Opposing Economic Fallacies, Legal Plunder, and the State: FrÉdÉric Bastiat’s Rhetoric of Liberty in the Economic Sophisms (1846-1850).

[Created June 15, 2011]
[Updated August 7, 2011]





This paper was given at the July 2011 annual meeting of the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia (HETSA) at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology <http://www.hetsa.org.au/hetsa2011/>. It is a product of my work editing volume 3 (the collected Economic Sophisms) of the Liberty Fund edition of the Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat in 6 vols. The full paper is made up of three parts: the first part is a discussion of the origin, form, and content of the Economic Sophisms; the second part is a discussion of the publishing and translation history of the Economic Sophisms; and the third part is a compilation of all thhe glossary entries I have written for volumes 1 & 2 of LF's translation (volume three to come soon). The latter will eventually comprise an excellent scholarly resource when it is completed at the end of volume 6 as it will be a virtual encyclopedia of the French and English political economy school in the mid-19th century with entries on all the key individuals and institutions.


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A revised and corrected version of this paper is now (7 August, 2011) available in HTM format.






Frédéric Bastiat was best known in his lifetime for his opposition to the French government’s policies of trade protection and subsidies in the 1840s and for his opposition to socialism as a Deputy in the Constituent Assembly and then the National Assembly during the 1848 Revolution and Second Republic between 1848 and 1850. His works remained in print throughout the 19th century and were published by that indefatigable classical liberal publishing firm of Guillaumin. He took as his model for achieving economic change the work of Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League in Britain. Hence, Bastiat formed the Bordeaux Free Trade Association and then a national association based in Paris along with their affiliated newspapers and magazines, but his efforts were unsuccessful when the Chamber defeated a free trade motion in 1847.

Part of his tactics during this period was to debunk what he termed “economic fallacies” (or “sophisms”) which were widely held by both the public and the political elite concerning the benefits of government protection and subsidies. He published a large number of these “economic sophisms” between 1844 and 1848 in popular newspapers and magazines as well as in more academic journals like the Journal des Économistes. These were collected and published in 2 books during his lifetime and the editors of his posthumous Oeuvres complètes had material enough for a third volume which was never published separately.

This paper examines the origin, content, and form of Bastiat’s Economic Sophisms which will comprise volume 3 of Liberty Fund’s translation of his Collected Works (estimated publication date is 2013). It is argued that in opposing the economic sophisms which he saw around him Bastiat developed a unique “rhetoric of liberty” in order to make his case for economic liberty. For the idea of debunking “fallacies”, he drew upon the work of Jeremy Bentham on “political fallacies” and Col. Perronnet Thomas on “corn law fallacies”; for his use of informal “conversations” to appeal to less well-informed readers, he drew upon the work of two women popularizers of economic ideas, Jane Marcet and Harriet Martineau. One of Bastiat’s original contributions was the use of “Crusoe economics” where he simplifies the economic choices faced by an individual by describing how Robinson Crusoe might go about ordering his economic priorities and deciding what his opportunity costs are. Another original contribution is Bastiat’s clever use of short and witty economic “fables” and fictional letters written to political leaders. In many of these apparently “simple” fables Bastiat’s draws upon classical French literature (Molière and La Fontaine) as well as contemporary political songs and poems (written by “goguettiers” like his contemporary Béranger) to make serious economic arguments in a very witty and unique manner. Bastiat’s self-declared purpose was to make the study of economics less “dull and dry” and to use “the sting of ridicule” to expose the widespread misunderstanding of economic ideas. The result is what Friedrich Hayek correctly described as an economic “publicist of genius”.


Table of Contents


Opposing Economic Fallacies, Legal Plunder, and the State: Frédéric Bastiat’s Rhetoric of Liberty in the Economic Sophisms (1846-1850) 4

Abstract 4

Introduction 6

1. The Format of the Economic Sophisms 7

i. Essays written in Informal or more Conversational Prose 8
ii. Essays written in Dialog or Constructed Conversational Form 9
iii. Stand alone Economic Tales or Fables 10
iv. Fictional Letters or Petitions to Government Officials and Other Documents 11
v. Essays written in more Formal or Academic Prose 12
vi. Direct Appeals to the Workers and Citizens of France 13

2. The Origins of Bastiat’s Attack on Economic “Sophisms” and “Fallacies” 14

i. Debunking Fallacies: Jeremy Bentham and Col. Perronnet Thompson 14
ii. Conversations about Liberty: Jane Marcet and Harriet Maritineau 20

3. Bastiat’s Distinction between Legal and Illegal Plunder 24

i. The Unwritten History of Plunder 24
ii. Thou Shalt Not Steal 26
ii. “La Ruse” and Legal Plunder 29
iv. The “Malthusian” Limits to State Plunder 32
v. Theological Plunder 35

4. The Evolution of Bastiat’s Theory of “The State”: From Wall Poster to Economic Orthodoxy 38

i. Bastiat’s Pre-Revolutionary Notions of the State 38
ii. Revolution and Jacques Bonhomme 41
iii. The Essay on “The State”: the Democratization of Plunder 46

5. Bastiat and the Invention of “Crusoe Economics” 51

6. Bastiat’s Rhetoric of Liberty: Satire, Song, and the “Sting of Ridicule” 58

i. The Purpose of Political Economy 58
ii. Style and Rhetoric 60
iii. Bastiat’s Use of Classic French Literature 63
iv. Goguettiers and Singing for Liberty 71
v. Humour and the Promotion of Liberty 75

Conclusion 83

Appendix 1: The Publishing History of the Economic Sophisms and What is Seen and What is Not Seen 85

Introduction 86
The First Series of Economic Sophisms (January 1846) 87
The Second Series of Economic Sophisms (January 1848) 89
A New Series of Economic Sophisms published in Le Libre-Échange and other Journals (1846-1848) 90
What is Seen and What is Not Seen, or Political Economy in One Lesson 92
The Post-1850 Publishing and Translation History of Economic Sophisms and What is Seen and What is Not Seen 94

Appendix 2: A Glossary of French and English Political Economists and Political Economy 99

Introduction 100
Some Key People 100
Some Key Organisations 101
Full Alphabetical Table of Contents 101
The Glossary 105