Frédéric Bastiat, The Law (Part II)

Frédéric Bastiat (June 30, 1801 – December 24, 1850). At the time when The Law was written, Bastiat knew he was dying of tuberculosis. Within a year, he was dead.

Frédéric Bastiat (June 30, 1801 – December 24, 1850). At the time when The Law was written, Bastiat knew he was dying of tuberculosis. Within a year, he was dead.

Frederic Bastiat, The Law (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1994).

[Part I here] In some cases, these intellectuals, such as Robespierre, have advocated dictatorship in order to achieve these ends, of bending society into a particular moral view, although most have favored “an indirect approach to despotism,” which involved gaining control of the mechanisms of state power and making laws (41-43). Ultimately underlying these approaches to freedom is the idea that we not only need to be free from restraint, but also be equipped with the means necessary to do whatever we wish. However

once it is agreed that a person, to be truly free, must have the power to use and develop his faculties, then it follows that every person has a claim on society for such education as will permit him to develop himself. It also follows that every person has a claim on society for tools of production, without which human activity cannot be fully effective. Now by what action can society give to every person the necessary education and the necessary tools of production, if not by the action of the state? (45)

Hence the inherent danger of defining freedom as the power to do what one wishes, for if it is the state that gives these means to individuals in society, it must have first taken them away from others in society.

Summing up his description of the view of socialists, he says

The strange phenomenon of our times — one which will probably astound our descendants — is the doctrine based on this triple hypothesis: the total inertness of mankind, the omnipotence of the law, and the infallibility of the legislator. These three ideas form the sacred symbol of those who proclaim themselves totally democratic.

The advocates of this doctrine also profess to be social. So far as they are democratic, they place unlimited faith in mankind. But so far as they are social, they regard mankind as little better than mud(45-46).

In this respect, they are certainly contradicting themselves. It cannot both be that every individual ought to have a say in making the laws while ascribing degeneracy to the general character of mankind, unless we assume that degeneracy is the proper qualification for making laws--although, given the behavior of politicians throughout history, that might not be very far from the truth.

If we accept the assumption that people do really have such degenerative tendencies, then the idea of a legislator promoting freedom seems contradictory. If competition ruins economies and produces monopolies which harms the consumer, why should there be economic freedom, including freedom to labor and exchange? Why should there be freedom to pursue an education, freedom of speech, or freedom of conscience if the people are inclined to adopt and favor dangerous ideas? Very rapidly, we will find that all liberties are dangerous under a socialist mindset. Therefore, all liberty must be extinguished in favor of absolutist, paternalist control. “If people are as incapable, as immoral, and as ignorant as the politicians indicate, then why is the right of these same people to vote defended with such passionate insistence?” (48)

Bastiat identifies a fallacy in the socialist reasoning, what we might call the Superman Fallacy, namely

If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?....Apparently, then, the legislators and the organizers have received from Heaven an intelligence and virtue that place them beyond and above mankind (48).

Such a view ultimately renders the bulk of humanity as the sheep to the intellectual’s shepherd.

Next, Bastiat defines economics as the science of determining whether the interests of human beings are harmonious or antagonistic,” which he says “must be known before a science of politics can be formulated to determine the proper functions of government” (51-52). When politics becomes concerned with more than preventing injustice, and instead becomes “religious, fraternal, equalizing, philanthropic, industrial, literary, or artistic,” (53) we will find that the law becomes “the battlefield of all kinds of wild fantasies and unbridled greed” (54). Bastiat, very astutely, points out that a government only concerned with suppressing injustice would never have to face uprisings, revolutions, and other movements that blame the government for particular sufferings of the people. This is because the people would recognize that their sufferings are only those that are “inseparable” from the human condition:

Have the people ever been known to rise against the Court of Appeals, or mob a Justice of the Peace, in order to get higher wages, free credit, tools of production, favorable tariffs, or government-created jobs? Everyone knows perfectly well that such matters are not within the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals or a Justice of the Peace. And if government were limited to its proper functions, everyone would soon learn that these matters are not within the jurisdiction of the law itself (54).

In his section titled “Justice Means Equal Rights,” Bastiat points out that rights must be considered equal and universal for all. If rights are not equal, it means the law grants the power to some to make laws for the many. But, as Bastiat points out

By what right does the law force me to conform to the social plans of [any one individual]? If the law has a moral right to do this, why does it not, then, force these gentlemen to submit to my plans? Is it logical to suppose that nature has not given me sufficient imagination to dream up a utopia also? Should the law choose one fantasy among many, and put the organized force of government at its service only? (55)

    Many attest to the idea that without using the law to promote positive goals, virtues or morality, private individuals will not pursue these ends, practice these virtues, and abide by this morality voluntarily. Bastiat responds:

Do those worshippers of government believe that free persons will cease to act? Does it follow that if we receive no energy from the law, we shall receive no energy at all? Does it follow that if the law is restricted to the function of protecting the free use of our faculties, we will be unable to use our faculties? Suppose that the law does not force us to follow certain forms of religion, or systems of association, or methods of education, or regulations of labor, or regulations of trade, or plans for charity; does it then follow that we shall eagerly plunge into atheism, hermitary, ignorance, misery, and greed? (55)

So what is the solution to the problem of how to increase individual well-being, promote social cooperation, develop individual faculties, and prevent injustice? “The solution to the problems of human relationships is to be found in liberty”:

Away, then, with quacks and organizers! A way with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty (58).