Archive for the ‘#thelaw’ Tag

Mud in Manipulative Hands   1 comment

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


Related imageSocialists, 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.

Related imageThe 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.

Law is Force   2 comments

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.


Remembering that Bastiat defined plunder as anytime property is transferred from the person who produced it to one who has not earned it against the will of the producer.


With this understanding, let us examine the value, the origin, and the tendency of this popular aspiration, which pretends to realize the general good by general plunder.


Bastiat heard the socialists say that the law organizes justice, so it made sense to them that it should organize labor, education, and religion. Unfortunately, the law can’t organization labor, education and religion without disorganizing justice.

Law is force, and … the domain of the law cannot properly extend beyond the domain of force.

When the law’s force keeps people within the bounds of justice, nothing is imposed upon the individual beyond an obligation to abstain from doing harm. The law is not violating a man’s personality, liberty or property when it holds him to justice, which guards the personality, liberty and property of others. The law defends the equal right of all.

The aim of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning.

Injustice results from the absence of justice. When the law uses its force to impose a form of labor, a method or subject of education, a creed, or worship, it is no longer negative. It has acted positively upon people. It has substituted the will of the legislator for the will of the individual. The individual no longer as to think for himself. The law does that for him.

They cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their property.

  • How is any form of labor imposed by force not a violation of liberty?
  • How is any transmission of wealth by force not a violation of property?

Image result for image of government as forceThe law cannot organize labor and industry without organizing injustice. When a politician views inequality from his ivory tower, he mourns the sufferings of so many people, comparing their state to that of the rich and comfortable. He wants to remedy that sorry condition. Maybe he should look at history and ask if that social state has not been caused by plunder in ancient times when conquest was everywhere or, conversely, by plunder in more recent times, embodied by taxes levied by government.

The politician’s mind turns toward combinations, arrangements, legal or organizations. Instead of allowing justice to work, he tries to fix the problem by increasing the very thing that produced the evil of inequality in the first place. Rather than impose mere limits on oppressive behavior, he seeks instead to plunder some for the advantage of others.

But wait – there are people who have no money. Shouldn’t they be able to apply to the law for relief? But the government has no resources of its own. It must obtain whatever it has from society.

Nothing can enter the public treasury, in favor of one citizen or one class, but what other citizens and other classes have been forced to send to it.

If everyone were to draw from the public storehouse only what he as contributed, then the law wouldn’t be a plunderer, but that doesn’t help the guy with no money, so this law doesn’t promote equality. It is an instrument of equalization (only so) far as it takes from one party to give to another, and then it is an instrument of plunder.

France had tariffs and subsides in the 1840s, and all sorts of other economic “rights. At the bottom of all this legal plunder, Bastiat saw an organized injustice.

But, people need to be educated, so we apply to the law. But the law has no enlightenment of itself. It extends over a society where there are men who have knowledge, and others who have not; citizens who want to learn, and others who are disposed to teach.

It can only do one of two things:

  • allow a free operation to this kind of transaction
  • else preempt the will of the people in the matter, and take from some of them sufficient to pay professors commissioned to instruct others for free.

The second suggestion would be a violation of liberty and property – legal plunder.

But, there are people wanting in morality or religion and those concerned about this apply to the law; but law is force, and it is foolishness to introduce force into matters of labor, education and faith.


Shades of Plunder?   1 comment

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.

Bastiat believed that there were only three possible ways for a society to use the law.

  • When the few plunder the many. (Partial Plunder)
  • When everybody plunders everybody else. (Universal Plunder)
  • When nobody plunders anybody. (Absence of Plunder)

Recognizing that people might not have considered these subjects, Bastiat examined these shades of plunder.

Partial plunder. This is the system that prevailed so long as the elective privilege was partial; a system that is resorted to, to avoid the invasion of socialism.

Image result for image of shades of plunderUniversal plunder. We have been threatened by this system when the elective privilege has become universal; the masses having conceived the idea of making law, on the principle of legislators who had preceded them.

Absence of plunder. This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, conciliation, and of good sense, which I shall proclaim with all the force of my lungs (which is very inadequate, alas!) till the day of my death.

And, in all sincerity, can anything more be required at the hands of the law? Can the law, whose necessary sanction is force, be reasonably employed upon anything beyond securing to every one his right? I defy anyone to remove it from this circle without perverting it, and consequently turning force against right. And as this is the most fatal, the most illogical social perversion that can possibly be imagined, it must be admitted that the true solution, so much sought after, of the social problem, is contained in these simple words—LAW IS ORGANIZED JUSTICE.

