Bastiat began his foray into politics as an advocate of the free market, but he quickly realized that the principles of freedom ought to be applied to all aspects of life. Bastiat believed the state was often used as a weapon by some against others and so the solution was to limit the state radically. Today, Bastiat is rightly remembered for his entertaining, witty, and memorable writings, which take complicated concepts and make them accessible to a person of any background.
While I normally talk about people who are very very obscure, today I will be talking about a libertarian thinker who is a household name, Frederic Bastiat. I actually have a confession. Today’s episode is really me repaying a debt to Bastiat. You see, back in the day when I first started college, Bastiat was one of the great liberal writers whose arguments, written as they were in such an accessible style, made me delve deeper into libertarianism, so I owe him an cheeky episode.
With all this said let’s get to the man himself.
Bastiat has a host of famous short articles explaining economic principles and his amazingly easy to read book called The Law. Most libertarians will have had some form of contact with Bastiat by reading his books, or by seeing his pithy quotations online, or by spotting his books being handed out at events, etcetera, you get it, Bastiat is not obscure. But usually, these books do not delve into Bastiat’s personal life and give only very brief introductions to who he is. This is a great shame as Bastiat’s works are for the most part, read in isolation of his life and the influences that shaped the charm and individuality for which his work is rightly recognised and admired. Bastiat’s involvement with politics was a deeply personal affair, he observed first hand the ineffectiveness of hamfisted government policies.
Younger people tend to be more radical. When a person first becomes politically involved they tend to have stronger more radical opinions which slowly become more moderate over time. Bastiat was the opposite of this phenomenon. He started out as an economics nerd believed in the benefits of free trade. But once he began applying the principles of free trade elsewhere he began to realize the state must be drastically limited in all aspects of life, including religion, art, leisure, the workplace and education. By the end of his life Bastiat produced The Law, the book for which he is most well known today, which describes his radical idea for a minimal state which protects the rights of individuals and leaves the rest to voluntary associations, free markets and individual action.
The Bastiat family had, for generations, been a family who traditionally made their living through trade. Bastiat’s great grandfather had opened a trading business and following this tradition Bastiat’s grandfather opened his own business in Bayonne with the help of his son Pierre, Bastiat’s father. Since 1784, Bayonne had been made a free port which was a rarity at a time when protectionist trade barriers were being erected all over France. Bastiat’s father and grandfather were able to freely trade with Spain, Portugal, and Holland leading to the family’s rising prosperity. It is unsurprising that later in life Bastiat would stress the importance of international trade considering it was effectively in his blood at this point.
Bastiat’s father married in 1800 and had two children, a son and daughter. Bastiat’s sister tragically died shortly after she was born leaving Bastiat as an only child. The early years of Bastiat’s life were comfortable. The Bastiat family’s fortune began to decline as Napoleon’s conflicts made trading internationally a near‐impossible feat. When Bastiat was just nine years of age, both of his parents caught tuberculosis and died, and the unfortunate Bastait was raised by his grandfather and aunt Justine who became a devoted mother figure for him. Importantly, Justine noticed how gifted the young Bastiat was and decided that he ought to be sent to a school that matched his natural abilities. In 1814 she sent him to an extremely prestigious high school at Soreze run by two brothers who were dedicated to progressive educational reforms that would make a deep impact upon the outlook and writings of Bastiat.
There were three main reforms which would impact Bastiat’s worldview. Firstly the school enrolled pupils from a variety of religious and cultural backgrounds to cultivate a cosmopolitan environment where toleration was promoted.
The second important reform was the modernization of languages. Throughout Europe and especially America in the 18th and 19th centuries, educational curricula were heavily focused on Greek and Latin. Students were expected to read the best the ancient world had to offer including authors such as Cicero, Plato, Tacitus, and Plutarch. Students were expected to read, translate and speak Greek and Latin, hardly the most universally applicable skill. Bastiat’s school instead opted to focus on modern languages such as German, English, Spanish and Italian. This led students like Bastiat to look forward to future developments in fields such as science, mathematics and, most importantly for Bastiat, economics, as opposed to reading the same hallowed texts repetitively. Students were also encouraged to pursue extracurricular activities such as sports and music, Bastiat took part in sprinting and riding while also learning to play the cello, a hobby he would keep up through his life.
