This is the third installment of a live-blogging series on Frederic Bastiat’s The Law. Past posts in the series may be found here and here.
The Idea of a Passive Mankind
This fallacious idea of the state as the primary motivator of progress was repeated during his day, Bastiat said. In one Frenchman’s account, “Whatever the issue may be, persons do not decide it for themselves; the prince decides for them. The prince is depicted as the soul of this shapeless mass of people who form the nation. In the prince resides the thought, the foresight, all progress, and the principle of all organization. Thus all responsibility rests with him.”
If this isn’t the common belief today, it surely is close. And that’s the problem. If an individual or organization is responsible for a task, it’s reasonable that the same entity would seek to secure those powers necessary to carry out that task. The problem lies in recognizing an entity’s legitimacy in exercising aggression to accomplish a task, because it then becomes injurious or detrimental for a bystander to not only question the means of fulfilling a task, but the mission itself. That act of questioning the actions and consequences becomes threatening to the entity’s continued legitimacy. The bureaucracy and constituency directly benefiting from those acts are then heeded to mobilize in support. So the state advances, and liberty yields, as Thomas Jefferson noted.
Socialists Ignore Reason and Facts
The same French author that Bastiat quoted from above assigns the credit of Egyptians civility, not to the reason and virtue of the citizens themselves, but to their benevolent leader. “Happy,” said Fenelon, “is the people ruled by a wise king in such a manner.”
Socialists Want to Regiment People
“We are taught to treat persons much as an instructor in agriculture teaches farmers to prepare and tend the soil,” Bastiat said. Well said.
A Famous Name and an Evil Idea
Bastiat quoted theorist Charles Montesquieu as an example of how socialists desire to command and to control:
To maintain the spirit of commerce, it is necessary that all the laws must favor it. These laws, by proportionately dividing up the fortunes as they are made in commerce, should provide every poor citizen with sufficiently easy circumstances to enable him to work like the others. These same laws should put every rich citizen in such lowered circumstances as to force him to work in order to keep or to gain.
Bastiat then lists Montesquieu’s script to achieve such a society. The first step is to “Establish common ownership of property as in the republic of Plato.”
This is de facto the case today. If property is not already owned by a government authority, then the manner in which that property may be used certainly is subject to thousands of contradictory laws, regulations, and judicial decisions. In the vast majority of cities, a certain portion of a property’s wealth is confiscated on an annual basis.
The second step is to “revere the gods as Plato commanded.” Plato viewed gods as beings with perfect knowledge of justice and goodness, A.K.A the state, which holds the premier sovereign territorial authority. We may not have Zeus any longer. Our gods — democracy, obedience, duty, equality, and in sum, the collective — are in sense more tangible but equally fabricated.
The fourth aspect of forced egalitarianism is to “prevent foreigners from mingling with the people, in order to preserve the customs.” Luckily, the interconnectedness of the Web makes this an impossible task. Nevertheless, immigration laws serve to wedge “illegals” from respectable culture.
Next, “let the state, instead of the citizens, establish commerce.” This is surely true. Legislators govern with whom an individual can trade, by what terms, and even when trade is permissible. The government then commands that it’s own debased currency be accepted as payment. If the federal government can claim authority over a chicken farmer raising grain with water from his own well to feed chickens for his own consumption, the transformation is already complete.
Finally, “legislators should supply arts instead of luxuries; they should satisfy needs instead of desires.” Montesquieu’s meaning of luxuries is anything above the level of subsistence living. His failure is a failure to integrate and differentiate the concepts of individualism and collectivism when encountering the nature of human beings and their needs. Instead of viewing human beings as individuals who are social creatures, the prevalent opinion views society as apart and greater than the actions of individuals.
A Frightful Idea
Bastiat concludes this critique of Montesquieu by damning these popular ideas. “These random selections from the writings of Montesquieu show that he considers persons, liberties, property — mankind itself — to be nothing but materials for legislators to exercise their wisdom upon.”
The next part of the series will continue with “The Leader of the Democrats,” a further critique of Montesquieu view on the supreme authority of government.