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
Bastiat wanted his readers to know where their socialists had gotten their ideas and he found evidence that this sort of mind set was the primary driver of the 1789 French Revolution. “No sooner was the old system destroyed than society was to be submitted
to other artificial arrangements, always with the same starting point—the omnipotence of the law.
Louis Antoine Leon de Sainst-Just was a military and political leader during the French Revolution and became a major leader of the government of the French First Republic. He spearheaded the execution of Louis XVI and later drafter the radical French Constitution of 1793. He wrote this:
The legislator commands the future. It is for him to will for the good of mankind. It is for him to make men what he wishes them to be.
Maximilien Robespierre as a French lawyer and one of the most outspoken advocates for democratic institutions and a champion of the poor, abolition of slavery in the French colonies who arranged for the execution of Louis XVI and became a primary figure of the Reign of Terror. He wrote:
The function of Government is to direct the physical and moral powers of the nation towards the object of its institution.
Although not as well known as some of his contemporaries, Jacques Nicolas Billaud-Varenne was an instrumental figure in the Reign of Terror. He wrote this:
A people who are to be restored to liberty must be formed anew. Ancient prejudices must be destroyed, antiquated customs changed, depraved affections corrected, inveterate vices eradicated. For this, a strong force and a vehement impulse will be necessary. . . . Citizens, the inflexible austerity of Lycurgus created the firm basis of the Spartan republic. The feeble and trusting disposition of Solon plunged Athens into slavery. This parallel contains the whole science of Government.
Louis-Michel le Pelletier was a French aristocrat who managed to live through the French Revolution by becoming a revolutionary. His main interest of reform was education and he promoted a Spartan education that called for both males and females to be taught in state-run schools aimed at indoctrinating them in revolutionary ideas rather than history, science, mathematics, language and religion. He wrote this:
Considering the extent of human degradation, I am convinced—of the necessity of effecting an entire regeneration of the race, and, if I may so express myself, of creating a new people. Men, therefore, are nothing but raw material. It is not for them to will their own improvement. They are not capable of it; according to Saint-Just, it is only the legislator who is. Men are merely to be what he wills that they should be.
Bastiat explains that “[a]ccording to Robespierre, who copies Rousseau literally, the legislator is to begin by assigning the aim of the institutions of the nation. After this, the Government has only to direct all its physical and moral forces towards this end. All this time the nation itself is to remain perfectly passive; and Billaud Varennes would teach us that it ought to have no prejudices, affections, nor wants, but such as are authorized by the legislator. He even goes so far as to say that the inflexible austerity of a man is the basis of a republic.” If people refuse to change, Mably recommends a dictatorship, to promote virtue.
This doctrine has not been neglected. Listen to Robespierre:
The principle of the Republican Government is virtue, and the means to be adopted, during its establishment, is terror. We want to substitute, in our country, morality for self-indulgence, probity for honor, principles for customs, duties for decorum, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, contempt of vice for contempt of misfortune, pride for insolence, greatness of soul for vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people for good company, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for glitter, the charm of happiness for the weariness of pleasure, the greatness of man for the littleness of the great, a magnanimous, powerful, happy people, for one that is easy, frivolous, degraded; that is to say, we would substitute all the virtues and miracles of a republic for all the vices and absurdities of monarchy.
Robespierre had an almost godlike view of the rest of mankind. In his arrogance, he was not content with expressing a desire for a great renovation of the human heart. He didn’t think ordinary government could accomplish it, so he intended to do it himself, by the means of terror. He meant to impose his own morality upon the people, regardless of what the people might want.
Truly it would be well if these visionaries, who think so much of themselves and so little of mankind, who want to renew everything, would only be content with trying to reform themselves, the task would be arduous enough for them.
But the Socialists, though they drew their inspiration from these past writers, didn’t wish to be associated with the Reign of Terror, so they wanted instead to design the law to accomplish their purposes and then they could merely say they were only obeying the law.
No wonder this idea suited Bonaparte so well. He embraced it with ardor, and put it in practice with energy. Playing the part of a chemist, Europe was to him the material for his experiments. But this material reacted against him. More than half undeceived, Bonaparte, at St. Helena, seemed to admit that there is an initiative in every people,
and he became less hostile to liberty. Yet this did not prevent him from giving this lesson to his son in his will
“To govern is to diffuse morality, education, and well-being.”