What Can We Learn from Frédéric Bastiat?

Commentary, Frontier Centre, Manitoba, Role of Government, Uncategorized, Winnipeg (historic)

Frédéric Bastiat, whose life spanned the first half of the 19th century, was much influenced by the events of his time and by those which immediately preceded his birth. This era witnessed the American Revolution and the subsequent drafting of the Constitution, the French Revolution, the seizure of the French colony of Haiti by slaves, the rise and fall of Napoleon Bonaparte, and the trade-stifling protectionism which spread across Europe after the Napoleonic Wars. It was this latter situation which caused Bastiat to question the motives of government. At first, his efforts were directed at re-opening trade among nations. But, as he delved further into his subject, he broadened his studies to include all forms of government participation in the lives of its citizens. This culminated in the publication of The Law in 1848. Calling on the lessons of history, both ancient and recent, and his keen observations on the nature of man and government, he produced the best definition of what constitutes good government that I have found to date. Let’s touch on the events which shaped his thinking; see what lessons those events teach; and examine the causes of plunder according to Bastiat.

Setting the Stage

The French Revolution had run its bloody course. The survivors of Napoleon’s armies had returned from their campaigns across much of Europe. Many of the countries which had been unable to repel French troops were busy erecting barriers to French goods as well the goods of other nations. France had responded by erecting trade barriers of its own. In 1818, the 17-year-old Bastiat left school to work in his family’s trading business at Bayonne (near the mouth of the Adour River in the southwest corner of France). Here, he saw first-hand the impact of trade restrictions. Warehouses and other trade-related businesses were closing. Unemployment was rising. People were leaving in hopes of finding better conditions elsewhere. He could not understand why his own government would pass laws which had such devastating effects on its own people. His search for answers to this troubling question drove his research and propelled his career. At first, his efforts were directed at re-opening trade among nations. But, as he delved further into his subject, he broadened his studies to include all forms of government participation in the lives of its citizens. And, the question became …

What Is the Proper Role of Government?

In 1848, he answered that question with the publication of The Law. In that insightful book, he began by examining the nature of mankind. According to Bastiat, every human being receives 4 gifts at birth – life, person, faculties, and environment. Person is the container in which life is lived. Faculties are those abilities which enable us to produce from our environment the things we need to sustain life. With these gifts comes responsibility. That responsibility is to make the best possible use of those gifts. That best possible use is to benefit the lives of others while improving oneself. (Did someone say win-win?) But, Bastiat also recognized that mankind had another side. That was the tendency to take from others – against their will – their property, their labor, their liberty, or even their lives. He referred to that tendency as plunder. Those who thought that, as individuals, they could not stop the plunderers, joined with others for their common protection. In exchange for this security, they were willing to give a portion of their property or their labor or both. Ideally, this common defence pact (the law) would protect them from being plundered by others. For Bastiat, that was the highest and best purpose of the law – to protect the property, labor, liberty, and lives of the individuals who made up that society. In fact, Bastiat said it was the only proper role for government to play. So, …

What Happened in Practice?

As we noted last week, those who were strong enough to offer protection often took advantage of the weak who sought that protection. These ‘protectors’ demanded most of their labor and nearly everything it produced. These same ‘protectors’ might also control their liberty and their very lives. In what Bastiat described as the ultimate perversion, laws were passed to sanction this plunder — to make it legal. Initially, the power to make laws was confined to a very few individuals. Over time, that tight circle expanded. Each time a new group gained a seat at the table, there was a chance that the lawmakers might put an end to this legalized plunder. However, what usually happened was more of the same. The new group would start by removing itself from the plundered class. Then, it would join in on the plunder of others. Sometimes, this would just mean taking a share of the existing plunder. But often, the new group demanded laws to sanction its own special form of plunder. Yet, despite this sorry historical record, …

Hopes Were Raised by Events in America

In the century before Bastiat was born, idealists held great hopes for the day when the ‘common man’ would gain a seat at the table of government. Their hopes seemed to be realized when the government of the newly created United States adopted its Constitution. The words of that unique document put an end to legalized plunder in all its forms by clearly defining and limiting the role of government. And, by making it difficult for future lawmakers to change, the authors sought to extend its protections to the generations that followed. Sadly, the legislators did not always follow the noble words of this document which they were sworn to uphold and defend. Instead, they sanctioned the continuation of 2 odious forms of plunder – slavery and tariffs. And, before the ink was dry, some lawmakers were busy looking for ways to twist the words of the Constitution in an attempt to legalize their own schemes to plunder. To make matters worse, …

