In the history of libertarian thought, it is to only a few that the great compliment of being remembered today, has been paid. Fortunately one of these is Frederic Bastiat. Technically an amateur, but with the style of a professional, Bastiat presented to the France of the turbulent 1840’s, one of the very few voices of reason. And the way in which he was to do it was to win the admiration of many of his countrymen. His clarity of vision, and his tenacity, are so well presented in his many writings and can be so readily understood that his works must be considered to be “great”. They convey the same power of reasoning today as they did 175 years ago.
Claude Frederic Bastiat was born in the provincial town of Bayonne on the shores of the Bay of Biscay, on June 30th, 1801. His father was a prominent businessman in the community, dealing with foreign trade. By the time he was nine, both Bastiat’s parents had died, and he went to live with his paternal grandfather and spinster aunt in Mugron, a smaller town to the north. In 1815, he was enrolled at the Benedictine college of Soreze, a cosmopolitan school of high reputation. He was never a brilliant student, and did not stay long enough at the school to complete the entry requirements for university. When he was 17, he moved back to Bayonne and entered the service of his uncle’s commercial firm. To do this would have spelled the end of any interest in further study. But Bastiat had a curious nature and it was just involvement in business which led him to develop a life long interest in political economy.
For a small town, Bayonne was apparently quite conducive to intellectual discussion, and as well, his observations of the township, its economic life and its people, helped form in him beliefs that held freedom, and particularly economic liberty, in the highest regard. The fact that Bayonne had suffered under the stress of the Napoleonic Wars and that after 1815, its commerce was well below that of the previous century due to vicious regulation by the French government had a strong influence on his thinking.
When he was 19, he read the works of Jean-Baptiste Say, from whom he was to learn the habit of always working from fundamental principles when discussing political economy. He also no doubt learned from Say that distortions in the market were caused solely by government intervention, and that harmony could only reign in a free market.
Upon the death of his grandfather in 1825 Bastiat inherited the family estate at Mugron and moved back there to establish himself as a gentleman farmer and scholar. Scholar and gentleman he may have been, but farmer he was not, though it is apparent that he did introduce some new techniques and at least tried fairly hard. His interest though was his reading and his study.
The move to Mugron was, at this stage, one of the major turning points of his career. For it was here that he befriended his neighbour Felix Coudroy. Whilst much the same in age, their temperaments and inclinations were most unlike: Coudroy in the beginning had socialist leanings and dwelled on the works of Rousseau and Mably. Any discussion of freedom to him spelled out anarchy and collapse of the social order. On the other hand, Bastiat was a cheerful optimist, already familiar with the works of Adam Smith and Say. In the end it was Coudroy who was converted to the liberal view. They became the closest of friends and together studied thoroughly all the books they could lay their hands on. They were a good team. The methodical Coudroy would often read through the books first, mark relevant passages and then pass them on to Bastiat. The relationship between the two was one of the most important factors in Bastiat’s intellectual education. Working together they were able to ingest far more literature than either of them would have been able to do alone.
Bastiat’s public life began in May 1831, when he was appointed Judge for Mugron (a sort of Justice of the Peace). In 1933, he was elected to a higher position, that of a member of the General Council of Landes. However, it was not the early days of his public life that were to establish Bastiat as one of the all time great champions of freedom. It was the result of his many writings and his untiring efforts on behalf of free trade, in particular, that first brought his name before the public all over France.
In 1834, he published his first article on tariffs. His style and his unrelenting consistency in argument were to become famous. Commenting on a petition that had been circulated by the merchants of Le Havre, Bordeaux and Lyons which called for a reduction in tariffs, but was careful to avoid the question of free trade, he said:
You demand that all protection be abolished on primary materials, such as agricultural products, but that protection must be continued for manufactured articles. I do not defend the protection you attack, but attack the protection you defend. You demand privilege for a few; I demand liberty for all.
And with that, he opposed the petition. There could be no compromise.
For the next few years, his mind was constantly turned to political economy and his favourite topic, free trade. In 1840, he left Mugron and travelled through Spain and Portugal and discovered that these countries were making the same mistakes as France. He never ceased to be amazed by the ridiculous arguments put forward by the proponents of protection:
It seemed that the people of Spain and Portugal were to be protected at all costs from the harmful effects of inexpensive and plentiful grain.
It was no different in France.
