There is perhaps no writer better at articulating the economic way of thinking and exposing the myths that plague political debate than the Frenchman Frédéric Bastiat. During his short life (1801-1850), Bastiat wrote such classics as “The Law” and “What is Seen and What Is Not Seen” He possessed a remarkable ability to pierce the sophistry of protectionism, socialism, and other ideologies of big government. And Bastiat did this with astounding clarity and wit.
Frederic Bastiat ranks among the most spirited defenders of economic freedom and international peace.
Nobel Laureate F.A. Hayek called Bastiat “a publicist of genius.” The great Austrian economist Ludwig von Mises saluted Bastiat’s “immortal contributions.” Bestselling economics journalist Henry Hazlitt marvelled at Bastiat’s “uncanny clairvoyance.” Intellectual historian Murray N. Rothbard: “Bastiat was indeed a lucid and superb writer, whose brilliant and witty essays and fables to this day are remarkable and devastating demolitions of protectionism and of all forms of government subsidy and control. He was a truly scintillating advocate of an untrammelled free market.”
Witness the eloquence with which Bastiat expressed the seeming miracle of free market prosperity and predicted the failure of government intervention: “On coming to Paris for a visit, I said to myself: Here are a million human beings who would all die in a few days if supplies of all sorts did not flow into this great metropolis. It staggers the imagination to try to comprehend the vast multiplicity of objects that must pass through its gates tomorrow, if its inhabitants are to be preserved from the horrors of famine, insurrection, and pillage. And yet all are sleeping peacefully at this moment, without being disturbed for a single instant by the idea of so frightful a prospect. On the other hand, eighty departments have worked today, without co-operative planning or mutual arrangements, to keep Paris supplied.
“How does each succeeding day manage to bring to this gigantic market just what is necessary—neither too much nor too little? What, then, is the resourceful and secret power that governs the amazing regularity of such complicated movements, a regularity in which everyone has such implicit faith, although his prosperity and his very life depend upon it? That power is an absolute principle, the principle of free exchange. We put our faith in that inner light which Providence has placed in the hearts of all men, and to which has been entrusted the preservation and the unlimited improvement of our species, a light we term self-interest, which is so illuminating, so constant, and so penetrating, when it is left free of every hindrance.
“Where would you be, inhabitants of Paris, if some cabinet minister decided to substitute for that power contrivances of his own invention, however superior we might suppose them to be; if he proposed to subject this prodigious mechanism to his supreme direction, to take control of all of it into his own hands, to determine by whom, where, how, and under what conditions everything should be produced, transported, exchanged, and consumed? Although there may be much suffering within your walls, although misery, despair, and perhaps starvation, cause more tears to flow than your warm-hearted charity can wipe away, it is probable, I dare say it is certain, that the arbitrary intervention of the government would infinitely multiply this suffering and spread among all of you the ills that now affect only a small number of your fellow-citizens.”
Bastiat’s work offers an enormous wealth of such gems. For instance: “The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else…Nothing enters the public treasury for the benefit of a citizen or a class unless other citizens and other classes have been forced to put it there…heavy government expenditures and liberty are incompatible…To be free, on one’s own responsibility, to think and to act, to speak and to write, to labor and to exchange, to teach and to learn—this alone is to be free.”
Bastiat was a blazing light of French classical liberalism which developed awesome intellectual firepower. The most illustrious names include Baron de Montesquieu (1689-1755), Francois Quesnay (1694-1774), Anne Robert Jacques Turgot (1727-1781), Marquis de Condorcet (1743-1794), Gabriel-Honore Mirabeau (1749-1791), Marquis de Lafayette (1757-1834), Germaine de Stael (1766-1817), Benjamin Constant (1767-1830), Jean-Baptiste Say (1767-1832), Victor Hugo (1802-1885) and Alexis de Tocqueville (1805-1859). Bastiat stood on the shoulders of his predecessors, helped keep alive a vision of natural rights, inspired his compatriots and won new converts. He reached out to free trade crusader Richard Cobden in England, and he inspired John Prince Smith who launched the free trade movement in Germany. Bastiat’s influence extended into Belgium, Italy, Spain and Sweden as well.
He certainly didn’t look like much. In 1845, his friend Gustave de Molinari recalled: “With his long hair, his small hat, his large frock coat and his family umbrella, he could have been easily mistaken for an honest peasant who had come to Paris for the first time to see the sights of the city.” Another friend, Louis Reybaud, added: “under the country costume and good-natured attitude, there was a natural dignity of deportment and flashes of a keen intelligence, and one quickly discovered an honest heart and a generous soul. His eyes, especially, were lighted up with singular brightness and fire.”
Biographer George Roche noted that “the Bastiat of 1848 was far more cosmopolian, arriving dressed in the styles of the time. More important, though his emaciated face and hollow voice betrayed the ravages of disease within him, there was something about the glitter of his dark eyes which made immediately clear to all his associates that Bastiat now possessed both the worldly experience of Parisian society and a strong sense of mission.”
Claude Frederic Bastiat was born on June 30, 1801, in Bayonne, a seaport in the Department of Landes, southwestern France. Bayonne was a quiet medieval town, a political backwater. His father Pierre worked with the family banking and export firm which did business in Spain and Portugal. His mother Marie-Julie Frechou died when he was seven. After his father died two years later, he moved in with his aunt Justine Bastiat and his paternal grandfather Pierre Bastiat.
