Introduction to the Collected Economic Sophisms, by David M. Hart

Table of Contents


"One man's gain is another man's loss"


Let me speak of a standard sophism, one that is the the very root of a host of sophisms, one that is like a polyp which you can cut into a thousand pieces only to see it produce a thousand more sophisms, a sophism that offends alike against humanity, Christianity, and logic, a sophism which is a Pandora's box from which have poured out all the ills of the human race, in the form of hatred, mistrust, jealousy, war, conquest and oppression, and from which no hope can spring.

Oh you, Hercules, who strangled Cacus! You, Theseus, who killed the Minotaur! You, Apollo, who killed Python the serpent! I ask you all to lend me your strength, your club and your arrows, so that I can destroy the monster that has been arming men against one another for six thousand years!

Alas, there is no club capable of crushing a sophism. It is not given to arrows, nor even to bayonets, to pierce a proposition. All the cannons in Europe gathered at Waterloo could not eliminate an entrenched idea from the hearts of nations. No more could they efface an error. This task is reserved for the least weighty of all weapons, the very symbol of weightlessness, the pen.

——Bastiat, from "Le profit de l'un est dommage de l'autre" (One Man's Gain Is Another Man's Loss)

With his pen in hand, Frédéric Bastiat burst onto the Parisian political economy scene in October 1844 with the publication of his first major article "De l'influence des tarifs français et anglais sur l'avenir des deux peuples" (On the Influence of English and French Tariffs on the Future of the Two People) in Le Journal des Économistes.[45] This proved to be a sensation and he was welcomed with open arms by the Parisian political economists as one of their own. This was followed soon after by Bastiat's first visit to Paris and then England in order to meet Richard Cobden and other leaders of the Anti-Corn Law League. Bastiat's book Cobden and the League appeared in 1845. The book was Bastiat's attempt to explain to the French people the meaning and significance of the Anti-Corn Law League by means of a lengthy introduction and his translation of key speeches and newspaper articles by members of the League.[46]

It was in this context that Bastiat wrote a series of articles explicitly called "Economic Sophisms" for the April, July, and October 1845 issues of the Journal des Économistes.[47] These became the first half of what was to appear in January 1846 as Economic Sophisms Series I. As articles continued to pour from the pen of Bastiat during 1846 and 1847 and were published in his own free trade journal Le Libre-Échange (founded 29 November 1846 and closed 16 April 1848) and in the Journal des Économistes, he soon amassed enough material to publish a second volume of the Economic Sophisms, called naturally enough, Economic Sophisms Series 2 in January 1848 just one month before the outbreak of the 1848 Revolution in Paris. As Bastiat's literary executor and friend Prosper Paillottet noted in a footnote in the Oeuvres complètes which he edited, there was even enough material for a third series compiled from the short articles which had appeared between 1846 and 1848 in various organs such as Le Libre-Échange, had Bastiat lived long enough to get them ready for publication.[48]

With Liberty Fund's edition of Bastiat's Collected Works we have been able to do what he and Paillottet were not able to do, namely gather in one volume all of Bastiat's actual and possible Economic Sophisms. The selection criteria is that they were written in a similar style to the other Sophisms (short, witty, sarcastic, sometimes in dialogue form, and having the intention of debunking widely held but false economic ideas (or "fallacies" or "sophisms"). We therefore include in this volume alongside Series 1, Series 2, and the "Third or New Series" of the Economic Sophisms, and the longer pamphlet What Is Seen and What Is Unseen (July 1850), which is also very much in the same style and format. We don't think Bastiat would mind us doing so.

The Format of the Economic Sophisms

In Liberty Fund's collection of Bastiat's Economic Sophisms we include some seventy-five individual essays which fall into the category of refutations of popularly held economic views which were written for a general audience. They were written over a period of five years stretching from mid-1845 to mid-1850 (the year in which What is Seen and What is Not Seen was published a few months before Bastiat's death).[49] In writing these essays Bastiat used a variety of formats which are listed below according to how frequently they occur in our collection:

  1. essays written in informal or more conversational prose (38 or 51%)[50]
  2. essays which were in dialog or constructed conversational form (14 or 19%), including two which used the character Robinson Crusoe for economic thought experiments[51]
  3. stand alone economic tales or fables (8 or 11%)[52], 5 of which have substantial dialogs within them
  4. fictional letters or petitions to government officials and other documents (8 or 11%) [53]
  5. essays written in more formal or academic prose (4 or 5%) [54]
  6. direct appeals to the workers and citizens of France (1 speech and 2 revolutionary wall posters - 3 or 4%)[55]

These six different formats reveal the wide range of Bastiat's writing, from informal to academic, and the equally wide range of audiences he was trying to reach in presenting his ideas. Whether it were prospective members of the French Free Trade Association, manufacturers who belonged to the protectionist Association for the Defence of National Employment, or workers rioting on the streets of Paris in February 1848, Bastiat believed that they could all be appealed to in his efforts to defend free trade and individual liberty.

Bastiat was quite innovative in his use of some of these formats and may have even invented one. His use of the "constructed dialog" between an advocate of free trade and a skeptic can be traced back to earlier writings by Harriet Martineau, and his use of the "economic tale" can be traced back to the fables of La Fontaine although his insertion of economic principles is probably unique to him. More original are his small plays[56] in which he develops economic arguments at some length over several "acts" with characters like Jacques Bonhomme,[57] the French "everyman", who appears frequently in his stories. However, his most original invention is the use of Robinson Crusoe[58] (and sometimes Friday) in a kind of "thought experiment" which is used to illustrate the deeper underlying principles of economic theory, or what one might call "the pure theory of choice". In these stories he discusses the options facing Crusoe in choosing how to use his scarce resources and limited time, what is most urgent for him do now, how will he survive if he wants to do something other than finding food, how does he maintain his capital stock of tools, and so on. This is standard modern textbook stuff today but it is possible that Bastiat used it for the first time in some of his Sophisms.