The last innovative reform was that collaboration was encouraged. Students were encouraged to work together instead of working as isolated units. Bastiat and one of his friends worked together to win first place in a poetry contest in 1818.
In short, Bastiat thrived in this environment of toleration, modernity, and collaboration. He seemingly deeply enjoyed his education which makes it all the sadder he was never able to complete it in full. When he was 17 he had to leave his studies to help his uncle with the family business back in Bayonne. But Bastiat never stopped learning, he was a lifelong learner who never rested on his laurels, always reading about new fields, ideas and developments.
Returning to Bayonne, Bastiat saw a once‐thriving port in terminal decline due to excessive protectionism which had been enforced since 1815 with the restored French Monarchy. It was during this period of his life Bastiat was introduced to the economists Adam Smith and Jean Baptiste‐Say. By 1824 Bastiat’s grandfather had died and Bastiat inherited agricultural land in Sengrese which was rented out to sharecroppers.
By 1830 the monarchy of Charles X had been overthrown by the July Revolution which replaced one monarch with another, Louis Philippe the first. Bastiat, although a republican and supporter of democracy, eventually rallied behind the July Revolutionaires, supporting the new constitutional monarchy. Following the revolution, Bastiat decided he wanted to shift into a career in politics. He would need more wealth to achieve this and so he married a wealthy heiress named Clotilde Hiard. Bastiat rarely if ever mentions his wife throughout his personal letters giving the impression that their marriage was really one more of convenience than of love. Bastiat looked after Clotilde financially but besides there is no particular evidence of a romantic connection with her.
In the same year he married, Bastiat began his political career as a justice of the peace, a position in which he mediated disputes in the country of Mugron, a small but industrious port on the Ardour river which had a population of around two thousand people. Despite lacking any sort of legal education, Bastiat had an excellent reputation as an efficient worker who always appealed to common sense. Through his work as an excellent justice of the peace, Bastiat became one of the model citizens of Mugron leading swiftly to his election as general counsellor for the county. During his time as a general counsellor, Bastiat fought ardently against the excessive taxation on wine and liquor.
By this point in time in his life, Bastiat was in favour of free trade thanks to the teachings of Say and Smith but he was not yet a radical thinker or activist. The event that would trigger Bastiat to become increasingly radical was his opportune introduction to the Anti‐Corn Law League. In 1844, while chatting at a popular club where the educated bourgeois discussed politics, philosophy, and economics, one of the club members complained about a speech that he had read by the British Prime Minister Robert Peel. This club member complained that Peel had jabbed at France — he actually hadn’t and only appeared to do si due to a mistranslation into French. While trying to track down this speech, Bastiat stumbled upon the Anti‐Corn Law League — a free‐trade movement in England which advocated for abolishing taxes on imported wheat. The Anti‐Corn Law League was special in that it was a grassroots movement which advocated for free trade by arguing that it would raise the standards of living for the poorest in society. Bastiat was inspired by the success of the Anti‐Corn Law League and decided he would follow in their footsteps by starting a similar movement in France.
His first effort towards this was an article entitled “On the Influence of French and English Tariffs on the Future of the Two Peoples.” In it, Bastiat argued that England’s move towards free trade would allow them to enjoy increasing prosperity while France’s growth was constrained by protectionism. To his own surprise, his article was published by a leading economics journal and Bastiat was quickly invited to Paris to further pursue his research. Bastiat was reluctant to leave Mugron to which he had grown deeply attached, but, in this period Paris was where the action was intellectually and so he decided to move there in 1845. Despite his provincial upbringing, in Paris, Bastiat was thought by many to be endlessly charming and an interesting conversationalist.
Before establishing a campaign in France for free trade, Bastiat decided to travel to England to meet the leading figure of the Anti‐Corn Law League, Richard Cobden. Bastiat and Cobden were kindred spirits and became lifelong friends corresponding with each other for years. Upon returning to Paris, he began publishing articles on the benefits of free trade. These articles were published for a variety of journals and papers and were eventually compiled to make the book we know today as Economic Sophisms.
