Inequality, tariffs, public education, social media, cronyism, democratic socialism, climate science, racism, minimum wages, and social justice are hot topics in 21st century America. There is nothing new about this, these issues perplexed early 19th century France, and no one handled them more succinctly and courageously than Poetic Justice Warrior Frederic Bastiat.
As an economic journalist, Bastiat stood alone among the economists of his time for his staunch defense of capitalism and his brilliant attacks on socialism. His sarcasm shines a bright light on his singular contribution to the cause of personal liberty. For example, when candle makers demanded economic protection from the government, Bastiat demanded that government ban sunlight exploitation. According to renowned economist Henry Hazlitt,
The petition of the candlemakers is devastating. It is a flash of pure genius, a reductio ad absurdum that can never be exceeded, sufficient in itself to assure Bastiat immortal fame among economists.
Another enduring achievement of Bastiat’s is the Broken Window Fallacy. Remember this as you listen to doofus pundits talk about the economic benefits of rebuilding in the wake of Hurricane Dorian.
The Great Communicator
Although Bastiat was not an original economic theorist, he was a talented proponent of the free market ideas of classical economists Adam Smith and Jean-Baptiste Say. He lived and published in a revolutionary time of socialist takeover in France, during which Bastiat declared, “Pick up the torch of Say’s Law,” a reference to the virtues of production and markets. As economist Walter Williams instructs,
Bastiat’s greatest contribution is that he took the discourse out of the ivory tower and made ideas on liberty so clear that even the unlettered can understand them and statists cannot obfuscate them. Clarity is crucial to the moral superiority of personal liberty.
In his signature treatise titled The Law, Bastiat brought clarity to the concept of legal plunder, “See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” Here Bastiat rightfully considers law to be a negative concept,
The purpose of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning. In fact it is injustice, instead of justice, that has an existence of its own. Justice is only achieved when injustice is absent.
This is fundamental to the only morally defensible role government should play in human affairs (and an essential lesson that we can begin to teach children through the Tuttle Twins books series including The Law). The opposite is when it acts as a positive force –
When the law, by means of its necessary agent, force, imposes on men a regulation of labor or a method of education, it substitutes the will of the legislator for their own wills. Intelligence becomes a useless prop. They lose their liberty and property.
Bastiat is explaining that government is by definition, force. Government cannot regulate the economy or transfer wealth without organizing injustice “to accomplish the general welfare by general plunder.” This is his lure of socialism, it is generalized; and this is the postmodern philosophy of today’s administrative state, what Bastiat would describe as “philanthropic tyranny.”
Here Bastiat presages the inane mentality of today’s social justice warriors and our current welfare state:
When a politician views society from the seclusion of his office, he is struck by the spectacle of the inequality that he sees. Perhaps the politician should ask whether this has not been caused by old conquests, but by more recent legal plunder. Would not a condition of justice be sufficient to cause the greatest possible equality that is compatible with individual responsibility?
This is Bastiat’s Law of Responsibility, meaning dignity. Individualism’s precept is that dignity must be earned, it is internal. Socialism’s precept is that dignity is external, that society grants it. The Great Society programs of the 1960s created a multigenerational phenomenon of government dependence, economic stagnation, and loss of dignity for its victims. And legal plunder has many names: “subsidies, progressive taxation, public schools, minimum wages, and so on, all constitute socialism.”
As Bastiat explains, “the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between clay and the potter.”
Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves? The task would be sufficient enough.
As Jordan Peterson says to today’s social justice warriors, “Make up your room!” Almost all of us prefer not to be the clay, and Austrian economist Friedrich Hayek, in his classic The Road to Serfdom, brilliantly explains the type of character that is attracted to be potters of humans.
Seer and Soothsayer
Bastiat also commented on the exploitation of science to justify legal plunder. He found official organizations petitioning the government demanding that “science no longer be taught exclusively from the point of view of free trade, but especially taught from the viewpoint of laws that regulate industry.” Climate science?
If we don’t learn history we are doomed to repeat it. Bastiat and America’s founders knew this. As Walter Williams explains, “No finer statement of natural rights have been made than those found in the Declaration of Independence or The Law.” Bastiat expounds,
Look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person’s liberty and property. As a consequence, there appears to be no country in the world where social order rests on a firmer foundation.
And economic vitality. However in 1850, the year of his death, Bastiat said of America,
Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property. It is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime, a sorrowful inheritance from the Old World, should be the only issue which can lead to the ruin of the Union.
Ten years later, a brutal civil war over slavery ravaged America. Much like the American revolution succeeded where the French and Russian revolutions failed, America survived the Civil War to become better than ever. Its founding principles were applied to freed slaves, and eventually women’s suffrage. The three decades immediately following the Civil War are perhaps the greatest testament to political and economic freedom in all of history. But what about Europe?
And if this fact brings terrible consequences to the United States, where the law has been perverted only in the instances of slavery and tariffs, what must be the consequences in Europe, where the perversion of the law is a principle; a system?
The consequence was World War I. Humanity flourished in the century preceding “the war to end all wars.” Yet the life-sapping philosophy of the progressives’ war and welfare state eclipsed the aestheticism of romantic art led by Ludwig van Beethoven, the socio-economics of capitalism championed by Jean-Baptiste Say, and the ethics of self-creation demonstrated by Frederick Douglass.
Essential to the 19th century miracle was sound money – currency convertible into gold. Soon after WWI began, convertibility was suspended, and the deficit financed bloodbath lasted for years instead of weeks. The ensuing hyperinflation and philosophy of self-sacrifice and obedience set the stage for WWII.
As Poetic Justice Warrior Lisa VanDamme taught us, erasing the heights of virtue and depths of depravity from education will mire society in a scandal of ignorance. Frederic Bastiat taught us that objective law is essential for preserving liberty. “Legal plunder is concealed by generalizing it. It erases from our consciences the distinction between justice and injustice.” For Poetic Justice Warriors, “law is justice when its organized force is confined to suppressing injustice.”