The most appropriate style to use when writing the Sophisms was something Bastiat could never settle on, whether he should use the amusing and satirical style for which he had a certain flair, or something more serious and formal. Bastiat was stung by a critical review of Series I which accused him of being too stiff and too formal so he was determined to make Series II more light hearted and amusing. Yet during the course of 1847 when he was compiling the next collection of Sophisms which were to appear in January 1848 the defeat of the free traders in the Chamber by a better organized protectionist lobby and the rising power of socialist groups on the eve of the Revolution of February 1848 led him to declare that the time for witty and clever stories was over and that more difficult times called the use of "blunt" and perhaps even "brutal" language. Thus he oscillated between the two different approaches, never being able to decide which was better for his purposes. This is no better illustrated than the turmoil he experienced when he was writing the pamphlet What Is Seen and What Is not Seen (July 1850), which he lost once and rewrote twice, tossing one draft into the fire because it was too serious in style.

The Benthamite Origins of Bastiat's Critique of Sophisms and Fallacies

It is an interesting question to ask oneself where Bastiat got the idea of writing short, pithy essays for a popular audience in which he debunked the misconceptions ("sophisms" or "fallacies") people had about the operations of the free market in general and of free trade in particular. If refuting fallacies was his end, then the use of constructed conversations between two idealised representatives of conflicting points of view was often the means to that end. Both these aspects of Bastiat's Economic Sophisms will be explored here briefly.

For Bastiat, these articles were short essays written for a general audience which attempted to debunk a commonly held misperception or misunderstanding of an economic point of view. The essay would be written in a familiar style, often in the form of a dialog between two individuals who held opposing views. Or, it would be a satirical "petition" to the government or king requesting some obviously absurd law to "protect" their industry from competition. In the nineteenth century translators of Bastiat's Sophisms used the word "fallacies," which is somewhat misleading as there is a difference between the two. A sophism is something which is partly true and which is used as a specious argument designed to mislead the pubic in order to benefit some vested political or economic interest. A fallacy is a clearly mistaken belief based upon faulty reasoning or incorrect assumptions. Bastiat sometimes goes from one to the another in his writings but he has a clear distinction in mind between intellectual error ("the fallacy") and the rhetorical purposes to which partial truth and partial error can be used in arguments over government policies ("the sophism").[59]

The most likely source for the idea of the refutation of fallacies is Jeremy Bentham's Handbook of Political Fallacies (1824), which had originally appeared in French edited by Étienne Dumont in 1816 with the title Traité des Sophismes politiques.[60] Bastiat was an admirer of Bentham and chose two passages from Bentham's Théorie des peines et des récompenses (1811) as the opening quotation for both the First and Second Series of the Economic Sophisms. In the opening paragraph of this work Bentham defines a "fallacy" as follows, and it is one that Bastiat shared:

By the name of fallacy it is common to designate any argument employed or topic suggested for the purpose, or with the probability of producing the effect of deception, or of causing some erroneous opinion to be entertained by any person to whose mind such an argument may have been presented.[61]

Bentham's purpose in categorizing and discussing the varieties of political fallacies which he had identified was to expose "the semantics of persuasion"[62] used by conservative political groups to delay or prevent much needed political reforms. Bentham organized his critique around the main sets of arguments which facilitated "the art of deception"[63] and which caused a "hydra of sophistries"[64] which permitted "pernicious practices and institutions to be retained".[65] "Reason" on the other hand was the "instrument"[66] which would enable the reformer to create this new "good government" by a process of logical analysis and classification. As he stated:

To give existence to good arguments was the object of the former work (the Theory of Legislation); to provide for the exposure of bad ones is the object of the present one - to provide for the exposure of their real nature, and hence for the destruction of their pernicious force. Sophistry is a hydra of which, in all the necks could be exposed, the force would be destroyed. In this work, they have been diligently looked out for, and in the course of it the principal and most active of them have been brought in view.[67]

Bastiat shared Bentham's view of "deception" as an ideological weapon used by powerful vested interests to protect their political and economic privileges. Bastiat saw that his task in writing the Sophisms was to enlighten "the dupes" who had been misled by "la Ruse", or the "trickery, "fraud" and "cunning" of the powerful beneficiaries of tariff protection and state subsidies.

Of all the various "sophistries" (or "sophisms") which allowed pernicious government to protect itself from reform, Bentham believed that they all could be categorized into four classes based upon the purpose or strategy the sophistry was designed to promote: the fallacies of authority, the fallacies of danger, the fallacies of delay, the fallacies of confusion.[68] Arguments from "authority" were designed to intimidate and hence repress the individual from reasoning through things himself; arguments about immanent "danger" were designed to frighten the would-be reformer with the supposed negative consequences of any change; arguments which urged caution and "delay" were designed to postpone discussion of reform until it could be ignored or forgotten; and arguments designed to promote "confusion" in the minds of reformers and their supporters were designed to make it difficult or impossible to form a correct judgement on the matter at hand.[69]

Bastiat on the other hand categorized the types of sophisms he was opposing along the lines of the particular social or political class interests the sophisms were designed to protect, which were categorized as "theocratic sophism," "economic sophism", "political sophism", and "financial sophism," which were designed to protect the interests (the "legal plunder") of the established Church; the Crown, aristocracy, and elected political officials; the economic groups who benefited from protection and subsidies; the bankers and debt holders of the government, respectively.[70] Bastiat planned to address this broad range of "sophisms" in a book on the "History of Plunder" which he never completed. What he did have time to complete were two volumes exposing one of these sets of sophisms, namely "economic sophisms."

Thus, it is quite likely that Bastiat took not only the name "sophismes" (which is how Dumont translated Bentham's term "fallacies" for the French edition) from Bentham for the title of his essays and books, but also the purpose as defined by Bentham, namely to debunk "any argument employed which causes some erroneous opinion to be entertained by any person to whose mind such an argument may have been presented." Furthermore, whereas Bentham focussed on "political fallacies" used by opponents of political reforms, Bastiat's interest was in exposing "economic fallacies" which were used to prevent reform of the policies of government taxation, subsidies to industry, and most especially protection of domestic industry via tariffs.[71]

Whereas Bentham uses relentless reasoning and classification to make his points, Bastiat uses other methods, such as humor, his reductio ad absurdum approach to his opponents's arguments, and his many references to classical French literature, popular song, and poetry. Nevertheless, Bastiat's modification of Bentham's rhetorical strategy seems to describe Bastiat's agenda and method in opposing the ideas of the protectionists in France in the mid 1840s quite nicely, and shows the considerable influence Bentham had on Bastiat's general approach to identifying and debunking "fallacies."

The main types of sophisms and fallacies which recur throughout the series are the following:

Other General Economic Fallacies (there are several of these which do not fall under the above categories)

Bastiat on Enlightening the "Dupes" about the Nature of Plunder

Had Bastiat lived longer there are at least two more books he would have written: the first would have been to complete his main theoretical work on political economy, the Economic Harmonies (1850), which he left half finished at his death; the second would have been to write "A History of Plunder". The latter was mentioned by Paillottet as something that was very much on Bastiat's mind in his last days in Rome on the eve of his death. Paillottet quotes Bastiat:

A very important task to be done for political economy is to write the history of plunder (la spoliation). It is a long history in which, from the outset, there appeared conquests, the migrations of peoples, invasions and all the disastrous excesses of force in conflict with justice. Living traces of all this still remain today and cause great difficulty for the solution of the questions raised in our century. We will not reach this solution as long as we have not clearly noted in what and how injustice, when making a place for itself amongst us, has gained a foothold in our customs and our laws.[74]

Perhaps realizing that his time was limited and that it was unlikely he could achieve his ambitious goals Bastiat inserted the few sketches he had about the theory plunder at the end of Series 1 (dated 2 November 1845) and at the beginning of Series 2 (which appeared in January 1848). These sketches sit rather awkwardly with his other sophisms in the books and look as if they were added at a late stage in the editing of the book,[75] as if Bastiat wanted to provide a broader theoretical framework for his Sophisms which otherwise was lacking. Thus the Conclusion to ES1 and the first two chapters of ES2, "The Physiology of Plunder" and "Two Moral Philosophies", along with a few scattered remarks in footnotes in Economic Harmonies, should be seen as the theoretical excursus I think they are.[76]

These two chapters are good examples of the application of his more "brutal style" to an analysis of how the state goes about extracting the revenue it needs to carry out its activities. Bastiat described taxation as nothing less than "plunder" (la spoliation) where the more powerful, the plunderers ("les spoliateurs"), use force to seize the property of others (the plundered) in order to provide benefits for themselves or favored vested interest groups like the aristocracy or the church resulting in what he termed "aristocratic" or "theocratic plunder". He uses a number of closely linked expressions to describe this process of plunder: the plunderers (les spoliateurs) use a combination of outright coercion (la force), fraud (la ruse), and deception (la duperie) to acquire resources from ordinary workers and consumers. They also resort to the use of misleading and deceptive arguments (sophismes) to deceive ordinary people, the dupes (les dupes), and to convince them that these actions are taken in their own interests and not those of the ruling elites.

It is possible that Bastiat got the idea for this pairing of the terms "dupes" and "sophisms" from the writings of Adam Smith. A very similar use of the terms appears in The Theory of Moral Sentiments which Bastiat might have had access to in either the original English or in French translation. In his discussion of "the spirit of system" in Part VI on the Character of Virtue he describes how "men of system" organize themselves into a party in order to "new-model the constitution" along the lines of their theory. As Smith puts it:

The great body of the party are commonly intoxicated with the imaginary beauty of this ideal system, of which they have no experience, but which has been represented to them in all the most dazzling colours in which the eloquence of their leaders could paint it. Those leaders themselves, though they originally may have meant nothing but their own aggrandisement, become many of them in time the dupes of their own sophistry, and are as eager for this great reformation as the weakest and foolishest of their followers. Even though the leaders should have preserved their own heads, as indeed they commonly do, free from this fanaticism, yet they dare not always disappoint the expectation of their followers; but are often obliged, though contrary to their principle and their conscience, to act as if they were under the common delusion. [emphasis added].

In Smith's account, it is the leadership of the party which becomes the dupes of the own sophistry. In Bastiat's version those promoting protectionism, the "leaders" of the protectionist party, are fully aware of what they are doing and it is the ordinary consumers and taxpayers who become the dupes of the sophistry they are peddling.[77]

In ES3 18 "Monita Secreta: The Secret Book of Instruction" (20 February 1848) Bastiat wrote a satirical "guide book for rulers" on how to go about deceiving (or duping) the consumers and undermining the lobbying efforts of the advocates of free trade, such as himself. There is a slight bitterness in some of his remarks as they obviously were based upon what he observed going on in the Chamber of Deputies when a free trade bill was before the Chamber and which the advocates of protection were able to have defeated in committee between April and July 1847. This is where Bastiat's job begins. As he states at the end of ES1 the "sophistry" used by the ruing elite to hide their plundering ways must be exposed by economists like him so that the people will no longer be duped:

But at least in civilized nations, the men who produce the wealth have become sufficiently numerous and strong to defend it. Is this to say that they are no longer dispossessed? Not at all; they are just as dispossessed as ever and, what is more, they mutually dispossess each other.

Only, the thing which promotes it has changed; it is no longer by force but by fraud that public wealth can be seized.