Now it is important to remark, that to organize justice by law, that is to say by force, excludes the idea of organizing by law, or by force any manifestation whatever of human activity—labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry, instruction, the fine arts, or religion; for any one of these organizings would inevitably destroy the essential organization. How, in fact, can we imagine force encroaching upon the liberty of citizens without infringing upon justice, and so acting against its proper aim?

Here I am taking on the most popular prejudice of our time. It is not considered enough that law should be just, it must be philanthropic. It is not sufficient that it should
guarantee to every citizen the free and inoffensive exercise of his faculties, applied to his physical, intellectual, and moral development; it is required to extend well-being,
instruction, and morality, directly over the nation. This is the fascinating side of socialism.
But, I repeat it, these two missions of the law contradict each other. We have to choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free. Mr. de
Lamartine wrote to me one day thus: “Your doctrine is only the half of my program; you have stopped at liberty, I go on to fraternity.” I answered him: “The second part
of your program will destroy the first.” And in fact it is impossible for me to separate the word fraternity from the word voluntary. I cannot possibly conceive fraternity legally enforced, without liberty being legally destroyed, and justice legally trampled under foot. Legal plunder has two roots: one of them, as we have already seen, is in human greed; the other is in misconceived philanthropy.


Risks of Universal Suffrage   Leave a comment

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.

Find the series Table of Contents.

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.

Image result for image of universal suffrageThus 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.

  • Slavery
  • Tariffs

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.


How Is The Law Perverted?   1 comment

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.

Series Table of Commerce available here.

Image result for image of the law pervertedBastiat 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.

How was the perversion of the law accomplished and what has resulted from it?

Bastiat named the perversive forces boldly:

  • naked greed
  • misconceived philanthropy.

Self-preservation and development are normal goals for humans. Intelligent active people enjoy social progress and that’s a net good. Unfortunately, it’s also fairly normal for humans to be greedy. We can look to history to see the wars, migrations of races, sectarian conflicts, slavery, trade frauds and monopolies which emanate from greed. It’s part of the character of humankind.

Man can only derive life and enjoyment from a perpetual search and appropriation; that is, from a perpetual application of his faculties to objects, or from labor. This is the origin of property.

But freed aimed at the seizing and appropriating the produce of others is the origin of plunder. Labor is hard, so people naturally want to avoid the difficulty, so plunder seems as a logical alternative.

Plunder ceases when it becomes more burdensome and more dangerous than labor. The proper aim of the law is to oppose plunder with the collective force to protect property from plunder.

Unfortunately, legislators are no less greedy than other people. This explains the “almost universal perversion of law.” Instead of being a check on injustice, the law becomes its most invincible instrument, as the legislature turns personal independence into slavery, liberty into oppression and property is confiscated by plunder.

It’s also natural for people to fight against injustice that victimizes them.

When, therefore, plunder is organized by law, for the profit of those who perpetrate it, all the plundered classes tend, either by peaceful or revolutionary means, to enter in some way into the manufacturing of laws.

What these classes seek through the exercise of their political rights is, either:

  • to end lawful plunder, or,
  • take part in it.

When the second one becomes the goal of the collective, the nation is in serious trouble.


Law Perverted   1 comment

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.

Table of Contents for the series can be found here.

The law perverted! The law—and, in its wake, all the collective forces of the nation—the law, I say, not only diverted from its proper direction, but made to pursue one entirely contrary! The law become the tool of every kind of avarice, instead of being its check! The law guilty of that very iniquity which it was its mission to punish! Truly, this is a serious fact, if it exists, and one to which I feel bound to call the attention of my fellow citizens.

One of the things I enjoy about Bastiat is that he was an entertaining writer.This is how he started his essay, immediately setting the tone of urgency that he wanted his readers to feel.

God gave humans physical, intellectual and moral life, but life cannot support itself, so God gave us brains and abilities that we are meant to use to sustain ourselves.

Bastiat called these abilities “personality, liberty, property” and he said these are inherent to being human. Apart from anything else, they are “superior to all human legislation.” They precede any act of man because they are the source of mankind’s acts.

What, then, is law? … [I]t is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

Whether you call it Nature or God, humans have been endowed by what makes us human with a right to defend their persons, liberty, and property because these three are essential elements of life, supported and completed by each other.

If an individual has a right to defend himself, even by force, that a group of people have a right to join together to “organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense.”

Collective rights are an extension of individual rights, so collective forces can only do what individuals are permitted to do. Individuals may not lawfully touch the person, liberty or property of another individual, so individuals formed into a common force cannot lawfully touch the person, liberty or property of individuals or classes. Acting collectively does not give us the authority to annihilate the equal rights of others.