Economics is not a field known for its accessible prose and entertaining anecdotes, especially in Bastiat’s day when economics books were dry and long — if you don’t believe me go read Bastiat’s favourite economists Say or Smith. But Bastiat is famous today for his amazingly accessible, but most of all entertaining writings, such as Economic Sophisms which explain core concepts in an incredibly witty manner. I can’t go through them all of course so I will give a brief overview of my personal favourite which explains the benefits of free trade and the absurdity of protectionism.
By 1845 the French government had raised a variety of tariffs on all kinds of goods in an attempt to promote industry at home. Bastiat wished to show the absurdity of this idea so he decided to write a satirical open letter to parliament in which he pretends to be a person representing “the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, sticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers, and from Producers of Tallow, Oil, Resin, Alcohol, and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting.” Many had argued that there was unfair competition from abroad with French producers having to compete with cheap goods flooding in from other countries, and that therefore, the government ought to erect barriers to trade such as tariffs to protect domestic industries.
Bastiat wanted to show that this was a ridiculous proposition that favoured producers over consumers. To illustrate this he took protectionist logic to the extreme. If we really want to promote the industries connected to lighting the greatest competitor is not foreign producers but in fact the sun itself. If the French government would only pass a law forcing people to never open their curtains, shutters or windows the French government could greatly increase the amount of lighting related products needed. The candlestick makers petition would not help everyone, in reality it would only benefit those who make candles. Everyone else would have to buy more candles lowering their disposable income despite the cheaper alternative of the sun. Bastiat argues that tariffs operate on the same principle as this ridiculous proposal. Using tariffs to protect uncompetitive industries increases costs for everyone to benefit the producer. Reminding parliament of all the tariffs they have passed before Bastiat ends his petition by saying “Make your choice, but be logical; for as long as you ban, as you do, foreign coal, iron, wheat, and textiles, in proportion as their price approaches zero, how inconsistent it would be to admit the light of the sun, whose price is zero all day long!” In short, protectionism benefits producers over consumers, more to the point protectionism bestows special privileges on the few at the expense of the many.
Bastiat’s rhetorical flourish comes from pushing protectionists ideas to their logical extremes, therefore, showing just the bizarre nature of protectionists arguments. Most importantly he expresses complex economic ideas in a manner which is light‐hearted, intuitive, and memorable. If nothing else Bastiat was an unparalleled disseminator of ideas which was an important skill Bastiat made use of as he further dedicated himself to the burgeoning French Free trade movement acting as a general secretary and the editor of a weekly paper. But despite their best efforts French free marketeers had little success following their British counterparts. Bastiat himself theorized that unlike the English the French were not acclimated to rallies and public debate. This led to a strategic shift in Bastiat’s thinking, he decided instead that he would influence policy through electoral politics.
In 1846 he ran for election for a position in the Chamber of Deputies. In his election manifesto Bastiat explained he was for a government with a strictly limited scope of law‐enforcement and defence. In all other areas, leaving people alone would produce the goods and services necessary for a flourishing life. He warned against excessive government intervention and spending which he believed was ever‐expanding and was constraining growth and progress. But disappointingly Bastiat was not elected.
But thanks to the constantly changing nature of French politics Bastiat was quickly given another chance to enter an influential position in politics when the July Monarchy was overthrown in 1848 and replaced with the Second French Republic. By 1849, Bastiat had been elected to the legislative assembly where he worked tirelessly balancing his job as a member of parliament, writing pamphlets and working on his longer more theoretical works all while he suffered from tuberculosis which made public speaking a difficult and, at times, painful task.
He never aligned wholly with the right or the left, instead, he voted with his conscience and what he believed was the right course of action. This lead Jean Baptiste Say’s grandson to describe Bastiat as a person with “too strong a personality to be a complete politician.”
A core principle of Bastiat’s political thrust was that lassiez faire would best promote the interests and prosperity of the poor. For example, In a speech from 1849 Bastiat would argue against taxes on wine pleasing those on the right with free trade but also arguing that these taxes unfairly burdened the poorest through higher prices. For this Bastiat received praise from both the left and the right. In another speech from the same year, Bastiat opposed laws which would restrict workers rights to form a union. Bastiat explained that people have the right to peacefully associate with whom they wished and to push for better conditions. Bastiat never took a particular side, he was above such partisan behaviour, because of this, Bastiat nearly always found himself voting with the minority leading to little in the way of concrete free‐market policies.
