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
According to Bastiat, government social planner-types are convinced that ordinary human beings are incapable of making wise decisions for themselves, but there are some people — namely politicians:
[U]pon whom Heaven has bestowed opposite tendencies, not for their own sake only, but for the sake of the rest of the world. Whilst mankind tends to evil, they incline to good; whilst mankind is advancing towards darkness, they are aspiring to enlightenment; whilst mankind is drawn towards vice, they are attracted by virtue. And, this granted, they demand the assistance of force, by means of which they are to substitute their own tendencies for those of the human race.
To make his case, Bastiat provided a survey of literature, because it “is only needful to open, almost at random, a book on philosophy, politics, or history, to see how strongly this idea—the child of classical studies and the mother of socialism—is rooted in our country; that mankind is merely inert matter, receiving life, organization, morality, and wealth from power; or, rather, and still worse—that mankind itself tends towards degradation, and is only arrested in its tendency by the mysterious hand of the legislator.”
Bastiat started with a quotation by Jacques-Benigne Bousset – a French theologian of the previous generation who was court preacher of Louix XIV. He was a strong advocate for political absolutism and the divine right of kings and a vocal opponent of Protestantism.
One of the things which was the most strongly impressed (by whom?) upon the mind of the Egyptians, was the love of their country. . . . Nobody was allowed to be useless to the State; the law assigned to every one his employment, which descended from father to son. No one was permitted to have two professions, nor to adopt another. . . . But there was one occupation which was obliged to be common to all, this was the study of the laws and of wisdom; ignorance of religion and the political regulations of the country was excused in no condition of life. Moreover, every profession had a district assigned to it (by whom?). . . . Amongst good laws, one of the best things was, that everybody was taught to observe them (by whom?). Egypt abounded with wonderful inventions, and nothing was neglected which could render life comfortable and tranquil.
Bastiat objected to Bossuet’s assertion that men derive nothing from themselves, that all patriotism, wealth, innovation, husbandry, science, etc., flows from the king and the system of laws these people live under. Bossuet saw the same pattern among the Persians, by the way:
One of the first cares of the prince was to encourage agriculture. . . . As there were posts established for the regulation of the armies, so there were offices for the superintending of rural works. . . . The respect with which the Persians were inspired for royal authority was excessive. The Greeks, although full of mind, were no less strangers to their own responsibilities; so much so, that of themselves, like dogs and horses, they would not have ventured upon the most simple games. In a classical sense, it is an undisputed thing that everything comes to the people from without.
The Greeks, naturally full of spirit and courage, had been early cultivated by kings and colonies who had come from Egypt. From them they had learned the exercises of the body, foot races, and horse and chariot races. . . . The best thing that the Egyptians had taught them was to become docile, and to allow themselves to be formed by the laws for the public good.
Francois Fenelon was a student of Bussuet’s who disagreed strongly with him over the love of God, but Bastiat found that they agreed on this subject of the wise ruling class needing to guide the poor dumb brutes that composed the majority of society. Reared in the study and admiration of antiquity and a witness of the power of Louis XIV, Fenelon adopted the idea that mankind should be passive, recognizing that its misfortunes and prosperities, virtues and vices, are caused by the external influence that is exercised upon it by the law or the law’s makers. In Utopia of Salentum, he brings ordinary people, with their interests, their faculties, their desires, and their possessions, under the absolute direction of the legislator:
Whatever the subject may be, they themselves have no voice in it—the prince judges for them. The nation is just a shapeless mass, of which the prince is the soul. In him resides the thought, the foresight, the principle of all organization, of all progress; on him, therefore, rests all the responsibility.
