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
On the other hand, society is the human race. The human race, then, is to receive its impulse from Mr. Louis Blanc. It is at liberty to do so or not, it will be said. Of course
the human race is at liberty to take advice from anybody, whoever it may be. But this is not the way in which Mr. Louis Blanc understands the thing. He means that his project should be converted into law, and consequently forcibly imposed by power.
In our project, the State has only to give a legislation to labor, by means of which the industrial movement may and ought to be accomplished in all liberty. It (the State) merely places society on an incline (that is all) that it may descend, when once it is placed there, by the mere force of things, and by the natural course of the established mechanism.
But what is this incline? One indicated by Mr. Louis Blanc. Does it not lead to an abyss? No, it leads to happiness.
Why, then, does not society go there of itself? Because it does not know what it wants, and it requires an impulse. What is to give it this impulse? Power. And who is to give the impulse to power? The inventor of the machine, Mr. Louis Blanc.
We shall never get out of this circle—mankind passive, and a great man moving it by the intervention of the law. Once on this incline, will society enjoy something like liberty?
Without a doubt.
And what is liberty? Once for all: liberty consists not only in the right granted, but in the power given to man to exercise, to develop his faculties under the empire of justice, and under the protection of the law. And this is no vain distinction; there is a deep meaning
in it, and its consequences are imponderable. For when once it is admitted that man, to be truly free, must have the power to exercise and develop his faculties, it follows that every member of society has a claim upon it for such education as shall enable his faculties to display themselves, and for the tools of labor, without which human activity can find no scope. Now, by whose intervention is society to give to each of its members the requisite
education and the necessary tools of labor, unless by that of the State?
Thus, liberty is power. In what does this power consist? In possessing education and tools of labor. Who is to give education and tools of labor? Society, who owes them. By whose intervention is society to give tools of labor to those who do not possess them? By the intervention of the State. From whom is the State to obtain them?
It is for the reader to answer this question, and to notice whither all this tends.
One of the strangest phenomena of our time, and one that will probably be a matter of astonishment to our descendants, is the doctrine which is founded upon this triple hypothesis: the radical passiveness of mankind,— the omnipotence of the law,—the infallibility of the legislator:
this is the sacred symbol of the party that proclaims itself exclusively democratic. It is true that it professes also to be social. So far as it is democratic, it has an unlimited faith in
mankind. So far as it is social, it places mankind beneath the mud.
Are political rights under discussion? Is a legislator to be chosen? Oh, then the people possess science by instinct: they are gifted with an admirable discernment; their will is
always right; the general will cannot err. Suffrage cannot be too universal. Nobody is under any responsibility to society. The will and the capacity to choose well are taken
for granted. Can the people be mistaken? Are we not living in an age of enlightenment? What! Are the people to be forever led about by the nose? Have they not acquired their rights at the cost of effort and sacrifice? Have they not given sufficient proof of intelligence and wisdom? Are they not arrived at maturity? Are they not in a state to
judge for themselves? Do they not know their own interest?
Is there a man or a class who would dare to claim the right of putting himself in the place of the people, of deciding and of acting for them? No, no; the people would be free, and they shall be so. They wish to conduct their own affairs, and they shall do so. But when once the legislator is duly elected, then indeed the style of his speech alters. The nation is sent back into passiveness, inertness, nothingness, and the legislator takes possession of omnipotence. It is for him to invent, for him to direct, for him to impel, for him to organize. Mankind has nothing to do but to submit; the hour of despotism has struck. And we must observe that this is decisive; for the people, just before so enlightened, so moral, so perfect, have no inclinations at all, or, if they have any, these all lead them downwards towards degradation.
And yet they ought to have a little liberty! But are we not assured by Mr. Considerant that liberty leads fatally to monopoly? Are we not told that liberty is competition? and that competition, according to Mr. Louis Blanc, is a system of extermination for the people, and of ruination for trade? For that reason people are exterminated and ruined in proportion as they are free—take, for example, Switzerland, Holland, England, and the United States?
Does not Mr. Louis Blanc tell us again that competition leads to monopoly, and that, for the same reason, cheapness leads to exorbitant prices? That competition tends to drain the sources of consumption, and diverts production to a destructive activity? That competition forces production to increase, and consumption to decrease—whence it
follows that free people produce for the sake of not consuming; that there is nothing but oppression and madness among them; and that it is absolutely necessary for Mr.
Louis Blanc to see to it?
What sort of liberty should be allowed to men? Liberty of conscience?—But we should see them all profiting by the permission to become atheists. Liberty of education?—
But parents would be paying professors to teach their sons immorality and error; besides, if we are to believe Mr. Thiers, education, if left to the national liberty, would cease to be national, and we should be educating our children in the ideas of the Turks or Hindus,
instead of which, thanks to the legal despotism of the universities, they have the good fortune to be educated in the noble ideas of the Romans. Liberty of labor? But this is
only competition, whose effect is to leave all products unconsumed, to exterminate the people, and to ruin the tradesmen. The liberty of exchange? But it is well known that the protectionists have shown, over and over again, that a man will inevitably be ruined when he exchanges freely, and that to become rich it is necessary to exchange without liberty. Liberty of association? But according to the socialist doctrine, liberty and association exclude each other, for the liberty of men is attacked just to force them to associate.
You must see, then, that the socialist democrats cannot in conscience allow men any liberty, because, by their own nature, they tend in every instance to all kinds of regradation and demoralization.