In order to steal from the public it it first necessary to deceive them. To deceive them it is necessary to persuade them that they are being robbed for their own good; it is to make them accept imaginary services and often worse in exchange for their possessions. This gives rise to sophistry. Theocratic sophistry, economic sophistry, political sophistry and financial sophistry. Therefore, ever since force has been held in check, sophistry has been not only a source of harm, it has been the very essence of harm. It must in its turn be held in check. And to do this the public must become cleverer than the clever, just as it has become stronger than the strong.[78]

He believed it was highly unlikely that the powerful beneficiaries of state organized "legal plunder" would give up their privileges voluntarily, so they needed to be persuaded by one or both of the "Two Moral Philosophies" (ES2 2) which were at hand. He was doubtful that "religious morality" would be strong enough for the task, but he believed that political economy had the tools required to bring the system of plunder to an end:

Let religious morality therefore touch the hearts of the Tartuffes, the Caesars, the colonists, sinecurists and monopolists, etc. if it can. The task of political economy is to enlighten their dupes.

Which of these two procedures works more effectively toward social progress? Do we have to spell it out? I believe it is the second. I fear that humanity cannot escape the necessity of first learning a defensive moral philosophy.

No matter how much I look, whatever I read or observe and whatever the questions I ask, I cannot find any abuse carried out on anything like a wide scale that has been destroyed through the voluntary renunciation of those benefiting from it.

On the other hand, I have found many that have been overcome by the active resistance of those suffering from them.

Describing the consequences of abuse is therefore the most effective way of destroying it. And how true this is, especially when it concerns abuses like protectionism, which, while inflicting genuine harm on the masses, nurture only illusion and disappointment in those who believe they are benefiting from them.[79]

Thus it was to begin enlightening "the dupes" about the real circumstances of their oppression by the organised plunderers that Bastiat used his pen, dipped in a mixture of angry denunciation and witty satire and devastating humor.

Bastiat's Rhetoric of Liberty: Satire and the "Sting of Ridicule"

It has sometimes happened that I have combated privilege by making fun of it. I think this was quite excusable. When a few people wish to live at the expense of all, it is totally permissible to inflict the sting of ridicule on the minority that exploits and the majority that is exploited.[80]

Bastiat's goals in organizing a French free trade movement, engaging in popular economic journalism, and standing for election can be summarized as follows: to expose the bad effects of government intervention in the economy; to uproot preconceived and incorrect economic ideas; to arouse a sense of injustice at the immoral actions of the government and its favoured elites; to create "justified mistrust among the oppressed masses" of the beneficiaries of government privilege; and to open the eyes and stiffen the resistance of "the dupes" of government policies. The problem he faced was to discover the best way to achieve this for a popular audience who was gullible about the government's professed motives in regulating the economy and who were largely ignorant of economic theory.

A major problem Bastiat is acutely aware of is that political economy had a justified reputation for being "dry and dull,"[81] and it was this reputation that Bastiat wanted to overcome with the style he adopted in the Sophisms. The issue was how to be appealing to popular readers whom he believed had become "the dupes" of those benefitting from the system of legal plunder. The means Bastiat adopted to achieve his political goals was to write in a style which ordinary people would find appealing, amusing, and convincing and an analysis of the devices he used in composing his Sophisms reveals the great efforts Bastiat took in trying to do this.

The style and the rhetorical devices Bastiat used in the individual sophisms show considerable variety and skill in their construction. Bastiat has been justly recognized for his excellent style by economists such as Friedrich Hayek and the historian of economic thought Joseph Schumpeter, but this has not been studied in any detail. Schumpeter described Bastiat in very mixed terms as a brilliant economic journalist but as "no theorist" at all:

Admired by sympathizers, reviled by opponents, his name might have gone down to posterity as the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived... I do not hold that Bastiat was a bad theorist. I hold that he was no theorist.[82]

Friedrich Hayek seems to agree with Schumpeter that Bastiat was not a major theorist but that he was "a publicist of genius" who did pioneering work in exposing economic fallacies held by the general public.[83] Nevertheless, Schumpeter did acknowledge a key aspect of Bastiat's style noting that "(a) series of Sophismes économiques followed, whose pleasant wit... has ever since been the delight of many." However, some contemporary economists reject this view and see Bastiat as fundamentally challenging the classical school of economics by attempting to go beyond its theoretical limitations, especially concerning Malthusian population theory (Bastiat believed that technological innovation and free markets would enable people to break free of the Malthusian trap) and the Ricardian theory of rent (Bastiat believed there was nothing especially productive about land and that it was just another form of an exchange of "service for service" as was profit and interest). His innovations in a number of areas suggest that had he lived long enough to complete Economic Harmonies he might have taken his insights into subjective value theory (predating the Marginal Revolution of the 1870s by 20 years) and public choice theory about the behavior of political actors (predating the work of James Buchanan and others by over 100 years), into realms that were much ahead of their time.

A list of the rhetorical devices used by Bastiat in the Sophisms shows the breadth and complexity of what one might call his "rhetoric of liberty," which he formulated to expose the follies of the policies of the ruling elite and their system of "legal plunder," and to undermine their authority and legitimacy with "the sting of ridicule":

  1. a standard prose format which one would normally encounter in a newspaper
  2. the single authorial voice in the form of a personal conversation with the reader
  3. a serious constructed dialogue between stock figures who represented different viewpoints (in this Bastiat was influenced by Jane Marcet and Harriet Martineau; Gustave de Molinari continued Bastiat's format in some of his writings in the late 1840s and 1850s)
  4. satirical "official" letters or petitions to government officials or ministers, and other fabricated documents written by Bastiat (in these Bastiat would usually use a reductio ad absurdum argument to mock his opponents' arguments)
  5. the use of Robinson Crusoe "thought experiments" to make serious economic points or arguments in a more easily understandable format[84]
  6. "economic tales" modelled on classic French authors such as La Fontaine's fables, and Andrieux's short stories[85]
  7. parodies of well-known scenes from French literature, such as Molière's plays[86]
  8. quoting scenes of plays were the playwright mocks the pretensions of aspiring bourgeois who want to act like the nobles who disdain commerce (e.g., Moliere, Beaumarchais)
  9. quoting poems with political content, e.g. Horace's Ode on the transience of tyrants
  10. quoting satirical songs about the foolish or criminal behaviour of kings or emperors (such as Napoleon) (Bastiat seems to be familiar with the world of the "goguettiers" (political song writers, especially Béranger) and their interesting sociological world of drinking and singing clubs[87]
  11. the use of jokes and puns (such as the names he gave to characters in his dialogs (Mr. Blockhead), or place names (Stulta and Puera), and puns on words such as Highville, and gaucherie)

Our study of Bastiat's Sophisms reveals a well read man who was familiar with classic French literature, contemporary songs and poems, and opera. The sheer number and range of material which Bastiat was able to draw upon in his writings is very impressive. It not only includes the classics of political economy in the French, Spanish, Italian, and English languages but also a very wide collection of modern French literature which includes the following: fables and fairy tales by La Fontaine and Perrault; plays by Molière, Beaumarchais, Victor Hugo, Regnard, Désaugiers, Collin d'Harleville; songs and poems by Béranger and Depraux, short stories by Andrieux, odes by Horace, operas by Rossini, poems by Boileau-Despréaux and Viennet, and satires by Courier de Méré. The plays of Molière were Bastiat's favourite literary source to quote and he used Tartuffe, or the Imposter (1664), The Misanthrope (1666), L'Avare (The Miser) (1668), Le Bourgeois gentihomme (The Would-Be Gentleman) (1670), and Le malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid, or the Hypocondriac) (1673).

Sometimes Bastiat goes beyond quoting a famous scene from a well-known classic work and adapts it for his own purposes by rewriting it as a parody. A good example of this is Molière's parody of the granting of a degree of doctor of medicine in the last play he wrote Le malade imaginaire (The Imaginary Invalid, or the Hypocondriac) (1673) which Bastiat quotes in "Theft by Subsidy" (JDE January 1846).[88] Molière is suggesting that doctors in the seventeenth century were quacks who did more harm to their patients than good, as this translation of his dog Latin clearly suggests:

I give and grant you
Power and authority to Practice medicine,
and Kill
With impunity
Throughout the whole world.[89]

Bastiat's takes Molière's Latin and writes his own pseudo-Latin, this time with the purpose of mocking French tax collectors. In his parody Bastiat is suggesting that government officials, tax collectors, and customs officials were thieves who did more harm to the economy than good, so Bastiat writes a mock "swearing in" oath which he thinks they should use to induct new officials into government service:

I give to you and I grant
virtue and power
to steal
to plunder
to filch
to swindle
to defraud
At will, along this whole road

If a pattern emerges from the examples cited above it is that Bastiat likes to use literary references to show his readers that economic issues need not be "dull and dry" and to help him expose the nature of politicians and the political and economic power they wield. Thus in a witty and clever way he induces the reader to see things the way they are and to share his disdain for those who misuse their power and to encourage them to no longer think like "dupes".

The Sophisms also reveal a man who has a very good sense of humour and an understanding of how humour can be used for political purposes as well as to make political economy less "dry and dull" for average readers. Sprinkled throughout the Sophisms are Bastiat's own jokes, plays on words, and puns. For example, in "The Tax Collector"[90] Bastiat creates a dialogue between Jacques Bonhomme (a wine producer like Bastiat himself) and a Tax Collector, a M. "Lasouche". Lasouche is a made up name which Bastiat creates to poke fun at his adversaries. The FEE translator translated "M. Lasouche" as "Mr. Clodpate." Since "la souche" means a tree stump, log, or plant stock, we thought "Mr. Blockhead" might be appropriate in our new translation.

It is interesting to speculate whether the strategy of using irony, sarcasm, parody, mockery, puns, and other forms of humour in his writing was an explicit and deliberate one, or one that just naturally arose out of his jovial personality. A clue comes from an article he wrote in early 1846 soon after the appearance of the First Series of Economic Harmonies. In an article in the Journal des Économistes of January 1846, "Theft by Subsidy" ES2 9, he opens with the following testy remarks:

People find my small volume of Sophisms too theoretical, scientific and metaphysical. So be it. Let us try a superficial, banal and, if necessary, brutal style. Since I am convinced that the general public are easily taken in as far as protection is concerned, I wanted to prove it to them. They prefer to be shouted at. So let us shout:

Midas, King Midas has ass's ears! [in other words, the Emperor has no clothes]

An explosion of plain speaking often has more effect than the politest circumlocutions. Do you remember Oronte and the difficulty that the Misanthropist, as misanthropic as he is, has in convincing him of his folly?[91]

It is seems that he was stung by some critical reviews of Economic Sophisms Series I for being "too theoretical, scientific and metaphysical" and thus failing to achieve his major aim, which was to appeal to a broader popular audience. As a result he may well have decided deliberately to use more sarcasm, humour, and parody in future Sophisms. The essay "Theft by Subsidy" was unusually angry and bitter for Bastiat as it contained some strong words about the need to call "a spade a spade" (or "appeller un chat un chat" as the French would say) regardless of the sensitivities of common opinion; in this case he wanted to call most government policies a form of theft and the protectionist system in France a form of "mutual theft"[92]:

Frankly, my good people, you are being robbed. That is plain speaking but at least it is clear.

The words, theft, to steal and thief seem to many people to be in bad taste. Echoing the words of Harpagon to Elise, I ask them: Is it the word or the thing that makes you afraid?[93]

It was in the course of this angry tirade against the government and his critical reviewers that Bastiat wrote one of his sharpest, wittiest, and bitterest pieces of humor - his parody of Molière's parody of quack doctors which is quoted above.[94]

Bastiat's Invention of "Crusoe Economics"

Modern readers of economics do not find it strange when an economist uses "thought experiments" to help simplify and clarify complex economic arguments. Members of the Austrian school resort to this process as a matter of course because it helps them establish the logic of "human action" which every economic actor must face when making decisions about what to produce or what to exchange. Bastiat, too, found it helpful to make use of the fictional figure of Robinson Crusoe shipwrecked on his Island of Despair in his thought experiments to show the obstacles which need to be overcome in order for Crusoe to achieve some level of prosperity, the opportunity costs of using one's time on one task rather than another, the need to deprive himself of some comforts in order to accumulate some savings, and (when Friday and visitors from other islands appear on the scene) the benefits of the division of labor and the nature of comparative advantage in trade.

