The Law by Frederic Bastiat (Part 2 in a series)

This is the second part of a live-blogging series on Frederic Bastiat’s The Law. Part 1 was published here.

The Fate of the Non-Conformists

The non-conformist Bastiat spoke of is the person who would question the morality of these forms of legal plunder. He said, “… it is boldly said that ‘You are a dangerous innovator, a utopian, a theorist, a subversive; you would shatter the foundation upon which society rests.’ ”

If there are laws in force that are anti-liberty, Basiat asked, how can those with ties to the state be expect to speak out against these laws. “Still further,” he added, “morality and political economy must be taught from the point of view of this [unjust] law; from the supposition that it must be a just law merely because it is a law.”

Who Shall Judge?

Bastiat rarely mentioned any of his intellectual opponents by name, but this is one of those exceptions when he named the followers of the Rousseau school of thought, “who consider themselves far advanced, but whom I consider twenty centuries behind the times.”

The section headways into Bastiat’s section on political privileges. He criticized the phrase “universal suffrage” because even its supporters do not really mean “universal” as in every single person in the country.

For example, there are 36 million people in France. Thus, to make the right of suffrage universal, there should be 36 million voters. But the most extended system permits only 9 million people to vote. Three persons out of four are excluded. And more than this, they are excluded by the fourth.

The Reason on Why Voting is Restricted

Bastiat makes another claim as to why the franchise is so sought after. He says that people clamor for the right to vote because they know the law can be exploited in their favor or against them. That alone is enough to prove that the law is corrupted.

If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone’s interest in the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under these circumstances, those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not vote?

The Fatal Idea of Legal Plunder

“Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few …. Then certainly every class will aspire to grasp the law, and logically so.”

That is what we continue to experience today. Each interest group lobbies for its piece of protection. Some lobby for special privaleges that they couldn’t achieve on a free market. I can understand the firms that lobby as a defensive strategy to protect itself from the initial government interference. I can even support those firms that are successful in unchaining themselves from government shackles so long as they do not encourage those same restrictions on their competitors.

He demanded, “And what can you say to answer that argument!”

Perverted Law Causes Conflict

He began, “As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true purpose—that it may violate property instead of protecting it—then everyone will want to participate in making the law.”

He appealed to the American system, circa 1850, as an example of law being kept in its proper place. That is not to say it was perfect, Bastiat said, but “there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation.”

Those contradictions were slavery and tariffs, as Bastiat identified. How salient is it then that 10 years later the United States would go to war with itself and lose 650,000 lives over those two issues? It was during Reconstruction that the KKK and other hate groups emerged and poisoned race relations.

Slavery and Tarrifs Are Plunder

“Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property.” The sentence that follows is chilling in its accuracy. “It is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime—a sorrowful inheritance from the Old World—should be the only issue which can, and perhaps will, lead to the ruin of the Union.

You can date the destruction of the American ideal back to the Civil War. It was no longer a union of the “united States of America,” as penned in the Decloration of Indepenence, but the Union of The United States of America.

Two Kinds of Plunder

Here Bastiat destinguished between legal and illegal plunder. “The war against illegal plunder has been fought since the beginning of the world,” as it should he said. It is the legal plunder that ignored, he believed.

That is evident in the halls of congress. Politicians and the media rightfully condemn the actions of Wall Street cheats and pyramid scheme hucksters but never mention their own budget and accounting fibs or the biggest ponzi organizations to date, the Social Security Administration.

The Law Defends Plunder

Bastiat’s point here was that the law is sometimes used as a middleman for this plunder. The law spares these crooks “the shame, danger, and scruples which their acts would otherwise involve … and treats the victim—when he defends himself—as a criminal.”

I made the same argument in one of my latest posts on the site. The classic example of this is tax protesters losing their homes as a punishment for refusing to back taxes imposed upon them.

How to Identify Legal Plunder

It’s simple, really, he said. “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.”

The solution? That’s even simpler. “Abolish the law without delay.”

“The present-day delusion [of these acquired privelages] is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of organizing it.”

Legal Plunder Has Many Names

There are many, for sure, including “tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on. All these plans as a whole—with their common aim of legal plunder—constitute socialism.”

Socialism is Legal Plunder

The remedy to fight socialism is not more law.

But it is upon the law that socialism itself relies. Socialists desire to practice legal plunder, not illegal plunder. Socialists, like all other monopolists, desire to make the law their own weapon. … For when plunder is abetted by the law, it does not fear your courts, your gendarmes, and your prisons. Rather, it may call upon them for help.

The solution is to not elect socialists and strike bad laws. Bastiat fears though this is going to be a difficult struggle “so long as legal plunder continues to be the main business of the legislature.”

The Choice Before Us

According to Bastiat, voters have three choices: “the few plunder the many,” “everybody plunder everybody,” or “nobody plun
der anybody.”

It is the third choice. “This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim this principle with all the force of my lungs.”

The Proper Function of the Law

“Law is organized justice.” Simple as that.