They sent him to schools in Bayonne, then to the Benedictine college of Soreze which attracted students from Britain, Greece, Italy, Holland, Poland, Spain and the United States, contributing to his cosmopolitan outlook. He learned English, Italian and Spanish. He read literature and philosophy, and he played the violincello.
When Bastiat was 17, he left Soreze to join his uncle Henry de Monclar in the same banking and export firm where his father had worked. While he didn’t want a commercial career, he was interested in the civilizing influence of commerce and the many ways that laws hurt people. He observed, for instance, how the 1816 French tariff throttled trade, resulting in empty warehouses and idle docks around Bayonne. In 1819, the government put steep tariffs on corn, meat and sugar, making poor people suffer from needlessly high food prices. High tariffs on English and Swiss cotton led to widespread smuggling.
Bastiat explored books about political economy, as economics was called. “I have read the Traite d’Economie Politique by Jean Baptiste Say, an excellent and methodical study,” he wrote a friend. Say descended from Protestants who had fled France during religious persecution. He worked for a while in Britain before joining a Paris insurance company. There his boss suggested that he read Adam Smith’s Wealth of Nations. The book thrilled him, and he resolved to learn more about how an economy works. His first literary work was a 1789 pamphlet defending freedom of the press. He co-founded a republican periodical, La Decade philosophique, and it published many of his articles about economic freedom. He embraced the ideals of the French Revolution and in 1799 became a member of the governing Tribunate.
The Traite d’Economie Politique, Say’s major work, appeared in 1803. He reintroduced free market views to France and Europe generally. Back before the French Revolution, Anne Robert Jacques Turgot and other intellectuals known as “physiocrats” had done much to promote economic freedom—and coined the immortal phrase laissez-faire [“let us be”] which became a battle cry—but these intellectuals all accepted royal absolutism. Moreover, early physiocrats thought land was the most important source of wealth, which suggested support for the landholding aristocracy. These were major reasons why they fell out of fashion after the French Revolution. As a republican, Say was in a position to help convince future generations about the importance of economic freedom. “He held that the most productive economy must rest on private property, private enterprise, and private initiatives,” noted Princeton University historian Robert R. Palmer in his recent intellectual biography of Say.
Say disgarded Smith’s labor theory of value, insisting that value was determined by customers. Say recognized the creative role of entrepreneurs. He rejected the dark pessimism of British economist Robert Malthus who feared that population growth would outstrip the capacity of private food producers. Say believed free market capitalism could achieve unlimited progress.
He viewed taxation as theft. For instance, these comments: “The moment that value is parted with by the tax-payer, it is positively lost to him; the moment it is consumed by the government or its agents, it is lost to all the world, and never reverts to, or re-exists in society…It is a glaring absurdity to pretend, that taxation contributes to national wealth, by engrossing part of the national produce…seized on and devoured by taxation…the act of levying is always attended with mischief…”
Among other things, Say’s Traite d’Economie Politique condemned wild government spending, military conscription and slavery (“the most shameful traffic in which human beings have ever engaged”). Since Napoleon had reintroduced slavery in French Caribbean colonies, pursued imperial conquest and spent money at a ruinous rate, it’s no wonder that Say’s book was censored. In addition, he was dismissed from the Tribunate. He turned to business and started a cotton spinning mill which grew to employ more than 400 people.
It was Napoleon Bonaparte who popularized the word ideologue as a derisive term aimed at defenders of freedom like Say. “All the misfortunes that our beautiful France has been experiencing,” Napoleon declared, “have to be ascribed to ideology, to that cloudy metaphysics which goes ingeniously seeking first causes…” Not until after Napoleon’s downfall in 1814 was it possible to bring out a revised edition; altogether, there were a half-dozen editions during his life, the last in 1829. Say gave up cotton spinning, became a professor at the College de France, and Thomas Jefferson reportedly wanted to hire him for the University of Virginia.
After meeting Say in Paris, the English philosopher and economist John Stuart Mill called him “the ideal type of French republican.” The radical republican publicist Louis Auguste Blanqui (1805-1881) remarked that Say “detested at the same time the Bourbons [French royal dynasty] and Bonaparte, an apparent contradiction which filled me with astonishment.”
Say inspired a new generation of French liberals devoted to laissez-faire principles. Among these was Say’s lively son-in-law Charles Comte (1782-1838) who, with the scholarly Charles Dunoyer (1786-1863), founded and edited Censeur europeen, the most important libertarian periodical in the decade after Napoleon’s downfall. Dunoyer wrote De la liberte du travail [Freedom to work, 1825], and Comte’s Traite de legislation [Treatise on legislation] came out the following year. Comte went on to contribute articles for Revue Americaine, established by the Marquis de Lafayette, hero of the American and French revolutions. Dunoyer and Comte attacked the socialist doctrines of Comte de Saint-Simon (Claude Henri de Rouvroy) and his followers. Dunoyer and Comte opposed government interference with private property, labor markets or trade, and they strongly believed that voluntary association and market competition were absolutely essential for human progress. Wary of violent revolution, they did their best to change the world by educating people. They discussed issues with the leading French liberals of their day, including philosopher Benjamin Constant, novelist Stendhal (Henry Beyle, 1783-1842), historian Augustin Thierry (1795-1856) and Belgian-born economist Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912).
From Say, Bastiat learned that economic freedom works better than government intervention and that he might gain influence by explaining fundamental principles.
