June 30 marked the 200th anniversary of the birth of Frederic Bastiat. If one were to list the top 10 advocates of liberty, French philosopher-economist Bastiat would rank high on that list. He’d easily outrank any one of the founders of our nation.
I’m honored to have been invited by the New York-based Foundation for Economic Education (fec.org) to give the keynote address at a conference celebrating Bastiat’s birthday, which was held in Carcassonne, France, near where Bastiat spent most of his short life (1801-1850).
You say: “Williams, who’s this guy, Bastiat? We’ve never heard of him.” Frederic Bastiat wrote several important works, among them “Economic Sophisms” and “The Law.” In all of his writings, he attacked tyranny, economic ignorance and self-serving myths. His observations about human nature and government are just as true today as during his time.
Bastiat warned: “Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain – and since labor is pain in itself – it follows that man will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows this quite clearly. And under these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.”
What does Bastiat mean by plunder? Plunder is when people forcibly take the property of another. It’s legalized plunder when people use government, such as our Congress, to do the same thing. Or, as Bastiat put it, “The state is the great fiction by which everybody tries to live at the expense of everyone else.”
Since people covet and try to take what belongs to others, Bastiat said, it is evident, then, that the proper law (government) is to use the power of its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work. All the measures of the law should protect property and punish plunder.”
Do our elected representatives protect property and punish plunder, or do they punish property and protect plunder? It’s a mixed story. Two-thirds to three-quarters of next year’s $2 trillion federal budget represents legalized plunder, where Congress makes it possible for one American to live at the expense of another. Most expenditures made by Washington’s behemoth agencies such as the Department of Agriculture, Department of Health and Human Services, Department of Education, Department of Housing and Urban Development, and the Social Security Administration represent earnings forcibly taken from one American and given to another American.
This legalized plunder isn’t limited to money handouts. There’s plunder in the form of special privileges such as import tariffs and quotas, licenses and franchises, where government rigs the market in favor of certain sellers, particularly those making large campaign contributions.
Often legalized plunder is done in the name of the poor. Bastiat had a prediction about that: “When under the pretext of fraternity the legal code imposes mutual sacrifices on citizens, human nature is not thereby abrogated. Everyone will then direct his efforts toward contributing little to, and taking much from, the common fund of sacrifices. Now, is it the most unfortunate who gains from this struggle? Certainly not, but rather the most influential and calculating.”
We Americans, at least the moral among us, are increasingly confronted with Bastiat’s dilemma: “When law and morality contradict one another, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his sense of morality or losing his respect for the law.”
Frederic Bastiat admired our country, saying – and noting the exceptions of slavery and tariffs – “Look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person’s liberty and property.”’ If Bastiat were alive today, I doubt whether he’d have that same level of admiration.”