Legal Plunder : The Root Cause of Inequality

CULTURE, FREEDOM, LAW & ECONOMICS / Friday, February 19th, 2021

Bastiat’s sixth letter in Property and Plunder (with ILR Headings)

No, political economists do not think, as they are often accused of thinking, that we live in the best of all possible worlds. They do not close their eyes to the evils of society or their ears to the groans of those who suffer. But they seek the causes of these woes, and they believe they have discovered that among those with which society can deal, there is none more active and more widespread than injustice. That is why they demand universal justice above everything else.

Property and Plunder : Two Consequences of Self-Interest

Man wants to improve his lot. This is the first law of his nature. For this improvement to be effected, he must first engage in some labor or undergo some pain. The same consideration that impels man to seek to improve his well-being also leads him to avoid the pain that constitutes the means of doing so. Before resorting to his own labor, he too often has recourse to the labor of others.

One may, then, apply to self-interest what Aesop said of the tongue: Nothing in the world has done more good or more harm. Self-interest creates everything by which mankind lives and develops: it stimulates labor; it engenders property. But at the same time it brings into the world all kinds of injustice. Each kind has been given a different name, but they can all be summed up in the one word, plunder.

Property and plunder, sisters born of the same father, salvation and scourge of society, good genius and evil genius, powers that have struggled since the beginning for control over the destiny of the world!

The fact that property and plunder have this common origin makes readily understandable the ease with which Rousseau and his modern disciples have been able to defame and disturb the social order. It sufficed to show only one of the aspects of self-interest.

We have seen that men are, by nature, the owners of the products of their labor, and that, in exchanging this property among themselves, they render reciprocal services.

Now, the general character of plunder consists in employing force or deceit to upset this equivalence of services to our own profit.

The different schemes devised for committing plunder are as inexhaustible as the resources of human ingenuity. Two conditions are necessary for the services that are exchanged to be considered legitimately equivalent. The first is that the judgment of one of the parties to the transaction not be misled by some misrepresentation on the part of the other. The second is that the transaction be free and voluntary. If a man succeeds in extorting from his fellow man a real service by making him believe that what is given him in return is also a real service, while it is only an illusory service, this is a case of plunder, and the more so by far if the despoiler resorts to force.

Historical Plunders As the Cause of Inequality

We are at first inclined to think that the only form of plunder is the thefts defined and punished by the penal code. If this were the case, I should indeed be giving too great a social importance to a number of exceptional facts that the public conscience reproves and the law represses. But, alas! There is the plunder that is committed with the consent of the law, through the operation of the law, with the assent and often with the approval of society. It is only this kind of plunder that can assume enormous proportions, enough to alter the distribution of wealth in society, paralyze for a long time the leveling tendencies that liberty promotes, create permanent social and economic inequalities, open the abyss of poverty, and pour forth on the world that deluge of evils that superficial minds attribute to property. This is the kind of plunder I mean when I say that it has contended with the opposite principle from the beginning for control of the world. Let us briefly mention a few of its manifestations.

First, what is war, especially as it was understood in antiquity? Some men joined together to form a nation, but they disdained to apply their productive powers to the exploitation of Nature to obtain the means of existence. Waiting, instead, until other nations had accumulated property, they attacked them with fire and sword and despoiled them periodically. To the victors, then, went not only the spoils, but the glory, the songs of the poets, the plaudits of the women, the thanks of a grateful nation, and the admiration of posterity! Certainly the general acceptance of such ideas and such a system could not fail to inflict many tortures and much suffering and to lead to a great inequality among men. Was this the fault of property?

Later the despoilers refined their methods. They came to see that putting the vanquished to the sword amounted to destroying a treasure. To seize only men’s property was transitory plunder; to seize the men along with the things they possessed was to put plunder on a permanent footing. Hence slavery, which is plunder pushed to its logical extreme, since it despoils the vanquished of all present property and of all future property, of his labor and its products, of his intelligence, of his productive capacities, of his affections, of his whole personality. It may be summed up thus: to require of a man all the services that force can wrest from him, and to render none to him. Such was the state of the world up to a time not very far removed from our own. Such it was particularly at Athens, at Sparta, and at Rome; and it is sad to reflect that it is the manners, the customs, and the ideas of these republics that our teachers hold up for our admiration and with which they imbue us in our youth. We are like those plants into which the horitculturist injects colored fluids, and which thus acquire an indelible artificial hue. And we are astonished that generations so instructed cannot establish a decent republic! In any case, it will be agreed that here is a cause of inequality that is certainly not imputable to the system of private property, as it has been defined in the preceding sections.