Bastiat surely must have been cheered to discover a growing community of French liberals. They displayed much deeper understanding of freedom than the better-known English economists who embraced Jeremy Bentham’s Utilitarianism and subsequently succumbed to socialism.
In 1824, Bastiat dreamed of going to Paris and somehow making a difference, but his ailing grandfather asked him to live on the 617-acre family property near Mugron, a small town, and that’s what he did. “I am putting aside all ambitious projects and am returning again to my solitary studies,” he remarked. His grandfather died the following year, and he inherited the property. Like the early physiocrats, Bastiat promoted better farming techniques among the tenants who worked his property, but they weren’t much interested. “What would you have if you had a philharmonic society composed of the deaf?” he lamented. He spent most of his time with books.
Bastiat came across a copy of Poor Richard’s Almanack in 1827. He wrote a friend: “I have discovered a real treasure—a small volume of the moral and political philosophy of Franklin. I am so enthusiastic about his style that I intend to adopt it as my own.”
For a sounding board, he turned to Felix Coudroy, his neighbor and a young lawyer who shared his passion for ideas. Coudroy, however, revered Jean-Jacques Rousseau and favored socialism. Coudroy frequently read books, marked telling passages, passed the book to Bastiat, and then they talked about it. Bastiat learned a great deal about biography, history, politics, religion and philosophy this way. Eventually, he converted Coudroy to classical liberalism. They were to be close friends for two decades.
Around 1830, Bastiat decided “I would like a wife.” He married one Marie Hiard but, as biographer Louis Baudin noted, “He left the bride at the church after the wedding and continued to live as a bachelor.” Somehow, a son was born, but his wife continued to live with her parents.
On July 26, 1830, King Charles X suspended freedom of the press, dissolved the French Chamber of Deputies, took away the right to vote from middle class people and called for new elections in which only aristocrats could participate—a scheme to restore royal absolutism. This triggered a revolution, and after three days of upheaval, he abdicated. The revered Marquis de Lafayette threw his support behind Louis Philippe who, though related to the long-ruling Bourbon dynasty, agreed to serve as a “Citizen King.” He stood astride a moderate, middle class regime which was corrupted by power as the aristocracy had been corrupted before. Louis-Philippe’s chief minister Francois Guizot encouraged people to “Enrichissez vous, enrichissez vous” [“enrich yourselves”]
Bastiat began to play a minor role in public affairs. Soon after the 1830 Revolution, he was appointed a justice of the peace in Mugron, and he was elected to the General Council of Landes. While travelling through Spain and Portugal, he again witnessed the folly of trade restrictions which kept people poor. “I was in Madrid where I attended a session of the Cortes,” he recalled. “The subject under discussion was a treaty with Portugal for improving the navigation on the Douro. One of the deputies rose and said: ‘If the Douro is canalized, shipping rates for cargoes traveling on it will be reduced. Portugese grain will consequently sell at a lower price in the markets of Castile and will provide formidable competition for our domestic industry. I oppose the project, unless our cabinet ministers agree to raise the customs duty so as to redress the balance.’” And so tariffs went up, forcing ordinary people to pay more for food.
Bastiat submitted an article to the Journal des economistes, and although the editors had rejected his previous submissions they published this one in October 1844. The article made a case that tariffs were bad for both Britain and France, and it caused a sensation. The article inspired congratulatory letters from Charles Dunoyer and from Michel Chevalier (1806-1879) who was an economics professor at the College de France. Chevalier had favored the ideas of the socialist Saint-Simon and the authoritarian Joseph de Maistre. As Chevalier biographer Marlis Steinert noted, “He read Bastiat, and he was converted.”
While going through some London newspapers, Bastiat was thrilled to read about how textile entrepreneurs Richard Cobden and John Bright led the Anti-Corn-Law League, a crusade for free trade. Bastiat began gathering material for a book on the Anti-Corn-Law League, and he started corresponding with Cobden. The Englishman was then about 40, and according to a friend, he could often be seen “half skipping along a pavement, or a railway platform, with the lightness of a slim and dapper figure, and a mind full bent upon its object.”
In July, Bastiat crossed the English Channel to see Cobden. “They told me that Cobden was on the point of starting for Manchester,” Bastiat wrote a friend, “and that he was most likely preparing for the journey at that moment. An Englishman’s preparation consists of swallowing a beefsteak and thrusting two shirts into a carpet-bag. I hurried to Cobden’s house, where I found him, and we had a conversation which lasted for two hours. He understands French very well, speaks it a little, and I understand his English. I explained the state of opinion in France, the results that I expect from my book, and so on.”
According to biographer John Morley, Cobden told Bastiat “that he ought to take up his quarters at the hotel of the League, and to spend his evenings there in listening to the fireside talk of [Cobden’s compatriot] Mr. Bright and the rest of the band. A day or two afterwards, at Cobden’s solicitation, Bastiat went down to Manchester. His wonder at the ingenious methods and the prodigious scale of the League increased with all that he saw. His admiration for Cobden as a public leader grew into hearty affection for him as a private friend, and this friendship became one of the chief delights of the few busy years of life that remained to him.”
