The Beautiful Brevity of Bastiat

by Whitney Pitcher

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Earlier this weekend, I finally read one of the books that has been on my “To Read” list for a couple of years–The Law by Frederic Bastiat. Bastiat was a 19th century French economist who focused on liberty and the overreaches of government’s “legal plunder”. The Law is a mere 55 pages long, but speaks volumes to the barrier to liberty that government becomes far too often. The words he writes ring just as true today as they did when he wrote his book in 1850. As King Solomon wrote in the book of Ecclesiastes in the Bible, “there is nothing new under the sun”. This includes the fallibility of government and the need to emphasize the God-given right of liberty.

The Law is beautifully simple, which is why it has such a powerful message. Bastiat discusses how God has given us the rights of personality, liberty, and property and how the law is the collective organization to defend these rights. However, the law is perverted too often by two causes: naked greed and misconstrued philanthropy, as he refers to them. Diversion from the law’s true purposes leads to what Bastiat refers to as legal plunder.  He also spends time railing against the elitism of politicians comparing them to gardeners wanting to prune their trees (constituents) or a scientists wanting to perform social experiments on their subjects.

Of particular intrigue to me personally was Bastiat’s discussion of naked greed and misconstrued philanthropy. His rebuke of naked greed is not akin to the charge of the Occupy movement, but that of “the law” creating a system when “plunder” becomes less burdensome than working. This plunder by the few (politicians) comes at the expense of the many. Legal plunder then results in people wanting to either create laws to protect themselves against such plunder (support for selective tax credits, subsidies, etc) or organize so that they can become a recipient of it (welfare state,  politically connect grants, and protectionism in today’s society).

Misconstrued philanthropy, to me at least, seems almost synonymous to the “compassionate conservatism” espoused by the Bush administration and perpetuated by many Establishment Republicans today. Bastiat decries a system of law that infringes upon liberties to organize labor, charity, agriculture, education, etc. Socialists, Bastiat says, want to government to combine “fraternity” and “liberty”. He argues that forced attachment of fraternity actually destroys liberty. He is a proponent of what he calls ” spontaneous fraternity”. After all, conservatives can be spontaneously compassionate, and we should! True “fraternity” or compassion fails to exist when it is only the result of legal plunder redistributed to those determined in need by those who engaged in the plunder.

Bastiat also goes on to very concisely characterize socialism and the subsequent lies that socialists project onto those who object to the State’s role. He writes:

Socialism, like the old policy from which it emanates  confounds society and government. And so, every time we object to a thing being done by Government, it concludes we object to its being done at all.

[…]

They might as well accuse us of wishing men not to eat, because we object to cultivation of corn by the State.

In short, Bastiat was prescient about our current “Sandra Fluke” society, where lovers of liberty are accused of being anti-[fill-in-the blank] because we don’t want government to pay for it with our money.

Bastiat continues by sharply criticizing the elitism and arrogance of elected leaders once they are in power, juxtaposing his views with those of his socialist contemporaries. He sums it up well when he says:

Since the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to allow them liberty, how comes it pass that the tendencies of organizers are always good?

Government is not god. It is not a moral force. It is not intrinsically good. It should not serve as an arbiter of liberty.

Brevity is beautiful, and Bastiat did it well. While there are many more current, well written books about ideology also, re-visiting the words of the past can help us understand our present and help preserve liberty for our future.

5 Comments

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5 responses to “The Beautiful Brevity of Bastiat

  1. Is it fair to say Basitat would be more sympathetic towards Progressives than Conservatives, were he alive today?

    • whitneyz

      Not at all. Bastiat would likely be most sympathetic to libertarians than any other ideological group. He was extremely critical of socialism and his dislike of “legal plunder” indicates he does not support redistribution of wealth, so he would not be sympathetic to progressives by any means. He would likely have some criticism for conservatives who support protectionism and corporate welfare. Really those folks are just more like progressives than conservatves.

  2. Reblogged this on YouViewed/Editorial and commented:
    Bastiat Is The MAN …

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