Frederic Bastiat’s The Law – Part 1

(Part 1 of 6)

Copyright Notice:  This translation was copyrighted in 1950 by The Foundation For Economic Education (FEE), a non-profit research and educational institution. They kindly granted blanket permission for reprinting.

Editor’s Introductory Note: 
The Law is perhaps one of the most important books on economics and government ever written. Because it distills the vagaries of human nature down to their essential elements, it gets to the core of the human dilemma: How we can live together without slaying one another, yet also live in a free society without oppression. Striking that balance is the exception, rather than the rule. Most attempts at “government” dating back to the reign of Solomon have failed, most typically sliding into totalitarianism of various shades. Until recent years, the government of the 50 United States has been a noteworthy exception. At the time that this was re-translated and re-printed in 1950, America was perhaps at its cusp  — economically, militarily, and in influence on the form of government of other nations. Today, nearly 70 years later, we are witnessing the ill effects of too much government, socialism run amok, serial foreign interventions, and a constitutional law system that has been perverted. Please pray for restoration of our Constitutional Republic!  – JWR

[Note:  The Law was authored circa 1848. First published in French in 1850. First translated to English in 1852. Re-translated in 1950.]

Preface

When a reviewer wishes to give special recognition to a book, he predicts that it will still be read “a hundred years from now.” The Law, first published as a pamphlet in June, 1850, is already more than a hundred years old. And because its truths are eternal, it will still be read when another century has passed.

Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, statesman, and author. He did most of his writing during the years just before—and immediately following—the Revolution of February 1848. This was the period when France was rapidly turning to complete socialism. As a Deputy to the Legislative Assembly, Mr. Bastiat was studying and explaining each socialist fallacy as it appeared. And he explained how socialism must inevitably degenerate into communism. But most of his countrymen chose to ignore his logic.

The Law is here presented again because the same situation that existed in the France of 1848, exists in practically every country today. The same socialist-communist ideas and plans that were then adopted in France are now sweeping the world. The explanations and arguments then advanced against socialism by Mr. Bastiat are—word for word—equally valid today. His ideas deserve a serious hearing.

The Law

The Translation The Law

This translation of The Law was done by Dean Russell of The Foundation for Economic Education staff. His objective was an accurate rendering of Mr. Bastiat’s words and ideas into twentieth century, idiomatic English.

A nineteenth century translation of The Law, made in 1853 in England by an unidentified contemporary of Mr. Bastiat, was of much value as a check against this translation. In addition, Dean Russell had his work reviewed by Bertrand de Jouvenel, the noted French economist, historian, and author who is also thoroughly familiar with the English language.

While Mr. de Jouvenel offered many valuable corrections and suggestions, it should be clearly understood that Mr. Russell bears full responsibility for the translation.

Copyright 1950, by Dean Russell.  Permission to reprint granted without special request.


The Law

The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!

If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me to call the attention of my fellow-citizens to it.

Life Is a Gift from God

We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This gift is life—physical, intellectual, and moral life.

But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it. In order that we may accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties. And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.

Life, faculties, production–in other words, individuality, liberty, property—this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.

Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.

What Is Law?

What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties?

If every person has the right to defend—even by force—his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right—its reason for existing, its lawfulness—is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force—for the same reason—cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.

Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?

If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this: The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.

A Just and Enduring Government

If a nation were founded on this basis, it seems to me that order would prevail among the people, in thought as well as in deed. It seems to me that such a nation would have the most simple, easy to accept, economical, limited, nonoppressive, just, and enduring government imaginable— whatever its political form might be.

Under such an administration, everyone would understand that he possessed all the privileges as well as all the responsibilities of his existence. No one would have any argument with government, provided that his person was respected, his labor was free, and the fruits of his labor were protected against all unjust attack. When successful, we would not have to thank the state for our success. And, conversely, when unsuccessful, we would no more think of blaming the state for our misfortune than would the farmers blame the state because of hail or frost. The state would be felt only by the invaluable blessings of safety provided by this concept of government.

It can be further stated that, thanks to the non- intervention of the state in private affairs, our wants and their satisfactions would develop themselves in a logical manner. We would not see poor families seeking literary instruction before they have bread. We would not see cities populated at the expense of rural districts, nor rural districts at the expense of cities. We would not see the great displacements of capital, labor, and population that are caused by legislative decisions.

The sources of our existence are made uncertain and precarious by these state-created displacements. And, furthermore, these acts burden the government with increased responsibilities.

The Complete Perversion of the Law

But, unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions, it has not done so merely in some inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.

How has this perversion of the law been accomplished? And what have been the results?

The law has been perverted by the influence of two entirely different causes: stupid greed and false philanthropy. Let us speak of the first.