After his return from Spain, he experienced his first period as an organiser. In 1841, he wrote an article, “The Tax and the Vine,” which showed that a commercial treaty with Holland and the domestic taxes of 1840 were highly discrimatory against the winemakers of France. He proposed an association of wine producers, but this failed because of a general indifference, in particular from the political from the wine regions. In 1843, he presented his”Memoir on the Wine Growing Question,” where he discussed the “triple circle of repulsive laws” — tariffs, indirect taxes and various internal trade restrictions. A year later he pursued the theme further, questioning why the inhabitants of the vineyard areas of France were unable to nourish themselves. He answered himself, saying:
It is not necessary to go far to find the reason. It is due to the fact that certain people have restricted our freedom to trade. That freedom is, after the freedom to travel, the most useful to man. It is then, the law that causes our misery. The law is killing us, in the absolute sense of the word. And if we wish to live we must change the law.
During the early 1840’s, he became quite active in economic and political affairs, and in 1840, he burst into prominence with an article published in the Journal des Economistes. In it he gave the most persuasive argument for free trade that had been heard in France to that time. He discussed war and armaments, balance of trade, posterity, wages, monopoly, protection of industries, purpose of government, peace, morality and justice. The article’s effect was momentous. It was the beginning of the nationwide movement towards free trade.
In the years following, he was to write many articles. Large numbers of these would be published in his famous parable style, and which were collected into his Economic Sophisms. One of the most popular and at the same time, the most satirical, cutting and accurate, was “The Candlemakers Petition,” on the subject of cheap foreign competition. In this brilliant piece, he satirises the candlemakers of France putting forward a petition that called for the:
covering of all windows and skylights and other openings, holes and cracks through which the light of the sun is able to enter houses. This sunlight is hurting the business of us deserving manufacturers of candles …
There are many more brilliant pieces, too numerous to name. But in all of them he was able to drive home the utter folly in so much of the actions of men.
At the end of 1844, Bastiat began a correspondence with Richard Cobden, the great English free-trader. In May the next year they met when Bastiat went to England with copies of his book, Cobden and Bright, which he had earmarked for some of the leading free-traders of that country. After his visit, the Anti-Corn Law League began to translate and publish some of Bastiat’s works and continued to do so for some time. In 1846, Cobden assisted Bastiat in the formation of the French Association For Free Trade. Their correspondence continued until Bastiat’s death.
Throughout the spring of 1846, Bastiat devoted all his energy to the organisation of the free trade association in Paris. It was a slow, tedious and often discouraging task. The die was cast however, and the influence of the association began to spread. Bastiat decided that he would start a journal as another way of expanding the association’s impact, and so Le Libre Exchange was born. By the end of the first year, Bastiat and the association had changed the idea of free trade from an interesting academic question to one that was now a question for practical politics. His influence was now spreading beyond the borders of France. He was almost as well known in Belgium, and Sweden too was quick to grasp his ideas.
During 1847, Bastiat was in continual demand as a speaker, and there was good cause. Bad harvests in 1845 and 1946 had driven food prices to record levels, and as well, a severe industrial depression began in 1847 causing one of the worst periods of unemployment that France had to endure. At one stage, over one third of the population of Paris were on relief. As often happened during crises of this type, all the wrong reasons were advanced for the impoverishment of the workers. One of the most common, as history has proven time and time again, was the excuse that the nation’s troubles were caused by some external weakness. So while the National Assembly brooded over some past military glory, half the businesses in Paris failed. Hatred arose in them minds of the people. While they wanted bread, it was an irrational thirst for blood that was going to plunge the country into its second revolution. And, as often happened, they wrought their vehemence on the poor middle class businessman and shopkeeper. The idling crowd was becoming a mob, their collective insanity whipped to a frenzy by skilled orators. Sitting on a volcano that was near to eruption, Bastiat worked feverishly to toward his free trade goal, but the events of 1848 put an end to all hopes of him achieving his dream. The holocaust of the February revolution had arrived, and it was all he could do, now quite ill with tuberculosis, to get out of Paris and return to Mugron to escape the turmoil.
The radical upheaval of Paris under the Second Republic did much to alienate the provinces, and under elections for a new assembly, the provinces were determined not to allow a socialist takeover. Bastiat was elected member for Mugron. He had so much to do. Work had begun on a major economics book, yet he felt that he had to go back to Paris to put his views before the Assembly.
