By David M. Hart
Revised: 25 Oct., 2017
The Bastiat Project on the OLL: <oll.libertyfund.org/pages/bastiat-project-summary>
“And what is ”Liberty“, this word that has the power of making all hearts beat faster and shaking up the world, if it is not the sum of all the freedoms — freedom of conscience, teaching, and association, freedom of the press, freedom to travel, work, and trade, in other words, the free exercise by everybody of all their harmless (non-violent) faculties. And, in still other terms, isn’t (Liberty) the destruction of all forms of despotism, even legal despotism, and limiting the law to its sole rational function which is to supervise the individual’s right to legitimate self-defence or to suppress injustice?” [“The Law”, CW2, p. 133]
The text is divided into 5 sections. We asked people to read sections 1, 2, 4, and 5 in preparation for the discussion. Page numbers refer to LF’s edition of his Collected Works, vol. 2 (CW2).
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850, Jacques de Guenin, General Editor. Translated from the French by Jane Willems and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Pascal Salin. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation Editor Dennis O'Keeffe. Academic Editor, David M. Hart (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012). <http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2450>. The Law <http://oll.libertyfund.org/titles/2450#lf1573-02_label_197>.
Some of the quotations listed below have been slightly revised from the online version.
Overarching question to ask ourselves:
Does a French economist writing in 1850 have anything of relevance to say to us today?
Key questions posed by FB:
“What is the law? What ought it to be? What domain does it cover? What are its limits? Consequently, where do the functions of the legislator cease?” [CW2, p. 142]
His definition of the Law:
“the Law is solely the organization of the pre-existing individual right of legitimate (self)-defense.” [CW2, p. 142]
His definition of freedom:
“And what is ”Liberty“, this word that has the power of making all hearts beat faster and shaking up the world, if it is not the sum of all the freedoms — freedom of conscience, teaching, and association, freedom of the press, freedom to travel, work, and trade, in other words, the free exercise by everybody of all their harmless (non-violent) faculties. And, in still other terms, isn’t (Liberty) the destruction of all forms of despotism, even legal despotism, and limiting the law to its sole rational function which is to supervise the individual’s right to legitimate self-defence or to suppress injustice?” [CW2, p. 133]
[p. 107] It is not because men have enacted Laws that personhood, freedom, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personhood, freedom, and property are already in existence that men enact laws.
What is the law, then? As I have said elsewhere, it is the collective organization of the individual right of legitimate (self) defense.
[p. 108] Thus, since the (use of) force by an individual cannot legitimately be used against the person, freedom, or property of another individual, by the same argument, the common force cannot legitimately be used to destroy the person, freedom, or property of either individuals or classes.
[p. 109] It has placed the collective force at the disposal of those who wish to exploit the Person, Freedom, or the Property of others without risk (to themselves) and without any scruples, it has converted plunder into (a) right in order to protect it and legitimate (self) defense into (a) crime in order to punish it.
[p. 109] The law has become perverted under the influence of two very different causes: unthinking egoism and false philanthropy.
[p. 110] However, in practice, he can live and enjoy life by assimilating or appropriating to himself the product of the faculties of his fellow men. From this comes Plunder.
[p. 110] Therefore when plunder is organized by law for the profit of the classes that make it, all the plundered classes attempt to have a say in the making of the laws, by either peaceful or revolutionary means. Depending on the level of enlightenment which they have attained, these classes may set themselves two very different aims when they pursue the conquest of their political rights; they may either wish to stop legal plunder or they may aspire to take part in it.
[p. 115] But what form of plunder does he mean? For there are two forms. There is extra-legal plunder (plunder outside the law) and legal plunder.
[p. 117] It is absolutely necessary for this question of legal plunder to be settled and there are just three alternatives:
That the few plunders the many;
That everyone plunders everyone else;
That nobody plunders anybody.
You have to choose between partial plunder, universal plunder, and the absence of] plunder. The law can pursue only one of these three alternatives.
Partial plunder – this is the system that prevailed for as long as the electorate was partial and is the system to which people return to avoid the invasion of socialism.
Universal plunder – this is the system that threatened us when the electorate became universal with the masses having conceived the idea of making laws along the same lines as their legislative predecessors.
Absence of plunder–this is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, conciliation, and common sense that I will proclaim with all my strength, which is, alas, very inadequate, and with my lungs until my final breath.
[p. 118] When a portion of wealth passes from the person who has acquired it, without his consent and without compensation, to one who has not created it, whether this is by force or fraud, I say that there has been a violation of property (rights) and that there is (an act of) plunder.
[p. 120] Perhaps he should ask himself whether such a state of society has not been caused by former (acts of) plunder carried out by conquest and by present (acts of) plunder carried out by means of the law.
[p. 122] Modern political writers, particularly those of the socialist school, base their various theories on a common, and definitely the strangest and most arrogant, hypothesis that the human brain has ever devised.
They divide humanity into two parts. All men, minus one, form the first (part) and the political writer, all on his own, forms the second and by far the most important part.
His definition of freedom: [p. 133] And what is freedom, this word that has the power of making all hearts beat faster and causing agitation around the world, if it is not the sum of all freedoms? — freedom of conscience, teaching, and association, freedom of the press, freedom to travel, work, and trade, in other words, the free exercise of all harmless faculties by all men.
[p. 138] ... the doctrine based on this triple hypothesis, the radical inertia of humanity, the omnipotence of the Law, and the infallibility of the Legislator, is the sacred cow of the party that proclaims itself exclusively democratic.
[pp. 139–40] Since the natural tendencies of man are sufficiently bad for their freedom to have to be removed, how is it that those (tendencies) of the organizers are good? Are the Legislators and their agents not part of the human race? Do they think they are formed from a different clay from the rest of mankind? They state that society, if left to itself, rushes inexorably toward the abyss because its instincts are perverse. They claim to be able to stop it on this slope and redirect it to a better goal. They have therefore received from heaven a level of intelligence and virtues that place them outside and above humanity; let them show the justification for this. They wish to be shepherds and want us to be sheep. This arrangement assumes that they have superior natures, and we have every right to demand prior proof of this.
[p. 140] For, apart from the fact that it is oppressive and plunderous, the call for bringing in the government and (higher) taxes implies once again this damaging hypothesis, the infallibility of the organizer, and the incompetence of humanity.
[p. 142] What is the law? What ought it to be? What domain does it cover? What are its limits? Consequently, where do the functions of the legislator cease?
[p. 142] ... the Law is solely the organization of the pre-existing individual right of legitimate (self)-defense.
[p. 145] ... all things to be achieved through man’s free and perfectible spontaneous action, within the limits of of the law; nothing (done) by the law or by force other than universal justice.
[p. 145] It has to be said: there are too many great men in the world. There are too many legislators, organizers, founders of societies, leaders of peoples, fathers of nations, etc. etc. Too many people put themselves above humanity in order to rule it and too many people make it their job to become involved with it.