Bastiat’s Law is as interesting for its unstated political and social premises as for its explicit economic argumentation.
What then is law? As I have said elsewhere, it is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense (p. 2).1
These words written by Frédéric Bastiat in the middle of the 19th century were revolutionary against the socialism then prevalent in France. Bastiat detailed the many problems of socialism from an individualist, capitalist, liberal perspective. A Freemason and member of the French Liberal School, he explicated the sole duties of government; to protect the rights of the individual to life, liberty and property. His analysis of political economy was both moral and economic, similar to the thinking of a Murray Rothbard. He was one of the earliest thinkers to develop the ideas of opportunity cost – though he never used the term – and rent-seeking. Libertarians and conservatives are indebted to his thought. But in this review I hope to offer some counter-arguments to some of his views, and thereby to challenge my own former paradigm.
‘The law is the organization of the natural right to lawful defense; it is the substitution of collective for individual forces, for the purpose of acting in the sphere in which they have a right to act, of doing what they have a right to do, to secure persons, liberties, and properties, and to maintain each in its right, so as to cause justice to reign over all’ (p. 3). What began as the individualist thought of John Locke and the Renaissance thinkers before him was taken up by Bastiat and used to criticize the socialist understanding dominant in France. Bastiat contrasts the idea of ‘legal plunder’ – which, he claimed, was inextricably linked with socialism – to the idea of ‘the law’. In a Kantian fashion, he posed three solutions to the question of legal plunder: 1.) the few plunder the many, 2.) everybody plunders everyone else and 3.) nobody plunders anybody (p. 13). The first example is most typical of modern society: the state (the few) take from the many – regardless of class – and redistribute resources; Bastiat claims that this is nothing but cleverly disguised theft. In the second case, Bastiat demonstrates that theft cannot be universalized, which is evident even upon armchair reflection. In the third instance, he states his ideal; that it is beneficial both morally and economically if the state steals from no one. This ideal was moral because it was universalisable, and beneficial economically because it allowed for the production of wealth, not merely for its transference. According to Bastiat, human greed and misconceived philanthropy are the roots of legal plunder (p. 17). The common conception of greed points to the fat-cat monopolist; rarely is the politician referred to as greedy.
When confronted by these arguments, the socialist fallaciously asserts that because one does not want the state to provide good x, one must be against said good (p. 22). Bastiat demonstrated that this is mere rhetoric. He believes that the socialist views himself as a scientist insofar as those who govern the state are able to experiment on the masses through various economic and political policies (p. 23). The statists think of themselves as ‘molders of the masses’, so that all one has to do to change man is to change his environment. The overarching idea stems as well from Locke’s idea of the tabula rasa. The idea of molding the masses was prevalent in the governments of antiquity according to Bastiat, from Egypt to Persia to Greece (p. 27, 37). The final key idea of Bastiat’s book is the ‘triple hypothesis’ – a set of assumptions upon which social planners build their society. It includes the radical passivity of mankind, the omnipotence of law, and the infallibility of the legislator. Bastiat detested this mode of thinking and affirmed the three components of the French Revolution: liberty, equality and fraternity.
I have three critiques against Bastiat, and none of them is entirely directly related to his ideas of opportunity cost, rent-seeking or the effects of legal plunder. In fact, the majority of the criticisms I level against Bastiat are on those topics about which he does not write. I do understand that he died the year this book was published, and was thus unable to comment on later historical developments; despite this, I still feel it is important to discuss what Bastiat may have missed, and certainly what many of his adherents have missed. It should be easier to discuss this 168 years later in the context of a capitalist country. My criticisms are the following: 1.) Bastiat conflates the ideas of aristocrat and plutocrat and socialist, 2.) he does not perceive that capitalism begets socialism, and 3.) his ideas rest on an arbitrary, purely economic analysis of the individual. It is worth noting that I do not believe, as is often assumed, that academic disciplines are completely separate from one another, so many of my critiques will take a non-economic form.