Bastiat referred his readers to Fenelon’s The Adventures of Telemachus, particularly the 10th book of the series. He quoted from it at random to show Fenelon’s all-consuming belief that human beings cannot manage their own lives without the ruling class telling them how to do it:
We could not turn our eyes to the two shores, without perceiving rich towns and country seats, agreeably situated; fields that were covered every year, without intermission, with golden crops; meadows full of flocks; laborers bending under the weight of fruits that the earth lavished on its cultivators; and shepherds who made the echoes around repeat the soft sounds of their pipes and flutes. “Happy,” said Mentor, “is that people who is governed by a wise king.”. . . Mentor afterwards desired me to remark the happiness and abundance that was spread over all the country of Egypt, where twenty-two thousand
cities might be counted. He admired the excellent police regulations of the cities; the justice administered in favor of the poor against the rich; the good education of the children, who were accustomed to obedience, labor, and the love of arts and letters; the exactness with which all the ceremonies of religion were performed; the disinterestedness, the desire of honor, the fidelity to men, and the fear of the gods, with which every father inspired his children. He could not sufficiently admire the prosperous state of the country. “Happy” said he, “is the people whom a wise king rules in such a manner.
Fénelon’s idyll on Crete is still more fascinating. Mentor is made to say:
All that you will see in this wonderful island is the result of the laws of Minos. The education that the children receive renders the body healthy and robust. They are accustomed, from the first, to a frugal and laborious life; it is supposed that all the
pleasures of sense enervate the body and the mind; no other pleasure is presented to them but that of being invincible by virtue, that of acquiring much glory . . . there they punish three vices that go unpunished amongst other people—ingratitude, dissimulation, and avarice. As to pomp and dissipation, there is no need to punish these, for they are
unknown in Crete. . . . No costly furniture, no magnificent clothing, no delicious feasts, no gilded palaces are allowed.
Mentor’s purpose is to prepare his scholar to mold and manipulate the people of Ithaca, for their own good, no doubt, even if it is against their will.
So we receive our first political notions. We are taught to treat men very much as farmers treat soil or potters clay.
Charles-Louis de Montesquieu was a French lawyer, scholar and political philosopher who lived in the Age of Englightment. We get separation of powers from him. We also get our modern notion of class from him as he divided French society into three — the monarchy, the aristocracy and the commons. Bastiat may have met him as they both lived in Paris at the same time. Despite his strong influence on our Founders, Montesquieu also believed in the ruling class telling the commons what to do in pretty much every instance.
To sustain the spirit of commerce, it is necessary that all the laws should favor it; that these same laws, by their regulations in dividing the fortunes in proportion as commerce enlarges them, should place every poor citizen in sufficiently easy circumstances to enable him to work like the others, and every rich citizen in such mediocrity that he must work, in order to retain or to acquire.
Bastiat rightly recognized that this would eliminate all fortunes. Yes, in a democracy, the State should support “real equality”, but that is very difficult to measure. Montesquieu would see massive redistribution of wealth … equalization by force of the law.
There were, in Greece, two kinds of republics. One was military, as Sparta; the other commercial, as Athens. In the one it was wished (by whom?) that the citizens should be idle: in the other, the love of labor was encouraged. It is worth our while to pay a little attention to the extent of genius required by these legislators, that we may see how, by confounding all the virtues, they showed their wisdom to the world.
Lycurgus, blending theft with the spirit of justice, the hardest slavery with extreme liberty, the most atrocious sentiments with the greatest moderation, gave stability to his city. He seemed to deprive it of all its resources, arts, commerce, money, and walls; there was ambition without the hope of rising; there were natural sentiments where the individual was neither child, nor husband, nor father. Chastity even was deprived of modesty. By this road Sparta was led on to grandeur and to glory.
The phenomenon that we observe in the institutions of Greece has been seen in the midst of the degeneracy and corruption of our modern times. An honest legislator has formed a people where probity has appeared as natural as bravery among the Spartans. Mr. Penn is a true Lycurgus, and although the former had peace for his object, and the latter war, they resemble each other in the singular path along which they have led their people, in their influence over free men, in the prejudices which they have overcome, the passions they have subdued.
