Authored by: Frederic Bastiat
Reviewed by: Kevin Miller
Keyword: Freedom, Liberty, Limited Government, Socialism, Law, Justice, Economics, Legal Plunder
The Essence of the Book:
The grand prize for stunningly clear, brief writing on the very big idea of freedom, most specifically economic freedom, goes to Frenchman Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850). Famed economist Joseph Schumpeter proclaimed Bastiat “the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived.”
Published in French in 1850, Bastiat’s observations followed the pioneering British economist Adam Smith (The Theory of Moral Sentiments, Wealth of Nations) and political philosopher John Locke’s influential Second Treatise of Government.
The book was written 75 years or so after the founding of the United States, and 50 years or so after the founding of the French First Republic. So, for better or worse, Bastiat had a bird’s-eye view of how the newly-minted freedoms in both France and America had morphed in their infant decades. Specifically residing in England for a time, too, and living through the (next) 1848 Revolution in France, Bastiat saw the foibles of armchair political theories played out firsthand and penned this book, dying from tuberculosis very soon thereafter in 1850.
Only a bare few economics-focused writings in history have enjoyed truly significant readership and influence. Certainly, The Law stands alongside Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations and Karl Marx’s Communist Manifesto as being in the top tier.
Pull up your calendar and reserve a couple hours to read this short, powerful book. Do this right now! Thank me later.
Is the study of that “dismal science,” economics, boring and dry as dust? Well, largely, the answer can be “yes,” except for the diligent econ-nerds that we desperately need to help teach us and (hopefully) the politicians.
Happily, we can go back to Bastiat’s foundational The Law again and again to nod in hope-engendering agreement and chuckle out loud at his knowing observations and illustrations.
Where else can we find such a compact, easily-read defense of freedom? Here’s a key gem from Bastiat:
“Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.”
Bastiat eloquently expresses ideas using small yet substantive idea-sections of a few bite-size paragraphs—really the idea-sections are miniature essays of just a page or so—each one with spot-on insights (like the paragraph above) that are very gratifying to the common-sense-yearning mind. These idea-sections are seamlessly linked into a concise, jam-packed book.
Here are two paragraphs in the idea-section following the quote above:
“…not one of these [socialist] writers on governmental affairs hesitates to imagine that he himself—under the title of organizer, discoverer, legislator, or founder—is this will and hand, this universal motivating force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these scattered materials—persons—into a society.
“These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees. Just as the gardener capriciously shapes the trees into pyramids, parasols, cubes, vases, fans, and other forms, just so does the socialist writer whimsically shape human beings into groups, series, centers, sub-centers, honeycombs, labor-corps, and other variations. And just as the gardener needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and shears to shape his trees, just so does the socialist writer need the force that he can find only in law to shape human beings. For this purpose, he devises tariff laws, tax laws, relief laws, and school laws.”
Heh-heh. Really, about 170 years later, could Bastiat be any more current and relevant with this skewering of ideas and descriptive terminology? It’s back to the future!
- President Franklin Roosevelt started the Civilian Conservation [Labor] Corps (“CCC”) as a public work relief law in the 1930s.
- The Great Depression that Roosevelt was attempting to address was certainly exacerbated by the Tariff Act of 1930, more well known as the Smoot-Hawley Tariff.
- President Richard Nixon instituted wage and price controls within the U.S.—essentially establishing a tariff on American producers’ higher product price.
- President Jimmy Carter established a school law officially establishing Federal control over U.S. education for the first time via a Cabinet-level department.
- President Barack Obama started his political career as a community organizer in Chicago. He later served as a national “community organizer” of groups of Americans into the Affordable Care Act (aka “Obamacare,” a relief law).
- The Republican-controlled Congress would not approve a reduced budget for the Trump-era U.S. Department of Education—and actually moved to increase the budget substantially.
- President Trump vigorously supported tariffs to replace the North American Free Trade Agreement between Canada, Mexico, and the U.S. Then, President Trump announced that American farmers would be paid $12 billion as relief for the tariff activity.
(However, as this review is being written, President Trump sends mixed signals about whether some of his tariff negotiations are really just about foreign policy in disguise: with the European Union, is he really moving to try to abolish all tariffs between the U.S. and EU, and with China, is he really trying to solve intellectual property and national security issues? If so, Mr. Trump seems to be using selected industries as his pawns in his chess games.)
But Bastiat started all of this with two pointed sentences early in the book.
“Life, faculties, production—in other words, individuality, liberty, property—this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.”
Using such clever wordsmithing, Bastiat surefootedly weaves key ideas together throughout this short book: economic freedom, anti-socialism, liberty, law, justice, and the limits of government. He concludes with a flourish.
“God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies. He has provided a social form as well as a human form. And these social organs of persons are so constituted that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty. Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!
“And 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 acknowledgement of faith in God and His works.”
In 1850, Bastiat was a true admirer of the United States with regard to his field of study, except for, tellingly and rightly, slavery and tariffs. What say you today about America, Frederic Bastiat?
Bastiat: Truly a prophet in 1850. No less so today.
P.S. Read the free PDF version of The Law linked above, if for no other reason than to start with the Foreword by Walter E. Williams and the Introduction by Richard Ebeling. And the Afterword by Sheldon Richman is a great coda.
Reviewed by Kevin Miller