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Bastiat’s Vision

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This Saturday, June 30, is the 211th birthday of Frédéric Bastiat, one of the greatest political philosophers of the modern era. Considered among the founding fathers of classical liberalism, Bastiat is known for his simple and direct explanations of political and economic realities, his arguments against oppressive economic regulations and his clear and concise vision of a government of limited, enumerated powers, operating under the rule of law and unencumbered by favoritism or distributionist policies.

Bastiat drew on his Catholic faith and the writings of Adam Smith and John Locke to articulate a vision of limited, efficient government that respects each citizen’s God-given dignity, strictly adheres to the rule of law, and allows for a largely un-regulated economy in which individuals are free to pursue their interests through peaceable exchange with each other. His best-known works, and those most central to his ideas, are The Law and The Seen and the Unseen, articulating his central political and economic ideas, respectively.

The Law was first published as a pamphlet in 1850, shortly before Bastiat’s death. Despite its brevity, it thoroughly documents the errors and pitfalls of socialism and its establishment of “legalized plunder,” in which the law favors the immediate interest of one group of citizens at the expense of another. In a testament to his deeply imbued Catholic faith, Bastiat begins by explaining that the human faculties of liberty, individuality and property are the most basic gifts from God. They are prior to any human institution and cannot justly be taken away by men. Because each man has a natural right to use force against another only to defend his own person, property and liberty, it follows that a group of men may use common force to defend their common rights to the same. The law being an institution of human society – inasmuch as if men did not live in society, there would be no need for human laws – Bastiat defines law as “the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense” (To avoid the accusation of circularity in this definition, one may substitute “just” for “lawful”). From this Bastiat goes on to explain that any government that takes one man’s property and gives it to another, not as a punishment for a crime, but simply because the other man demands it, is committing plunder. A truly just system of government is one that does not favor any constituency over another, and does not attempt to mold men to behave in a certain way to satisfy the interests of those governing. Bastiat caustically accuses socialists of thinking of themselves as potters: omniscient, omnipotent, believing citizens to be mere clay in their hands: mindless, passive matter, ready to be shaped and formed by their government, and offering no resistance.

Bastiat also realized that essential to political freedom was economic freedom. His pamphlet The Seen and the Unseen which also first appeared in 1850, brilliantly explains why economic policies, both domestically and in international trade, that are aimed at artificially altering market forces to protect the immediate, short-term interests of a certain industry are bound to cause more damage than good to a society. Bastiat uses “parable of the broken window,” to explain why despite the appearance of promoting economic growth, the reckless destruction of property, and in fact any economic transaction conducted purely for its own sake, actually causes a net loss to a society’s economy. In just a few pages, Bastiat preemptively disproves all “make-work” schemes proposed by politicians in the last few centuries. He essentially predicted, eighty-some years before it happened, that President Roosevelt’s New Deal would not bring the U.S. out of the Great Depression. Sadly, many countries around the world, including ours, have chosen instead to learn Bastiat’s lesson the hard way (And the recent behavior of countries like Greece shows that some still haven’t learned it).

Bastiat explains that the truly good economist is one who can look ahead to the future and see the negative consequences of an economic policy, which are usually not obvious and not immediate. Meanwhile, the bad economist only notices the intended consequences of a policy, because they are immediate and obvious, and seem beneficial. Nearly a hundred years later, Henry Hazlitt would reiterate this same principle in his now classic Economics in One Lesson (Sorry Hazlitt fans, but his seminal work is essentially a rehashing of Bastiat).

Bastiat’s principles of limited, rule-of-law government and free, unfettered market economies respect God-given human dignity and promote human flourishing infinitely more than do centralized, socialist ones. His message is central to the Acton Institute’s Core Principles, and on this anniversary of his birth, I recommend that all lovers of religion and liberty renew our dedication to the cause which he so eloquently defended.

Further reading (both available in the Acton Bookshoppe): Providence and Liberty,  a companion to Bastiat’s The Law. Economics in One Lesson by Henry Hazlitt.

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Charles Kaupke