I will pass over serfdom, the feudal system, and what followed it until 1789. But I cannot refrain from mentioning the plunder that has so long been practiced by the abuse of religious authority. To receive from men positive services and to render them in return only imaginary, fraudulent, illusory, and ridiculous services is to plunder them. Even though it is done with their consent, this only aggravates the crime, since it implies that the plunderer has begun by perverting the very source of all progress, man’s judgment. I need not dwell on this point any further. Everyone knows that the exploitation of the public’s credulity, by the abuse of true or false religions, has set up a gulf between the priesthood and the laity in India, Egypt, Italy, and Spain. Is this also the fault of property?

We come now to the nineteenth century, after those great social injustices that have left such a deep impression on our land; and who can deny that time will be needed for that impression to be erased, even if we make the right to property, which is only liberty, or the expression of universal justice, prevail henceforth in all our laws and in all our relations? Let us recall that serfdom covers in our day half of Europe; that in France it is hardly half a century since feudalism received its deathblow; that it still exists in all its splendor in England; that all nations are making unprecedented efforts to maintain powerful standing armies, which implies either that they threaten one another’s territory, or that these armies are themselves but examples of plunder on a grand scale. Let us recall that all nations are sinking under the burden of debts whose origin must be connected with past follies; let us not forget that we ourselves are paying millions annually to prolong artificially the life of enslaved colonies, other millions to prevent the slave trade on the coasts of Africa (which has involved us in one of our greatest diplomatic difficulties), and that we are on the point of handing over 100 million francs to the planters to crown the sacrifices that this type of plunder has inflicted on us in so many forms.

Thus, the past has hold of us, whatever we may say. We are disengaging ourselves from it only gradually. Is it surprising that there should be inequality among men, when the egalitarian principle, the right to property, has been so little respected up to now? Whence will come the leveling of classes which is the ardent desire of our era, and which is one of its most honorable characteristics? It will come from simple justice, from the fulfillment of this law: Service for service. For two services to be exchanged according to their real value, two things are required of the parties to the transaction: clarity of judgment and freedom of exchange. If the judgment is not clear, in return for real services, sham services will be accepted, even freely. It is still worse if force intervenes in the transaction.

Modern Plunder

This much being granted, and admitting that there is an inequality among men of which the causes are historical and can disappear only with the passage of time, let us see whether at least our century, in making justice prevail everywhere, will finally banish force and deceit from human affairs, allow the equivalence of services to be naturally established, and bring about the triumph of the democratic and egalitarian cause of property rights.

Alas! I find here so many nascent abuses, so many exceptions, so many direct or indirect deviations, appearing on the horizon of the new social order, that I do not know where to begin.

We have, first of all, licenses of all kinds. No one can become a barrister, a physician, a teacher, a broker, a dealer in government bonds, a solicitor, an attorney, a pharmacist, a printer, a butcher, or a baker without encountering legal restrictions. Each one of these represents a service that is forbidden by law, and hence those to whom authorization is granted raise their prices to such a point that the mere possession of the license, without the service, often has great value. What I am complaining about here is not that guarantees are required of those who render these services, although, to tell the truth, the most efficacious guarantee is to be found in those who accept the services and pay for them. But still these guarantees should have nothing exclusive about them. All right, require of me that I know what must be known to be a solicitor or a physician; but do not require that I should have learned it in such and such a city, or in a given number of years, etc.

Next comes the attempt to set an artificial price, to receive a supplementary value, by levying tariffs, for the most part on necessities: wheat, meat, cloth, iron, tools, etc. This is evidently an effort to destroy the equivalence of services, a forcible violation of the most sacred of all property rights, that to the fruits of one’s labor and productive capacities. As I have previously demonstrated, when all the land in a country has been finally appropriated, if the working population continues to increase, it has the right to set a limit on the demands of the landowner by working for export and importing its food from abroad. The workers have only their labor to offer in exchange for commodities; and it is clear that if the first term in the equation, labor, increases constantly, while the second remains unchanged, more labor must be given in exchange for fewer commodities. This effect is manifested in the lowering of wages, the greatest of disasters when it is due to natural causes, the greatest of crimes when it arises from the operation of the law.

Next comes taxation. It has become a much sought-after means of livelihood. We know that the number of government jobs has been increasing steadily, and that the number of applicants is increasing still more rapidly than the number of jobs. Now, does any one of these applicants ever ask himself whether he will render to the public services equivalent to those which he expects to receive? Is this scourge about to come to an end? How can we believe it, when we see that public opinion itself wants to have everything done by that fictitious being, the state, which signifies a collection of salaried bureaucrats? After having judged all men without exception as capable of governing the country, we declare them incapable of governing themselves. Very soon there will be two or three of these bureaucrats around every Frenchman, one to prevent him from working too much, another to give him an education, a third to furnish him credit, a fourth to interfere with his business transactions, etc., etc. Where will we be led by the illusion that impels us to believe that the state is a person who has an inexhaustible fortune independent of ours?