Bastiat’s book Cobden et la Ligue scooped all other French journalists. He was the first Frenchman to talk about the English free trade movement which soon reached a climax when Parliament, in June 1846, approved a bill to begin repealing grain tariffs. This marked a dramatic departure from traditional tariff negotations based on the principle of “reciprocity”: one nation would cut tariffs only if another nation would make comparable “concessions.” Tariff negotiations tended to be slow, unproductive and acrimonious. Cobden and Bright persuaded Parliament to unilaterally abolish grain tariffs without asking “concessions” from any nation, including France which had fought England through many bitter wars. Cobden and Bright had made a compelling case that free trade would benefit England, especially poor people who needed access to cheap food, even if other nations kept their borders closed. Moreover, they maintained, unilateral free trade would contribute to international peace by taking politics out of trade, reducing the risk that economic disputes might escalate into political and military conflicts. Unilateral free trade was a bold gesture for goodwill among nations.
Bastiat wrote a series of articles for Journal des economistes, attacking the fallacies of protectionism. For instance, the fallacy that tariffs would mean high living standards, that labor-saving machinery destroys jobs, that tariffs are needed to maintain economic independence and national security. Bastiat viewed everything from the standpoint of consumers. His essays were lucid, dramatic, insightful, often amusing satires. He gathered 22 of the essays in a book, Sophismes economiques [Economic Sophisms], which appeared in late 1845. A second volume of 17 essays appeared three years later. They were translated into English and Italian.
Bastiat’s wit is on display in “An Immense Discovery”: “There are men lying in wait along the whole length of the frontier, armed to the teeth and charged with the task of putting difficulties in the way of transporting goods from one country to another. They are called customs officials. They act in exactly the same way as the mud and the ruts. They delay and impede commerce; they contribute to the difference that we have noted between the price paid by the consumer and the price received by the producer…”
In “A Negative Railroad,” Bastiat ridiculed a protectionist proposal to have “a break in the railroad from Paris to Bayonne at Bordeaux; for, if goods and passengers are forced to stop at that city, this will be profitable for boatmen, porters, owners of hotels, etc. Here again we see clearly how the interests of those who perform services are given priority over the interests of the consumers.
“But if Bordeaux has a right to profit from a break in the tracks, and if this profit is consistent with the public interest, then Angouleme, Poitiers, Tours, Orleans, and, in fact, all the intermediate points, including Ruffec, Chatellerault, etc., etc., ought also to demand breaks in the tracks, on the ground of the general interest—in the interest, that is, of domestic industry—for the more there are of these breaks in the line, the greater will be the amount paid for storage, porters, and cartage at every point along the way. By this means, we shall end by having a railroad composed of a whole series of breaks in the tracks, i.e. a negative railroad.”
Bastiat’s most famous satire was his “A Petition” in which candlemakers appealed to the French Chamber of Deputies for protection against an insidious competitor. “We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramnifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly that we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion [England]…
“We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull’s eyes, deadlights, and blinds—in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses…”
In late 1845, the Bordeaux Chamber of Commerce took a step toward free trade by urging that France and Belgium form a customs union, and Bastiat was asked to help. He wrote articles for a Bordeaux newspaper and he delivered some speeches, aimed at encouraging France to go beyond a customs union and pursue free trade with people everywhere.
Mindful that the English free trade movement had been launched in a regional city—Manchester—Bastiat helped form the Association bordelaise pour la liberte des echanges [Bordeaux Association for Free Trade] on February 23, 1846. Cobden had gone national after a regional free trade association was underway, and Bastiat adopted the same strategy. He went to Paris and launched the Association pour la liberte des echanges [Free trade association] on May 10, 1846. Among those who helped Bastiat were Auguste Blanqui, Michel Chevalier, Charles Dunoyer, Gustave de Molinari and Jean-Baptiste Say’s son Horace. On August 18th, they kicked off their campaign with a dinner featuring Richard Cobden. The French free trade association held a succession of public meetings at Paris’ Montesquieu Hall, named after the 18th century French philosopher who had advocated a separation of government powers.
“I cherish all forms of freedom,” Bastiat subsequently wrote Cobden, “and first among them that freedom which is the most universally beneficial to all men, which they enjoy every minute of the day and under all circumstances of their lives—freedom of labor and freedom of exchange. I realize that the right to possess the fruits of one’s toil is the keystone of society and even of human life. I realize that exchange is implicit in the idea of property, and that restrictions on exchange shake the foundations of our right to own anything.”
In another letter to Cobden, Bastiat made clear he recognized how much was at stake in the fight for free trade: “Rather than the fact of free trade alone, I desire for my country the general philosophy of free trade. While free trade itself will bring more wealth to us, the acceptance of the general philosophy that underlies free trade will inspire all needed reforms.”
Bastiat encouraged others to organize free trade associations in Marseilles and Lyons. He reported to Cobden: “Unquestionably, we are making progress. Six months ago, we didn’t have even one newspaper for us. Today we have five in Paris, three in Bordeaux, two in Marseilles, one in Le Havre, and two in Bayonne.”
On November 29th, Bastiat began publishing Le Libre-Echange, a four to eight page weekly free trade newspaper. “Free trade!” Bastiat exulted, “It is a phrase that will level the mountains…Do you imagine that we have organized ourselves to get some small reduction in tariffs? Never. We demand for all of our fellow citizens, not only freedom to work but also freedom to exchange the fruits of their work.”
Bastiat was an inspiration for people who organized free trade associations in Belgium and Spain. In Italy, a free trade association stated: “the British association has declared war against only one of the evils in its country [grain tariffs], while the French Association has adopted a more general plan that encompasses the entire human race. It wishes all nations to fraternize, and to invite everyone to the banquet of production and consumption.”