A Fatal Tendency of Mankind

Self-preservation and self-development are common aspirations among all people. And if everyone enjoyed the unrestricted use of his faculties and the free disposition of the fruits of his labor, social progress would be ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing.

But there is also another tendency that is common among people. When they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others. This is no rash accusation. Nor does it come from a gloomy and uncharitable spirit. The annals of history bear witness to the truth of it: the incessant wars, mass migrations, religious persecutions, universal slavery, dishonesty in commerce, and monopolies. This fatal desire has its origin in the very nature of man—in that primitive, universal, and insuppressible instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain.

Property and Plunder

Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property.

But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder.

Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain—and since labor is pain in itself—it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows this quite clearly. And under these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.

When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor.

It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use the power of its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work. All the measures of the law should protect property and punish plunder.

But, generally, the law is made by one man or one class of men. And since law cannot operate without the sanction and support of a dominating force, this force must be entrusted to those who make the laws.

This fact, combined with the fatal tendency that exists in the heart of man to satisfy his wants with the least possible effort, explains the almost universal perversion of the law. Thus it is easy to understand how law, instead of checking injustice, becomes the invincible weapon of injustice. It is easy to understand why the law is used by the legislator to destroy in varying degrees among the rest of the people, their personal independence by slavery, their liberty by oppression, and their property by plunder. This is done for the benefit of the person who makes the law, and in proportion to the power that he holds.

Victims of Lawful Plunder

Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter—by peaceful or revolutionary means—into the making of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.

Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the power to make laws!

Until that happens, the few practice lawful plunder upon the many, a common practice where the right to participate in the making of law is limited to a few persons. But then, participation in the making of law becomes universal. And then, men seek to balance their conflicting interests by universal plunder. Instead of rooting out the injustices found in society, they make these injustices general. As soon as the plundered classes gain political power, they establish a system of reprisals against other classes. They do not abolish legal plunder. (This objective would demand more enlightenment than they possess.) Instead, they emulate their evil predecessors by participating in this legal plunder, even though it is against their own interests.

It is as if it were necessary, before a reign of justice appears, for everyone to suffer a cruel retribution—some for their evilness, and some for their lack of understanding.

The Results of Legal Plunder

It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.

What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would require volumes to describe them all. Thus we must content ourselves with pointing out the most striking.

In the first place, it erases from everyone’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice.

No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them. The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice are one and the same thing. There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are “just” because law makes them so. Thus, in order to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.

The Fate of Non-Conformists

If you suggest a doubt as to the morality of these institutions, it is boldly said that “You are a dangerous innovator, a utopian, a theorist, a subversive; you would shatter the foundation upon which society rests.”

If you lecture upon morality or upon political science, there will be found official organizations petitioning the government in this vein of thought: “That science no longer be taught exclusively from the point of view of free trade (of liberty, of property, and of justice) as has been the case until now, but also, in the future, science is to be especially taught from the viewpoint of the facts and laws that regulate French industry (facts and laws which are contrary to liberty, to property, and to justice). That, in government-endowed teaching positions, the professor rigorously refrain from endangering in the slightest degree the respect due to the laws now in force.”1


1 General Council of Manufacturers, Agriculture, and Commerce, May 6, 1850.


Thus, if there exists a law which sanctions slavery or monopoly, oppression or robbery, in any form whatever, it must not even be mentioned. For how can it be mentioned without damaging the respect which it inspires? Still further, morality and political economy must be taught from the point of view of this law; from the supposition that it must be a just law merely because it is a law.

Another effect of this tragic perversion of the law is that it gives an exaggerated importance to political passions and conflicts, and to politics in general.

I could prove this assertion in a thousand ways. But, by way of illustration, I shall limit myself to a subject that has lately occupied the minds of everyone: universal suffrage.

Who Shall Judge?

The followers of Rousseau’s school of thought—who consider themselves far advanced, but whom I consider twenty centuries behind the times—will not agree with me on this. But universal suffrage—using the word in its strictest sense—is not one of those sacred dogmas which it is a crime to examine or doubt. In fact, serious objections may be made to universal suffrage.

In the first place, the word universal conceals a gross fallacy. For example, there are 36 million people in France. Thus, to make the right of suffrage universal, there should be 36 million voters. But the most extended system permits only 9 million people to vote. Three persons out of four are excluded. And more than this, they are excluded by the fourth. This fourth person advances the principle of incapacity as his reason for excluding the others.

Universal suffrage means, then, universal suffrage for those who are capable. But there remains this question of fact: Who is capable? Are minors, females, insane persons, and persons who have committed certain major crimes the only ones to be determined incapable?

