Claude Frédéric Bastiat, economist, popular writer, and statesman, made seminal contributions to the advance of libertarian principles and policies. His influence has been enormous and is especially evident in the fields of public choice, international trade, and law and economics. His work continues to inspire scholars to improve our understanding of how both states and economies function.
Virtually all of Bastiat’s books and essays were written in the last 6 years of his life, from 1844 to 1850. Before then, he lived in relative seclusion in his native southwestern France, where he dedicated himself to the administration of his landed property and to the quiet and intense study of political economy, especially the works of Adam Smith, Jean‐Baptiste Say, Antoine‐Louis‐Claude Destutt de Tracy, Charles Dunoyer, and Charles Comte.
In 1844, inspired by the success of the British Anti‐Corn Law League under the leadership of Richard Cobden and John Bright, Bastiat joined the French classical‐liberal économistes with an article devoted to “The Influence of English and French Tariffs.” There he argued that the Anti‐ Corn Law League’s abolition of tariffs would spur economic and cultural development in England to such an extent that it would overtake the hitherto dominant France—unless the French too abolished their tariffs.
Bastiat went on to produce a stream of articles, pamphlets, and books making the case for free trade and laissez‐faire in a series of original and compelling arguments. In the last months before his death, he wrote EconomicHarmonies, his (unfinished) magnum opus, and two of hismost important essays, “The Law” and “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.” Many of Bastiat’s writings were translated into a number of foreign languages, including English, German, Spanish, Russian, and Italian, and have inspired classical‐liberal movements all over Europe and in the United States. By the 1870s, virtually all who endorsed the classical‐liberal tenets of political economy did so under Bastiat’s impact.
Bastiat propounded the view that in a natural society, one based on private property, the interests of the various social groups would become harmonious. For example, although debtors and creditors seem to have conflicting interests, a more careful examination would show that in fact a debtor has an interest in the well‐being of his creditor, who may be the source of further credits. Similarly, a creditor has an interest in the well‐being of his debtor because only a prosperous debtor would be capable of paying interest. Bastiat discussed countless similar relationships, such as those between consumers and producers, workers and capitalists, landlords and tenants, and so forth.
Unlike some later economists, who have argued that laissez‐faire would produce economic equilibrium (in the sense of a state of perfect balance), Bastiat contended more modestly that men’s interests are harmonious, provided every man confined himself to his rightful sphere, and provided goods and services are exchanged freely and voluntarily. He contrasted that with the view that the interests of human beings, either individually or in groups, are necessarily antagonistic.
Bastiat’s primary contribution consists not in a description of the natural order itself, but in a sophisticated analysis of the sources and the effects of disruptions of that order. Bastiat starts from the observation that a private‐property order is safeguarded by the law, which he understands to mean those rules that determine how physical force may legitimately be used to protect property rights. In his essay “The Law,” Bastiat argues that the whole point of this artificial institution, the law, is to protect the private property of each member of society: “It is not because men have enacted laws that personality, liberty and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, liberty and property already exist that men make laws.” The law is “the collective organization of the individual’s right to legitimate self‐defense.” Only insofar as man‐made law supports nature‐given private property is it just, and from the maintenance of justice a harmonious social order results.
Bastiat’s writings on the relationship between law and economics and social order make him an important forerunner of today’s academics who have married law and economics into a new discipline. Bastiat argued that law, as a man‐made institution, also can be perverted by those who use it for purposes other than the defense of liberty and property. Protectionism, that is, special‐interest policies established under the mantle of law, disrupts the natural harmony of interests and creates conflicts over privileges. For example, a tariff on wine benefits domestic wine producers at the expense of domestic consumers and foreign wine producers. This disruption also exists for subsidies and other schemes of redistribution, which in Bastiat’s classification all fall under the broad category of protectionism inasmuch as one group is “protected” by a special privilege that has to be paid for by other individuals.
