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.
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Woe to the nation where this latter thought prevails amongst the masses, at the moment when they, in their turn, seize upon the legislative power!
Bastiat warned that when the people are allowed to vote and then decide they want to partake in the plunder available through the force of the collective, that is a huge danger to a nation.
Up to that point, lawful plunder has been exercised by the few against the many — the legislators against the people.
But now it has become universal, and the equilibrium is sought in universal plunder. The injustice that society contains, instead of being rooted out of it, is generalized. As soon as the injured classes have recovered their political rights, their first thought is not to abolish plunder, but to organize against the other classes, and to their own detriment, a system of reprisals—as if it was necessary, before the reign of justice arrives, that all should undergo a cruel retribution—some for their iniquity and some for their ignorance.
Thus the law is converted into an instrument of plunder.
What are the consequences? There are many, so Bastiat focused on only the most striking one.
We all want to believe that what is law is justice. We want to believe that the society we live in is a just and moral one. But when law and morality contradict each other, we entertain cognitive dissonance. Either we lose our moral sense or our respect for the law. So for many people, if the law says it’s right, then it must be moral. Slavery, oppression and monopoly have been defended by earnest people. They don’t need to have profited from these systems. Some defenders are the victim of these unjust systems. They will argue that standing against such a system as, say, slavery, is utopian, unlawful, and destabilizing.
So that if a law exists that sanctions slavery or monopoly, oppression or plunder, in any form whatever, it must not even be mentioned—for how can it be mentioned without damaging the respect that it inspires? Still further, morality and political economy must be taught in connection with this law—that is, under the supposition that it must be just, only because it is law.
Human passions tend to become involved in political struggles, which gives politics an exaggerated importance.
Think about universal suffrage. It’s an ideal that many in Bastiat’s day said was sacred and here in the United States we have the same feeling today. Doubting this is treated like a crime.
Bastiat had serious objections. First, “universal” was a misnomer. In the late 1840s, France had 36 million inhabitants, but only about nine million could vote. Three people out of four were excluded by the fourth that could vote based upon the principle of incapacity.
“Universal suffrage … means universal suffrage of those who are capable.”
We don’t allow children to vote. In Bastiat’s day, the electorate didn’t allow women to vote. If you have a felony conviction, you may be unable to vote in many states and countries.Why do we prevent children and felons from voting? Because they are presumed to be incapable of assuming the responsibility of their vote. It is understood that every vote engages and affects the community at large and the community has a right to demand some assurances as to the ability of voters to understand what they are doing.
Why are we concerned about that? Because their votes can change the law so that it doesn’t respect everybody, their liberties or their property. It could impact public peace because some people might vote to inconvenience others.
But let’s say we open up the polls to anyone who pays taxes. That seems safe … or does it?
Even beggars and vagabonds will prove to you that they have an incontestable title to it. They will say: We never buy wine, tobacco, or salt, without paying the tax, and a part of this tax is given by law in perquisites and gratuities to men who are richer than we are. Others make use of the law to create an artificial rise in the price of bread, meat, iron, or cloth.
Of course, we want the law to be fair, to prevent the poor man from being plundered. So we consider it only justice that we arrange government so that beggers can be fairly treated, just like anyone else.
Then manufacturers note that they pay a lot of taxes, so they deserve fair treatment too.
Thus we decided that the law may be diverted from its true mission. It is considered all right to violate property instead of securing it. Pretty soon everybody wants to use the law to defend himself against plunder or to organize it for his own profit.
Bastiat admired the United States of the 1840s.
There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain—which is, to secure to everyone his liberty and his property. Therefore, there is no country in the world where social order appears to rest upon a more solid basis.
These two endangered America’s political order. Bastiat didn’t know that in a few years, slavery would tear the nation apart, but he foresaw that it might.
Slavery is a violation, sanctioned by law, of the rights of the person.
Tariffs are an attempt to protect the nation’s various manufacturing interests from outside interests.
Protection is a violation perpetrated by the law upon the rights of property.
Bastiat foresaw these as the only two things that could “caust the rupture of the Union.”
Law can become an instrument of injustice. It was a risk to the solidity of the United State that only has one exception, so it was even a great risk to France that had so many.