The Law by Frederic Bastiat (Part 1 in a series)

One trouble with reading a book of any length is often that when I reach the last half of the book, I have forgotten what the first half said. I wanted to try this live-blogging method, which is most commonly used for public events and concerts. This won’t necessarily be an in-depth analysis of Frederic Bastiat’s “The Law“, just a short impression. I want to document my own thoughts on the process and capture my reaction to the subject. However, I’ve read The Law twice now, and the reason I’ve chosen this classic again is because it is the first selection of a newly formed book club organized by my local newly christened Texas Liberty Campaign.

The edition I’ve chosen to read was reproduced by the Foundation for Economic Education in 1998 and includes an introduction by Walter E. Williams and a forward by Sheldon Richmond.

The Law

Only two paragraphs long, this section highlights the dramatic reversal that the rule of law has taken in post-Napoleonic France, and no doubt elsewhere. In part he says, “The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!”

Life Is a Gift from God

He claims that life consists of “the physical, intellectual, and moral life.” By applying our mental faculties and harnessing our natural resources, all of which he believes a higher supernatural being is responsible for creating, we are able to convert our labor into products.

Now these three foundational principles (life, faculties, and production) stair-step onto one another into what we call life. It’s not all so different than another logical sequence that justifies the three stages of freedom, that is life, liberty, property. Life is freedom in the future tense; liberty is freedom in the present; and property is the freedom to posses one’s past.

Insightfully, he says that these three principles did not come about because of the existence of law, well no more than law came before the existence of life itself. Rather, law came about because of the existence of these principles.

What is Law

He said, “It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.”

He says that if a person possess these natural individual rights, then he or she shall have the right to defend these rights. If that is true, the logical extension is that a group of people may get together to defend these rights collectively. He calls this a collective right. But the term has much different meaning that it does today, where a collective right like the claim to free education actually usurps individual rights because an individual’s property must be seized in order to fund that act.

In fact, today’s collective rights are more akin to privileges than actual rights. As more and more actual rights are being ignored, we are given these revocable privileges in their place. These privileges are subject to the state’s discretion and outright termination.

Bastiat said that no group of people has the right to infringe on the right of another individual because no person in that group has that right to take another person’s life, destroy his property, or enslave him. A group does not conjure rights above and beyond those of its individual members.

He said, “It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.”
“A Just and Enduring Government” A government formed with that understanding, Bastiat said, would be just and tolerant, “whatever its political form might be.”

‘When successful, we would no have to thank the state for our success,” Bastiat said. “And, conversely, when unsuccessful, we would no more think of blaming the state for our misfortune than would the farmers blame the state because of hail or frost.”

The Complete Perversion of the Law

Bastiat warns of the law straying from its original intent, “The law has gone further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. … The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.”

He says there are two main culprits for this perversion of law, “stupid greed” and “false philanthropy.”

A Fatal Tendency of Mankind

“When they can,” he said, “[people] wish to live and prosper at the expense of others. … This fatal desire has its origin in the very nature of man—in that primitive, universal, and insuppressible instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the least possible pain.”

I believe human beings are morally neutral, neither good nor bad by default. The philosophy one holds and the actions one takes are what define a person’s morality. This desire to live at the expense of others is very real. It’s also dependent on a very short-term outlook. In the long run, trade and mutual cooperation are the greatest means of advancement.

But in short-term survivalist cultures, complex and paradoxical ideas like comparative advantage are not fully realized because people are not willing to lend themselves to reason for survival. The cause for that rejection of reason is controversial itself, having to do with superstition and rituals more than anything else.

Property and Plunder

Man has two choices, Bastiat reminds, production or plunder.

Our wants and needs, which include all the possible wants and needs of every future generation, are infinite. He said that since “man is naturally inclined to avoid pain—and since labor is pain in itself—it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work.”

The solution then is to make plunder more painful than production. As a consequence, “the proper purpose of law is to use power of its collective force to stop this fatal tendency ….” Knowing this, those plunders then take the reigns of law to become the “invincible weapon of injustice.”

Victims of Lawful Plunder

Bastiat claims that there are two types of classes, and each has drastically different purposes. “Either they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.”

This not some radical new chain of thoughts, after all. As more and more people get wise to the fact that their own wealth is being taken, they seek to take part in it themselves. Eventually , or inevitably, this pyramid scheme runs out of suckers to pay for it. Then, we have a circumstance that too many hard-working Americans find themselves today, with their wealth drained, their self control stripped, and their will power crushed.

The Results of Legal Plunder

At it’s core, legal plunder turns justice on its head and manipulates our strong sense of allegiance to the state.

“There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate,” Bastiat said. “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”

Part 2 to follow with “The Fate of the Non-Conformists”