People are beginning to realize that the apparatus of government is costly. But what they do not know is that the burden falls inevitably on them. They have been led to believe that if their share has been heavy until now, the Republic has a means, while increasing the general burden, of shifting at least the larger part of it onto the shoulders of the rich. Fatal illusion! No doubt the tax collector may happen to solicit one person rather than another and may receive the actual cash from the hands of the rich. But once the tax has been paid, all is not over. It has a further action on society. There are reactions on the respective values of services, and it is impossible to prevent the burden from being borne ultimately by everyone, including the poor. Their true interest, then, is not that one class be hard hit, but that all classes be treated with respect, because of the community of interest that binds them all together.

Now, does anything indicate that the time has come when taxes are going to be decreased?

I say frankly: I believe that we are entering on a path in which plunder, under very gentle, very subtle, very ingenious forms, embellished with the beautiful names of solidarity and fraternity, is going to assume proportions the extent of which the imagination hardly dares to measure. Here is how it will be done: Under the name of the state the citizens taken collectively are considered as a real being, having its own life, its own wealth, independently of the lives and the wealth of the citizens themselves; and then each addresses this fictitious being, some to obtain from it education, others employment, others credit, others food, etc., etc. Now the state can give nothing to the citizens that it has not first taken from them. The only effects of its intermediation are, first, a great dispersion of forces, and then, the complete destruction of the equivalence of services; for everyone will try to turn over as little as possible to the public treasury and to take as much as possible out of it. In other words, the public treasury will be pillaged. And do we not see something similar happening today? What class does not solicit the favors of the state? It would seem as if the principle of life resided in it. Aside from the innumerable horde of its own agents, agriculture, manufacturing, commerce, the arts, the theatre, the colonies, and the shipping industry expect everything from it. They want it to clear and irrigate land, to colonize, to teach, and even to amuse. Each begs a bounty, a subsidy, an incentive, and especially the gratuitous gift of certain services, such as education and credit. And why not ask the state for the gratuitous gift of all services? Why not require the state to provide all the citizens with food, drink, clothing, and shelter free of charge?

One class remained aloof from these mad demands :

One poor servant, at least, I still have left here

Who has not been infected by this bad air.

[Chrysale, the sensible husband in Molière’s Femmes savantes (“The Highbrow Ladies”), says this about his household. Following his wife’s example, all his servants, save one, have gone in for “culchah” to the neglect of their household duties.—Translator.]

It was the people properly so called, the innumerable working class. But now it too is asking for a “handout.” It contributes a great amount to the treasury; in all justice, in virtue of the principle of equality, it has the same rights to this universal embezzlement for which the other classes have given it the cue. It is deeply to be regretted that on the day on which it made its voice heard, it was to demand a share in the pillage, and not to bring the pillage to an end. But could this class be more enlightened than the others? Is it not to be excused for being duped by the illusion that is misleading all of us?

However, if only because of the number of petitioners, which is today equal to the number of citizens, the error that I have pointed out here cannot be of long duration; and the time will come very soon, I hope, when only services within its competence will be asked of the state, such as justice, national defense, public works, etc.

We are confronted with still another cause of inequality, more active perhaps than all the others: the war against capital. The proletariat can be freed in only one way, by an increase in capital. When capital increases more rapidly than the population, two unfailing effects follow, both of which contribute toward improving the lot of the worker: lower-priced products and higher wages. But, for capital to increase, it requires above all security. If it is afraid, it hides, secludes itself, and is dissipated and destroyed. It is then that labor is unemployed and is offered at the lowest price. The greatest of all evils for the working class is, then, to let itself be drawn by flatterers into a war against capital as absurd as it is disastrous. This is a constant threat of plunder, worse than plunder itself.

Finally, if it is true, as I have tried to demonstrate, that liberty—by which I mean the right to dispose of one’s property as one wishes, and consequently the supreme affirmation of the right to property—if it is true, I say, that liberty tends inevitably to lead to the just equivalence of services, to bring about greater and greater equality, to raise all men up to the same, constantly rising standard of living, then it is not property that we should blame for the sad spectacle of grievous inequality that the world once again offers us, but the opposite principle, plunder, which has unleashed on our planet wars, slavery, serfdom, feudalism, the exploitation of public ignorance and credulity, privileges, monopolies, trade restrictions, public loans, commercial frauds, excessive taxes, and, lastly, the war against capital and the absurd demand of everyone to live and to develop at the expense of everyone else.

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