In 1927, economist Ludwig von Mises wrote in Liberalism that, although the science of economics had advanced greatly since Bastiat’s time, “[Bastiat’s] critique of all protectionist and related tendencies is even today unsurpassed. The protectionists and interventionists have not been able to advance a single word in pertinent and objective rejoinder. They continue to stammer: Bastiat is ‘superficial.’ ”
Many people cannot see beyond the benefits to those protected by the legislation Bastiat condemns; they cannot appreciate the costs to those who have been plundered. Because the logic of plunder leads all to seek such benefits, Bastiat concluded in his essay “The State” that, “The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.” Once protectionism is accepted as a principle, it sets in motion a process that progressively undermines the harmonious private‐property order, the logical end point of which is full‐blown socialism.
Perhaps Bastiat’s central analytic contribution was his insight that political economy involves counterfactual comparisons of observed achievements of the real world with alternative (but unrealized) achievements. Contemporary economics expresses that idea in the concept of opportunity cost, according to which the cost of a choice is the most highly valued opportunity forgone in the act of choice. Thus, cost is what is not realized because something else is realized. It is only by comparing what is realized to what would have been realized that we can know whether there is a net addition to or a net subtraction from wealth.
Bastiat’s most brilliant expression of that insight is found in his essay “What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen.” After a boy breaks a pane of glass, some onlookers offer the owner of the window the consolation that, after all, some good will come of it because “Such accidents keep industry going. Everybody has to make a living. What would become of the glaziers if no one ever broke a window?” Along the same lines, it could be argued that wars are economically advantageous, that natural disasters such as hurricanes and floods lead to economic growth, and that public works increase employment and income in economic slumps. As Bastiat points out, the error in such reasoning is to focus exclusively on the observable events: the production of windows and cannons, people employed in producing such things, and the income that those people receive. Yet one does not see that, had the window not been broken, had the war not been started, and had the hurricane not destroyed houses, other goods would have been produced, and those goods would have added to preexisting wealth. Breaking windows does not add to the aggregate of wealth.
Military armament, public works, and subsidies, merely by keeping people busy, do not bring about a net increase in wealth because, although some are employed by the expenditure of tax monies, others are unemployed by the corresponding taxes, and net additions to wealth that would have been produced are not produced. Costs as well as benefits must be considered. That basic lesson inspired the economic journalist Henry Hazlitt to write his highly influential 20th‐century work, Economics in One Lesson.
Although Bastiat’s writings have won praise in later generations, his pioneering activities as a libertarian organizer and agitator have been unduly neglected. Bastiat drew his inspiration from the success of Cobden and Bright, and his book Cobden and the League was crucial for inspiring others on the European continent. However, in distinct contrast to his British predecessors, Bastiat placed the French free‐trade movement within an all‐encompassing libertarian theory. Whereas the Anti‐Corn Law League pursued the rather narrow objective of unhampered trade in corn, the French movement offered a wide program for a truly free society that would realize an ideal of justice. Bastiat campaigned tirelessly for freedom of trade, respect for property, peace and opposition to imperialism, limited government, and economy in government.
Bastiat’s strategy for the establishment of a free society merits careful analysis by present‐day libertarians because he confronted the same problems that they face today. First, he sought to enlighten free‐market campaigners through the campaign. (He once declared that he loved the spirit of the free market more than the free market itself.) Second, he always took care to generalize his discussion of specific political problems to link them to first principles. Bastiat consistently argued from principle, rather than merely pointing out some favorable consequence of a policy that he advocated. Finally, he sought to accustom his free‐market colleagues to apply their principles consistently.
Shortly before his death, Bastiat put those principles into practice by becoming a leader of the liberal wing in the French Parliament during the short‐lived Republic of 1848–1849 and was instrumental in saving France from the imposition of a totalitarian socialist state. He died in Rome on December 24, 1850, while campaigning for free trade.
Bastiat, Frédéric. Economic Harmonies. New York: Van Nostrand, 1964.
———. Economic Sophisms. New York: Van Nostrand, 1964.
———. The Law. Irvington‐on‐Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996.