The Importance of Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850): Some Notes and Thoughts by David M. Hart

Revised: 25 Oct. 2017

Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)
Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850)

Table of Contents



Frédéric Bastiat (1801–1850) was one of the leading advocates of free markets and free trade in the mid–19 century. He was inspired by the activities of Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League in Britain in the 1840s and tried to mimic their success in France. Bastiat emerged from obscurity in Mugron in SW France in 1844 (aged 43), went to Paris (which he called “Babylon”), and over the next 6 years had an extraordinary career and wrote over 1 million words before his untimely death. His writings debunking false ideas about economics, Economic Sophisms (1846, 1848), were very popular and were quickly translated into English and other languages. During the 1848 Revolution he was elected to the National Assembly where he served as VP of the Finance Committee and wrote many pamphlets attacking socialist economic policies. Bastiat’s incomplete magnum opus, Economic Harmonies (1850, 1851), is full of insights into the operation of the market and is still of great interest to economists.

A Brief Survey of Bastiat’s Life & Work

The Bayonne and Mugron Years (1801–1845)

  • FB born June 30, 1801 in Bayonne, Dept. of Les Landes, region of Aquitaine in SW France
  • gentleman farmer and local magistrate until 1845
  • 1842 discovered Cobden’s Anti-Corn Law League and wanted to build a French Free Trade movement
  • 1844–45 wrote articles and books on tariffs and free trade which impressed the Paris Economists (the Guillaumin network)

The Paris Years (1846–1850)

  • 1846–48: edited Libre-Échange magazine, wrote best selling Economic Sophisms
  • 1848: involved in Feb. Revolution, street journalism, elected to Constituent Assembly, VP Finance Committee
  • 1848 to mid–1850: ideological and political battle against socialism, pamphlet war: The Law, The State, Property and Plunder, WSWNS
  • 1850 unfinished treatise on economics: Economic Harmonies
  • died 24 Dec. 1850 from throat cancer

What Bastiat accomplished in seven years (1844–50)

  • activism in the French Free Trade Association (1844–1848) and the Friends of Peace Congress (1848–50), as organiser, speaker, editor, and journalist
  • economic journalism in which he exposed the economic fallacies used to defend protectionism and government intervention in the economy
  • election to political office during a revolution (1848–1850)
  • anti-socialist pamphleteer - “Petits Pamphlets”
  • innovative work on economic and political theory (1848–1850)
  • he became a star of the group of Paris economists (the Guillaumin network) who admired his intellectual brilliance and were amused, charmed, and shocked by his wit and humour in their Paris salons
  • his personal courage in achieving so much while suffering from a painful and terminal throat condition (cancer)


The Fortifications of Paris (1841-44)
The encirclement of Paris by the State: The Fortifications of Paris (1841–44)


The Activist and Journalist

Le Libre-Échange (Free Trade) - the magazine edited by Bastiat (1846-48) The Second Series of his Economic Sophisms (1848)
  • he organised large public meetings across the country to promote free trade and peace (1846–49), at which he also gave major speeches in Bordeaux, Paris, Bayonne, Lyon, Marseilles
  • he was a brilliant stylist and polemicist against protectionism, government intervention by both conservatives and socialists, high military spending, and conscription for the large standing army
  • he wrote 72 Economic Sophisms (1846–48), two collections of which appeared in his lifetime, which cemented his reputation as perhaps the greatest economic journalist and populariser of economic ideas who has ever lived
  • during the revolution he wrote a series of 16 powerful anti-socialist pamphlets (1848–50) such as “The State” (June 1848) and “The Law” (June 1850)


The Politician

abc abc
FB’s street magazine barricades on rue St. Maur (June 1848)
  • he was a courageous man of classical liberal principles in the 1848 Revolution who was caught between the socialist “left” and the conservative “right,” voting with whatever group promoted individual and economic liberty
  • he engaged in street journalism in February & June 1848 handing out his own newspapers to the workers and rioters, sometimes under fire from the army
  • he was elected a Deputy in April 1848 and May 1849 representing his region of Les Landes
  • he was elected vice-president of the National Assembly’s Finance Committee where he struggled to cut taxes and government spending, balance the budget, and opposed the efforts of the socialists to create the first welfare state in France (National Workshops)
  • he gave speeches in the Chamber opposing high taxes on ordinary people (salt, stamps, alcohol) and high military spending; and supporting the right of workers to form unions and to start their own businesses (even though he was gradually losing his voice)


The Political & Economic Theorist

abc abc
1st ed. of “The Law” (1850) R.C. Hoiles’ American edition of Economic Harmonies (1944)
  • throughout his many writings there are scattered “Austrian” and “Public Choice” insights into economic theory which were decades ahead of their time
  • began giving lectures on economics to law students in late 1847, which were interrupted by the outbreak of Revolution in Feb. 1848; these later became the book Economic Harmonies (1850, 1851) in which he challenged numerous fundamental tenets of classical economics (rent, value, Malthusianism)
  • he developed a radical analysis of the State as an instrument of the exploitation of ordinary people by privileged elites (legal plunder); he planned to write another treatise on the History of Plunder which would be a radical classical liberal theory of class and exploitation


Bastiat’s Impact on Others

In France

  • he had a profound impact on the 19thC French classical liberal movement as a populariser, theorist, and witty companion
    • his books sold well and remained in print throughout the century
    • the Paris economists were stunned by his knowledge and brilliance and immediately welcomed him into their midst, and were devastated by his early death
    • he attended two important liberal salons in Paris run by Hortense Cheuvreux and Anna Say, where he charmed people with his witty conversation, his Rabelaisian wit and Benjamin Franklin-like backwoods charm, his cello playing and singing of political songs, and his poetry recitations and parodies; he also shocked them by refusing to wear the latest fashionable clothes, preferring instead his favourite provincial Gascon hat, jacket, and umbrella
  • he was a key member of the “Guillaumin network” and one of a group of radical innovators in economic theory active in Paris in the late 1840s (“The Four Musketeers of French Political Economy”):
    • Charles Coquelin (free banking),
    • Gustave de Molinari (private provision of all public goods),
    • Urbain Guillaumin (entrepreneur of ideas)

In the United States

  • he inspired a small school of free market economists in the US in the late 19thC, and his books were published by free trade groups in Chicago and NYC
  • he had significant influence on the rediscovery of free market ideas in the US post 1945
    • R.C. Hoiles (1878–1970) Freedom Newspapers
    • Leonard E. Read (1898–1983) Foundation for Economic Education
    • Henry Hazlitt (1894–1993) WSJ, NYT
    • Murray N. Rothbard (1926–1995), Bastiat Circle in NYC
    • Pres. Ronald Reagan (1911–2004)
    • Ron Paul (1935-)


Further Reading