Bastiat had an impact on intellectuals in Germany. The Englishman John Prince Smith (1809-1874) who had gone to Prussia and become a citizen, was influenced by Bastiat and launched the German free trade movement. As historian Ralph Raico notes, Prince Smith worked at “disseminating good translations of the works of Frederic Bastiat and in gathering about him a circle of like-minded enthusiasts.”
During 1847, Bastiat advised Cobden that free trade was only the first step toward promoting solid peace with France. “The policy taken by you and your friends in Parliament will have an immense influence on the course of our undertaking. If you energetically disarm your diplomacy, if you succeed in reducing your naval forces, we shall be strong. If not, what kind of figure shall we cut before our public? When we predict that Free Trade will draw English policy into the way of justice, peace, economy, colonial emancipation, France is not bound to take our word for it. There exists an inveterate mistrust of England, I will even say a sentiment of hostility, as old as the two names of French and English…England ought to bring her political system into harmony with her new economic system.”
Cobden and Bastiat collaborated on many things. On one occasion, for instance, Cobden wrote: “My first speech…cost me a good deal of time with the aid of Bastiat to write and prepare to read it. My good friend Bastiat has been two mornings with me in my room, translating and teaching, before eight o’clock.”
Bastiat continued to do the lion’s share of organizing work in France. He wrote Coudroy: “My friend, I am not only the Association, I am the Association entirely. While I have zealous and devoted collaborators, they are interested only in speaking and writing. As for the organization and administration of this vast machine, I am alone.”
Unfortunately, while entrenched interest groups aggressively defended French tariffs and import prohibitions, there wasn’t any interest group willing to back free trade. “I am losing all my time,” he wrote Coudroy, “the association is progressing at a turtle’s pace.” The lack of money and social connections discouraged Bastiat, as he admitted to Cobden: “I suffer from my poverty; yes, instead of running from one to the other on foot, dirtied up to my back, in order to meet only one or two of them a day and obtain only evasive or weak responses, I would like to be able to unite them at my table in a rich salon, then the difficulties would be gone! Ah, it is neither the heart or the head that I lack, but I feel that this superb Babylon is not my place and that it is necessary that I return to my solitude.”
In 1847, the French government debated a bill which would abolish about half of the French tariffs, but protectionist lobbyists killed it, and the free traders never recovered. Bastiat wrote Cobden: “Our adversaries are full of audacity and ardor. Our friends, on the contrary, have become discouraged and indifferent. What good does it do to be a thousand times right if we can’t get anyone to listen. The tactics of the protectionists, concurred in by the newspapers, are to ignore us completely.” The French free trade association held its last public meeting on March 15, 1848, and Le Libre Echange ceased publication after the April 16th issue.
Reform of the corrupt government had become the hottest political issue, and the situation had reached a climax on February 21, 1848 when National Guards shot about 20 republican demonstrators in Paris. Suddenly, the city exploded into revolution. The king abdicated three days later, and the Chamber of Deputies proclaimed France a republic. Ten republican leaders, including the socialist Louis Blanc, headed a provisional government which would run things until the election of a Constituent Assembly. Blanc demanded a “Ministry of Progress,” nationalization of industry and “national workshops.” The “workshops,” a make-work scheme for socialists and the unemployed, were set up, and by mid-June they had some 120,000 people working mostly on roads.
Amidst the upheaval, Bastiat published about a dozen issues of La Republique francaise, a two-page periodical defending libertarian principles. He insisted that people must be secure in “all rights, those of the conscience as well as those of intelligence; those of property, like those of work; those of the family as those of the commune; those of the country as those of humanity. I have no other ideal than universal justice; no other banner than that of our flag: Liberty, Equality, Fraternity.”
As Cobden had become convinced that he would be more effective working within Parliament as well as stirring up popular support for libertarian principles, Bastiat concluded he must try to influence the Constituent Assembly. In April 1848, with universal manhood suffrage, he was elected a Deputy from Landes. Then on May 15th, disgruntled welfare recipients from the “national workshops” invaded the hall where the Constituent Assembly met and drove out the deputies. National Guards crushed the rebels, and the Constituent Assembly declared martial law and proceeded to dismantle the “national workshops.” During the “Bloody June Days” (June 24-26), an estimated 20,000 armed socialists from the “national workshops” fought for power, but backed by the National Guards, the Constituent Assembly got tough. Some 10,000 people were killed or wounded, and another 11,000 were imprisoned.
For several weeks, Bastiat issued a two-page revolutionary paper, the daily Jacques Bonhomme, edited by Charles Coquelin and Gustave de Molinari. Bastiat recognized that revolutionary violence occurred not because there was too much freedom but because there wasn’t enough. “Can we imagine citizens, otherwise completely free,” he wrote Felix Coudroy, “moving to overthrow their government when its activity is limited to satisfying the most vital, the most keenly felt of all social wants, the need for justice? We have tried so many things; when shall we try the simplest of all: freedom?”
Bastiat produced articles for the Journal des Economistes, Journal des Debats, Courrier francais, Journal du Havre, Courrier de Marseille, Sentinelle des Pyrenees and others. He contributed two essays to the Dictionnaire de l’Economie politique [Dictionary of Political Economy] which Ambrose Clement, Charles Coquelin, Horace Say, Gustave de Molinari and others developed as a means to popularize free market ideas. Moreover, Bastiat wrote letters for the opposition press, including l’Epoque, Journal de Lille, Minoteur industriel, la Presse and Voix de Peuple (where, through 14 remarkable letters, Bastiat debated the bombastic socialist Pierre Joseph Proudhon). Independent scholar Dean Russell is convinced that Bastiat took the lead exposing the fallacies of socialism.