Bastiat’s thought is minarchist, though if he were a better adherent to his own logic, he would have called himself an anarchist. His formulation of the three instances of plunder would necessitate that no one – including the state – could steal from anyone else. My point of contention is the lack of a central authority in this view. Such authority is essential in society, because without such there can be no overarching social or political standards. If there are no standards, the resultant vacuum will likely be filled by those who promote vice; and if vice is promoted, the masses will sooner or later come to be managed by the plutocrat. The plutocrat is he who derives his power from his wealth, and has no loyalty to a particular society, nation or empire; his nature is parasitic rather than organic. Contrast this with the aristocrat, whose loyalty is to his ethnos; and though he is regarded as being ‘better’ than the average man, it is because he has a naturally imposed double responsibility. To speak colloquially, the aristocrat has ‘skin in the game’, whereas the plutocrat has only money. Though Bastiat used neither of these terms in his politico-economic analysis, I would argue that he had both plutocrats and aristocrats (as we will soon see) in mind when he described the ‘fatal tendency toward plunder’ (p. 11). One cannot have a stable civilization without an aristocratic class and without subjects loyal to the very state which Bastiat so totally opposed. Even as a minarchist, Bastiat would have to provide a way to ensure faith in the little government that remains; he wrote of what the government should do, but never (at least in the present work) laid the foundations required for fidelity to it.
Bastiat argues that the socialist of the modern era shares a similar feature with the ancient ruler: they both view themselves as ‘molders of the masses’. Again, I believe it is a mistake to view the ancient ruler (who would in most cases be best described as aristocratic) and the socialist as pertaining to the same category. The socialist views man in strictly economic terms – precisely as does the capitalist – while the ancient ruler viewed man in a wholly different light. Inherent in both ancient and modern civilizations is the hierarchy ingrained in human nature. In the ancient conception, the higher man was not to dominate the lower man; in fact the higher man had a duty to defend and protect the lower man, especially in battle – a duty which is indicated by the old concept of noblesse oblige. In our modern conception of politics and society, the idea of duty to another man has been deemed ‘collectivist’; in consequence also of this negative identification, people have been atomized, made devoid of community and thus also of real power. The only power in an individualist society is wealth, and those (like Bastiat) who would tell another to not form or be part of a ‘collective’ would – in my opinion – be your rulers.
Quoting Bastiat: ‘[T]hey have not understood that time produces and spreads enlightenment; and that in proportion to the increase of enlightenment, right ceases to be upheld by force, and society begins to regain possession of herself’ (p. 39). On this question of force versus voluntarism, I must point out that by strictly materialist terms (presupposed in Enlightenment thinking), free will or voluntary choice must be illusory. Does Bastiat choose to live in 19th century France, to be born of a wealthy family? No: and this is important in discussing the question of force, because all voluntary choice is rendered involuntary by Bastiat’s own worldview. Even if we permit the individual to make choices according to his own ‘will’, we would still have to recognize the internal metaphysical involuntarism and the external physical involuntarism of government force. Here, one could ask oneself whether there is indeed any difference between being forced by one’s own materialistic and mechanistic ‘will’, as against another’s will being forced upon one?
Finally, Bastiat does not take into account extra-governmental means of ‘molding of the masses’ or of social engineering. He does not mention (in this work, at least) the potential influence of media and entertainment, which in the 20th century cultivated public opinions that the state believed to be beneficial to it through television and film. If a man can be entertained, he can be induced into accepting falsities which could theoretically limit his development mentally, socially and spiritually. To sum up my critique of this point, the state’s sphere of control is not always confined to what is written in a constitution, the question of force on materialist terms is irrelevant, and mistaking the plutocrat or socialist for an aristocrat is a category error.