Hopes Were Dashed by Events in France

The revolution in France led to a tragic conclusion. There, when the ‘common man’ seized control of the government, laws were passed to authorize that government to take the property, the liberty, and the lives of the aristocracy. And, the full force of the law also fell on anyone who opposed or even questioned the authority of that government to take those actions. Hard on the heels of that disaster, slaves in the French colony of Haiti seized power. Just like the revolutionary government in France, the former slaves used their new power to sanction the confiscation from, the imprisonment of, and the execution of anyone associated with the former colonial administration. These new regimes practised a plunder which was more ruthless and deadly than the tyrannies they had replaced. The French experience caused many to ask …

What Lessons Did these Events Teach?

With these events still fresh in the minds of Bastiat and his contemporaries, what they concluded should not come as a surprise. Based on that evidence, Bastiat reasoned that the character of any government is determined by the law which it follows. If that law were to prohibit all forms of plunder and if that law were to be fully enforced on all the people, Bastiat maintained that the results would be peace and prosperity. However, any government which did more or less than defending the property, labor, liberty, and life of all its citizens would subject its people to chaos and plunder. He held that these results would occur whether that society were ruled by a single person, by an elite, or by the majority of its people. He also answered the question …

What Are the Causes of Plunder?

Bastiat identified 2 causes – greed and false philanthropy. Greed may be direct as in the case where a legislator votes herself a raise or an exemption from some regulation which applies to the public at large. Greed may also be indirect as in the case where a legislator votes a benefit for someone who has given, or has promised to give, him a benefit in return. While there are ample examples of plunder for greed in governments of today, the public is largely opposed to such actions. But, there is much more public support for the other source of plunder – false philanthropy. Bastiat observed that, since true philanthropy is a voluntary act, any involuntary act cannot, by definition be true philanthropy. And, since government has no resources of its own, it can only fund its philanthropy by forcing the public to supply the money. Bastiat noted that it would be illegal for him, or any other individual, to use force or the threat of force to compel another to support his favorite charity. The law would look on that act as theft, not as charity. And so, he reasoned, whenever government used force or the threat of force to compel another to support its favored causes, the government also was committing theft — despite the laws it made to legalize that act and despite the public support that might exist for that act. Since he wrote The Law more than a century and a half ago, …

Are Bastiat’s Observations Still Valid Today?

Even today, we don’t have to look far to find examples of legalized plunder motivated by greed. And, the public laments the seeming influence of lobbyists and other special interests on the workings of government. While each year sees some new attempt to curb these abuses, they will continue until government is confined to its proper role. For it is the ability of government to compel vast sums of money from the public which attracts these special interests in the 1st place. And, since it is also government which decides how that money will be spent, the special interests use all the influence at their disposal to see that some of it comes their way. To limit these abuses requires but a simple remedy. However, that simple remedy will be anything but easy to bring about. As Bastiat understood so long ago, the narrower the scope of responsibilities entrusted to government, the less money government will need to spend and the less money it will need to compel the public to provide. This is why local government, in general, attracts far fewer special interests and has fewer major incidents of legalized plunder. And, this is also why smaller municipalities have a much better track record than their larger cousins. Well, how about the other source of legalized plunder …

How About False Philanthropy?

While plunder motivated by greed is on the defensive, plunder motivated by false philanthropy is on the offensive. It seems that almost everyone has some favored cause or pet project which they would like government to sponsor – and fund. Sports fans want government to build a stadium for their favorite team. Music fans want government to build a concert hall. Parents want government to pay for a soccer field in their community park or an olympic-size pool in their local high school. Students want government to subsidize their college tuition. Charities want government to make big donations. Businesses want government to subsidize them when they hire new workers and to bail them out when they are failing. Unions want government to compel every worker to join and pay dues to be used for whatever purposes the leaders of those unions choose. Scientists and academics want government to fund their research. Artists want government to subsidize their lifestyles. Farmers want government to compensate them when their crops fail. People who are searching for the perfect job want government to support them until they find it. The wealthy want government to pay for services which they could afford to pay themselves. The poor want government to pay for services which many working people can’t afford. I expect you can add many more examples to this list. If you have been elected to office, you know first-hand how difficult it is to choose from these competing demands. Just think how much simpler life would be for you and for those you employ if you never had to make such decisions again. And, just imagine what all the energy, all the time, and all the resources consumed in lobbying you could do for your community if they were directed at something more productive. Now, multiply that by all the governments – whether local or senior – in your jurisdiction. That’s just part of what Bastiat was trying to tell us. Will we listen?