Bastiat ridiculed claims that government could increase the total number of productive jobs. “The state opens a road, builds a palace, repairs a street, digs a canal; with these projects it gives jobs to certain workers. That is what is seen. But it deprives certain other laborers of employment. That is what is not seen…do millions of francs descend miraculously on a moonbeam into the coffers of [politicians]? For the process to be complete, does not the state have to organize the collection of funds as well as their expenditure? Does it not have to get its tax collectors into the country and its taxpayers to make their contributions?”
When, in the name of compassion, socialists demanded more powerful government, Bastiat fired away with tough questions: “Is there in the heart of man only what the legislator has put there? Did fraternity have to make its appearance on earth by way of the ballot box? Does the law forbid you to practice charity simply because all that it imposes on you is the obligation to practice justice? Are we to believe that women will cease to be self-sacrificing and that pity will no longer find a place in their hearts because self-sacrifice and pity will not be commanded by the law?”
Bastiat warned socialism must mean slavery, because the state “will be the arbiter, the master, of all destinies. It will take a great deal; hence, a great deal will remain for itself. It will multiply the number of its agents; it will enlarge the scope of its prerogatives; it will end by acquiring overwhelming proportions.”
The Constituent Assembly decided France must have a strong president—even before it had finished drafting a new constitution! The candidates included a vague idealist, a watered-down socialist, a tough law-and-order man and Louis Napoleon Bonaparte who mainly traded on his name as conqueror Napoleon Bonaparte’s nephew. Twice Louis Napoleon had attempted to seize power (Strasbourg in 1836 and Boulogne 1840), for which he spent some time in prison. He wrote an anticapitalist tract and appealed to people who looked back nostalgically on Napoleon Bonaparte’s wars. In December 1848, he easily won election as French President.
The Constituent Assembly concluded its business in May 1849 and was succeeded by the Legislative Assembly. Bastiat was elected a deputy. As member of the Budget Commission and vice president of the Assembly’s powerful Finance Committee, he urged lower government spending, lower taxes and free trade.
The following month there was an attempted socialist rebellion which brought widespread support for repressive measures. Again and again, Bastiat voted to defend civil liberties. He opposed a bill which would ban voluntary labor unions. He voted against imposing martial law. When his socialist enemy Louis Blanc was charged with inciting an insurrection, Bastiat voted to acquit him. Even Proudhon had to acknowledge that Bastiat “is devoted, body and soul, to the Republic, to liberty, to equality, to progress; he has clearly proved that many times with his vote in the Assembly.”
Bastiat was discouraged. He remarked that “while the French people have been in advance of all other nations in the conquest of their rights, or rather of their political guarantees, they have nonetheless remained the most governed, regimented, administered, imposed upon, shackled, and exploited of all…”
“Here I am in my solitude,” he lamented. “Would that I could bury myself here forever, and work out peacefully this economic synthesis which I have in my head, and which will never leave it! For, unless there occur some sudden change in public opinion, I am about to be sent to paris charged with the terrible mandate of a Representative of the People. If I had health and strength, I should accept this mission with enthusiasm. But what can may feeble voice, my sickly and nervous constitution, accomplish in the midst of revolutionary tempests?”
Diagnosed with tuberculosis, Bastiat needed a lot of rest to preserve his health, but he kept at it. “I rise at six o’clock, dress, shave, breakfast, and read the newspapers,” he told Felix Coudroy. “This occupies me till seven, or half-past seven. About nine, I am obliged to go out, for at ten commences the sitting of the Committee of Finance, of which I am a member. It continues till one, and then the public sitting begins, and continues till seven. I return to dinner, and it very rarely happens that there are not after-dinner meetings of Sub-Committees charged with special questions. The only hour at my disposal is from eight to nine in the morning, and it is at that hour that I receive visitors…I am profoundly disgusted with this kind of life.”
In June 1850, Bastiat returned to Mugron and produced one of his most beloved works, The Law. He affirmed the natural rights philosophy, the most powerful intellectual defense of liberty which, except for the American abolitionist movement, had virtually vanished from the English-speaking world. “It is not because men have passed laws that personality, liberty, and property exist,” he declared. “On the contrary, it is because personality, liberty, and property already exist that men make laws…Each of us certainly gets from Nature, from God, the right to defend his person, his liberty, and his property, since they are the three elements constituting or sustaining life, elements which are mutually complementary and which cannot be understood without one another. For what are our faculties, if not an extension of our personality, and what is property, if not an extension of our faculties?…Law is the organization of the natural right to legitimate self-defense.”
Bastiat went on to attack what he called “legal plunder”—laws which exploit some people to benefit politically-connected interests. He described how such laws tend to politicize private life: “It is in the nature of men to react against the inequity of which they are the victims. When, therefore, plunder is organized by the law for the profit of the classes who make it, all the plundered classes seek, by peaceful or revolutionary means, to enter into the making of the laws.” And once again, Bastiat demonstrated vivid understanding of what socialism was all about: “socialists consider mankind as raw material to be fitted into various social molds…inert matter, receiving from the power of the government life, organization, morality and wealth…”
In The Law, Bastiat celebrated “liberty, whose name alone has the power to stir all hearts and set the world to shaking…freedom of conscience, of education, of association, of the press, of movement, of labor, of exchange; in other words, the freedom of everyone to use all his faculties in a peaceful way; in still other words, the destruction of all forms of despotism, even of legal despotism, and the restriction of the law to its sole rational function, that is, of regulating the right of the individual to legitimate self-defense…”
Bastiat plunged into his next work, Les Harmonies economiques [Economic Harmonies]. He expanded on a cherished theme, that free people cooperate peacefully and gain the benefits of voluntary exchange. “Men’s interests,” he wrote, “left to themselves, tend to form harmonious combinations and to work together for progress and the general good.”
