Saturday, February 6, 2010

Required Reading

Last month a fellow blogger and Facebook friend posted a quote from a historical figure I had never heard of. This in and of itself did not surprise me, because the older I get the more I am made aware of my profound ignorance, which is attributable in part to the pathetic education I received in the public school systems. Anyway, the quote is as follows:
When plunder becomes a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that justifies it. (Frédéric Bastiat)

I had to do some internet research to learn that Bastiat was a French statesman, essayist and economist of the nineteenth century. His classic treatise, The Law , is one of the great philosophical and moral defenses of liberty and limited government. I borrowed a copy from a friend and was heartened to learn that I was not alone in discovering Bastiat late in life. In his forward to the Dean Russell translation published by the Foundation for Economic Education, Economics Professor and political commentator Walter Williams admitted: “I must have been forty years old before reading Frédéric Bastiat’s classic, The Law. An anonymous person, to whom I shall be eternally in debt, mailed me an unsolicited copy.” As a fan and admirer of Walter Williams, I can say I am in good company!

Bastiat’s basic philosophical premise is that life, liberty and property (the fruit of one’s labors) are all gifts from God. We therefore have a natural right to protect our person, our freedom and our property. These rights are from God and not bequeathed to us by the law. The only legitimate purpose of the law is to organize this natural right of self-defense by instituting a common defense against anyone or anything that would violate those rights.

In his masterful treatise, Bastiat calmly employs logic and reason against those who would use the law beyond its legitimate purpose. How does one know if the law has gone beyond its proper limits? Bastiat offers a simple test:
See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot... do without committing a crime.

Speaking against his contemporaries who would use the law to restrain individual rights and remake society according to their own liking, he laments:

Here I encounter the most popular fallacy of our times. It is not considered sufficient that the law should be just; it must be philanthropic. Nor is it sufficient that the law should guarantee to every citizen the free and inoffensive use of his faculties for physical, intellectual, and moral self-improvement. Instead, it is demanded that the law should directly extend welfare, education, and morality throughout the nation.
Even as I reproduce the quote, I can already hear the howls of protest, accusation and indignation from modern day liberals, socialists and other assorted statists, who would accuse modern-day Bastiat’s of being heartless, greedy, un-Christian or only looking out for number one. Bastiat anticipated the objection and answered masterfully:

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 individualist. 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.
Bastiat also pointed to the United States of his day as a positive example of ordered, individual liberty, but was also quick to point out its two major flaws-- slavery and protective tariffs--citing the former as a violation of liberty, the latter as a violation of property. Fortunately, slavery is no longer tolerated in the U.S, and though tariffs have not been eradicated, they are generally frowned upon as counterproductive. Yet Bastiat would otherwise be deeply disappointed to see that the statist mindset he so eloquently argued against has since taken hold in modern day America.

No comments: