The Wisdom of Frédéric Bastiat

FREEDOM, LAW & ECONOMICS / Wednesday, February 19th, 2020

Claude Frédéric Bastiat was a French economist, legislator, and writer who championed private property, free markets, and limited government. Perhaps the main underlying theme of Bastiat’s writings was that the free market was inherently a source of “economic harmony” among individuals, as long as government was restricted to the function of protecting the lives, liberties, and property of citizens from theft or aggression. To Bastiat, governmental coercion was only legitimate if it served “to guarantee security of person, liberty, and property rights, to cause justice to reign over all.”

To this day, Bastiat’s work is not appreciated as much as it should be because, as Murray Rothbard explained, today’s intemperate critics of economic freedom “find it difficult to believe that anyone who is ardently and consistently in favor of laissez-faire could possibly be an important scholar and economic theorist.”

Here are some of his best writings, categorised according to the theme

International Trade and Business Cycles

INTERNATIONAL TRADE – The difference in production costs in international trade : “- If you are told: The Crimean lands have no value and do not pay taxes. Answer: The profit is for us who buy wheat free of these charges. – If you are told: The Polish serfs work without pay. Answer: The misfortune is for them and the profit for us, since their work is deducted from the price of the wheat that their masters sell us. »IV, p.254

IMPORTS – It does not matter if the foreigner “floods” us with products : “Suppose, if that amuses you, that the foreigner floods us with all kinds of useful goods, without asking us anything; that our imports are infinite and our exports zero, I challenge you to prove to me that we will be poorer. »IV, p.57

BUSINESS CYCLES – A first phase of abnormal capital abundance is followed by a credit crunch and a crisis : “Without doubt, the four epochs of great crises, similar to those we are witnessing today, are those where the evil is manifest; but the three epochs of abnormal prosperity are those in which it is preparing. In these, the enormous savings, which the country realizes in the purchase of subsistence, accumulates considerable capital in the banks and in the hands of the industrial classes.

This capital does not immediately find profitable employment. Hence a frantic agiotage, a reckless entrepreneurial spirit; distant and hazardous operations, railways, factories, everything is developing on an immense scale, and as if the current state of affairs should always last. But times of high prices come, and then it turns out that a large part of the national capital has been as certainly swallowed up as if it had been thrown into the sea. ”II, p.56-57

Government Budgets and Deficits

DEFICIT – Why is there a permanent deficit : “Why are our finances upset?” »-« Because, for the Representatives, there is nothing easier than voting an Expense, and nothing more difficult than voting a Recipe. »…. “I still know a reason. “Everyone wants to live at the expense of the state, and we forget that the state lives at the expense of everyone. »V, p.447

PUBLIC EXPENDITURE – Compatibility with freedom : “ Heavy budget and freedom are incompatible. »IV, p.153

PUBLIC EXPENDITURE – We cannot reduce them without hurting certain interests : “The idea of ​​making savings without offending anyone implies contradiction. »V, p.440


EDUCATION – Against the monopoly of education : “The most urgent thing is not that the State teaches, but that it lets teach. All monopolies are detestable, but the worst of all is the monopoly on education. »V, p.93

STATE – What the free state means : “We talk a lot, from the Republic, free credit, free education. But it is clear that there is a gross fallacy in this word. Can the state make education spread, like daylight, without any effort for anyone? Can it cover France with institutions and professors who are not paid somehow?

All the state can do is this: instead of letting everyone voluntarily demand and remunerate this kind of service, the state can snatch this remuneration from citizens by tax and then have them distribute it. instruction of his choice, without requiring a second remuneration from them. In this case, those who do not learn pay for those who learn, those who learn little for those who learn a lot, those who are destined for manual work for those who will embrace liberal careers.

It is Communism applied to a branch of human activity. Under this regime, which I do not have to judge here, one could say, one should say: education is common, but it would be ridiculous to say: education is free. Free! yes, for some of those who receive it, but not for those who pay it, if not to the professor, at least to the collector. »VI, p.295 -« There is nothing that the State cannot give free of charge to this account; and if this word was not a hoax, it is not only free education that should be asked of the State, but free food, free clothing , free food and shelter, etc. Take care.

The people are almost there; at least there is no shortage of people asking in his name for free credit, free work tools, etc., etc. Fools of a word, we have taken a step in Communism; what reason do we have for not making a second, then a third, until all freedom, all property, all justice have passed through? Will it be said that education is so universally necessary that we can, in its favor, weaken law and principles? But what ! isn’t food more necessary yet? Primo vivere, deinde philosophari, will say the people, and I really don’t know what we will have to answer them. »VI, p.295-296

Excessive Regulation

STATE – France’s problem is that there is too much state : “This country is too governed, that’s the bad. The remedy is that he learns to govern himself, that he learns to distinguish between the essential attributions of the State and those that he usurped, at our expense, on private activity. The whole problem is there. »V, p.487-488

STATE – If he wants to do everything, public finances will be in the red : “Public finances will not be long in arriving at complete disarray. How could it be otherwise when the state is responsible for providing everything to everyone? The people will be crushed with taxes, we will borrow on loan; after having exhausted the present, we will devour the future. »IV, p.313

STATE – Its permanent intervention disturbs all economic activity : “I admit that the future worries me a lot. How can the industry recover when it is accepted in principle that the field of decrees is unlimited? When every minute, a decree on wages, hours of work, the price of things, etc., can disturb all combinations? »VII, p.382

STATE – State intervention disturbs the price signal : “Under the regime of freedom, the result is there which warns at all times whether or not we are on the wrong track. But when the state gets involved, it’s quite different; for although it cannot change the general result and make the loss profitable, it may very well alter the partial results and cause the losses of one to fall on the other. It can, through more or less disguised taxes, make an industry profitable at the expense of the community, attract to it the activity of citizens, by a deplorable displacement of capital. »II, p.33-34

STATE – He could be effective in the police and justice, if he did not deal with a thousand ancillary concerns : “I am not a profound jurisconsult, but I truly believe that if the government were confined within the limits of which I speak, and that all the force of his intelligence, of his capacity was directed on this point there: to improve the conditions of security of the men, I believe that one could make in this career immense progress. »V, p.492


OFFICIALS – The more there are, the more freedom is compromised : “We cannot multiply civil servants without multiplying functions. It would be too blatant. However, to multiply the functions is to multiply the attacks on freedom. »II, p.478

OFFICIALS – Everything that becomes dependent on them no longer progresses : “Everything that has fallen into the domain of functionarism is almost stationary; it is doubtful that one teaches better today than in the time of François I er ; and I don’t think anyone dares to compare the activity of ministerial offices to that of a factory. »VI, p.549

War and Imperialism

WAR – Warmongering temper of journalists : “Of all the classes of men, the most belligerent is certainly that of journalists. They are fortunate enough to leave neither their legs nor their arms on the battlefield; it is the peasant who is the cannon fodder, and as for them, they contribute to the costs of the war only as much as they cost them a vial of ink and a hand of paper. It is so convenient to excite the armies, to make them maneuver, to criticize the generals, to show the most ardent patriotism, the most heroic bravery, and all this from the bottom of his cabinet, by the corner of a good fire! »II, p.198

IMPERIALISM – It is wrong to impose things by force on other peoples : “And then, how is it that there is not enough impartiality, at the bottom of our national conscience, to understand how much our pretensions to impose an idea, by force, hurt the hearts of our brothers from outside? What! we, the most susceptible people of Europe; we, who, with reason, would not suffer the intervention of an English regiment, were it to come to erect on the soil of the fatherland the statue of liberty, and to teach us social perfection itself; when we all, down to the old debris of Coblentz, we agree on this point that we should unite to break the foreign hand that would come, armed, to interfere in our sad debates, it is we who always on the lips this irritating word: preponderance; and we can only show freedom to our brothers with a sword in their fist facing their chest! How did we come to imagine that the human heart is not the same everywhere; that he doesn’t have the same pride, the same horror of addiction everywhere? »V, p.451-452