The Seductive Lure of Socialism

“It is not considered sufficient that the law should be just; it must be philanthropic.” Bastiat warned that these uses for the law are contradictory. “We must choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free.”

Enforced Fraternity Destroys Liberty

To critics, limiting the law to the enforcement of justice is unsatisfactory. They believe law should be used to bind the nation together under a system of justice and in a common experience. Bastiat answered that the “second half of your program will destroy the first.”

In fact, it is impossible for me to separate the word fraternity from the word voluntary. I cannot possibly understand how fraternity can be legally enforced without liberty being legally trampled underfoot.

Plunder Violates Ownership

So what is plunder?

When a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns it–without his consent without compensation, and whether by force or fraud—to anyone who does not own it, then I say that property is violated; that an act of plunder is committed.

I think the word “plunder” is accurate historically and metaphysically. Early plunders practiced their crafts on the high seas, demanding payment as if it were their right to do so. A thief on the other hand has no pretense that he has any claim to another person’s property. A government is true to form. It demands its booty because it believes it has a right to the loot.

Law is Force

If the law is to organize justice, Bastiat said, “the socialists ask why the law should not also organize labor, education, and religion.”

In order to organize these acts, it must first destroy justice, which is the very basis for law in the first place. “When law and force keep a person within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing but a mere negation. They oblige him only to abstain from harming others.”

Law is a Negative Concept

Bastiat’s sentence that the law is not meant to create justice but to prevent injustice is so profound, despite being so simple, that it bears repeating. “It ought to be stated that the purpose of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning. In fact, it is injustice, instead of justice, that has an existence of its own. Justice is achieved only when injustice is absent.”

“But when the law … imposes upon men a regulation of labor, a method or a subject of education, a religious faith or creed–then the the law is no longer negative …. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own wills; the initiative of the legislator for their own initiatives.”

He added, “… you must conclude that the law cannot organize labor and industry without organizing injustice.”

The Political Approach

[The politician] attempts to remedy the evil [of inequality] by increasing and perpetuating the very thing that caused the evil in the first place: legal plunder. We have seen that justice is a negative concept. Is there even one of these positive legal actions that does not contain the principle of plunder?

The Law and Charity

Bastiat said, “The law can be an instrument of equalization only as it takes from some persons and gives to other persons. When the law does this, it is an instrument of plunder.”

The Law and Education

Bastiat said that the law provides just two options for funding education: “It can It can permit this transaction of teaching-and-learning to operate freely and without the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter by taking from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are appointed by government to instruct others, without charge.”

The Law and Morals

But there are some who lack morals or religion. Yet you cannot regulate one’s morality with anymore success than you can regulate one’s thoughts.

For the first time that I remember, Bastiat refered to we. He doesn’t distinguish what he means by that just yet. “Because we ask so little from the law—only justice—the socialists thereby assume that we reject fraternity, unity, organization, and association. The socialists brand us with the name individualist.”

Socialists do not actually support fraternity, or unity, or organization, he said. They support forced fraternity, forced unity, and forced organization. What they support are handcuffs and chains, nothing more.

A Confusion of Terms

Bastiat said that socialist conflate the people and the government, so “every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.”

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain [emphasis mine].

The Influence of Socialist Wirters

In one of Bastiat’s longest headings, he dates this conceited thinking that someone should direct the lives of others to a central idea, the wrongheaded belief “that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped—by the will and hand of another person—into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.”

He continued, “And just as the gardener needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and shears to shape his trees, just so does the socialist writer need the force that he can find only in law to shape human beings.”

The Socialists Wish to Play God

It is necessary to conclude then that socialists, Bastiat said,

will demand that a small portion of mankind be set aside to experiment upon. … But what a difference there is between the gardener and his trees, between the inventor and his machine, between the chemist and his elements, between the farmer and his seeds! And in all sincerity, the socialist thinks that there is the same difference between him and mankind!

The Socialists Despise Mankind

How fortunate we must be that “While mankind tends toward evil, the legislators yearn for good; while mankind advances toward darkness, the legislators aspire for enlightenment; while mankind is drawn toward vice, the legislators are attracted toward virtue.” What a farce.

A Defense of Compulsory Labor

Bastiat quotes a French turor who yearns for the long-failed Egyptian civilization’s ever-present direction by the state: “Among the good laws, one of the best was that everyone was trained (by whom) to obey them. As a result of this, Egypt was filled with wonderful inventions, and nothing was neglected that coul
d make life easy and quiet.”

Bastiat’s quip, “by whom,” handsomely negates the idea with just the most minute effort. The answer is rulers, with force.

A Defense of Paternal Government

The tutor continues his defense of the Egyptians, whom he claimed to be the source of progress for the early Greeks.

“And according to [the tutor], the Greek people, although exceedingly intelligent, had no sense of personal responsibility; like dogs and horses, they themselves could not have invented the most simple games” such as “exercises, foot races, and horse and chariot races…. But the best thing that the Egyptians had taught the Greeks was to become docile, and to permit themselves to be formed by the law for the public good.”

Part 3 to follow with “The Idea of a Passive Mankind”
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