The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense; it is the substitution of collective for individual forces, for the purpose of acting in the sphere in which they have a right to act, of doing what they have a right to do, to secure persons, liberties, and properties, and to maintain each in its right, so as to cause justice to reign over all.

If a nation was established on this basis, there would be order in their activites – they would have the “least oppressive, … most restrained, most just, and, consequently, the most stable Government that could be imagined.” The function of the State (collective) would be to protect prosperity and ensure personal safety so that individuals would be free to buy and sell, work and employ as they see fit.

The State would stay out of our private affairs, so our “wants and their satisfactions would develop themselves in their natural order.” What did that mean?

  • Poor families wouldn’t seek education before they were able to feed themselves
  • Towns wouldn’t operate at the expense of rural districts
  • Rural districts wouldn’t operate at the expense of cities.
  • We wouldn’t see great displacements of capital, labor, and population.

Unfortunately, the law has broken lose of its proper sphere. It has placed the collective force in the service of those who wish to traffic in the persons, the liberty, and the property of others.

It has converted plunder into a right, that it may protect it, and lawful defense into a crime, that it may punish it.


Plunder Defined   1 comment

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.

Although Bastiat did not start with a definition of plunder, I felt it was too important to the essay to not put his definition at the forefront of the series.



Bastiat had already written for 10 pages before he decided to explain his meaning of the word “plunder”.

I do not take it, as it often is taken, in a vague, undefined, relative, or metaphorical sense. I use it in its scientific acceptation, and as expressing the opposite idea to property.

For Bastiat, plunder was “when a portion of wealth passes out of the hands of him who has acquired it, without his consent, and without compensation, to him who has not created it, whether by force or by artifice.”

Whenever property is violated, plunder is perpetrated. Bastiat submitted that the law ought to repress plunder always and everywhere. If the law itself is used to plunder rather than repress plunder, then Bastiat still called that “plunder” and considered it to actually be worse if the government did it instead of highway robbers. Why? Because the person who profits from the plunder is not directly responsible for the plunder. It is the law, legislator, and society itself that presents a danger to our production.

Bastiat wished he had a better word, something that didn’t have such an offensive connotation. He didn’t want to impugn the intentions or morality of anyone. He was attacking an idea that he believed was false that created a system that appeared to be unjust. We each profit from the system whether we wish it or not and suffer from it whether or not we are aware of the cause. This understanding does not speak to intentions.

Protectionism, socialism, including communism, are really all part of the same plant at different stages of its growth. Protectionism is partial plunder. Communism is universal plunder. Socialism is more vague and undefined, offered by sincere people who misconceive philanthropy. He didn’t doubt their intentions were well-meant while at the same time refuting their idea.

Introducing Bastiat’s “The Law”   Leave a comment

I read a lot, but I had somehow not read Bastiat’s “The Law” until a few years ago when I started listening to Patriot’s Lament. I read “That Which is Seen and That Which is Unseen” back in college, but Josh reminded me of it and after I had reread it, I discovered “The Law.” I highly recommend it. When I finished my survey of “Economics in One Lesson” I wanted to continue the educational love, and this seems so appropriate to the time we live in today.

Frédéric Bastiat’s classic essay, “The Law.” was first published in 1850 by the great French economist and journalist. It is a clear a statement on the original American ideal of government, as proclaimed in the Declaration of Independence — that the main purpose of any government is the protection of the lives, liberties, and property of its citizens.

Bastiat believed that all human beings possessed the God-given, natural rights of individuality, liberty, property. These three gifts from God precede all human legislation. Yet, writing in the late 1840s, Bastiat was alarmed to see how the law had been “perverted” into an instrument of what he called “legal plunder”. Rather than protecting individual rights, the law was increasingly used to deprive one group of citizens of their inherent rights for the benefit of another group, and especially for the benefit of the State itself. (When I use the word “State” here, I mean the government at all levels). Bastiat condemned the legal plunder of protectionist tariffs, government subsidies of all kinds, progressive taxation, public schools, government “jobs” programs, minimum wage laws, welfare, usury laws, and more.

Bastiat’s warnings of the dire effects of legal plunder remain relevant today. The system of legal plunder, even within a system of democracy, “will erase from everyone’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice”. He saw that the plundered classes would eventually figure out how to enter the political game and plunder their fellow man. Legislation will never be guided by any principles of justice, but only by brute political force.

Bastiat also forecast the corruption of education by the State. Those who held “government-endowed teaching positions” would rarely criticize legal plunder because it would affect their bottom line.

Bastiat believed the system of legal plunder would greatly exaggerate the importance of politics in society. He recognized the unhealthiness of this because it would encourage even more citizens to seek to improve their own well-being not by producing goods and services for the marketplace but by plundering their fellow citizens through politics.