The relative simplicity of the choices Crusoe had to make (first just one person and then two with the arrival of Friday) makes this a useful device for economists to use when making "thought experiments" to illustrate basic economic principles and Bastiat is one of the first (perhaps even the first) economist to make extensive use of "Crusoe economics" to do so. In a search of the economic works on the Online Library of Liberty[95] for references to "Robinson Crusoe" in works written before Bastiat in 1847 we find that there are no references at all in the works of Adam Smith, in J.B. Say's Treatise on Political Economy, or the works of David Ricardo. There are only single references scattered across the writings of economists who were writing in the 1810s, 1820s and 1830s, such as Jeremy Bentham, Jane Marcet, Thomas Babbington Macaulay, Richard Whately, and Thomas Hodgskin and none of them uses the Robinson Crusoe analogy to express serious economic ideas. In the case of Richard Whately (1831), he firmly rejected the use of Crusoe in any discussion of the nature of political economy because in his view the study of economics was the study of "exchanges" and, since Crusoe did not engage in any exchanges, he was "in a situation of which Political-Economy takes no cognizance."[96] Thus, Bastiat's extensive use of "Crusoe economics" between 1847 and 1850 may well be an original contribution to economic reasoning.[97]

Bastiat may have read Daniel Defoe's novel The Life and Strange Adventures of Robinson Crusoe of York, Marriner (1719) in English but he would also have had access to several translations into French – one in 1817, 1827, and two in 1837. One of the translations which appeared in that year was by the romantic writer Pétrus Borel who wrote under the nom de plume of "Wolfman" several stories of whose were published in the journal Le Commerce, which may have brought him to Bastiat's attention.[98] The second translation of 1837 was by the poet Mme Amable Tastu (1798-1885) and included a glowing essay on Dafoe by the economist Louis Reybaud who was known to Bastiat.[99] Reybaud did not directly discuss the economic aspects of the Crusoe story but instead focused on the political and moral aspects of Dafoe's interesting and varied life. This makes Bastiat's use of the economic predicament of Robinson Crusoe as an aid to thinking about economic decision making even more remarkable for its originality.

There are several articles in the Economic Sophisms and multiple references in Economic Harmonies where Bastiat uses Crusoe to make his points.[100] In an unpublished outline or sketch written sometime in 1847, ES3 14 "Making a Mountain out of a Mole Hill", Bastiat uses Robinson Crusoe for the first time to simplify the economic arguments for free trade and provides an excellent statement of his methodology:

"Let us run off to the island to see the poor shipwrecked sailor. Let us see him in action. Let us examine the motives, the purpose, and the consequences of his actions. We will not learn everything there, in particular not those things that relate to the distribution of wealth in a society of many people, but we will glimpse the basic facts. We will observe general laws in their simplest form of action, and political economy is there in essence.

Let us apply this method to just a few problems..."

In ES2 14, "Something Else," Bastiat, as he often does, has created a conversation between two intellectual opponents (in this case a Protectionist and a Free Trader) where the Protectionist asks the Free Trader to explain the effects of protectionism. The Free Trader replies "(t)hat is not so easy. Before considering the more complicated cases, one should study the simpler ones," before launching into a discussion of how Crusoe made a plank of wood without a saw. After two weeks of intense labor chipping away at a log with an axe Crusoe finally has his plank (and a blunt axe). He then sees that the tide has washed ashore a proper saw-cut plank and wonders what he should do next (the new plank is an obvious reference to a cheaper overseas import which the protectionists believed would harm the national French economy). Bastiat puts some protectionist notions in Crusoe's head and Crusoe now concludes that he can make more labor for himself (and therefore be better off according to the protectionists' theory) if he pushed the plank back out to sea. The Free Trader exposes this economic sophism by saying that there is something that is "not seen" by the Protectionist at first glance, namely "Did he not see that he could devote the time he could have saved to making something else?" (p. 244).

Bastiat then raises the level of complexity in his economic arguments by introducing a second and then a third person on Crusoe's island. By introducing a second person, Friday, Crusoe now has someone with whom he can cooperate and trade. They can pool their resources, plan their economic activities, develop a simple form of the division of labor, and even trade with each other. When a third person arrives from another island and proposes a trading relationship whereby Crusoe and Friday trade their vegetables for the visitor's game Bastiat now can explore the benefits of international comparative advantage in trade. Bastiat uses this three way conversation to make his points: interestingly, he gives the European Crusoe the protectionist arguments; and the native islander Friday is given the domestic free trade arguments, and the visitor becomes an advocate of international free trade.

By the time he came to write the Economic Harmonies Bastiat had made Crusoe a central part of his elaboration of the basic principles of economic action in the chapters on "Capital" (7), "Private Property and Common Wealth" (8), and most importantly on the very nature of "Exchange" (4) itself.

Bastiat's Political Sophisms

Bastiat also wrote what might be called "political sophisms" in order to debunk fallacies of a political nature, especially concerning electoral politics and the ability of political leaders to initiate fundamental reforms. He had hinted in the Conclusion to ES1 that he had more in mind than the debunking of just economic sophisms. He explicitly mentions four specific types of sophistry which concerned him, namely theocratic, economic, political, and financial sophistry. Bastiat devoted most of his efforts to exposing economic sophisms, mentioning theocratic and financial sophisms only in passing if at all. He did however write a number of political sophisms which will be briefly discussed here.

The "economic" and "political" sophisms are closely related in Bastiat's mind because the advocates of protectionism were only able to get special privileges because they controlled the Chamber of Deputies and the various Councils which advised the government on economic policy. Bastiat wrote five sophisms which can be categorized as political sophisms. One he explicitly called "Electoral Sophisms" (undated but probably written during 1847) which is a Benthamite listing of the kinds of false arguments people give for why they might prefer voting for one candidate over another. Another is called "The Elections" (also written sometime in 1847) and is a dialog between a "countryman" (a farmer) who argues with a political writer, a parish priest, and an electoral candidate.

