manipulate politics rather than producing goods and services. Thus, legal plunder impoverishes the entire society despite the fact that a small part of the society benefits from it. Yes, Hazlitt had read Bastiat too.

In reading “The Law”, I marveled at how prescient Bastiat was in describing the statists of his day which bore such striking resemblance to the statists of today and the era in between. The French “socialists” of Bastiat’s day espoused doctrines that perverted charity, education, and morals. Bastiat pointed out that true charity does not begin with the robbery of taxation.

Socialists want “to play God,” Bastiat observed, anticipating all the future tyrants and despots of the world who would try to remake the world in their image, whether that image would be communism, fascism, the “glorious union,” or “global democracy.” The socialists of Bastiat’s day wanted forced conformity; rigid regimentation of the population through pervasive regulation; forced equality of wealth; and dictatorship. This made them mortal enemies of liberty.

“Dictatorship” need not involve an actual dictator. According to Bastiat, all that was needed was “the laws,” enacted by a legislature, that would achieve the same effect: forced conformity.

Bastiat wisely pointed out that the world has far too many “great men,” “fathers of their countries,” etc., who in reality are usually nothing but petty tyrants with a sick and compulsive desire to rule over others. The defenders of the free society should have a healthy disrespect for all such men.

Bastiat admired America and pointed to the America of 1850 as being as close as any society in the world to his ideal of a government that protected individual rights to life, liberty, and property. There were two major exceptions:

  • chattel slavery
  • protectionist tariffs.

Frédéric Bastiat died on Christmas Eve, 1850, and did not live to observe the convulsions that the America he admired would go through in the next fifteen years, with ongoing collateral damage for more than a century following. He probably would not have admired the US government’s military invasion of the Southern states in 1861, the killing of some 300,000 citizens, and the bombing, burning, and plundering of the region’s cities, towns, farms, and businesses. He would have rejected it as inconsistent with the protection of the lives, liberties and properties of those citizens as promised by the Declaration of Independence. Had he lived to see all of this, he most likely would have added “legal murder” to “legal plunder” as one of the two great sins of the US government.

He would likely have viewed the post-war Republican Party, with its 50% average tariff rates, its massive corporate welfare schemes, and its 25-year campaign of genocide against the Plains Indians as first-rate plunderers and traitors to the American ideal. He would have objected to the usurpation of individual rights by the collective force as the US government sought to impose its will around the world during the 20th century in the United States. He’d have wept for us over what our government has become in the 21st century.

Knowledge is power. We can’t fix what’s wrong until we understand what is wrong. Bastiat foresaw where we were headed 160 years ago.

Law Perverted

How Is the Law Perverted

Risks of Universal Suffrage

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