The book reflected both his deep pessimism and fervent optimism. “We see plunder usurping the citizens’ liberty in order the more readily to exploit their wealth, and draining off their substance the better to conquer their liberty,” he wrote. “Private enterprise becomes public enterprise. Everything is done by government functionaries; a stupid and vexatious bureaucracy swarms over the land. The public treasury becomes a vast resrvoir into which those who work pour their earnings, so that the henchmen of the government may tap tdhem as they will.”
Yet Bastiat never gave up. “Oh liberty!” he cried. “We have seen thee hunted from country to country, crushed by conquest, nigh unto death in servitude, jeered at in the courts of the mighty, driven from the schools, mocked in the drawing room, misinterpreted in the studio, anathematized in the temple…But if thou shouldst surrender in this last haven, what becomes of the hope of the ages and of the dignity of man?” The first volume of Harmonies economiques was published in late 1850, and he never finished the work.
By August 1850, Bastiat’s tuberculosis worsened. He wrote Cobden lamenting “these unfortunate lungs, which are to me very capricious servants. I have returned a little better, but afflicted with a disease of the larynx, accompanied with a complete extinction of voice. The doctor enjoins absolute silence; and, in consequence, I am about to pass two months in the country, near Paris.”
Doctors soon ordered Bastiat to Italy. In his last letter to Felix Coudroy, from Rome, he wrote: “Here I am in the Eternal City, but not much disposed to visit its marvels…I should desire only one thing, to be relieved of the acute pain which the disease of the windpipe occasions. This continuity of suffering torments me. Every meal is a punishment. To eat, drink, speak, cough are all painful operations. Walking fatigues me—carriage airings irritate the throat—I can no longer work, or even read, seriously. You see to what I am reduced. I shall soon be little better than a dead body, retaining only the faculty of suffering.” When he was too ill to write, he asked his friend P. Paillottet to tell Michel Chevalier “how grateful I am for his excellent review of my book [Harmonies economiques].”
On Tuesday, December 24, 1850, Bastiat was in bed, and Paillottet remarked that “his eye sparkled with that peculiar expression which I had frequently noticed in our conversations, and which announced the solution of a problem.” Bastiat uttered two words, la verite (“the truth”). He took his last breath a few minutes after five in the afternoon. He was only 49. His cousin, the priest Eugene de Monclar, was at his side. Two days later, there was a funeral service at Rome’s Saint-Louis des Francais church, and he was buried in the adjacent cemetary.
He had done much to expand the ranks of French classical liberals. “The Paris group,” as intellectual historian Joseph Schumpeter called them, “controlled the Journal des economistes, the new dictionary, the central professional organization in Paris, the College de France, and other institutions as well as most of the publicity—so much so that their political or scientific opponents began to suffer from a persecution complex.”
Bastiat’s most important single influence was probably on Michel Chevalier. “Until 1845,” noted historian J.B. Duroselle, “Michel Chevalier was a moderate protectionist. Then in April of 1846, he published his profession of faith as a free trader in an article in the Journal des Debats. How can that evolution be explained? I believe it can be attributed almost entirely to the intellectual influence of Frederic Bastiat.”
In 1852, Chevalier published Examen du systeme commercial connu sous le nom de systeme protecteur [Examination of the Commercial System known as Protectionism]. He often drew from Bastiat. For instance, he noted that “To demonstrate the evil effects of protectionism, I will cite an argument by Bastiat…In one of his excellent pamphlets, Bastiat proposed to show that the principle of protectionism and communism is the same.”
Chevalier gained influence in the French government and used it to promote free trade. After the 1855 Industrial Exposition, he declared that French industry was so competitive it didn’t need tariff protection anymore. He persuaded the Emperor and the Council of State to introduce a free trade bill in the national assembly, but it was shot down. In 1856, Cobden offered Chevalier some encouragement: “I am pleased indeed that you are carrying on the defense of the principles of free trade, for since the untimely death of our dear friend Bastiat, it is you whom we regard as the champion of free trade.”
Chevalier began thinking that trade might be liberalized via the French emperor’s treaty-making power. In 1859, he visited England to seek Cobden’s support for a trade treaty between England and France. He talked with Chancellor of the Exchequer William Ewart Gladstone. Cobden took the lead in negotiations. Although the resulting treaty left many tariffs at 30%, it abolished all French import prohibitions, and many tariffs were cut. The treaty marked a momentous breakthrough. Despite the predictable outrage from special interests, France went on to negotiate trade liberalization treaties with Austria-Hungary, German states, Italy, Norway, Portugal, Spain, Sweden and Switzerland. Moreover, the most-favored-nation principle became widely-adopted—whenever a nation negotiates lower import barriers in a new treaty, the benefits will be extended to everyone else with whom that nation has a trade treaty.
Biographer P. Ronce remarked that “If the free trade campaign [which Bastiat spearheaded from 1845-1850] did not bring an immediate result, at least it accustomed people to the idea of free trade, and it brought serious doubts about the benefits of protection; it prepared the way for the ‘qualified’ free trade system represented by the Treaty of Commerce of 1860.”