Two of the sophisms which appear in this volume, although they deal with significant economic issues, also deal with political matters which qualify them to be regarded as political sophisms. "The Tax Collector" (ES2 10, c.1847) is a discussion between Jacques Bonhomme and a tax collector, wickedly called "Mr. Blockhead", where an amusing and somewhat convoluted discussion about the nature of political representation takes place. Bonhomme is merely confused by the trickery of the tax collector's euphemisms about how the elected deputies in the Chamber are his true representatives. The second is "The Utopian" (ES2 11 , Jan. 1847) where Bastiat discusses the problems faced by a free market reform-minded Minister who is unexpectedly put in charge of the country by the King. There is so much the utopian reformer wants to do but the dilemmas and ultimate failure of top-down political and economic reform are exposed by Bastiat.

The fifth essay which might also be regarded as a political sophism is his famous essay "The State" which appeared initially as a draft in the magazine Jacques Bonhomme (June 11-15, 1848) and then in a longer form in the Journal des Débats (September 1848). Here he attempts to rebut the folly of the idea which was widespread during the first few months following the February Revolution that the state could and should take care of all the needs of the people by taxing everybody and giving benefits to everybody.

Bastiat the Revolutionary Journalist and Politician[101]

With the failure of the free traders to get tariff reform successfully through committee in the Chamber of Deputies in the middle of 1847 Bastiat and his colleagues suffered a significant defeat. The outbreak of revolution in February 1848, the abdication of Louis Philippe, and the creation of the Second Republic provided another opportunity for Bastiat to spread his ideas on free trade and free markets which he seized with enthusiasm in spite of his rapidly failing health. This he did by immediately starting a magazine which he and some friends handed out on the streets of Paris in late February 1848 (La République française), successfully standing for election to represent Les Landes in the Constituent Assembly on 23 April, serving as Vice-President of the Finance Committee of the Chamber, starting a new magazine aimed at the workers just before the June Days rioting in Paris (Jacques Bonhomme), and standing successfully for election to the Legislative Assembly on 13 May, 1849. His political activities during the revolution show a commitment to the ideals of the French Republic which was nearly as firm as his commitment to the principles of free trade.

Two days after the revolution broke out Bastiat, Hippolyte Castille, and Gustave de Molinari were on the streets of Paris with a new magazine aimed at the ordinary working people. La République française appeared daily 30 issues being published between 26 February and 28 March. The format of the magazine was only one or two pages which could be handed out on street corners or pasted to walls so that passers by could read them. We include in this volume two short articles which appeared originally in the 12 March issue of La République française.[102]In the Oeuvres complètes Paillottet called them "Petites affiches de Jacques Bonhomme" (Small Posters by Jacques Bonhomme) because they were one-page articles designed as posters which could be pasted on walls around the streets of Paris so they could be read by rioters and revolutionaries who walked the streets at all hours. These posters reveal another side of Bastiat the writer trying to appeal to the working class of Paris in the middle of a revolution. He addresses the people in the familiar "tu" form as he makes his case for limited government, free markets, and low taxes. He endeavours to make his arguments about "the seen and the unseen" appealing to ordinary workers in less than a page which were posted at head height on some Parisian street. Here is part of that poster:

"People, be more alert; do as the Republicans of America do: give the State only what is strictly necessary and keep the rest for yourself.

Demand the abolition of useless functions, a reduction of huge salaries, the abolition of special privileges, monopolies and deliberate obstructions and the simplification of the wheels of bureaucracy.

With these savings, insist on the abolition of city tolls, the salt tax, the tax on cattle and on wheat...

Then, oh people, you will have solved the problem, that of earning more sous and obtaining more things for each sou."[103]

Bastiat wrote 17 articles that we know about, four of which appear in this volume and 13 of which have been published in CW vol. 1.[104] He wrote on many topics which should not surpise us, such as the need for disarmament in order to lower taxes, the freedom of the press, free of education, the high level of taxation which fell on ordinary working people, the excessive size of the government bureaucracy, and so on. What is a bit surprising is the fervour of his republican sentiments which he expressed in a statement of principles in the first issue of the magazine. The full document is reprinted below [See the Appendix "Further Aspects of Bastiat's Life and Thought"] but the opening paragraph is very revealing:

"Let's begin with a few words about the title of our journal.

The provisional government wants a republic without ratification by the people. Today we have heard the people of Paris unanimously proclaim a republican government from the top of its glorious barricades, and we are of the firm conviction that the whole of France will ratify the wishes of the conquerors of February. But whatever might happen, even if this wish were to be misunderstood, we will keep the title which the voice of all the people have thrown to us. Whatever the form of government which the nation decides upon, the press ought henceforth remain free, no longer will any impediment be imposed upon the expression of thought. This sacred liberty of human thought, previously so impudently violated, will be recognised by the people, and they will know how to keep it. Thus, whatever might happen, being firmly convinced that the republican form of government is the only one which is suitable for a free people, the only one which allows the full and complete development of all kinds of liberty, we adopt and will keep our title:


Needless to say, Bastiat was not successful. He did not manage to sway the masses to the cause of free trade and limited government in March 1848 and closed the magazine in order to concentrate on standing for the April elections in which he was successful. He was elected to the Constituent Assembly in the election of 23 April 1848 to represent the département of Les Landes and served from 4 May 1848 until 27 May 1849 when elections to the new Legislative Assembly were held, in which he was also successful. Given his expertise in economic matters it is not surpising that he was chosen to serve on the Comité des finances (Finance Committee) to which he was appointed vice-president an extraordinary 8 times. His job was to make periodic reports to the Chamber on Finance Committee matters. Politically, he supported General Cavaignac in the Chamber against Louis Napoléon but sometimes voted with the left or the right depending on the specific issue. For example, he voted with the left on the right of citizens to form trade unions (which he saw as just another voluntary organization which individuals had the right to join or not join), but against the left when it came to taxpayer funded unemployment relief in the National Workshops.

