Frederik 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.
Table of Contents for the series can be found here.
The law perverted! The law—and, in its wake, all the collective forces of the nation—the law, I say, not only diverted from its proper direction, but made to pursue one entirely contrary! The law become the tool of every kind of avarice, instead of being its check! The law guilty of that very iniquity which it was its mission to punish! Truly, this is a serious fact, if it exists, and one to which I feel bound to call the attention of my fellow citizens.
One of the things I enjoy about Bastiat is that he was an entertaining writer.This is how he started his essay, immediately setting the tone of urgency that he wanted his readers to feel.
God gave humans physical, intellectual and moral life, but life cannot support itself, so God gave us brains and abilities that we are meant to use to sustain ourselves.
Bastiat called these abilities “personality, liberty, property” and he said these are inherent to being human. Apart from anything else, they are “superior to all human legislation.” They precede any act of man because they are the source of mankind’s acts.
What, then, is law? … [I]t is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.
Whether you call it Nature or God, humans have been endowed by what makes us human with a right to defend their persons, liberty, and property because these three are essential elements of life, supported and completed by each other.
If an individual has a right to defend himself, even by force, that a group of people have a right to join together to “organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense.”
Collective rights are an extension of individual rights, so collective forces can only do what individuals are permitted to do. Individuals may not lawfully touch the person, liberty or property of another individual, so individuals formed into a common force cannot lawfully touch the person, liberty or property of individuals or classes. Acting collectively does not give us the authority to annihilate the equal rights of others.
The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense; it is the substitution of collective for individual forces, for the purpose of acting in the sphere in which they have a right to act, of doing what they have a right to do, to secure persons, liberties, and properties, and to maintain each in its right, so as to cause justice to reign over all.
If a nation was established on this basis, there would be order in their activites – they would have the “least oppressive, … most restrained, most just, and, consequently, the most stable Government that could be imagined.” The function of the State (collective) would be to protect prosperity and ensure personal safety so that individuals would be free to buy and sell, work and employ as they see fit.
The State would stay out of our private affairs, so our “wants and their satisfactions would develop themselves in their natural order.” What did that mean?
- Poor families wouldn’t seek education before they were able to feed themselves
- Towns wouldn’t operate at the expense of rural districts
- Rural districts wouldn’t operate at the expense of cities.
- We wouldn’t see great displacements of capital, labor, and population.
Unfortunately, the law has broken lose of its proper sphere. It has placed the collective force in the service of those who wish to traffic in the persons, the liberty, and the property of others.
It has converted plunder into a right, that it may protect it, and lawful defense into a crime, that it may punish it.