Tuesday, May 1, 2012

This he understood

In this era of talk-radio klaxons and political opportunists, we'd be wise to make the acquaintance of one Frédéric Bastiat, the 19th-century French economist and essayist.

Of Bastiat's many works on economics and Liberty, perhaps the most relevant to our time is The Law, published in 1850. An excerpt:
You say: "There are persons who have no money," and you turn to the law. But the law is not a breast that fills itself with milk. Nor are the lacteal veins of the law supplied with milk from a source outside the society. Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of one citizen or one class unless other citizens and other classes have been forced to send it in. If every person draws from the treasury the amount that he has put in it, it is true that the law then plunders nobody. But this procedure does nothing for the persons who have no money. It does not promote equality of income. The law can be an instrument of equalization only as it takes from some persons and gives to other persons. When the law does this, it is an instrument of plunder.

With this in mind, examine the protective tariffs, subsidies, guaranteed profits, guaranteed jobs, relief and welfare schemes, public education, progressive taxation, free credit, and public works. You will find that they are always based on legal plunder, organized injustice.

You say: "There are persons who lack education," and you turn to the law. But the law is not, in itself, a torch of learning which shines its light abroad. The law extends over a society where some persons have knowledge and others do not; where some citizens need to learn, and others can teach. In this matter of education, the law has only two alternatives: It can permit this transaction of teaching-and-learning to operate freely and without the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter by taking from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are appointed by government to instruct others, without charge. But in this second case, the law commits legal plunder by violating liberty and property.

You say: "Here are persons who are lacking in morality or religion," and you turn to the law. But law is force. And need I point out what a violent and futile effort it is to use force in the matters of morality and religion?

It would seem that socialists, however self-complacent, could not avoid seeing this monstrous legal plunder that results from such systems and such efforts. But what do the socialists do? They cleverly disguise this legal plunder from others -- and even from themselves -- under the seductive names of fraternity, unity, organization, and association. Because we ask so little from the law — only justice -- the socialists thereby assume that we reject fraternity, unity, organization, and association. The socialists brand us with the name

But we assure the socialists that we repudiate only
forced organization, not natural organization. We repudiate the forms of association that are forced upon us, not free association. We repudiate forced fraternity, not true fraternity. We repudiate the artificial unity that does nothing more than deprive persons of individual responsibility. We do not repudiate the natural unity of mankind under Providence.

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.
If you can't read that without hearing Limbaugh or Beck or Palin, your ideology has crippled you -- but if Bastiat's words stir in you echoes of the Founders, you get it.

The Law, penned by a Frenchman 162 years ago, belongs in every Liberty-loving American's library today.

[For a very readable plain-English translation of Bastiat's The Law, click here; for a more formal translation, click here. Both versions are presented in pdf format.]