Tuesday, January 15, 2013

BOOK NOTE: “The Law” by Frederic Bastiat

Sadly, my Book Note entries for this blog’s “Month of Law” in some sense tell a story of law peaking in the nineteenth century and degenerating thereafter.

Yesterday, I wrote about ancient, traditional law codes examined by David Friedman.  Today, I note a few highlights from Frederic Bastiat’s short, emphatic, wonderful book The Law (published in 1850, at the end of a wave of revolutions in Europe’s capitals that also saw publication of the almost mirror-opposite Communist Manifesto).  If everyone had ended up thinking like the French libertarian Bastiat, our problems would largely be solved. 

But coming up, I’ll take a look Gilbert Seldes’ survey of strange nineteenth-century radicals, The Stammering Century, and then (just in time for Obama’s second inauguration) Theodore and Woodrow, examining the Progressive early-twentieth-century presidents who basically ruined everything, by my ex-boss Judge Andrew Napolitano (who also emceed the 2012 Bastiat Awards for libertarian journalists, hosted by the Reason Foundation, at which I got my free Foundation for Economic Education-printed copy of The Law – and I thank the Phillips Foundation for inviting me).

There are countless approaches to explaining liberty, but Bastiat’s simple approach is to show again and again – in short, witty examples and epithets – how deviation from property rights inevitably means that rule of law is replaced by rule of men (the implicit worry behind many of the arguments made at last night’s Dionysium – seen in the nearby photos by Allison Oldak featuring Andrew Muchmore, Baruch Gottesman, and me), which inevitably means theft.

As he wrote, “the state has no resources of its own.  It has nothing, it possesses nothing that it does not take from the workers.  When, then, it meddles in everything, it substitutes the deplorable and costly activity of its own agents for private activity.”  He warns that pleasant-sounding defenders of the state will always say, “You have produced; I have not; we are comrades; let us share” and “You own something; I own nothing; we are brothers; let us share.”  

Some pithy lines from The Law show we might have avoided a century and a half of socialist and state-corporatist disaster if we’d taken him to heart (he here uses the term “plunder” in essentially the same sweeping and negative sense that today’s libertarians use the word “coercion”).  In fact, I don’t think I have ever read a book denser with memorable passages, and I will simply quote some for the remainder of this entry:

“[W]hen 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.”

“[T]here appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation.  But even in the United States, there are two issues – and only two – that have always endangered the public peace...They are slavery and tariffs.  These are the only two issues where, contrary to the general spirit of the republic of the United States, law has assumed the character of a plunderer.  Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty.  The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property.”

“Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways.  Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on.  All these plans as a whole – with their common aim of legal plunder – constitute socialism.”  [Again, this far-seeing hero was writing in 1850.]

“Mr. de Lamartine once wrote to me thusly: ‘Your doctrine is only the half of my program.  You have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity.’  I answered him: ‘The second half of your program will destroy the first.’”

“These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees.  Just as the gardener capriciously shapes the trees into pyramids, parasols, cubes, vases, fans, and other forms, just so does the socialist writer whimsically shape human beings into groups, series, centers, sub-centers, honeycombs, labor-corps, and other variations.  And just as the gardener needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and shears to shape his trees, just so does the socialist writer need the force that he can find only in law to shape human beings.”

“[T]he fact that he was nurtured in the classical studies and the admiration of antiquity, naturally caused Fenelon to accept the idea that mankind should be passive; that the misfortunes and the prosperity – vices and virtues – of people are caused by the external influence exercised upon them by the law and the legislators.”

“These random selections from the writings of Montesquieu show that he considers persons, liberties, property – mankind itself – to be nothing but materials for legislators to exercise their wisdom upon...Now let us examine Rousseau...”

“Under the influence of teaching like this – which stems from classical education – there came a time when everyone wished to place himself above mankind in order to arrange, organize, and regulate it in his own way.”

“And antiquity presents everywhere – in Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome – the spectacle of a few men molding mankind according to their whims, thanks to the prestige of force and fraud.  But this does not prove that this situation is desirable.”

“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.”

“[A]ccording to Mr. Louis Blanc, competition is a system that ruins the businessmen and exterminates the people.  (Possibly Mr. Louis Blanc should observe the results of competition in, for example, Switzerland, Holland, England, and the United States.)”

“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.”

“All of these proposals are the road to communism; legislation will then be – in fact, it already is – the battlefield of all kinds of wild fantasies and unbridled greed.”

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