Bastiat only began writing political works consistently after 1844, but from this point he never relented, writing constantly. Bastiat’s two most important and influential works were written in 1850, one is a short article entitled “That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen” and the other a brief but direct book called “The Law.”
That Which Is Seen, and That Which Is Not Seen begins with Batsiat explaining that a bad economist only observes the immediate benefits of an action or policy while a good economist will take into account not only what is immediate but also the long term effects of a policy.
Bastiat tells the story of a baker whose son accidentally breaks one of his shops’ windows. He explains that in situations like this there is normally a person who will say something along the lines of well if no windows were broken then how would glaziers make a living? But Bastiat explains that this nonchalant comment “contains an entire theory.”
The broken window is fixed by the glazier who happily accepts their payment, this only what is seen. Bastiat explains that many believe it is a good thing for money to circulate and change hands, therefore it might actually be a good thing that windows are broken. Bastiat explains that those who come to this conclusion confine their analysis to the immediate and obvious benefits which are seen. If the baker’s window had not been broken he could have spent his money on a new pair of shoes or a new suit which would have stimulated other industries. This all sounds pretty obvious, today we might call it opportunity cost, but Bastiat applies this principle to a plethora of situations, the most striking is the disbanding armies and the effects of taxation.
Firstly, let us look at Bastiat on disbanding the troops. In Bastiat’s day, many politicians were anxious about disbanding parts of the military and returning soldiers to civilian life. Politicians reasoned that if a large number of soldiers returned to the workforce there would be anarchy as people search for jobs. So even if there is no use for the army many believed it would be better to keep soldiers employed by the state to avoid the scramble for work that would ensue with their discharge. But Bastiat explained that the money required to maintain these soldiers would now be returned to the taxpayer who would, in turn, spend it stimulating the economy and creating more demand for goods and thus more jobs. Bastiat summarised “That the whole difference consists in this: before the disbanding, the country gave the hundred million to the hundred thousand men for doing nothing; and that after it, it pays them the same sum for working.” If there is no reason for a large military it should be disbanded if the military is kept the taxpayer pays his money towards the upkeep of the soldier for no benefits.
Now let us turn our attention to Bastiat and taxes. Bastiat warns against the idea that “There is no better investment than taxes.” He explains that the services taxes provide are easily seen, what is unseen is how the taxpayer could have spent their money to buy useful goods while also stimulating productive businesses. But, government can only attain revenue by taxing those who work productively. As long as the services the government provides are efficient for the populace at large this is no issue. But governments being governments this is often not the case, there are huge amounts of tax revenues that go to waste, money that could have been used by taxpayers to purchase goods and services they had wanted in the first place while also stimulating productive industries that satisfy consumer demands. In 2019 the American government defence budget ran to a spend of roughly 700 billion dollars. The benefit to each individual, the average American, of jet fighters, guns, and tanks, is not immediately apparent.
The Law was one of Bastiat’s last and most renowned works in which he describes what the law ought to be in a moral sense. Bastiat believed that every human being possessed the three God‐given rights of “individuality, liberty, and property” and that these three gifts exist before any human legislation, all human law exists to protect our God‐given rights. According to Bastiat, every person has “the right of defending, even by force his person, his liberty, and his property.” Groups of people band together collectively to more effectively defend their rights, but their collective nature does not allow them to ever violate individual rights. Bastiat staunchly maintains that collective rights lawfulness is always based in the original right of individuals and that it cannot reasonably extend beyond this task. Therefore Bastiat concludes that “nothing, therefore, can be more evident than this; the law is the organization of the natural rights of lawful defence.” For Bastiat the law is quite simply “organized justice” it is not a tool to pursue any outcome but justice which is an absence of infringements upon people’s natural rights. In his own words Bastiat explains that “It is not true that the function of the law is to regulate consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our trade, our talents, our recreation. Its function is to prevent one person from interfering with the rights of another in any of these matters.” If people adhered to this definition of the law Bastiat believed harmony, prosperity and progress would reign supreme with individuals freely cooperating with one another.