Bastiat anticipated what modern economists call “rent seeking” and “rent avoidance” behavior, referring to the phenomena of lobbying for political favors (legal plunder), and engaging in political activity directed at protecting oneself from being the victim of plunder seekers.We see this today in the steel industr’s call for high tariffs on imported steel while at the same time, industries that use steel lobby against high tariffs on steel. There’s a high opportunity cost involved in these conflicting efforts – the more time, effort and money that is spent by businesses trying to manipulate politics rather than producing goods and services. Thus, legal plunder impoverishes the entire society despite the fact that a small part of the society benefits from it. Yes, Hazlitt had read Bastiat too.

In reading “The Law”, I marveled at how prescient Bastiat was in describing the statists of his day which bore such striking resemblance to the statists of today and the era in between. The French “socialists” of Bastiat’s day espoused doctrines that perverted charity, education, and morals. Bastiat pointed out that true charity does not begin with the robbery of taxation.

Socialists want “to play God,” Bastiat observed, anticipating all the future tyrants and despots of the world who would try to remake the world in their image, whether that image would be communism, fascism, the “glorious union,” or “global democracy.” The socialists of Bastiat’s day wanted forced conformity; rigid regimentation of the population through pervasive regulation; forced equality of wealth; and dictatorship. This made them mortal enemies of liberty.

“Dictatorship” need not involve an actual dictator. According to Bastiat, all that was needed was “the laws,” enacted by a legislature, that would achieve the same effect: forced conformity.

Bastiat wisely pointed out that the world has far too many “great men,” “fathers of their countries,” etc., who in reality are usually nothing but petty tyrants with a sick and compulsive desire to rule over others. The defenders of the free society should have a healthy disrespect for all such men.

Bastiat admired America and pointed to the America of 1850 as being as close as any society in the world to his ideal of a government that protected individual rights to life, liberty, and property. There were two major exceptions:

  • chattel slavery
  • protectionist tariffs.

Frédéric Bastiat died on Christmas Eve, 1850, and did not live to observe the convulsions that the America he admired would go through in the next fifteen years, with ongoing collateral damage for more than a century following. He probably would not have admired the US government’s military invasion of the Southern states in 1861, the killing of some 300,000 citizens, and the bombing, burning, and plundering of the region’s cities, towns, farms, and businesses. He would have rejected it as inconsistent with the protection of the lives, liberties and properties of those citizens as promised by the Declaration of Independence. Had he lived to see all of this, he most likely would have added “legal murder” to “legal plunder” as one of the two great sins of the US government.

He would likely have viewed the post-war Republican Party, with its 50% average tariff rates, its massive corporate welfare schemes, and its 25-year campaign of genocide against the Plains Indians as first-rate plunderers and traitors to the American ideal. He would have objected to the usurpation of individual rights by the collective force as the US government sought to impose its will around the world during the 20th century in the United States. He’d have wept for us over what our government has become in the 21st century.

Knowledge is power. We can’t fix what’s wrong until we understand what is wrong. Bastiat foresaw where we were headed 160 years ago.

Law Perverted

How Is the Law Perverted

Risks of Universal Suffrage

The Law   Leave a comment

I recently re-read Frederic Bastiat’s The Law, which was published in 1850, but asks some of the same questions being debated in coffee shops, bars and churches in cities across the United States today. Police abuse of citizens are now available on YouTube. The powers that be have empowered cops to do to us what we would never been allowed to do to each other. Most of these cases never get further than YouTube, but people are asking sharp questions regarding the relationship between the state and the people.

It doesn’t really matter where the debate occurs. The disagreements tend to revolve around the motivation, character and behavior of police officers. Are they following the “regulations”? Is shooting an armed motorist an abuse of their authority? Was their action motivated by racism? What level of citizen noncompliance should justify police use of deadly force?

Bastiat asked the question that most of us are currently trying to avoid. Are the laws themselves just?

Many of the most famous beatings and killings of citizens at the hands of the police began with small infractions. Eric Garner was selling contraband cigarettes, for example. City of Anchorage killed five people in 2014 for what started out as minor traffic violations. Americans are estimated to commit five infractions of the law every day.

Last weekend, I said that if we just focused on guns or the Dallas shooter rather than on who trained him, we were ignore the disease that drives the symptom. Carrying that further, I would say that if the debate stays centered on police actions alone, we will never reach the core issue.

What is the law — and what should it be?