My second objection to Bastiat’s logic can be summed up in a proposition: capitalism begets socialism. This has been obvious in the US since the 19th century’s expansion of markets and production into the 20th century, wherein the administrations of Wilson and Roosevelt governed as quasi-socialist managers. Parallel to the advancement of capitalism came the advancement of technology and efficiency, which brought about wonders like increased access to information, but also plagues such as censorship, location tracking and intelligent electronics and robots to replace labour – and perhaps in the long to replace run mankind itself. Capitalism has facilitated – not prevented – the expansion of an all-encompassing security state embodied in institutions such as the NSA. This allows for ‘better’ or more capable totalitarianism, akin to that presented in the novels 1984 and Brave New World. This goes consistently unrecognized by the contemporary American ‘right’, though as technologies such as AI become more mainstream, I believe this tide will turn.
In his foreword to this edition of Bastiat’s work, Austrian Economist Thomas DiLorenzo states,
Socialists want to ‘play God’, Bastiat observed, anticipating all the future tyrants and despots of the world who would try to remake the world in their image, whether that image would be communism, fascism, the ‘glorious union’, or ‘global democracy’ (p. vii).
My argument is that the process by which one creates global democracy requires the vast production and subsequent consolidation of wealth: capitalism creates this wealth, then socialism follows to consolidate it. Socialism is also the response to capitalism; it is labour’s manifestation against capital.
The third critique I would bring against this work has to do with his analysis of political economy at the individual level. Let me begin by noting how ambiguous a term ‘individual’ is; it exists evidently to denote a modern person – though even to ascribe personhood to the modern ‘individual’ already assumes too much. The ‘individual’ in this sense is the strictly economic being, who perhaps has dignity before the Protestant God, but who is usually contrasted with a ‘collective’. With the possible exception of the hermit, people hardly ever exist by themselves, independently of culture, tradition, history, or any number of other ‘collective’ identifiers. Thus, the ‘individual’ versus ‘collective’ is a false dichotomy.
The individualist ethos prevalent in the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment era is wholly discivic and nihilistic, because it is based on mere consumption and the idea that no one (e.g. Church or state) can tell another what he should do in life. It is a negative conception insofar as the ‘individualist’ can decide what one should not do to others, such as pick their pockets or physically harm them. But beyond this, the ‘individualist’ can make no positive proclamations regarding moral choices. But on what grounds can a sustainable civilisation be built if all people – low and high order – do exclusively as they wish? Along with the individualism that Bastiat presupposes comes the irreligious state. He states: ‘make the law religious, fraternal, equalizing, industrial, literary, or artistic, and you will be lost in vagueness and uncertainty’ (p. 50). But what could be more vague and false than the three components of the French Revolution Bastiat implicitly supports: liberty, equality and fraternity? Liberty is false according to his own materialist non-metaphysics; equality is demonstrably false in every imaginable sense of the term; and the supposed fraternity of Bastiat’s own Freemasonry does not permeate the whole society, but rather remains an esoteric preserve of the few. For what real fraternity can there be without ethnos?
In summation, I find The Law useful for its demonstration of the ‘law of the unseen’, which in economic terms is hardly assailable. I also found Bastiat’s view of rent-seeking to be of interest, as this is a phenomenon which we still face today. The book is clearly a great introduction for libertarians, but even for a traditionalist such as myself, it is important to have one’s ideas checked by liberalism; after all, it has been the dominating ideology unquestionably since the Enlightenment. What I do find missing in this book are the ancient features of government: aristocracy, a solid focus on virtue, the constant practical demonstration of this virtue in the workings of the state and the life of its rulers, and a positive formulation of purpose in one’s life. I cannot be intellectually trapped in the dialectic of the individual versus the collective, and I cannot view capitalism as categorically beneficial or virtuous. Nonetheless, The Law laid the foundation for the Chicago and Austrian Schools of Economics, which cannot be overlooked, as both were highly influential in the 20th century. Though it has failed to convince me of the inevitability or desirability of ‘progress’, much can be gained from critical engagement with such a book.
1 All references taken from Frédéric Bastiat, The Law (Auburn: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2007).