Frédéric Bastiat

That’s what we’ve permitted ourselves to become, isn’t it?  Rationalize it in every conceivable way though we may, when we get beyond all of the petty justifications we spout in order to sound less monstrous, we have become a nation of plunderers.  There are exceptions, as with any generalization, but it cannot now be said that a majority of Americans have clean hands in the matter.  To some degree, greater or lesser, the blood of this fact taints most of us.  Some of you will know what I mean, but others may be less familiar with the concept.  I believe in informed consent, which means that to give one’s consent to an action, one must have full knowledge of the consequences, risks, and tribulations that may attend that action.  What I do not believe is that by ignoring the full facts, but still giving one’s consent in willful ignorance, one can somehow hope to evade moral responsibility for the results.  In his great text, The Law, Frédéric Bastiat, the great French economist, statesman, and author offered all of the reasons a nation must avoid transformation into a den of thieves and villains, though the robbery be legalized.  It is important to note that as the United States has been on a long and progressive march to precisely the sort of nation Bastiat lamented, most of our citizenry have accepted this devolution.

Our founders, imperfect though they may have been, understood clearly what Bastiat would tell us only a half-century later.  Though they were no longer alive to appreciate his works, appreciate them they would have because in them may be found some of their own ideas.  What the founders understood, but Bastiat made explicit, is that the only thing a government offers to its people is force.  By force, I mean the legal monopoly on power to coerce, compel, and even kill.  Strip all of the other dressings from the function of government, and this is all that remains.   Bastiat asked the question: In which purposes may that force be turned?  His answer was simply: “Justice.”  At this point, many become confused, because the term justice has been likewise demolished and diluted and demeaned to have virtually any and all possible meanings at once.  In Bastiat’s conception, justice was merely the protection of the rights of life, liberty and property, as well as the enforcement of compensations and punishment for the violation of same.  In short, Bastiat argued that government exists to create an objective guarantor of these simple human rights.   For students of American history, familiar with our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, this idea should be very familiar indeed:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,[74] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

How familiar would Bastiat’s words on the subject have seemed to our founders, and the framers of our Constitution?  Let us consider his thoughts on government’s purpose as laid forth in The Law:

Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties? If every person has the right to defend even by force — his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.

What Bastiat understood too well, as his own nation began its collapse into socialism, is that there can be no law that does not respect the rights of life, liberty and property without destroying the entire purpose of law.  Limited to these ends, but nothing more, the law serves all people equally, showing favor to none, but merely confirming the natural rights of all people.  His enduring argument is that a nation based on such an objective standard of law could flourish, and that its people would have none to blame but themselves for their particular predicaments or standing.  Of a “Just and enduring Government,” Bastiat wrote:

If a nation were founded on this basis, it seems to me that order would prevail among the people, in thought as well as in deed. It seems to me that such a nation would have the most simple, easy to accept, economical, limited, nonoppressive, just, and enduring government imaginable — whatever its political form might be.

Under such an administration, everyone would understand that he possessed all the privileges as well as all the responsibilities of his existence. No one would have any argument with government, provided that his person was respected, his labor was free, and the fruits of his labor were protected against all unjust attack. When successful, we would not have to thank the state for our success. 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 state would be felt only by the invaluable blessings of safety provided by this concept of government.

It can be further stated that, thanks to the non-intervention of the state in private affairs, our wants and their satisfactions would develop themselves in a logical manner. We would not see poor families seeking literary instruction before they have bread. We would not see cities populated at the expense of rural districts, nor rural districts at the expense of cities. We would not see the great displacements of capital, labor, and population that are caused by legislative decisions.

The sources of our existence are made uncertain and precarious by these state-created displacements. And, furthermore, these acts burden the government with increased responsibilities.

This is a monumentally important concept Americans must finally reconsider:  So long as government extends into all parts of every American’s life, no American is safe from the predations of other Americans.  So long as it is accepted that government’s duty is merely to guarantee the rights of individuals, the government is correctly limited, and it does no harm to any citizen.  Each citizen is then safe from predation, or as Bastiat calls it, “plunder,” because protecting people from plunderers, or punishing plunderers is the government’s only just purpose.  As Bastiat explains, man can live by only two basic methods: by his own ceaseless labor in creation of property(material wealth,) or by seizing the property(and wealth) of others.   That’s really all there is, and no exceptions exist in all the world.  What Bastiat noticed is that since people have a tendency to exert themselves to the least necessary extent, they will easily be convinced to engage in plunder by their own rationalizations, or the justifications provided by others.  This is the siren song of socialism, or indeed any form of statism, and Bastiat knew it well.  In explaining how plunder is to be prohibited by the law, he wrote:

It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use the power of its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work. All the measures of the law should protect property and punish plunder.

Bastiat also understood what would happen when the law is turned to the purposes of legalized plunder.  When the proper purpose of law is to prevent or punish plunder, turned to the purpose of managing the plunder instead, the law becomes a great and vast evil from which no man is safe.  This is the reason our framers gave to us a Constitution that protected against plunder, even if the understanding of that Constitution has been perverted precisely to permit the very practice it had been instituted to prevent.  On the Results of Legal Plunder, Bastiat wrote:

It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.