These are the bigger questions that haven’t yet entered public consciousness. Every law and regulation, no matter how small, is ultimately enforced by the threat of force on the part of public authority. When I first read The Law, I wasn’t quite ready to accept that laws are not “nudges”, but mandates enforced by the legal use of coercion against person and property. This time when I read it, I understood what Bastiat was talking about.

Bastiat tried to get people to think hard about what was happening and how the law had become an instrument of plunder and violence rather than a protector of property and peace. If the law itself is not just, the result is social division and widespread discontent.

What? Did I just reference the observable condition of our society and apply a diagnosis? I believe I did.

The relationship between rulers and the ruled becomes distorted when a sense of systemic injustice pervades the culture. Bastiat was aghast to observe this in 1840s France and we should be aware that it exists today:

The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.

Most applicable to our time: “Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim — when he defends himself — as a criminal.”

Yeah, I know. Eerie, right?

Whether this happens at a traffic stop, at the arbitrary hands of an angry, racist or fearful cop, or due to a tax or regulation passed by a legislature doesn’t change the nature of what is happening. The people are being plundered and abused by “the system”, which treats the victims of its abuse like criminals

Bastiat’s essay asks fundamental questions that most people go through life without entertaining. The problem is that most people accept the law as a given, a fundamental fact of life. As a member of society, you obey the law or face consequences.

Increasingly, it is not safe to question why. The enforcement arm of the law (the state) has a unique power to use legal force against life and property. The state determines what what the law is. Even when the method of that determination is morally or systemically questionable, that the government is made the decision settles the matter in the minds of most people.

Bastiat refused to take an unquestioning stance. He wanted to know what the law is apart from what the state says it is. He saw that the fundamental purpose of law is to protect private property and life against invasion, or — if that isn’t always possible, at least to ensure that justice is done in cases in which such invasions do take place.

This wasn’t a unique or even new idea. Philosophers, jurists, and theologians had thought this same idea in most times and places. Intuitively, most of us agree that the law should protect us and our property from invasions or provide justice when those invasions occur. What makes Bastiat different is that he took the next step which opens the reader’s eyes as nothing else does. He applied that idea to the state itself.

In the very first paragraph of his essay, Bastiat remarked on the corruption that ensues when the state turns out to be a lawbreaker in the name of law keeping. He had noticed that the state does the very thing that law is supposed to prevent. Instead of protecting private property, it invades it. Instead of protecting life, it destroys it. Instead of guarding liberty, it violates it. And it gets worse over time. As the state “advances” and grows, it increasingly does these things, until it threatens the well-being of the society it is sworn to protect.

Worse, Bastiat observed that when you subject the state to the same standards that the law uses to judge relations between individuals, the state fails. He concluded that this failure shows that the law has been perverted in the hands of the governing elite, who use the law to do the very thing that the law is designed to prevent. The enforcer turns out to be the main violator of its own standards.

The law, wrote Bastiat, is supposed to protect property and person from arbitrary attack. When the law becomes a tool for providing legal cover for such attacks, its whole purpose has been turned upside down and inside out.

Bastiat sought a consistence ethic of justice in public life. The law should be the same for everyone. We should all obey the same rules. Neither the state nor any of its functionaries can be exempt from the rules they claim to enforce. We cannot permit the state to judge itself by a different standard than we are judged under.

Consider Marilyn Mosby, Maryland’s state attorney. When she announced that the she was prosecuting the cops who beat and killed Freddie Gray, she struck a chord that resonated far and wide. I suspect she’s a progressive Democrat who rejects most of the things I value, but when she said, “no one is above the law,” she was echoing Bastiat and the entire classical liberal tradition.

What are the social consequences of having a different sets of laws, one for state agents and one for everyone else? Bastiat believed that the result is lawlessness:

As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose — that it may violate property instead of protecting it — then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder.

In that circumstance, the law becomes a perpetual source of hatred and discord. It “tends to destroy society itself.” Whether this destruction takes place in the controlled environment of a legislature, the routine world of the bureaucracy, or on the streets through looting does not change the essentials of what is happening.

What does this say about abuse at the hands of the police? According to Bastiat’s standard, the law should regard such abuse as the violation of another’s rights. There’s no other option.

Nothing is the same after you read The Law. That is why this essay is famous. It is capable of shaking up whole systems of government and whole societies — a beautiful illustration of the pen’s power.

It is a habit of every generation to underestimate the importance and power of ideas. Yet the whole world that we live in is built by them. Nothing outside pure nature exists in this world that did not begin as an idea held by human beings. An essay like Bastiat’s is powerful and important because it helps you see the injustices that surround us, which we are prefer to ignore. Denial drives a lot of the problems in the world. Ignoring a problem does not make it go away. The first step to change is seeing and explaining what the actual problems are.


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