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Bastiat's Thinking Still Resonates

On May 10, Director Robin Crossan gave the Conservative Caucus spring talk at the Brandywine Hundred Library. His subject was The Law by Federic Bastiat (1801-1850), which was published as a pamphlet shortly before Bastiat’s death. This work has enjoyed continuing interest, and is posted on line nowadays.

An economist of the French liberal (in the classic sense) persuasion, Bastiat was a staunch foe of the socialist movement that fueled (in France and other European countries) the Revolution of 1848. Government’s proper role was to maintain order, in his view, not to run the economy and determine how wealth should be distributed.

One famous example of Bastiat’s thinking is the broken windows parable, which suggests that people who go around breaking windows aren’t “stimulating the economy” by putting others to work in repairing the damage. Why? The resources required for this effort could otherwise have been used for more productive purposes.

Bastiat similarly indicted special interests that rely on government protection for their prosperity, as shown by his satirical account of a candle-makers’ petition for measures to end unfair competition by blocking out the rays of the sun.

Robin presented a series of passages from the Law, in effect letting Bastiat do the talking. A starting premise: people have a right to defend themselves. This right can justify the wielding of collective force by government to defend society against violence and plunder. Collective force should never be used, however, to take the life, liberty or property of people who are conducting themselves peaceably.

There will always be those who attempt to obtain the property of others, it’s just human nature. People perceive labor as pain – people avoid pain – plunder will continue until it becomes harder than working.

Given our disposition to view what is “legal” as also just, people lobby the government for laws that will support their own interests. Simple greed may be the driver, but false altruism and/or an unwarranted faith in government decision making often serves as the rationale. The result is legalized plunder, which has been given various more positive-sounding names, e.g., socialism.

Alas, people won’t continue to labor unless they enjoy the benefits. Or to put it another way, if too many people try to ride in the wagon, there won’t be enough people to pull it.

So however logical the case for collective action may sound, socialism or the equivalent never works very well.

In Bastiat’s day, the United States was seen as a shining example of a society based on voluntary collective action. There were two exceptions, however, namely the government’s role in tolerating slavery and erecting tariff barriers.

Bastiat’s concept of the role of government harmonized with the provisions of the US Constitution, but the political climate in this country has changed greatly since 1850. As brought out in the discussion that followed Robin’s presentation, America today is split into two factions that see the world very differently.

For example:

  • Conservatives call our intellectual adversaries socialists, while they label us as individualists or populists.

  • Conservatives are leery of “state education,” while they say we are against education.

  • Liberals see legislators and government regulators as wise, while considering the bulk of the population to be uninformed and/or irresponsible. We are underwhelmed by the wisdom of government decision-making and continue to place a high value on personal liberty.

In sum, US politics today are strikingly similar to the European politics in Bastiat’s day. And if anyone still believes that Socialism works, consider what’s currently happening in Venezuela.

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