What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would require volumes to describe them all. Thus we must content ourselves with pointing out the most striking.

In the first place, it erases from everyone’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice.

No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to choose between them.

The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice are one and the same thing. There is in all of us a strong disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. 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.

Consider this carefully in examination of our own country, not as it was founded, but as it has come to be over the span of the last century of Progressivism, from both the left and the right.   His enduring prescience was to realize that such a system would of necessity destroy and obscure the differences between actual justice and all the fraudulent forms we’ve been offered in its place.  What else could be the meaning of such contrived notions as “social justice,” “environmental justice,” “economic justice,” “racial justice,” and any other contrivance and dilution of actual justice you can imagine?  Consider only one of these, for instance “economic justice,” by which the speaker intends to say that taking from one person to redistribute to another person or person(s) is a matter of justice.   Is it?  Or is it truly injustice?  If plunder is the determinant, then such notions are all only plunder dressed up behind a facade of some bastardization of actual justice.   As Bastiat notes, justice concerns itself only with the protection of life, liberty, and property.   With what does “economic justice” concern itself?  The answer is clearly: The collective violation of the rights of life, liberty and property.

Many will have noted that when Governor Palin began making use of the term “crony capitalism,” others began to notice the issue.  “Crony capitalism” is merely another form of plunder:  Use the law as an instrument to get from others that which you otherwise would not have gotten.   What it describes is a system in which plunder is not merely legalized, but normalized and institutionalized through the political process.  Two parties, a politician and a corporation, collude to the benefit of both by using the power of the politician to enrich both.  Is there any doubt but that this is the meaning of Solyndra, or any of the other “green energy/jobs” initiatives in which the current administration has invested our precious dollars?

This is ever the purpose of those who extend the meaning of justice from that which it is, to that which it is not.  How many plunderers do you know?  Are you a plunderer yourself?  Before you blanch at the suggestion, consider it carefully:  Do the things you may receive from government, directly or indirectly, spring from the plunder of the property and wealth of others?  In short, are they yours, in fact, or are they really the property of others bent to your purposes, or so-called “needs?”  You need not even have consented to it, at least not knowingly, and yet there you are tied as another perpetrator and victim in this institutionalized plunder.  Examine all the ways you are being plundered, but then examine more carefully all the ways in which you plunder others.

You might claim, as most will, that: “I had no choice, and besides, they plundered me, first.  Mine is just compensation for an earlier plundering of my property(wealth.)”  Let me ask you bluntly then: If your neighbor’s house is robbed, is it thus acceptable for him to rob the houses of his neighbors?  You would decry that suggestion, and tell me that “two wrongs do not a right make.”  I say to you the same, but that some robberies are given cover of legality does not excuse them.   You might say, for instance, that your situation is dire, and having been plundered all these years, you now have no choice but to resort to legalized plunder.  Is this your best offering against justice?  I am in that stage of life in which I am the constant victim of the plunder, but as a child, I was the beneficiary once too:  Did my parents pay directly for my education, or did they rely upon the plunder of their neighbors, many without children, to pay for said primary education?  I could offer that I was a child, but then I must admit that my daughter also received a public education for most of her schooling, and I might note that for one child, the taxes I paid might well have been roughly proportional to the benefit, but nevertheless, I cannot ignore the timber in my own eye on this matter.  Very few of us have unstained hands.

Yet, even if this is so, that we have nearly all participated to some degree, greater or lesser, does it excuse our continuing the practice?  Bastiat thought not.  He completes The Law with a brief suggestion, exhorting readers “Let Us Now Try Liberty:”

God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies. He has provided a social form as well as a human form. And these social organs of persons are so constituted that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty. Away, then, with quacks and organizers! A way with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And 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; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.

Whatever else you may say about Bastiat’s work, we must admit he had been thorough, and we must acknowledge the wisdom of his position.  He knew what most of our founders and framers had known with respect to the purpose of the law, and why it must be kept to those vital purposes, but permitted no more.  In subsequent centuries, we have permitted the law to fall into disrepair, beguiled with promises of plunder, as we have been plundered, but there exists now a burgeoning front of Americans who have never lived by any means but plunder, from cradle to grave, and they expect it to grow and magnify.  Politicians, engaged in a different form of legalized plunder, have created this army of plunderers to excuse and offer cover for their own(as detailed by Sarah Palin, Peter Schweizer, and a number of others.)  Unless and until the American people recognize that these interwoven systems of plunder are the root cause of most of our discontents, our miseries and our pain, we will continue to suffer them until revolution begets even greater and more perverse systems of plunder.  None of us should think ourselves absolved, but let us take Bastiat’s words and restore justice in law.  That’s the only way we’ll save our nation.

Note: I would encourage readers to read The Law in its entirety.  I’d also encourage you to read Bastiat’s other works, translated here.

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