Bastiat on How the Modern State Commits the Very Evils It Was Created to Prevent

Gary M. Galles – March 26, 2019

One of the striking things about America’s recent political environment has been the increasingly warm embrace of socialism, particularly by younger generations. At the same time, as the title of a recent New York Post editorial put it, “Socialism’s millennial fans don’t even know what it is.” And the text makes the point more strongly: “Millenials — ignorant of socialism’s appalling economic and human-rights history — increasingly embrace socialism and its naively unrealistic prescriptions.”

The confusion about socialism derives in part from its traditional definition of government ownership of the means of production. Defenders claim they don’t want government in charge everywhere — not complete, or “real” socialism — which gives them plausible deniability against accusations they are socialists. But they do want selective socialism in areas where they anticipate benefiting at the expense of others as recipients or as arbiters of what “society wants” and will impose on citizens.

Further, they generally want the government to determine how nominal resource owners are to use them rather than direct government ownership. Of course, that means their preferred system is better described not as socialism but as fascism, or as Sheldon Richman summarized it, “socialism with a capitalist veneer.” Yet those adamant in their denials of being socialist never instead claim to be fascist because that is a “bad word” they only want to be applied to opponents.

Bastiat’s Defense of Liberty 

As a result of such confusions and the mud pit of claims and counter-claims they generate, a potentially more useful approach is to ask what socialism is the negation of, rather than what it is. It is the negation of private property rights, whose basis in theft can be seen in Margaret Thatcher’s quip that “The trouble with Socialism is that eventually, you run out of other people’s money.” But what is wrong with socialism was even more powerfully stated over a century-and-a-half ago in Frederic Bastiat’s classic The Law.

There, one of history’s most ardent and eloquent defenders of liberty laid out the very limited appropriate role of law — that is, of government — as defending individuals’ rights that predate government and the incredible damage to society that arises when government exceeds that role. Considering the current socialism surge America seems to be facing, Bastiat’s words are transformative:

“Instead of checking crime, the law itself [has become] guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!”

“Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his person, his liberty, and his property…the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose…Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force…cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.”

“The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense…to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties…to cause justice to reign over us all.”

“But, unfortunately, law…has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect…to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others.”

“Men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work…the proper purpose of law 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.”

“It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than…the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.”

“If law were restricted to protecting all persons, all liberties, and all properties…its proper functions…those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote.”

“Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another.”

“[When] law…violate[s] property instead of protecting it…The law has come to be an instrument of injustice.”

“How is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”

“No legal plunder…is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic.”

“Can anything more than the absence of plunder be required of the law? Can the law…rationally be used for anything except protecting the rights of everyone? I defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without perverting it—the most fatal and most illogical social perversion.”

“How can we imagine force being used against the liberty of citizens without it also being used against justice, and thus acting against its proper purpose?”

“When a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns it—without his consent and without compensation…to anyone who does not own it…an act of plunder is committed…this act is exactly what the law is supposed to suppress, always and everywhere. When the law itself commits this act that it is supposed to suppress…plunder is still committed.”

“We must remember that law is force, and that, consequently, the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.”

“When law and force keep a person within the bounds of justice, they…oblige him only to abstain from harming others. They violate neither his personality, his liberty, nor his property. They safeguard all of these. They are defensive; they defend equally the rights of all.”

“But when the law, by means of its necessary agent, force, imposes upon men…the law is no longer negative…It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own wills…they lose their personality, their liberty, their property.”

“As it takes from some persons and gives to other persons…the law…is an instrument of plunder.”

“Is not liberty the freedom of every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm other persons while doing so…is not liberty the restricting of the law only to its rational sphere of organizing the right of the individual to lawful self-defense; of punishing injustice?”

“I do dispute [legislators] right to impose these plans upon us by law—by force—and to compel us to pay for them…that we [instead] be permitted to decide upon these plans for ourselves; that we not be forced to accept them…if we find them to be contrary to our best interests or repugnant to our consciences.”

“The existence of persons and property preceded the existence of the legislator, and his function is only to guarantee their safety.”

“It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person.”

“The mission of the law is not to oppress persons and plunder them of their property…Its mission is to protect persons and property…if the law acts in any manner except to protect them, its actions then necessarily violate the liberty of persons and their right to own property.”

“Whatever the question…whether it concerns prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labor, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or government…The solution to the problems of human relationships is to be found in liberty.”

“Although mankind is not perfect, still, all hope rests upon the free and voluntary actions of persons within the limits of right; law or force is to be used for nothing except the administration of universal justice.”

“Leave people alone. God has given organs to this frail creature; let them develop and grow strong by exercise, use, experience, and liberty.”

Taking Freedom for Granted

The current fad of rhetoric and policy proposals that would forcibly replace an owner’s powers over himself and his property has attracted a great deal of support, especially from those most ignorant of the miracles freedom has worked where it has not been stifled by government and the manacles that socialism has placed on vast numbers of people. But to base policies on such ignorance is not just to fail to see what can, and has, tremendously advanced Americans’ joint interests but also to replace it with what is known to have failed always and everywhere it has been tried. We would be better served by Bastiat’s wisdom:

Away with the whims of governmental administrators…now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.

This article was originally published at Fee.org. Gary M. Galles is a professor of economics at Pepperdine University.  

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