Frédéric Bastiat was a contemporary with Alexis de Toqueville and they both came from France. Both were admirers of the United States who noted risks to that wonderful experiment in constitutional republicanism with democratic features. While Toqueville focused on the United States in the most familiar of his writing, Bastiat focused on France while touching on the United States system. I find Bastiat’s writing to be prescient. He spoke to his own time and society, but he could have been addressing his comments to American circa 2017.
To read the entire series, here is the Table of Contents.
Although Bastiat did not start with a definition of plunder, I felt it was too important to the essay to not put his definition at the forefront of the series.
Bastiat had already written for 10 pages before he decided to explain his meaning of the word “plunder”.
I do not take it, as it often is taken, in a vague, undefined, relative, or metaphorical sense. I use it in its scientific acceptation, and as expressing the opposite idea to property.
For Bastiat, plunder was “when a portion of wealth passes out of the hands of him who has acquired it, without his consent, and without compensation, to him who has not created it, whether by force or by artifice.”
Whenever property is violated, plunder is perpetrated. Bastiat submitted that the law ought to repress plunder always and everywhere. If the law itself is used to plunder rather than repress plunder, then Bastiat still called that “plunder” and considered it to actually be worse if the government did it instead of highway robbers. Why? Because the person who profits from the plunder is not directly responsible for the plunder. It is the law, legislator, and society itself that presents a danger to our production.
Bastiat wished he had a better word, something that didn’t have such an offensive connotation. He didn’t want to impugn the intentions or morality of anyone. He was attacking an idea that he believed was false that created a system that appeared to be unjust. We each profit from the system whether we wish it or not and suffer from it whether or not we are aware of the cause. This understanding does not speak to intentions.
Protectionism, socialism, including communism, are really all part of the same plant at different stages of its growth. Protectionism is partial plunder. Communism is universal plunder. Socialism is more vague and undefined, offered by sincere people who misconceive philanthropy. He didn’t doubt their intentions were well-meant while at the same time refuting their idea.