The Wisdom of Bastiat

Frederic Bastiat was Ronald Reagan’s favorite philosopher. Bastiat was born 200 years ago in France to a merchant father. Bastiat was orphaned, however, at age nine and brought up by his grandfather and his aunt. At seventeen, Bastiat went to work in his uncle’s accounting business and spent six years there. Then he inherited his grandfather’s farm and became a farmer. From the farm, Bastiat became active in local politics and started to write pamphlets on political and economic topics. Indeed, the last six years of his life witnessed his pouring forth, a most remarkable series of writings—right up to his untimely death from lung infection on Christmas Eve, 1850 at the age of forty-nine. Today Bastiat is regarded as a first-rate political theorist and economist. His peculiar gift of argument was his method of exaggeration, which he used to expose inherent fallacies in the logic of socialists and economic protectionists.

For instance, if a proposed new railroad from Paris to Madrid should have a break at Bordeaux, in order to force passengers to stop and shop and thus benefit that city, then why not break the railroad at a dozen or so other cities? Indeed, have the railroad consist of nothing but gaps—a negative railroad if you will! Wouldn’t that help everyone along the route by the same logic? His supreme jest was the petition of the candlemakers. In it, he asks the Chamber of Deputies to pass a law requiring the closing of all openings by which the light of the sun can enter homes and businesses. That way, you increase the need for artificial light—France consumes more oil and other industry-related products; ergo, thousands of ships will now engage in whaling. In short order, France will have a great fleet to uphold its honor and to gratify its patriotic longings! In Latin this kind of argument is called reductio ad absurdum, and I think Bastiat would have a field day today. He’d have less competition too, since there are so few talented politicians to engage with him in mental joust.

Alas, you’d think a country of over three hundred and seven millions could do a little better than the hundreds of mediocre representatives and senators we have! Elected officials, as well as the electorate, would do well to become familiar with the profound wisdom in Bastiat’s writings. Bastiat speaks clearly to our day (‘he that hath an ear, let him hear’), and I quote:

On Freedom and Harmony

Society is composed of men, and every man is a free agent. Since man is free,
he can choose; since he can choose, he can err; since he can err, he can suffer.
I go further: He must err and he must suffer; for his starting point is ignorance,
and in his ignorance he sees before him an infinite number of unknown roads,
all of which save one lead to error.
This explains man’s necessarily painful evolution…. Two very different
masters teach him [his lessons]: experience and foresight. Experience teaches
efficaciously but brutally.It instructs us in all the effects of an act by makingus
feel them, and we cannot fail to learn eventually, from having beenburned
ourselves, that fire burns. I should prefer, in so far as possible, to replace this
rude teacher with one more gentle: foresight.

On the Market Economy

By virtue of exchange, one man’s prosperity is beneficial to all others.
Capital has from the beginning of time worked to free men from the
yoke of ignorance, want, and tyranny. To frighten away capital is to rivet
a triple chain around the arms of the human race.
Property, the right to enjoy the fruits of one’s labor, the right to work, to
develop, to exercise one’s faculties, according to one’s own understanding,
without the state intervening otherwise than by its protective action—this
is what is meant by liberty.

On Law and Justice

It is not because men have passed laws that personality, liberty, and
property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, liberty, and
property already exist that men make laws.
Law is the organization of the natural right to legitimate self-defense; it is the
substitution of collective force for individual forces, to act in the sphere in
which they have the right to act, to do what they have the right to do; to
guarantee security of person, liberty, and property rights, to cause justice to
reign over all.

On State Intervention

The state tends to expand in proportion to its means of existence and to live
beyond its means, and these are, in the last analysis, nothing but the substance
of the people. Woe to the people that cannot limit the sphere of action of the
state! Freedom, private enterprise, wealth, happiness, independence, personal
dignity, all vanish.

The State is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the
expense of everyone else.