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.
The socialists were in ascendancy in France in Bastiat’s day, which was the primary purpose he wrote this essay The Law. Bastiat hoped to convince his fellow citizens that socialism was a bad, bad mistake. He actually managed that for a while, until people stopped reading his essay and started listening to socialists again. Lela
Socialists, Bastiat said, are engaged in legal plunder, but they disguise it cleverly “under the seductive names of fraternity, solidarity, organization, association.”
We only ask the law to deliver justice, but the socialists alleged Bastiat and his fellow thinkers were rejecting “fraternity, solidarity, organization, and association; and they brand us with the name of individualists.”
Then as now, people who think like Bastiat insist that we are not repudiating natural organization, but forced organization that does not permit free association. Imposed association “is not spontaneous fraternity, but legal fraternity. It is not providential solidarity, but artificial solidarity, which is only an unjust displacement of responsibility.”
Socialism deliberately mixes up government and society, so:
every time we object to a thing being done by Government, it concludes that we object to its being done at all. We disapprove of education by the State—then we are against education altogether. We object to a State religion—then we would have no religion at all. We object to an equality which is brought about by the State then we are against equality, etc., etc. They might as well accuse us of wishing men not to eat, because we object to the cultivation of corn by the State.
The law cannot produce prosperity as represented by wealth, science, religion and a host of other positives. The law can only provide justice and that so long as it isn’t perverted. So how did this strange notion that the law can provide prosperity or anything other than justice come into the political realm? “The modern politicians, particularly those of the Socialist school, found their different theories upon one common hypothesis; and surely a more strange, a more presumptuous notion, could never have entered a human brain.”
They divide mankind into two parts. The people form one part and the politician (individually or collectively) form the other part and this second part is “by far the most important.” Politicians begin by supposing that people are devoid of any principle of action or means of discernment in themselves. The politician believes that people have no initiative, as if they were:
at best a vegetation indifferent to its own mode of existence, susceptible of assuming, from an exterior will and hand an infinite number of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.
Politicians almost invariably believe they have a mission to organize society based upon their own higher understanding of society’s needs and they do not hesitate to impose their will upon people to accomplish their purposes.
Bastiat asked us to imagine a gardener who sculpts his trees into various shapes and sizes using tools for that purpose. The politician uses the law to sculpt society into his capricious vision. So there is the law of tariffs, the law of taxation, the law of assistance and the law of education:
[T]he Socialists look upon mankind as a subject for social experiments, that if, by chance, they are not quite certain of the success of these experiments, they will request a portion of mankind, as a subject to experiment upon. It is well known how popular the idea of trying all systems is, and one of their chiefs has been known seriously to demand of the Constituent Assembly a parish, with all its inhabitants, upon which to make his experiments.
An inventor makes a prototype before he puts out what he plans to sell. A chemist wastes some material in proving an experiment. A farmer might use a corner of his field as a trial for an idea.While these experiments in social design seem like a good idea, we forget that the gardener, the inventor, the chemist and the farmer are experimenting on inanimate objects that have no life of their own. The Socialist honestly views mankind in a similar fashion. We aren’t doing anything with our lives, so we should allow the Socialist to make us better.
No wonder the politicians of the nineteenth century look upon society as an artificial production of the legislator’s genius. This idea, the result of a classical education, has taken possession of all the thinkers and great writers of our country.
To the central government planner, ordinary citizens are mere mud in manipulative hands. They’re doing it for our good, so why do we object? If they even recognize that ordinary people can act in their own best interest of their own accord, they reject that we have a right to make these decisions for ourselves:
“They have taken it for granted that if abandoned to their own inclinations, men would only occupy themselves with religion to arrive at atheism, with instruction to come to ignorance, and with labor and exchange to be extinguished in misery.”
Remember, Bastiat was writing in the 1840s, but doesn’t what he says politicians of his day though sound eerily like some of the things Barack Obama and his administration said over the last eight years? Don’t we hear this echoed from PBS news anchors every night?
There is an omnipresent belief among politicians (and it doesn’t matter which party) and government planners that ordinary citizens can’t possibly know what is good for us … we are mud, in their opinion, in need of their pottery skills.