One night during either my sophomore or junior year of college, while delaying the doing of homework by walking around the upstairs of Taylor University’s library looking for embarrassing books I could hide in friends’ backpacks so the alarm would go off when we walked out together and they’d have to sheepishly present them at the front desk, I stumbled upon a little treatise called The Law by some French dude named Frederic Bastiat I had never heard of. I checked it out, cautiously put it in my own backpack as I checked for retaliatory plants, and headed back to the dorm for a spirited bout of Mario Kart 64.
Later that same week, while sitting in my “International Business” class (and wishing Jesus would return at that precise moment to end my boredom), I pulled Bastiat out and began reading these opening words . . .
We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This gift is life — physical, intellectual, and moral life.
But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it. In order that we may accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties. And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.
Life, faculties, production — in other words, individuality, liberty, property — this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it. Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.
Powerful stuff. I kept wondering, “Where had such clear-headed rhetoric like this been my entire life?”
Why had I never heard such common sense and life-affirming wisdom in the churches I had grown up in? Clear, concise, and inspiring. Who would want that, right?
I read and re-read The Law about four times that week and to this day, some 8 years later, not a month goes by where I do not re-visit at least part of Bastiat’s classic work on free enterprise and limited government. In fact, it was precisely because The Law was required reading at the first Acton Institute conference I went to in Seattle in 2008 that I knew the decision to attend had not been made in vain. I think my first question to a young, spry Jay Richards that week was, “Required Bastiat? Who are you people?”
(Note: my second question was, “Is this an all-you-can-eat sort of thing, or what?”)
As conservatives and libertarians scramble post-election to put plans in motion to “take back” or splinter the center-right, Big Tent coalition that has existed in one form or another for decades, my humble recommendation is that everyone from Bible-thumping social conservatives to secular libertarians (with at least one child or pet named for a character in an Ayn Rand novel) should sit down and re-visit (or visit for the first time) Bastiat’s The Law. Soak in and reflect upon the penetrating wisdom and insight that a Frenchman—one surrounded by Parisian socialists in 1849—shared with the world more than 150 years ago and yet could have been written yesterday.
I know it’s only one book. I know the problems we face are serious and enormous and foreboding. But if we can’t rally around the economic/political worldview espoused in its pages, we’re in bigger trouble than any of us realize.