America’s founders admired Rouseau, but it’s important to remember that that his philosophies ignited the French Revolution. Although Rousseau’s philosophy held strong authority with the democrats, Bastiat thought him a strong advocate for “the entire passiveness of human nature: in the presence of the lawgiver:
If it is true that a great prince is a rare thing, how much more so must a great lawgiver be? The former has only to follow the pattern proposed to him by the latter. This latter is the engineer who invents the machine; the former is merely the workman who sets it in motion.
And what part have men to act in all this? That of the machine, which is set in motion; or rather, are they not the brute matter of which the machine is made? Thus, between the legislator and the prince, between the prince and his subjects, there are the same relations as those that exist between the agricultural writer and the agriculturist, the agriculturist and the clod. At what a vast height, then, is the politician placed, who rules over legislators themselves and teaches them their trade in such imperative terms as the following:
Would you give consistency to the State? Bring the extremes together as much as possible. Suffer neither wealthy persons nor beggars.
If the soil is poor and barren, or the country too much confined for the inhabitants, turn to industry and the arts, whose productions you will exchange for the provisions which you require. . . . On a good soil, if you are short of inhabitants, give all your attention to agriculture, which multiplies men, and banish the arts, which only serve to depopulate the country. . . . Pay attention to extensive and convenient coasts. Cover the sea with vessels, and you will have a brilliant and short existence. If your seas wash only inaccessible rocks, let the people be barbarous, and eat fish; they will live more quietly, perhaps better, and most certainly more happily. In short, besides those maxims which are common to all, every people has its own particular circumstances, which demand a legislation peculiar to itself.
Bastiat found it interesting that Rousseau though the government should reflect the needs of the nation, but didn’t reaction that the nation could reflect its own needs without help from the government.
Why does he not allow that by obeying their own impulse, men would of themselves apply agriculture to a fertile district, and commerce to extensive and commodious coasts without the interference of a Lycurgus, a Solon, or a Rousseau, who would undertake it at the risk of deceiving themselves?
Be that as it may, we see with what a terrible responsibility Rousseau invests inventors, institutors, conductors, and manipulators of societies. He is, therefore, very exacting with regard to them.
Bastiat might well have said to Barack Obama that daring to undertake the fundamental transformation of the American nation requires manipulating every individual, denying him his right to live his life as he chooses. “He must feel that he can change the constitution of man, to fortify it, and substitute a social and moral existence for the physical and independent one that we have all received from nature. In a word, he must
deprive man of his own powers, to give him others that are foreign to him.”
Where is the dignity in that?
Bastiat continued his survey with a quote by Guillaume Thomas Raynal, a French writer and scholar during the Enlightment;
The climate, that is, the air and the soil, is the first element for the legislator. His resources prescribe to him his duties. First, he must consult his local position. A population dwelling upon maritime shores must have laws fitted for navigation. . . . If the colony is located in an inland region, a legislator must provide for the nature of the soil, and for its degree of fertility. . . . It is more especially in the distribution of property that the wisdom of legislation will appear. As a general rule, and in every country, when a new
colony is founded, land should be given to each man, sufficient for the support of his family. . . . In an uncultivated island, which you are colonizing with children, it will only be needful to let the germs of truth expand in the developments of reason!
. . . But when you establish old people in a new country, the skill consists in only allowing it those injurious opinions and customs which it is impossible to cure and correct. If you wish to prevent them from being perpetuated, you will act upon the rising generation by a general and public education of the children. A prince or legislator ought never to found a colony without previously sending wise men there to instruct the youth…. In a new colony, every facility is open to the precautions of the legislator who desires to purify the tone and the manners of the people. If he has genius and virtue, the lands and the men that are at his disposal will inspire his soul with a plan of society that a writer can only vaguely trace, and in a way that would be subject to the instability of all hypotheses, which are varied and complicated by an infinity of circumstances too difficult to foresee and to combine.
Bastiat noted that Raynal wrote as if he were a professor of agriculture telling his pupils how best to amend the soil. But the soil that he is discussing happen to be people, “your equals, intelligent and free beings like yourselves, who have received from God, as you have, the faculty of seeing, of foreseeing, of thinking, and of judging for themselves!”