But increasingly in France, the law was becoming an instrument of social policy not merely preventing injustice but intervening in the most minute aspects of life. The law has become disfigured, transformed into a wholly new unrecognizable being. Bastiat theorized that there were two urges that caused this perversion of laws proper end, “stupid greed and false philanthropy.”
Life can only be sustained and improved by an unceasing application of one’s skills, talents and effort, simply put we must work. But working is boring, painful and time‐consuming, therefore some people attempt to live at the expense of others by stealing what they have laboured to create. This is what Bastiat calls plunder, the taking of what rightfully belongs to one and appropriating it for another person. This can be solved by punishing those who plunder others, by making plunder less attractive than work we can ensure harmony. But the real threat to our rights is not from petty thieves or bandits, but from the state itself which sanctions what Bastiat calls “lawful plunder.” Laws are generally made by “one man, or by one class of men.” Invariably due to the “fatal tendency “ that exists in human nature, those in power use the force of law for their own benefit. But as history progresses more orders of society are enfranchised and given a say in politics. Special interests groups driven by greed and advocates of the less fortunate motivated by false philanthropy both attempt to use the law to go beyond its narrow cope and achieve broader ends. Bastiat chasises both of these urges and urges the population at large to stop using the weapon as a tool to achieve their own goals, the law can only pursue justice for all people, no particular groups or individuals can be catered to.
France had been through a multitude of revolutions and counter revolutions, Bastiat comments on this finishing the law by explaining“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.”
Throughout The Law, Bastiat affirms that the common person is perfectly capable of governing themselves and entitled to freedom. He condemned the socialists who he believed constantly muddled the lines between the state and society by assuming that they were one and the same. He argued that socialists inherited a way of thinking about politics that had been prevalent in the ancient world, a system of thinking in which “mankind is merely inert matter, receiving life, organization, morality, and prosperity from the power of the state.” The ancient way of thinking about politics and mankind had become prevalent thanks to the education system which venerated the Greeks and Romans who Bastiat believed enjoyed mass slavery and deemed commerce as a degrading activity. Bastiat showed that many French thinkers had inherited this flawed way of thinking about mankind with people such as Saint‐Just said the legislator commended the future for the good of mankind, Robespierre who confidently asserted that the government existed to direct the moral and physical powers of a nation, and Le Pelletier who believed we need to create a new people through a process of total regeneration. Bastiat rejected these thinkers as tyrants and loons, every person is capable of governing him or herself. He asked “If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind?” No one has any right to organize and regiment the human race. There is no need for some politician, imbued with godlike powers, to tell them how to act, think or feel.
The Law was one of Bastiat’s last works, his tuberculosis was debilitating and by the fall of 1850 he was told to attempt to alleviate his symptoms in the warmer climate of Italy. By the time Bastiat made it to Rome he passed away on Christmas eve of 1850. Overall Bastiat’s work did not culminate in much in the way of concrete reform. Bastiat might have been disappointed with this but he would only be viewing what is seen as the immediate consequences of his life. What is unseen is the countless people he persuaded through clever arguments to not only support the free market, but freedom as a guiding principle in all human endeavours. I would know after all I am one of his converts.
Bastiat’s works have garnered a huge amount of praise mainly for their accessibility and unique style which has never been successfully mimicked. Modern economists have lavished praise on Bastiat for making their discipline one for the layperson. The twentieth century economist Joseph Schumpter would go on to call Bastiat “the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived.” In a similar manner Murray Rothbard referred to him as “a lucid and superb writer.” Another two giants of libertarianism share an appreciation for Bastiat. Both Frederich Hayek and Milton Friedman commended the efforts of Bastiat. But this is only the tip of the iceberg, Bastiat has received copious praise from eminent figures throughout the cohorts of libertarianism.
Because of this, for many Bastiat is the first encounter with libertarianism and it is a testament to his skill that he grabs the attention of so many, even to this day. Many of the authors I cover on this show write books which though compelling, are honestly are not always easy to read. But Bastiat is always a pleasure which is why I have always found myself returning to his work even years after first reading him. Bastiat’s writing is as important for the way he expresses his ideas as it is for the ideas, themselves and, on both counts, I can’t recommend reading Bastiat’s original works enough. With that said I think my debt to Monsieur Frederic Bastiat is paid, for now!