The Reason Why Voting Is Restricted

A closer examination of the subject shows us the motive which causes the right of suffrage to be based upon the supposition of incapacity. The motive is that the elector or voter does not exercise this right for himself alone, but for everybody.

The most extended elective system and the most restricted elective system are alike in this respect. They differ only in respect to what constitutes incapacity. It is not a difference of principle, but merely a difference of degree.

If, as the republicans of our present-day Greek and Roman schools of thought pretend, the right of suffrage arrives with one’s birth, it would be an injustice for adults to prevent women and children from voting. Why are they prevented? Because they are presumed to be incapable. And why is incapacity a motive for exclusion? Because it is not the voter alone who suffers the consequences of his vote; because each vote touches and affects everyone in the entire community; because the people in the community have a right to demand some safeguards concerning the acts upon which their welfare and existence depend.

The Answer Is to Restrict the Law

I know what might be said in answer to this; what the objections might be. But this is not the place to exhaust a controversy of this nature. I wish merely to observe here that this controversy over universal suffrage (as well as most other political questions) which agitates, excites, and overthrows nations, would lose nearly all of its importance if the law had always been what it ought to be.

In fact, if law were restricted to protecting all persons, all liberties, and all properties; if law were nothing more than the organized combination of the individual’s right to self defense; if law were the obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppression and plunder—is it likely that we citizens would then argue much about the extent of the franchise?

Under these circumstances, is it likely that the extent of the right to vote would endanger that supreme good, the public peace? Is it likely that the excluded classes would refuse to peaceably await the coming of their right to vote? Is it likely that those who had the right to vote would jealously defend their privilege?

If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone’s interest in the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under these circumstances, those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote?

(To be continued in Part 2.)




18 Comments

    1. Independent lady.

      I hope you mean independence lady as in

      Declaration of…

      It’s best to run life with a three strand cord as God illustrated to us in His word. The cords are you, your husband (with all his faults), and your Lord and Savior.

      God bless.

  1. Sorry, but this whole “Federal Government” thing is not working out…the time is coming, as Thomas Jefferson said, to water the tree of Liberty with the blood of tyrants…and patriots. Prepare yourselves and pray for guidance.

  2. Thank you for putting this up ,,,,,,do need anything to put this in my news letter ?

    Tea and chocolate ,”a good will greeting used by sea captains in the time of sail “

  3. I am so happy to see that you have posted ‘The Law’ by Frederic Bastiat it is a book every true lover of liberty should read. Upon my return from Viet Nam I was a very disheartened and confused young man. The reading of ‘The Law’ gave me a greater understanding of the evils facing our Republic. You may never know to what extent a thought might change the course of history. Every thought is a creation of God. I thank God for the illumination presented by Frederic!

  4. Wow! Great stuff! Can we send a copy to ALL politicians? To ALL lawmakers? To ALL….you get the idea…what a sad bunch we’ve become allowing the carnage of our Once Great Republic…

  5. JWR, I am sorry but I feel the cusp of the Republic was really in the 1850s, before the Civil War. Upon the first round of the Civil War the true Constitutional Republic was no more. From that point on the continual dissipation of State’s Rights and the onward march of the Federal Government power made the dream of a Constitutional Republic defunct. Of coarse that march was very closely controlled by the power elite, it is very slow and very clandestine. The greatest downfall of foreign relations was and always has been the violation of the Monroe Doctrine. We lost our sovereignty by 1913 with the acceptance of the Federal Reserve System which put us in bondage to the International Banking system and in turn to the International elite. Isn’t it interesting that within five years of our acceptance of the Federal Reserve we were in WW1… If we had not violated the Monroe Doctrine we would not have entered WW1, Germany would have more than likely won the war. Now, I don’t pretend to have a ‘crystal ball’, I have know idea how that would have changed the coarse of human events but I do know that we would not have had a WW2 has we have experienced it. Our individual thoughts and actions change things beyond our comprehension.

  6. Haven’t read this in a while JWR, thanks for posting.

    I have no faith in any form of government that has ever been tried on this planet, including the one tried after 12 of my ancestors helped overthrown the crown in 1776.

    Quoting Bastiat (leaving our some words denoted by elipses):

    “Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor… This process is the origin of property. But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder. …men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work…neither religion nor morality can stop it. [T]he proper purpose of law is to use the power of its collective force to stop…plunder. All the measures of the law should protect property and punish plunder… But, generally, the law is made by one man or one class of men. And since law cannot operate without the sanction and support of a dominating force, this force must be entrusted to those who make the laws.”

    The entire problem boils down to that last sentence, “this force must be entrusted,” to politicians. They will always find workarounds for any system so they can plunder the people to line their own pockets. I hope we can agree to disagree but I pray to God our Constitutional republic is never restored, too many of Jefferson’s and George Mason’s suggestions were ignored for it ever to have worked in the first place, as history has clearly shown us. It was too easily and too quickly perverted by the very kinds of people Bastiat talks about. After the collapse and the big reset, the next constitution needs to start out with an inviolable first clause making the right of private property absolute, with a second unnecessary clause to clarify for the thick-headed future politicians that nobody has a right to initiate violence, and a third unnecessary and inviolable clause to further clarify for the thick-headed future politicians that individuals cannot elect politicians to do things which they as individuals cannot do. There are plenty of examples of small societies working without force. I’m sure humans can figure out how to make a government work without force as well.

  7. To eam… there were monetary as well as geopolitical factors for US involvement in WW I … may I encourage you to read Anthony Sutton’s work “ Wall Street and the Rise of Adolf Hitler “ (well documented) as it goes into detail describing the financial backing given Hitler during the 1930’s and early 1940’s… today’ s events have been long in planning… now appear to be unfolding at a much more rapid pace… and the USMCA is not in the best interest of the American people…our individual and national sovereignty is being dismantled right before our eyes

  8. Robert….I totally agree with you, what was done was done and what followed were the horrors of WW2. I am only contending that if we were to have supported the concepts of the Monroe Doctrine we would have never entered WW1 making the rise of Hitler a moot point. By 1918 we were already pawns of the International Power Elite. They are very insidious, very brilliant (in the ways of the world) and very dangerous! I know we can’t put the genie back in the bottle and I know of no way to stop it now.

  9. Regarding violation of the Monroe Doctrine, here is a story of lie piled upon lie to rationalize breaking the Monroe Doctrine:

    https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/2019/investigations/afghanistan-papers/afghanistan-war-confidential-documents/

    Pay special attention to the words of the military men who were there and left frustrated.

    Here is one: “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing,” Douglas Lute, a three-star Army general who served as the White House’s Afghan war czar during the Bush and Obama administrations, told government interviewers in 2015.

    In war the first casualty is truth. Sigh.

    Carry on

  10. “Life Is a Gift from God. We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This gift is life—physical, intellectual, and moral life. … … Life, faculties, production–in other words, individuality, liberty, property—this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.” = Frédéric Bastiat.

    Bastiat builds his ideas on the foundation that >God is the source of all things. = “Life Is a Gift from God.” Bastiat has a page on the Catholic Encyclopedia and also on Wikipedia.

    The US Declaration of Independence recognizes God as the source of all things too.

    ……… “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their ~>Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are ~~~>Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.–That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed, …”
    ***********************
    In Western Civilization we refer to the Natural Law [An idea in our literature and public thinking; going back to the ancient Greeks and before. It comes from God.]
    Legally, adults are presumed to understand right and wrong. … Liberals hate it, but such an understanding of Right or Wrong must come from our >God given conscience. … Liberals start ‘tap dancing’ on the idea that Right or Wrong in our conscience originates with God. Liberals want to make up >all the rules for Right or Wrong. [Our government leaders are the source for Right or Wrong.]

    Wikipedia has a short article about ‘Natural Law’ for a quick read. … The Supreme Court Justice, Clarence Thomas has spoken about ‘Natural Law’ ~> and the liberals subsequently put-on their Hobnailed Boots, and then began ‘tap dancing’ on his ideas.

    Some liberals want to tell us a ‘conscience’ has its source through evolution. Of course, the liberals then believe: if your conscience differs from theirs, you must be genetically defective. = You must then be shipped off to a FEMA or concentration camp, or even ultimately a death camp.
    **************************************
    **************************************

    For >families and our society to persevere, we need God. The foundation of a Just and Good country is God. … The late-night preachers will refer to the Bible, and how God is the source for Right and Wrong.

    “18 The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people, who suppress the truth by their wickedness, 19 since what may be known about God is plain to them, because God has made it plain to them. 20 For since the creation of the world God’s invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature—have been clearly seen, being understood from what has been made, so that people are without excuse.” …

    “28 Furthermore, just as they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, so God gave them over to a depraved mind, so that they do what ought not to be done. 29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; 31 they have no understanding, no fidelity, no love, no mercy. 32 Although they know God’s righteous decree that those who do such things deserve death, they not only continue to do these very things but also approve of those who practice them.”
    [Romans 1 ~ NIV]
    ********************************

    People need to have Right Reason and a Well-Formed Conscience.
    Frédéric Bastiat tells us that a good foundation for society starts with God. … In Western Civilization, the >death referred to in the Bible, refers to the >eternal death in Hell. In Western Countries, living sinners are >NOT placed in a big bag, and then tossed off of a tall building.

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