Bastiat continued by quoting Gabriel Bonnot de Mably, a French philosopher and historian of the 18th century.
Mably was writing that the laws can become obsolete and sometimes neglect security, so:
Under these circumstances, we must be convinced that the bonds of Government are slack. Give them a new tension (it is the reader who is addressed), and the evil will be remedied. . . . Think less of punishing the faults than of encouraging the virtues that you want. By this method you will bestow upon your republic the vigor of youth.
Through ignorance of this, a free people has lost its liberty! But if the evil has made so much way that the ordinary magistrates are unable to remedy it effectually, have recourse to an extraordinary magistracy, whose time should be short, and its power considerable. The imagination of the citizens requires to be impressed.
In other words, treat your subjects like children until they rebel and then come down on them hard. “There was a time when, under the influence of teaching like this, which is the foundation of classical education, everyone was for placing himself beyond and above
mankind, for the sake of arranging, organizing, and instituting it in his own way.”
Bastiat wasn’t done yet with showing his readers what their leaders had been learning. He quoted Etienne Bonnot de Condillac, a French epistemologist who studies psychology:
Take upon yourself, my lord, the character of Lycurgus or of Solon. Before you finish reading this essay, amuse yourself with giving laws to some wild people in America or in Africa. Establish these roving men in fixed dwellings; teach them to keep flocks. . . . Endeavor to develop the social qualities that nature has implanted in them. . . . Make them begin to practice the duties of humanity. . . . Cause the pleasures of the passions to become distasteful to them by punishments, and you will see these barbarians, with every plan of your legislation, lose a vice and gain a virtue.
All these people have had laws. But few among them have been happy. Why is this? Because legislators have almost always been ignorant of the object of society, which is to unite families by a common interest. Impartiality in law consists in two things, in establishing equality in the fortunes and in the dignity of the citizens. . . . In proportion to the degree of equality established by the laws, the dearer will they become to every citizen. How can avarice, ambition, dissipation, idleness, sloth, envy, hatred, or jealousy agitate men who are equal in fortune and dignity, and to whom the laws leave no hope of disturbing their equality? What has been told you of the republic of Sparta ought to enlighten you on this question. No other State has had laws more in accordance with the order of nature or of equality.
Bastiat thought we shouldn’t be surprised that 17th and 18th century thinkers thought of people as inert matter, ready to receive everything down to the thoughts we think from a great prince, or legislator, or genius. They had been educated bo believe that few men in history had molded mankind according to their fancy, enslaved by the force of the law.
And what does this prove? That because men and society are improvable, error, ignorance, despotism, slavery, and superstition must be more prevalent in early times. The mistake of the writers quoted above is not that they have asserted this fact, but that they have proposed it as a rule for the admiration and imitation of future generations. Their mistake has been, with an inconceivable absence of discernment, and upon the faith of a puerile conventionalism, that they have admitted what is inadmissible, viz., the grandeur, dignity, morality, and well-being of the artificial societies of the ancient world; they have not understood that time produces and spreads enlightenment; and that in proportion to the increase of enlightenment, right ceases to be upheld by force, and society regains possession of herself.
Bastiat believed in the instinctive effort of people toward liberty. “[W]hat is liberty, whose name can make every heart beat, and which can agitate the world, but the union of all liberties, the liberty of conscience, of education, of association, of the press, of movement, of labor, and of exchange; in other words, the free exercise, for all, of all the inoffensive faculties; and again, in other words, the destruction of all despotisms, even of legal despotism, and the reduction of law to its only rational sphere, which is to regulate the individual right of legitimate defense, or to repress injustice?”
While liberty is the tendencu of the human race, it can be thwarted by education that insists politicians must place themselves above mankind to arrange, organize and regulate it based on what they think is best.
For whilst society is struggling to realize liberty, the great men who place themselves at its head, imbued with the principles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, think only of subjecting it to the philanthropic despotism of their social inventions, and making it bear with docility, according to the expression of Rousseau, the yoke of public felicity as pictured in their own imaginations.