I graduated from public high school and obtained a bachelor’s degree from a music school with some basic liberal arts requirements, and up until recently, I was never introduced to Frédéric Bastiat’s work. I’m disappointed by this fact, but after reading it, not surprised.
Frédéric Bastiat’s masterpiece, The Law, should be read by everyone who values the freedom of the individual or a free society. For those unfamiliar with Mr. Bastiat, he was a French businessman, political philosopher, and statesman and could be described as the Ron Paul of 19th century France. This book was published before he died and many justifiably regard it as his definitive masterpiece of political thought. The Law was intended as a response to the ascendant socialist policies and politicians.
The Law is the megaton warhead of truth bombs. There isn’t so much as a wasted word. Every sentence bursts off the page and cuts through the fog of sophists, academics, socialists and would-be intellectuals with the precision of a Hanzo sword.
The Law is a powerful argument that exemplifies the tradition of European classical liberal thought from which the American founding fathers drew inspiration and shaped the principles on which the modern libertarian movement is based.
Bastiat argues that there is a supreme, natural law to which all written law must be subordinate, and that this ur-law has been perverted to serve its opposite purpose: legalized plunder. The right to “individuality, liberty and property” is the proper conception of the law and that the very existence of the state is merely the collective assignment of self-defense to a public institution. Bastiat argues that as long as the state circumscribes itself to this function, individuals will not assign undue allegiance to the state nor petition for its expansion. It’s a compelling argument, but since socialism was ascendant when it was written, Bastiat attends to the logical consequences of empowering the state to engage in legalized plunder, the defining feature of socialist politics, in the remainder of the text.
This book is one hundred sixty-six years old, and yet, everything in it would easily be shouted down as heretical and retrograde today by apologists for the state. The truth of what he’s arguing cannot be denied.
Bastiat righteously eviscerates the sheer elitism and contempt socialists have towards humanity by attempting to link moral choices and civic virtue to lawful coercive force. By supplanting the free choices of individuals with the forcible imposition of the will of the legislator and the bureaucrat, the socialist systematizes sociopathy, avarice and obedience. All of the dysfunction Bastiat described in 1850 applies to the sad state of current affairs.
All of his observations of socialists are devastatingly accurate. Socialists do not care for facts or reason and let neither get in the way of the forcible implementation of their agenda. Socialists view humanity as empty vessels that need their divine guidance and their pretensions intellectual superiority.
In the latter half of the book, Bastiat takes direct aim at the would-be ministrations of the philosophers, politicians and didacts of the day. From Robespierre to Rousseau, Bastiat takes apart these insufferable authoritarians and their detestable designs on managing human affairs down to the last detail. As a result of the perversion of the law to which this book is devoted, America and the West have colonized academia and created vast cottage industries dedicated to the various sects of state worship and their doctrines of obedience. The will to dominate others has polluted the minds and perverted the ambitions of people since the time of Plato, and Bastiat’s rebuke remains sadly relevant. Bastiat says it best:
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?
Bastiat identifies the proper application of law as defensive force. Every individual has an inviolable right to defend life and property. This is the sole function of the state confined to its proper role. In America presently, the respect for this basic, natural right is consistently undermined by the deranged and manipulative bleating of politicians, activists, and media alike in their ceaseless quest to consolidate power. For some, mere ownership of firearms makes your motives suspect and armed protest will get you branded a terrorist by the bloodthirsty mob.
One of the most provocative arguments is Bastiat’s skepticism towards universal suffrage. Nowadays, all you hear from academic, media, identity politics and feminist circles is a relentless drumbeat of scorn and reproach heaped on the “white male capitalist patriarchy” and a seemingly ceaseless campaign to browbeat men everywhere into a posture of penitence for daring to exclude anyone from the ballot box despite having no role in crafting the founding documents. It’s very easy and tempting to view Bastiat’s argument as the retrograde view of a man who wants everyone else to be subordinate, but this reasoning emerged from a philosophical conviction that political power was not meant to be coveted or actively pursued in service of anything beyond preservation of liberty in the first place. He contends that if the law were confined to its proper function, everyone’s interest would be the same. Films like Selma and Suffragette seem explicitly calculated to inculcate feelings of guilt and shame in men (white men specifically) for committing the unspeakable crime of disenfranchising women and minorities from voting. It’s more than a little ironic that feminists don’t want male politicians making decisions by legislative fiat over their reproductive choices, but are simultaneously completely content to advocate for expropriating resources for material benefits and special legal privileges by the same method.
Speaking of Suffragette, it’s also ironic that movie with such a pro-suffrage message seems to have borrowed from Mr. Bastiat. Bastiat wrote, “The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable”. In the film, Violet Miller says, “You want me to respect the law? Then make the law respectable”. Where was Inigo Montoya when we needed him?
Despite the attainment of universal suffrage, this achievement is apparently no longer sufficient either. Between open appeals from our enlightened progressive overlords for mandatory voting and completely sincere appeals for children voting, the appetite for government sponsored avarice and unchallenged fealty to the state knows no boundaries.
Another important point Bastiat makes is that one cannot formulate political theory without first developing a rational, scientific theory of economics. Modern economic thought takes government intervention as a given. Bastiat died before the Marginal Revolution, but it’s apparent that his conception of economics assigned greater importance to human action and seemed closer to the theoretical framework of praxeology that was eventually articulated by Mises.
As compelling as the idea of a limited state is, it seems fairly apparent that this idea has proven itself a failure. The law has been perverted to serve its opposite purpose, and many now take it as a given that the law must serve socialist agendas. Generally speaking, arguments to the contrary are immediately regarded with scorn, ridicule and censure. After years of inflammatory anti-capitalist rhetoric from the political, academic and media complex, we are living in a time when a self-identifying socialist is running for president. Imagine Mr. Bastiat’s disappointment in the current state of affairs were he alive to bear witness.
Despite the rhetoric of Constitutional conservatives and minarchists, they have no track record of success in scaling back the state. During the Obama administration alone, the funding for the Department of Homeland Security dried up and the charter of the Ex-Im Bank was allowed to expire. Both were revived and conservatives played a role in their restoration. And when conservative candidates for president openly champion minimum wage indexed to inflation, it’s fair to say that modern American conservatism has drifted far away from its original principles.
Forget the pretentious Marxists, socialists and the so-called anarcho-communists and their attempts to resuscitate dead ideas and pass them off as transgressive thought. These people dominate academia and have plenty of sympathy in the media, political and intellectual classes and they continue to present themselves as beleaguered underdogs whose voices are being choked under the oppressive stranglehold of capitalism. What utter horseshit.
Those who’ve borne the torch of liberty have always had to fight the socialists, centralizers, planners, and academic elitists who think they know what’s best for you. Sadly, the false promise of socialism retains its appeal in the 21st century. Fortunately, the message of The Law remains undimmed by the passage of time and more urgent than ever.