"Bastiat the Prophet"
By Bill Bonner
"My mental image of Frederic Bastiat is of him in his last days, still young (he died at the age of 49) but sick from tuberculosis and frail, his back against the headboard. He has a writing board on his lap, and pen and ink in hand. He is frantically writing his last work, which ended up being called "Economic Harmonies." It was an attempt to explain the beautiful workings of the social order under liberty, how people come together in association and trade to build something larger than themselves and how this capacity to cooperate is the true source of everything we call civilization.
After a lifetime of polemics against bad policy and government intervention in economic life, he felt the need to write this one book that would inspire a positive view of what is possible in a world of liberty. It was a desperate attempt to help everyone else see what only he and few others in his time had fully seen, which is the logic of liberty itself, particularly as it pertains to economics.
He knew after a lifetime of struggle that this was a hard lesson to teach. Economic understanding is not intuitive. It requires the ability to think abstractly, plus takes several steps of logic, even to understand the basics. This process is error prone in the sense that one wrong step can lead to theoretical nonsense, which you don’t notice unless you have spun out a theory that has nothing to do with reality.
His remarkable book "The Law" also came from this period. It was published in the year of his death. Here, the subject is not economic theory. He addresses political theory. What is the law? He argues that the law came after liberty and after property. It did not create them. The purpose of law is to serve to bolster the institutions that make social and economic life work. It is the servant, not the master.
It was originally set up as an “organized combination of the individual’s rights to self-defense.” But when the state comes to monopolize property, it changes its purpose from guaranteeing liberty, property, and security to being an actual violator and threat to all three.
This is why the book opens with this dramatic announcement: "The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish! If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me to call the attention of my fellow citizens to it."
This was 1850, long before there was anything like the modern police state we all know. If this was true in his time, how much more true is it in ours? Today, the law is seen as the exclusive product and responsibility of the state.
We no longer disguise this. Yet the system does not work. It is degrading. It is impoverishing. And just about everyone dreads it. If one wants life, liberty, and property protected, one knows not to turn to the machinery of the state for this service- or if one does not know this, one or two experiences with any government at any level teaches an unforgettable lesson.
Bastiat makes clear that he does not favor a society without law. He wants true law, not law that achieves the very opposite of the whole purpose of the law. "It is not true that the function of the law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person."
The goal of this pamphlet, then, is to help people come to understand the difference. If a thief steals your property, true law helps when you get it back and perhaps punish the wrongdoer. When the law is perverted, the law itself steals your property and makes it a crime to try to get it back. This is what Bastiat calls legalized plunder.
Bastiat saw that one way the plundering state seeks to legitimize itself is by inviting public participation in legalized plunder. Once the law is perverted, then democracy itself becomes the biggest danger to the social order. "Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few- whether farmers, manufacturers, shipowners, artists or comedians. Under these circumstances, then certainly every class will aspire to grasp the law, and logically so."
We have here a very compelling description of the modern democratic process. Contrary to myth, it is not about freedom, really, because it contributes to the further building of a police state that itself embodies a perversion of the law. It is an organized process that puts a marketable gloss on what used to be considered crimes against person and property.
If a democratically elected leader backed by a bureaucracy begins jailing people for making too much money, ingesting the wrong substances, failing to abide by petty regulations, trading with the enemy or what have you, the leader is thereby in a position to claim that this is what the public has approved through the voting process.
But because the state has nothing that it does not take from others, Bastiat calls this system what it is: legalized plunder. What form does this take? There are infinite numbers of possibilities, and Bastiat lists only a few: “tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit and so on and so on.” Everyone can add to the list, and our times compel us to mention sanctions, blockades, war, off-shore prisons, cash controls, emigration restrictions, troops in foreign lands, and the whole of the imperialist project of the modern state.
What is called the Left and the Right in United States variously opposes and supports some aspects of these policies. Bastiat’s point is that they are all of a piece. Once legal plunder is tolerated, what form it takes is a matter of selecting among the choice of forms.
The first English translation of Bastiat’s monograph appeared in England in 1853. It was unknown in the United States until this wonderful translation by Dean Russell and Bertrand de Jouvenel appeared in 1950. It was promoted under the wise leadership of Leonard Read at the Foundation for Economic Education, which distributed hundreds of thousands of copies. In this way, this one little pamphlet ended up shaping an entire generation of liberty lovers.
It’s been said that the message of this monograph is timeless. That may be true, but we should dream of a time in the future in which it will no longer resonate with people, because it will describe a system with which they are no longer familiar. This will be a world of sweet liberty. Today, however, everything he describes is not only familiar to us, but it is our daily reality, the theme of our political life, the whole thesis of modern society. And the moral agency to dismantle this system has never been so pronounced.
Bastiat wrote more than 160 years ago, but his words amount to a wake-up call for our times. We really do face a choice between harmony and plunder. We can continue to build the police state that will destroy us or revalue the beauties of life, liberty, and property that are the heart and soul of civilization itself."
Freely download "The Law", by Frederic Bastiat, here: