Frederic Bastiat’s The Law – Part 5

(Part 5 of 6)

What Is Liberty?

Actually, what is the political struggle that we witness? It is the instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty. And what is this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat faster and shakes the world? Is it not the union of all liberties—liberty of conscience, of education, of association, of the press, of travel, of labor, of trade? In short, is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm other persons while doing so? Is not liberty the destruction of all despotism—including, of course, legal despotism? Finally, is not liberty the restricting of the law only to its rational sphere of organizing the right of the individual to lawful self- defense; of punishing injustice?

It must be admitted that the tendency of the human race toward liberty is largely thwarted, especially in France. This is greatly due to a fatal desire—learned from the teachings of antiquity—that our writers on public affairs have in common: They desire to set themselves above mankind in order to arrange, organize, and regulate it according to their fancy.

Philanthropic Tyranny

While society is struggling toward liberty, these famous men who put themselves at its head are filled with the spirit of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They think only of subjecting mankind to the philanthropic tyranny of their own social inventions. Like Rousseau, they desire to force mankind docilely to bear this yoke of the public welfare that they have dreamed up in their own imaginations.

This was especially true in 1789. No sooner was the old regime destroyed than society was subjected to still other artificial arrangements, always starting from the same point: the omnipotence of the law.

Listen to the ideas of a few of the writers and politicians during that period:

SAINT-JUST: “The legislator commands the future. It is for him to will the good of mankind. It is for him to make men what he wills them to be.”

ROBESPIERRE: “The function of government is to direct the physical and moral powers of the nation toward the end for which the commonwealth has come into being.”

BILLAUD-VARENNES: “A people who are to be returned to liberty must be formed anew. A strong force and vigorous action are necessary to destroy old prejudices, to change old customs, to correct depraved affections, to restrict superfluous wants, and to destroy ingrained vices…. Citizens, the inexible austerity of Lycurgus created the firm foundation of the Spartan republic. The weak and trusting character of Solon plunged Athens into slavery. This parallel embraces the whole science of government.”

LE PELLETIER: “Considering the extent of human degradation, I am convinced that it is necessary to effect a total regeneration and, if I may so express myself, of creating a new people.”

The Socialists Want Dictatorship

Again, it is claimed that persons are nothing but raw material. It is not for them to will their own improvement; they are incapable of it. According to Saint-Just, only the legislator is capable of doing this. Persons are merely to be what the legislator wills them to be. According to Robespierre, who copies Rousseau literally, the legislator begins by decreeing the end for which the commonwealth has come into being. Once this is determined, the government has only to direct the physical and moral forces of the nation toward that end. Meanwhile, the inhabitants of the nation are to remain completely passive. And according to the teachings of Billaud- Varennes, the people should have no prejudices, no affections, and no desires except those authorized by the legislator. He even goes so far as to say that the inflexible austerity of one man is the foundation of a republic.

In cases where the alleged evil is so great that ordinary governmental procedures cannot cure it, Mably recommends a dictatorship to promote virtue: “Resort,” he says, “to an extraordinary tribunal with considerable powers for a short time. The imagination of the citizens needs to be struck a hard blow.” This doctrine has not been forgotten. Listen to Robespierre:

“The principle of the republican government is virtue, and the means required to establish virtue is terror. In our country we desire to substitute morality for selfishness, honesty for honor, principles for customs, duties for manners, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, contempt of vice for contempt of poverty, pride for insolence, greatness of soul for vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people for good companions, merit for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for glitter, the charm of happiness for the boredom of pleasure, the greatness of man for the littleness of the great, a generous, strong, happy people for a good-natured, frivolous, degraded people; in short, we desire to substitute all the virtues and miracles of a republic for all the vices and absurdities of a monarchy.”

Dictatorial Arrogance

At what a tremendous height above the rest of mankind does Robespierre here place himself! And note the arrogance with which he speaks. He is not content to pray for a great reawakening of the human spirit. Nor does he expect such a result from a well-ordered government. No, he himself will remake mankind, and by means of terror.

This mass of rotten and contradictory statements is extracted from a discourse by Robespierre in which he aims to explain the principles of morality which ought to guide a revolutionary government. Note that Robespierre’s request for dictatorship is not made merely for the purpose of repelling a foreign invasion or putting down the opposing groups. Rather he wants a dictatorship in order that he may use terror to force upon the country his own principles of morality. He says that this act is only to be a temporary measure preceding a new constitution. But in reality, he desires nothing short of using terror to extinguish from France selfishness, honor, customs, manners, fashion, vanity, love of money, good companionship, intrigue, wit, sensuousness, and poverty. Not until he, Robespierre, shall have accomplished these miracles, as he so rightly calls them, will he permit the law to reign again.8


8 At this point in the original French text, Mr. Bastiat pauses and speaks thusly to all do-gooders and would-be rulers of mankind: “Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough.”


The Indirect Approach to Despotism

Usually, however, these gentlemen—the reformers, the legislators, and the writers on public affairs—do not desire to impose direct despotism upon mankind. Oh no, they are too moderate and philanthropic for such direct action. Instead, they turn to the law for this despotism, this absolutism, this omnipotence. They desire only to make the laws.

To show the prevalence of this queer idea in France, I would need to copy not only the entire works of Mably, Raynal, Rousseau, and Fenelon—plus long extracts from Bossuet and Montesquieu—but also the entire proceedings of the Convention. I shall do no such thing; I merely refer the reader to them.

Napoleon Wanted Passive Mankind

It is, of course, not at all surprising that this same idea should have greatly appealed to Napoleon. He embraced it ardently and used it with vigor. Like a chemist, Napoleon considered all Europe to be material for his experiments. But, in due course, this material reacted against him.

At St. Helena, Napoleon—greatly disillusioned—seemed to recognize some initiative in mankind. Recognizing this, he became less hostile to liberty. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him from leaving this lesson to his son in his will: “To govern is to increase and spread morality, education, and happiness.”

After all this, it is hardly necessary to quote the same opinions from Morelly, Babeuf, Owen, Saint-Simon, and Fourier. Here are, however, a few extracts from Louis Blanc’s book on the organization of labor: “In our plan, society receives its momentum from power.”

Now consider this: The impulse behind this momentum is to be supplied by the plan of Louis Blanc; his plan is to be forced upon society; the society referred to is the human race. Thus the human race is to receive its momentum from Louis Blanc.

Now it will be said that the people are free to accept or to reject this plan. Admittedly, people are free to accept or to reject advice from whomever they wish. But this is not the way in which Mr. Louis Blanc understands the matter. He expects that his plan will be legalized, and thus forcibly imposed upon the people by the power of the law:

“In our plan, the state has only to pass labor laws (nothing else?) by means of which industrial progress can and must proceed in complete liberty. The state merely places society on an incline (that is all?). Then society will slide down this incline by the mere force of things, and by the natural workings of the established mechanism.”

But what is this incline that is indicated by Mr. Louis Blanc? Does it not lead to an abyss? (No, it leads to happiness.) If this is true, then why does not society go there of its own choice? (Because society does not know what it wants; it must be propelled.) What is to propel it? (Power.) And who is to supply the impulse for this power? (Why, the inventor of the machine—in this instance, Mr. Louis Blanc.)

The Vicious Circle of Socialism

We shall never escape from this circle: the idea of passive mankind, and the power of the law being used by a great man to propel the people.

Once on this incline, will society enjoy some liberty? (Certainly.) And what is liberty, Mr. Louis Blanc?

Once and for all, liberty is not only a mere granted right; it is also the power granted to a person to use and to develop his faculties under a reign of justice and under the protection of the law.

And this is no pointless distinction; its meaning is deep and its consequences are difficult to estimate. For once it is agreed that a person, to be truly free, must have the power to use and develop his faculties, then it follows that every person has a claim on society for such education as will permit him to develop himself. It also follows that every person has a claim on society for tools of production, without which human activity cannot be fully effective. Now by what action can society give to every person the necessary education and the necessary tools of production, if not by the action of the state?

Thus, again, liberty is power. Of what does this power consist? (Of being educated and of being given the tools of production.) Who is to give the education and the tools of production? (Society, which owes them to everyone.) By what action is society to give tools of production to those who do not own them? (Why, by the action of the state.) And from whom will the state take them?

Let the reader answer that question. Let him also notice the direction in which this is taking us.

The Doctrine of the Democrats

The strange phenomenon of our times—one which will probably astound our descendants—is the doctrine based on this triple hypothesis: the total inertness of mankind, the omnipotence of the law, and the infallibility of the legislator. These three ideas form the sacred symbol of those who proclaim themselves totally democratic.

The advocates of this doctrine also profess to be social. So far as they are democratic, they place unlimited faith in mankind. But so far as they are social, they regard mankind as little better than mud. Let us examine this contrast in greater detail.

What is the attitude of the democrat when political rights are under discussion? How does he regard the people when a legislator is to be chosen? Ah, then it is claimed that the people have an instinctive wisdom; they are gifted with the finest perception; their will is always right; the general will cannot err; voting cannot be too universal.

When it is time to vote, apparently the voter is not to be asked for any guarantee of his wisdom. His will and capacity to choose wisely are taken for granted. Can the people be mistaken? Are we not living in an age of enlightenment? What! are the people always to be kept on leashes? Have they not won their rights by great effort and sacrifice? Have they not given ample proof of their intelligence and wisdom? Are they not adults? Are they not capable of judging for themselves? Do they not know what is best for themselves? Is there a class or a man who would be so bold as to set himself above the people, and judge and act for them? No, no, the people are and should be free. They desire to manage their own affairs, and they shall do so.

But when the legislator is finally elected—ah! then indeed does the tone of his speech undergo a radical change. The people are returned to passiveness, inertness, and unconsciousness; the legislator enters into omnipotence. Now it is for him to initiate, to direct, to propel, and to organize. Mankind has only to submit; the hour of despotism has struck. We now observe this fatal idea: The people who, during the election, were so wise, so moral, and so perfect, now have no tendencies whatever; or if they have any, they are tendencies that lead downward into degradation.

The Socialist Concept of Liberty

But ought not the people be given a little liberty?

But Mr. Considerant has assured us that liberty leads inevitably to monopoly!

We understand that liberty means competition. But according to Mr. Louis Blanc, competition is a system that ruins the businessmen and exterminates the people. It is for this reason that free people are ruined and exterminated in proportion to their degree of freedom. (Possibly Mr. Louis Blanc should observe the results of competition in, for example, Switzerland, Holland, England, and the United States.)

Mr. Louis Blanc also tells us that competition leads to monopoly. And by the same reasoning, he thus informs us that low prices lead to high prices; that competition drives production to destructive activity; that competition drains away the sources of purchasing power; that competition forces an increase in production while, at the same time, it forces a decrease in consumption. From this, it follows that free people produce for the sake of not consuming; that liberty means oppression and madness among the people; and that Mr. Louis Blanc absolutely must attend to it.

Socialists Fear All Liberties

Well, what liberty should the legislators permit people to have? Liberty of conscience? (But if this were permitted, we would see the people taking this opportunity to become atheists.)

Then liberty of education? (But parents would pay professors to teach their children immorality and falsehoods; besides, according to Mr. Thiers, if education were left to national liberty, it would cease to be national, and we would be teaching our children the ideas of the Turks or Hindus; whereas, thanks to this legal despotism over education, our children now have the good fortune to be taught the noble ideas of the Romans.)

Then liberty of labor? (But that would mean competition which, in turn, leaves production unconsumed, ruins businessmen, and exterminates the people.)

Perhaps liberty of trade? (But everyone knows—and the advocates of protective tariffs have proved over and over again—that freedom of trade ruins every person who engages in it, and that it is necessary to suppress freedom of trade in order to prosper.)

Possibly then, liberty of association? (But, according to socialist doctrine, true liberty and voluntary association are in contradiction to each other, and the purpose of the socialists is to suppress liberty of association precisely in order to force people to associate together in true liberty.)

Clearly then, the conscience of the social democrats cannot permit persons to have any liberty because they believe that the nature of mankind tends always toward every kind of degradation and disaster. Thus, of course, the legislators must make plans for the people in order to save them from themselves.

This line of reasoning brings us to a challenging question: If people are as incapable, as immoral, and as ignorant as the politicians indicate, then why is the right of these same people to vote defended with such passionate insistence?

The Superman Idea

The claims of these organizers of humanity raise another question which I have often asked them and which, so far as I know, they have never answered: If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind? The organizers maintain that society, when left undirected, rushes headlong to its inevitable destruction because the instincts of the people are so perverse. The legislators claim to stop this suicidal course and to give it a saner direction. Apparently, then, the legislators and the organizers have received from Heaven an intelligence and virtue that place them beyond and above mankind; if so, let them show their titles to this superiority.

They would be the shepherds over us, their sheep. Certainly such an arrangement presupposes that they are naturally superior to the rest of us. And certainly we are fully justified in demanding from the legislators and organizers proof of this natural superiority.

The Socialists Reject Free Choice

Please understand that I do not dispute their right to invent social combinations, to advertise them, to advocate them, and to try them upon themselves, at their own expense and risk. But I do dispute their right to impose these plans upon us by law—by force—and to compel us to pay for them with our taxes.

I do not insist that the supporters of these various social schools of thought–the Proudhonists, the Cabetists, the Fourierists, the Universitarists, and the Protectionists—renounce their various ideas. I insist only that they renounce this one idea that they have in common: They need only to give up the idea of forcing us to acquiesce to their groups and series, their socialized projects, their free-credit banks, their Graeco-Roman concept of morality, and their commercial regulations. I ask only that we be permitted to decide upon these plans for ourselves; that we not be forced to accept them, directly or indirectly, if we find them to be contrary to our best interests or repugnant to our consciences.

But these organizers desire access to the tax funds and to the power of the law in order to carry out their plans. In addition to being oppressive and unjust, this desire also implies the fatal supposition that the organizer is infallible and mankind is incompetent. But, again, if persons are incompetent to judge for themselves, then why all this talk about universal suffrage?

The Cause of French Revolutions

This contradiction in ideas is, unfortunately but logically, reflected in events in France. For example, Frenchmen have led all other Europeans in obtaining their rights—or, more accurately, their political demands. Yet this fact has in no respect prevented us from becoming the most governed, the most regulated, the most imposed upon, the most harnessed, and the most exploited people in Europe. France also leads all other nations as the one where revolutions are constantly to be anticipated. And under the circumstances, it is quite natural that this should be the case.

And this will remain the case so long as our politicians continue to accept this idea that has been so well expressed by Mr. Louis Blanc: “Society receives its momentum from power.” This will remain the case so long as human beings with feelings continue to remain passive; so long as they consider themselves incapable of bettering their prosperity and happiness by their own intelligence and their own energy; so long as they expect everything from the law; in short, so long as they imagine that their relationship to the state is the same as that of the sheep to the shepherd.

(To be concluded tomorrow, in Part 6.)




7 Comments

  1. The concept of the “benevolent despot” or “philanthropic tyranny” reminded me of Tolkien’s book “The Fellowship of the Ring.” When Frodo offered Galadriel the Ring, her response was, “In place of the Dark Lord you will set up a Queen. And I shall not be dark, but beautiful and terrible as the Morning and the Night! Fair as the Sea and the Sun and the Snow upon the Mountain! Dreadful as the Storm and the Lightning! Stronger than the foundations of the earth. All shall love me and despair!”

    But she declined to accept the Ring, and announced, “I pass the test. I will diminish, and go into the West, and remain Galadriel.”

  2. Am I my brother’s keeper?

    From Bastiat

    “Under extraordinary circumstances, for urgent cases, the state should set aside some resources to assist certain unfortunate people, to help them adjust to changing conditions.”

    This is very similar to Adam Smith’s remark that he “supposed” the price of bread should be regulated to ensure the very poor would not starve. Adam Smith also advocated the regulation of interest rates to keep them moderately low (in the neighborhood of 4% if I recall) to ensure lenders only lended to people who were credit worthy and would make good use of capital.

    In the Bible, gleaning was a law not a custom. Lawful God commanded plunder? The poor have to be taken care of to some level. What level is tricky. The Bible also allowed for slavery with limitations for those who fell into economic hardship.

    I bring these cases up because because I believe absolute social and economic models are dangerous to fully buy into and follow. Even the guys who formulated them saw the need for slight exceptions although they stearnly warned of the dangers of excess government control.

    A current example is free trade. I support free trade in theory but I currently support Trump’s trade war with China. To have one sided free trade is foolish. To use tarrifs to break down the tarrifs of of a major trade partner with the end goal of freer trade is wise IMO. And we will likely never get to absolute free trade but getting closer is good and should be a continuing goal.

    Many principles theoretically seem black and white but we live in a gray world and likely always will.

    Bastiat really makes you think though, in a very positive way. This is a great series of articles.

    1. Then what the Bible teaches is that the care of the poor is religious law. We have not seen that taken seriously for a very long time.

      The huge population of cities does make it harder to care for the poor you do not know, but read the terrible description of poverty in a New England village in the chapter on Christmas in Little Women. It is horrific.

      I don’t know the answer. I have read that centuries ago, in Spain, the priests of the parishes, who knew all the people in it, would certify who was validly able to beg, and genuinely in need. As a result, people could give alms without wondering if they were being conned.

      The social workers who perform the same function today feel virtuous if they find a way to give to as many people as possible, and never mind genuine need. I have seen and heard enough of this to know it is often true.

  3. I believe the care of the poor is OUR responsibility not that of the state. If we of our own volition take that responsibility there would be no need for state intervention. Having said that,, in my heart, I feel it has been conditioned out of us to do so.

    In times past, in forms of churches, organizations and local communities the needs of the poor and indigent were addressed. As the creep of socialism infested our lives, more and more, our sense of responsibility has been eroded. We can not ‘have our cake and eat it too’. Either we take from our fellow citizens, through taxes, to care for the less fortunate or we take from our pockets and do it directly.

    Socialism is so INSIDIOUS, it always starts with such high ideals, help the poor, educate our children, protect the worker and STEAL from everyone to support it! Even more insidious is that it makes everyone who partakes, slaves to the system. This is how we are kept separated, unable to build a majority to take back the Republic.

    Take the problem of the National Debt. Irrespective of race, religion or even political party I believe any thinking individual would agree that it is a major problem. Put them together in a closed room and ask them to come to an agreement on it’s solution. “We need to reduce welfare, we need to reduce military expenditures, we need to reduce social security, etc, etc, etc, BUT NOT________________. THAT IS THE PROBLEM, we all have our fingers in the Socialist cherry pie. If the government is paying for our subsistence in any way, we are a slave to the system, and that is what the power elite us against us, a very effective weapon.

    1. I have been searching in vain for the name of a book that was part of my children’s home schooling through Christian Liberty Academy. I believe it was Hunger in the Land of Plenty but my Web searches keep on coming up with the wrong book.

      In any event this book lays out a (10 point ?) framework for Christian charity that I found profound but have never seen. One main thesis of the book is that the group that takes care of the poor controls society. It supports this with historical examples and lays out practical application. It is a challenge to the church to control charity.

      If I find the correct reference I will link it.

      1. “In the Shadow of Plenty” by Grant was the title I could not remember.

        https://www.amazon.com/Shadow-Plenty-Biblical-Principles-Caring/dp/1728835380

        This was my children’s economics book through Christian Liberty Academy when they were in the 7th or 8th grade.

        The next year the book was “Honest Money” by North.

        https://www.amazon.com/Honest-Money-Biblical-Principles-Banking/dp/0930462157/ref=sr_1_2?crid=19OOOQJCD8LF9&keywords=honest+money+gary+north&qid=1576421891&s=books&sprefix=Honest+Money%2Cstripbooks%2C299&sr=1-2

        Both great reads IMO.

        I notice that there are Christian based health care plans being advertised by now. Don’t know if they are any good but it is interesting that this was one of several things Grant advocated in his book.

        While I am at it I would like to plug Christian Liberty Academy. They were great for our family. We paid the extra money and actually enrolled our children, having much of their work graded external to our home at their home campus. We wanted external evaluation and accountability from a Christian source. Both my children are now mechanical engineers and firm in their faith so it worked.

  4. Our sense of responsibility has been eroded for those of us who allow it. No matter how much you allow yourself to surrender to those insidious forces, we are still commanded by Jesus to care for our neighbor.

    In January 2017, Sarah Latimer posted a powerful essay on SB. I copied much of it and offer her words of wisdom today.

    Our nation has great need that has been neglected; the hundreds of millions of Americans outside the work force, the problems with our educational system, the violence and crime, the healthcare crisis, and our nation’s enormous indebtedness and economic frailty are undeniable. The Bible clearly speaks about responsibilities to our own family’s needs and then to give to those in need around us. I believe this applies to nations as well. Furthermore, charity isn’t really the government’s responsibility, though it has been delegated to our inefficient government primarily because individuals, churches, and communities have failed to do it. According to the Bible, it is the duty of believers to work diligently as they are able to care for one another, to be frugal in their spending, and to care for those in need around them and those whom the LORD puts on their hearts to care for, whether they must travel to put hands and feet on the ground in caring for those in need, make donations to enable others to meet needs, or to do both. We are also to care for those who are not believers, as how are we to share the Gospel with those who are hungry unless we first feed them? It’s our responsibility and not the responsibility of our government. There were covenants made by our nation’s forefathers, but those had to do with the people submitting to God’s authority. Once again, it is about the people’s hearts and actions rather than the responsibility (through legislation and/or redistribution of monies obtained through increased debt) of the politicians in Washington, D.C.

    Some of us remember Sarah Latimer as a voice of compassion and conscience. No excuses. We are called to be generous. Period.

    Carry on

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