Richard Cobden offered this tribute: “My enthusiasm for Bastiat, founded as much on a love of his personal qualities as on an admiration for his genius, dates back nearly twenty years…The works of Bastiat, which are selling not only in France, but throughout Europe, are gradually teaching those who by their commanding talents are capable of becoming the teachers of others; for Bastiat speaks with the greatest force to the highest order of intellects. At the same time, he is almost the only Political Economist whose style is brilliant and fascinating, whilst his irresistible logic is relieved by sallies of wit and humor which makes his Sophisms as amusing as a novel. His fame is so well established that I think it would be presumptuous to do anything to increase it by any other means than the silent but certain dissemination of his works by the force of their own great merits.”
Bastiat’s seven-volume Oeuvres completes [complete works] appeared between 1861 and 1864. There continued to be French interest in classical liberalism, as evidenced by a succession of books about Bastiat: A.B. Belle’s Bastiat et le Libre-Echange [Bastiat and Free Trade, 1878], Edouard Bondurand’s Frederic Bastiat (1879), Alphonse Courtois’ Journal des Economistes (1888), A. D. Fouville’s Frederic Bastiat (1888), C.H. Brunel’s Bastiat et la reaction contre le pessimisme economique [Bastiat and the reaction against pessimistic economics, 1901] and G. de Nouvion’s Frederic Bastiat, Sa Vie, Ses Oeuvres, Ses Doctrines [Frederic Bastiat, his life, work and doctrines 1905]. The glorious French laissez-faire tradition passed into history with the death of Bastiat’s friend Gustave de Molinari on January 28, 1912, although he influenced American individualists like Benjamin Tucker whose radical ideas persist to this day.
Most 20th century academics banished Bastiat’s name from serious discussion. Joseph Schumpeter, for instance, wrote that he “might have gone down to posterity as the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived”—were it not for Bastiat’s Les Harmonies economiques which ventured into economic theory. “I do not hold that Bastiat was a bad theorist,” Schumpeter sniffed, “I hold that he was no theorist.” In their History of Economic Doctrines, Charles Gide and Charles Rist remarked that “It is easy to laugh…and to show that such supposed harmony of interests between men does not exist.”
A few scholars did acknowledge Bastiat’s contributions. Economist John A. Hobson called Bastiat “the most brilliant exponent of the sheer logic of Free Trade in this or any other country.” The respected economic historian John H. Clapham hailed Bastiat for “the best series of popular free trade arguments ever written…the text-book for controversialists of his school throughout Europe.” The scholarly 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica (1913) offered these stirring words: “He alone fought socialism hand to hand, body to body, as it were, not caricaturing it, not denouncing it, not criticizing under its name some merely abstract theory, but taking it as actually presented by its most popular representatives, considering patiently their proposals and arguments, and proving conclusively that they proceeded on false principles, reasoned badly and sought to realize generous aims by foolish and harmful means. Nowhere will reason find a richer armoury of weapons available against socialism than in the pamphlets published by Bastiat…”
In 1946, former Los Angeles Chamber of Commerce General Manager Leonard E. Read established the Foundation for Economic Education and resolved to make Bastiat’s work better-known. He persuaded economics scholar Dean Russell to prepare a new translation of The Law. Over the years, it has reportedly sold several hundred thousand copies. Russell went on to earn his Ph.D. under famed free market economist Wilhelm Ropke at the University of Geneva, writing his dissertation on Bastiat. Russell adapted this into Frederic Bastiat, Ideas and Influence (1965) which remains the best single book on him.
Meanwhile, New York Times editorial writer Henry Hazlitt produced a book with the audacious title Economics in One Lesson (1946). “My greatest debt,” Hazlitt acknowledged, “is Frederic Bastiat’s essay, “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen,” now nearly a century old. The present work may, in fact, be regarded as a modernization, extension and generalization of the approach found in Bastiat’s pamphlet.” Economics in One Lesson has sold an estimated 1 million copies.
Recent evidence dramatically affirms Bastiat’s most fundamental view that government is the primary source of chronic violence and that a free society tends to be peaceful. Respected political scientist R.J. Rummel, who was nominated for a Nobel Peace Prize, analyzed almost 8,200 estimates of deaths from domestic violence, war, genocide and mass murder. In his 1995 book Death by Government, he reported that throughout history, governments have murdered more than 300 million people—not counting war deaths. In his 1997 book Power Kills, Rummel surveyed experience of the past 180 years and reported that he didn’t find a single case of war between two democratic governments with limited power. Moreover, there were decidedly fewer civil wars and other types of domestic violence in nations with limited-power democratic governments.
And so that frail Frenchman whose public career spanned just six years, belittled as a mere popularizer, dismissed as a dreamer and an ideologue, turns out to have seen our future. Even before Karl Marx began scribbling The Communist Manifesto in December 1847, Frederic Bastiat knew that socialism is doomed. Marx called for a vast expansion of government power to seize privately-owned land, banks, railroads and schools, but Bastiat correctly warned that government power is a mortal enemy. He declared that prosperity is everywhere the work of free people, and he was right. He maintained that the only meaningful way to secure peace is to secure human liberty by limiting government power. Bastiat took the lead, he stood alone when he had to, he displayed a generous spirit, he shared epic insights, he gave wings to ideas, and he committed his life for liberty.
Reprinted from The Triumph of Liberty by Jim Powell.