Paris was all confusion; filled with a myriad of wild visionary ideologies, all with their host of adherents. It seemed that the populace was demanding guarantees of livelihood in return for removal of guarantees of property. Bastiat described the bill of goods which the Parisian demagogues had sold the people as:
Poor people, what deception awaits you … the whole mechanism consists of taking ten from you in order to give you back eight, without counting the actual freedom which will be succumbed in the operation.
The Assembly turned into a forum for shouting, with no order enforceable. Hatred and political jealousy was the norm. And then, on May 15th, 1848, the Assembly was invaded by the mob. All day long the unruly crowd put their demands before the Deputies, and all day long the Assembly remained in session, the Deputies amazingly staying in their seats.
while the French people have been in advance of all nations in the conquest of their rights, or rather of their political guarantees, they have nonetheless remained the most regimented, governed, administered, imposed upon, shackled and exploited of all … there is not a single ill afflicting the nation for which the government has not voluntary made itself responsible. Is it astonishing then, that each little twinge should be a cause of revolution?
It seems clear that there were few who could hold against the tide. One was Bastiat. Another was Alexis de Tocqueville. The years of research and quiet study had left him perhaps more than any other, armed with the material necessary to make a stand against the torrent of socialist dogma. He worked unceasingly, not sparing any time for his rapidly failing health. Article after article poured from his pen in response to any piece of socialist propaganda. As soon as some issue arose, Bastiat was ready with a powerfully written answer. He was no orator, but he used his pen like a knife to cut the flawed reasoning of his opponents to pieces. So much of what he said then is no less pertinent today:
This is the way opinions gain acceptance in France. Fifty ignoramuses repeat in chorus some absurd libel that has been thought up by an even bigger ignoramus; and if only it happens to coincide to some slight degree with prevailing attitudes and passions, it becomes a self evident truth.
And Bastiat knew, much better than we know today, that the government cannot devise means for giving back more than it has taken:
Do what you will, gentlemen; you cannot give money to some without taking it away from others. If you absolutely insist on draining the taxpayer dry, well and good, but at least do not treat him like a fool. Do not tell him: “I am taking money from you to repay you for what I have already taken from you.”
He believed that if the French people continued to expect the government to solve all their problems, not only would the government fail to do so, but in the process, they would create such a burgeoning bureaucracy, that while their material well-being would suffer, their freedom would be at risk even more so.
Time was running out for Frederic Bastiat and for the Second French Republic. Bastiat was, to all intents, working himself to death. The Republic was just falling apart. The continuing decline in Bastiat’s health seemed not to change his attitude to work. He would slave away day in day out over his writings, occasionally returning to Mugron for a few days rest, and then back into the think of his labours.
The people of France wanted change, but they did not know in which direction to look. Unfortunately they looked to Louis Napoleon; a choice who by 1851 had effectively ended democracy by jailing all opposition. Perhaps it was fortunate that Bastiat did not live to see that day.
During June of 1850, he returned to Mugron for a few days and he finished The Law, probably his best known work. The Law is a classic analysis of socialism and communism which Bastiat labels legalised plunder or organised injustice, and which inevitably, he says, will lead to total corruption of the social framework.
His last major work was his economic treatise, Economic Harmonies. Not well-received when it was first published, Bastiat set about a second volume. He wished to show to the world his fervent belief that the interests of men worked in harmony with each other. He was not to live to complete this second volume beyond the early planning stage, and it is the first volume that is available today. Whilst it is fair to say that he did not leave much of originality in economic science, his clearness in developing the ideas of others was unrivalled in his day.
On Christmas Eve, 1850, Bastiat died. But not before he completed one of his most famous essays, “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.” The life of this great libertarian was one of complete devotion to the cause of freedom and perhaps total appreciation of the contributions he made to the study of liberty has yet to come.
In the present say, we are still plagued by the same false ideas that were to herald the collapse of society in those hectic days of 1848-50. Yet so many seem not to see it. Apparently we wish not to read history. As is so cogently pointed out by Santayana: “Those who do not remember the past are condemned to repeat it.” We seem to be eternally damned to wretchedness.
For the sake of humanity, we should seriously question the events of recent times. If we must look to the past for guidance, then we must examine the writings of Frederic Bastiat, a great libertarian.
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