Frederick Bastiat Lays Down The Law


Larry Barnhart
January 1997

Frederick Bastiat's Life

It has been said that the difficult we figure out eventually&emdash;the obvious takes much longer. Frederick Bastiat's gift to humanity was to make words do more than simply obey the edicts of Humpty Dumpty.1 Of any writing on the nature and content of law, his was the clearest and most direct. And, predictably, many of his simple truths are being frantically avoided even today. In the words of Nathaniel Branden, how we use coercion in our social relations is ". . .the single most avoided issue in discussions of social philosophy."2

Frederick Bastiat was born in France in 1801, distinguished himself as an economist, statesman and author during his brief life, and died in 1850. (I seem to remember that he, like George Orwell, worked toward social reform at the cost of his health, and was rewarded with an early grave.) In addition to The Law, he also wrote Economic Sophisms.

What is Law and Its Purpose?

The question "what is law?" is most interesting. I have asked this question in a different form when I quizzed some of our great leaders: "what is the purpose of government?" Many times I received blank stares, but on one occasion, a state senator replied, "to accomplish objectives that cannot be achieved by voluntary cooperation alone." I asked him if that meant forcing people to comply unwillingly to achieve said objectives. He sheepishly replied to the affirmative.

At a time in history when passing new laws is assumed to be the panacea for all human problems ("there oughta be a law"), a definitive answer to the question "what is law?" needs to be found. This is where Frederick Bastiat comes to the rescue. "Every individual has the right to use force for lawful self-defense. It is for this reason that the collective force &emdash;which is only the organized combination of the individual forces&emdash;may lawfully be used for the same purpose; and it cannot be used legitimately for any other purpose.

"Law is solely the organization of the individual right of self-defense which existed before law was formalized. Law is justice."3 In short, government, whose stock in trade is law (the threat of force), is ideally the organized expression of each individual's right to self-defense against plunder.

The Origin of Law

In order to understand the origins of law, it is useful to survey our options when it comes to relating to one another. "Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property.

"But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder. Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain&emdash;and since labor is pain in itself&emdash;it follows that men 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.

"When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor."4

In general, a culture or community prospers in proportion to the number of honest workers it has relative to the number of predators in their midst. On the face of it, this concept is quite simple. However, there is no nation or community in the world that does not have legal double standards. In other words, what is illegal for most remains legal for some. When this happens, the predators have, in effect, overtaken the organization that was originally created to control them.

Can There Be An Unjust Law?

Frederick Bastiat was quick to note that there is a lot of confusion about where law gains its moral force. "There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things are 'just' because law makes them so. Thus, in order to make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but also among those who suffer from them."5

Of course, the common person has had a lot of help in developing this confusion about the nature of justice. ". . . [L]egal positivists such as Thomas Hobbes argued that the essence of law is the command or will of the sovereign and that an 'unjust law' is a contradiction in terms because the existing law is itself the standard of justice."6 Although Hobbes no doubt hoped to offer ideas that would keep life from being "nasty, brutish and short," this form of legal nihilism left to chance whether or not those who acquired political power would also have infinite wisdom in other areas as well.

What is Law and Its Purpose?

Eloquent debaters throughout the centuries have done much to make us doubt our direct observations. For instance, St. Thomas suggested that "Inasmuch as material things are to be held in such a way as to be shared with others, the taking of the goods of another when one is in need is not really theft."7 In other words, an honest worker who is not deemed charitable enough should be forced to donate. This is a very popular principle to this day. People who confiscate wealth from the masses on behalf of the unfortunate are usually held in higher esteem than the people who created the wealth in the first place.

The Fine Art of Legal Plunder

Mr. Bastiat was not inclined to mince words when it comes to distinguishing between just laws and unjust laws. "But 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."8 [Emphasis mine] In accounting for its popularity, he commented that "The present day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it."9

According to Mr. Bastiat, "Legal plunder has two roots: One of them, as I have said before, is in human greed; the other is in false philanthropy."10 "Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways. Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on."11 In theory, if everyone is able to vote themselves largess from the public trough, then peace should reign supreme. In reality, force begets force.

"As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose&emdash;that it may violate property instead of protecting it&emdash;then everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder. Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious. To know this, it is hardly necessary to examine what transpires in the French and English legislatures; merely to understand the issue is to know the answer."12 To that we can add fighting in the streets as the attitude of entitlement takes root in the psyche of the people.

Frederick Bastiat's Solution

"No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law."13 [Emphasis mine] This message is as true today as it was when he wrote these words 150 years ago. When I tell people about Snidely Slickster's campaign slogan, "I can accomplish through law what can only be done otherwise through crime," I get a lot of laughs of recognition.

Of course, selling simple, straight-forward ideas has never been easy. "As for those who said: 'Let us eliminate every injustice, for there is no such thing as a partial injustice; let us tolerate no robbery, for there is no such thing as a half-robbery or a quarter robbery,' they were regarded as idle visionaries, tiresome dreamers who kept repeating the same thing over and over again. Besides, the people found their arguments too easy to understand. How can one believe that what is so simple can be true?14 [Emphasis original]

Ending on a Compassionate Note

In spite of his recognition of legal plunder on a grand scale, Frederick Bastiat did not assume people were evil. ". . . I declare that I do not mean to attack the intentions or the morality of anyone. Rather, I am attacking an idea which I believe to be false; a system which appears to me to be unjust; an injustice so independent of personal intentions that each of us profits from it without wishing to do so, and suffers from it without knowing the cause of the suffering."15

On the eve of his death he wrote, "An important task for political economy is to write the history of plunder. It is a long history involving, from the very beginning, conquests, migrations of peoples, invasions, and all the disastrous excesses of violence at grips with justice. All this has left an aftermath that still continues to plague us and that renders it more difficult to solve the problems of the present day. We shall not solve them so long as we are unaware of the way, and of the extent to which, injustice, present in our very midst, has gained a foothold in our customs and laws."16

(For the rest of the story, consider reading The Law in its entirety.)


1. "When I use a word, it means exactly what I want it to mean, neither more nor less."
2. Nathaniel Branden, "Individualism and the Free Society: Part I," Freedom Daily, November 1994, pp. 31-32.
3. Frederick Bastiat, translation by Dean Russell, The Law (Irvington-On-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc., 1990), p. 68.
4. Ibid., p. 10.
5. Frederick Bastiat, Op. Cit., p. 13.
6. Reviewed by Nicholas D. Constan, Jr., "Law," The Academic American Encyclopedia, (New York: Grolier Electronic Publishing, Inc., 1993).
7. William Augustus Banner, Ethics: An Introduction to Moral Philosophy (New York: Scribner,1968), 83.
8. Frederick Bastiat, Op. Cit., p. 21.
9. Ibid., p. 21.
10. Ibid., p. 25.
11. Ibid., p. 22.
12. Ibid., p. 18.
13. Ibid., p. 12.
14. Frederick Bastiat, translated by Aurthur Goddard, Economic Sophisms (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1968), p. 197.
15. Frederick Bastiat, Op. Cit., p. 27.
16. Frederick Bastiat, Op.Cit., p. 275.

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