Bastiat's activities in the Chamber still await their historian but a summary of some of the issues on which he voted are the following: for the banishment of the royal family, against the reintroduction of caution money for publishers, for postal reform and the ending of the government monopoly, against the arrest and trial of the socialist Louis Blanc for his role in the June Days rioting, against the reintroduction of corporal punishment, against the death penalty, against the declaration of martial law in Paris, against military intervention in Rome, and against allowing public servants to also sit in the Chamber as elected representatives.[105]

While Bastiat was working in the Constituent Assembly he took another opportunity to become engaged in revolutionary journalism on the streets of Paris, this time in Jacques Bonhomme, which comes from the nickname given to the average working Frenchman and who was a character Bastiat used many times in his dialogues in the Sophisms. The magazine was founded by Bastiat with the assistance of Gustave de Molinari, Charles Coquelin, Alcide Fonteyraud, and Joseph Garnier. It appeared approximately weekly with 4 issues between 11 June to 13 July; with a break between 24 June and 9 July because of the rioting during the June Days uprising. Bastiat wrote 8 articles, four of which appeared in CW vol. 1, 1 in vol. 2, and 4 which will appear in CW vol. 4.[106] He wrote on the nature of freedom, laissez-faire economic policies, the fraudulent claims of the government to be able to give whatever the voters wanted, and most interestingly, a draft of what was to become one of his best known essays "The State."[107] As the June Days rioting became increasingly violent Bastiat and his friends were forced to close the magazine.

Bastiat's experiences in working on these two revolutionary magazines during two of the most tumultuous and violent periods of the 1848 reveal a man who was not merely an armchair economic and political theorist. He saw at first hand the anger and determination of the people to change French society, and he also saw the way in which the government was prepared to defend itself by calling out the troops to shoot down the protesters. In a couple of subdued and understated letters to friends he tells us that he was on or near the barricades when these events took place and even took steps to use his influence as a Deputy to call the troops off long enough to drag people to safety in the side streets. The following two brief quotations, one from February and the other from June, should be sufficent to show how close Bastiat was to events:

"27 February 1848, Paris

As you will see in the newspapers, on the 23rd everything seemed to be over. Paris had a festive air; everything was illuminated. A huge gathering moved along the boulevards singing. Flags were adorned with flowers and ribbons. When they reached the Hôtel des Capucines, the soldiers blocked their path and fired a round of musket fire at point-blank range into the crowd. I leave you to imagine the sight offered by a crowd of thirty thousand men, women, and children fleeing from the bullets, the shots, and those who fell.

An instinctive feeling prevented me from fleeing as well, and when it was all over I was on the site of a massacre with five or six workmen, facing about sixty dead and dying people. The soldiers appeared stupefied. I begged the officer to have the corpses and wounded moved in order to have the latter cared for and to avoid having the former used as flags by the people when they returned, but he had lost his head.

The workers and I then began to move the unfortunate victims onto the pavement, as doors refused to open. At last, seeing the fruitlessness of our efforts, I withdrew. But the people returned and carried the corpses to the outlying districts, and a hue and cry was heard all through the night. The following morning, as though by magic, two thousand barricades made the insurrection fearsome. Fortunately, as the troop did not wish to fire on the National Guard, the day was not as bloody as might have been expected.

All is now over. The Republic has been proclaimed. You know that this is good news for me. The people will govern themselves."[108]

"29 June 1848, Paris

Cables and newspapers will have told you (Julie Marsan) all about the triumph of the republican order after four days of bitter struggle.

I shall not give you any detail, even about me, because a single letter would not suffice.

I shall just tell you that I have done my duty without ostentation or temerity. My only role was to enter the Faubourg Saint-Antoine after the fall of the first barricade, in order to disarm the fighters. As we went on, we managed to save several insurgents whom the militia wanted to kill. One of my colleagues displayed a truly admirable energy in this situation, which he did not boast about from the rostrum."[109]

Eleven months after these events Bastiat was re-elected to the Chamber, this time the newly created Legislative Assembly in which he sat from 28 May 1849 until he took a leave of absences on the grounds of ill health sometime in mid-1850. During this period he continued to work as vice-president of the Finance Committee but his activities in the Assembly were reduced because his deteriorating health meant that he was less able to speak in the Chamber. Nevertheless, he was able to write articles and pamphlets on matters before the Chamber which he distributed as pamphlets such as "Protectionism and Communism," "Peace and Freedom," "Damn Money!," "Plunder and the Law," "The Law,"[110] and his last pamphlet which is in this volume "What is Seen and What is Not Seen." All the while, he  continued to work on his magnum opus on economic theory, Economic Harmonies. Although he gave fewer speeches in the Assembly he was present to vote for the abolition of the tax on alcohol, for the right to form and join unions, for free trade in the wine industry, and against the power of the national University to set the curriculum for all schools. On 9 February 1850 Bastiat made his last appearance in the Chamber speaking on behalf of the Finance Committee. He later sought a leave of absence on the grounds of ill health and spent his time writing, most notably the essay "What is Seen and What is Not Seen" (July 1850) and the second part of Economic Harmonies. On the advice of his doctor he decided to travel to Italy and on 10 September he bad farewell to his friends in the Political Economy Society before heading to Rome, where he died on Christmas eve 1850.


Economic Sophisms and the other writings in this volume show Bastiat at his creative and journalistic best: his skill at mixing serious and amusing ways of making his arguments is unsurpassed; the quality of his insights into profound economic issues are often exceptional and sometimes well ahead of his time; his ability to combine his political lobbying for the Free Trade Movement, his journalism, his political activities during the 1848 Revolution, and his scholarly activities is most unusual; and his humor, wit, and literary knowledge which he scatters throughout his writings demonstrate that he deserves his reputation as one of the most gifted writers on economic matters who still deserves our close attention today.