FOREIGN POLICY – Principles on foreign policy : “In approaching our foreign policy, I will begin by clearly establishing these two proposals, out of which, I dare say, there is no salvation. 1 ° The development of brute force is not necessary and is harmful to the influence of France. 2 ° The development of brute force is not necessary and is harmful to our external or internal security. As a consequence of these two propositions, a third emerges, and it is this: It is necessary to disarm on land and at sea, and that as soon as possible. »V, p.449

FOREIGN POLICY – What the government should say about it : “Yes, everyone at home, each for himself, as much as it is brute force. This is not to say that the ties of peoples will be broken. Let us all have philosophical, scientific, artistic, literary, commercial relations. It is through this that humanity is enlightened and progresses. But saber and rifle reports, I don’t want them.

Because perfectly united families do not go to each other with an armed hand, to say that they behave on the maxim each at home is a strange abuse of words. Besides, what would we say if, to end our dissensions, Lord Palmerston sent us English regiments? Wouldn’t the red of indignation get us to the front? How then do we refuse to believe that other peoples also cherish their dignity and their independence? »V, p.467

SECURITY – It is the greatest good : “For a nation, Security is the greatest good. If, to acquire it, it is necessary to set up a hundred thousand men and to spend a hundred million, I have nothing to say. »V, p.340

SECURITY – France has nothing to fear if it is faithful to free trade and non-intervention : “With these three things: free trade, non-intervention, attachment of citizens for the institutions of the country, a nation 36 million souls is not only invincible, it is unassailable. »II, p.308


TAXES – Above a certain level of taxation, raising taxes causes a drop in revenue : “If a tax is gradually and indefinitely high, by the same token that at each degree of elevation it restricts a little more consumption or taxable matter, a moment necessarily arrives when the slightest addition to the tax lowers the revenue. “II, p.189 -” We remember that the tax rising constantly, and consumption decreasing gradually, there came a time when, adding 5 p. % at tax rate, we got 5%. % less revenue. »II, p.225

TAXES – Consequence of excess taxes : “Such a tax would be confiscation, and see the consequences. If, in fact, all property was confiscated as it formed, who would bother to create property? We don’t just work to live day by day. Among the stimulants of work, perhaps the most powerful is the hope of acquiring something for old age, of establishing children, of improving the lot of one’s family.

But if you arrange your financial system so that all property is confiscated as it is formed, then, no one being interested in either work or savings, capital will not form; it will decrease rapidly if it does not suddenly desert abroad; and, then, what will become of the fate of this very class that you wanted to relieve? »II, p.475

TAXES – Cutting taxes is the first requirement : “Cutting taxes (which does not always mean lowering revenues) is the first half of the Republican financial program. »V, p.438

TAXES – Freedom no longer exists when the people are overtaxed : “But the question is precisely to know if a people overtaxed can be free, if there is not a radical incompatibility between freedom and the exaggeration of tax. However, I affirm that this incompatibility is radical. »II, p.477

TAXES – We cannot claim much from the State, and believe that it will be enough to tax the rich : “Impose exorbitant powers on the State, and persuade that it can cope with the money taken from the the superfluous of the rich is to give the public vain hope. “V, p.416 -” But when the State draws the nation a quarter, a third, half of its revenues, it is reduced to acting cunning, to multiply the sources of revenue, to invent the most taxes bizarre, and at the same time the most vexatious.

It ensures that the tax merges with the price of things, so that the taxpayer pays it without suspecting it. Hence the consumption taxes, so fatal to the free movements of industry. Anyone who has dealt with finance knows very well that this kind of tax is productive only on the condition of striking the objects of the most general consumption.

No matter how much hope is placed on lavish taxes, I wish them all for reasons of fairness, but they can never bring more than a small quota to a large budget. The people would therefore be completely deluded if they thought that it was possible, even in the most popular government, to increase public spending, already so heavy, and at the same time to put it exclusively at the expense of the wealthy class . »II, p.475-476


LIBERTY – It’s time to try it : “We have tried so many things, when will we try the simplest of all: Liberty?” Freedom from all acts which do not injure justice; the freedom to live, to develop, to improve; free exercise of faculties; free trade in services. »VI, p.125

LIBERTY – It must be preserved, otherwise everything disappears : “Woe to the people who do not know how to limit the sphere of action of the State. Freedom, private activity, wealth, well-being, independence, dignity, everything will pass there. »IV, p.141

LIBERTY – This is Bastada’s hobby: “We all have a darling idea, a hobby, in Shandyan style. My dear idea, why shouldn’t I admit it? it’s FREEDOM ”V, p.431

LIBERTY – It is the cause of the people : “Commercial freedom, like the others, is the cause of the people. »II, p.132

LIBERTY – No medium between freedom and non-freedom : “Between Freedom and Constraint I see no medium. »V, p.61

LIBERTY – It must be fixed as a principle of internal policy : “All that remains is to proclaim, as a principle of our internal policy, LIBERTY, freedom in the arts, sciences, agriculture, industry , work, exchange, press, education; because freedom is the only system compatible with a reduced budget. The state needs money to regulate and oppress. No money, no regulation. »V, p.465

LIBERTY – Problem: France is too used to being governed a lot : “We are in a country used to being so governed that one can not imagine that there can be a little order and security with less regulation. »V, p.489

The Role of Law

LAW – It is spoliatory when it takes from one to give to the other : “How to recognize spoliation?” It’s very simple. We must examine whether the Law takes from some what belongs to them to give to others what does not belong to them. It must be examined whether the Act performs, for the benefit of a citizen and to the detriment of others, an act that this citizen could not himself perform without crime. »IV, p.354

LAW – Disorganized legislative inflation prevents entrepreneurship : “Who is the daring speculator right now who would dare to build a factory or engage in a business? Yesterday we decreed that it will only be allowed to work for a certain number of hours.

Today it is decreed that the wages for such a kind of work will be fixed; who can foresee the decree of tomorrow, that of the day after tomorrow, those of the following days? Once the legislator places himself at this immeasurable distance from other men; that he believes, in all conscience, to be able to dispose of their time, their work, their transactions, all things which are Properties , which man, on the surface of the country, has the least knowledge of the forced position where the Law will place him tomorrow, him and his profession? And, under such conditions, who can and will do nothing? »IV, p.287

Redistribution of Wealth

REDISTRIBUTION OF RESOURCES – It is communism : “But Communism takes a third form. Involve the State, give it the mission to balance profits and balance the fortunes, taking from some, without consent, to give to others, without compensation, the task of carrying out the work of leveling by means of spoliation , surely this is Communism. The procedures employed by the State for this purpose, no more than the fine names with which we decorate this thought, do nothing.

That it pursue its realization by direct or indirect means, by restriction or by tax, by tariffs or by the Right to work; that he places it under the invocation of equality, solidarity, fraternity, that does not change the nature of things; the pillage of property is none the less pillage because it is carried out with regularity, with order, systematically and by the action of the law. »IV, p.515-516

REDISTRIBUTION OF RESOURCES – This is the chimera of the day : “The chimera of the day is to enrich all classes at the expense of each other. »IV, p.355

REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTHS – These schemes are oppressive and waste wealth : “The law, which restricts the work and enjoyment of all for the benefit of a few, is an oppressive law. She takes a certain sum from Jean’s pocket to put it in Jacques’ pocket, with the definitive loss of an equal sum for the community . »II, p.70

REDISTRIBUTION OF WEALTH – Infernal cycle of state intervention in individual fortunes : “Today we have accepted in principle that the state is established to distribute wealth to everyone, it is natural that he is asked to account for this commitment. To keep it, he multiplies the taxes and makes more miseries than he cures.

New demands from the public, new taxes from the state, and we can only go from revolution to revolution. But if it was understood that the state should take from workers only what is absolutely essential to guarantee them against all fraud and all violence, I cannot see on what side the disorder would come. »IV, p.309

INDIVIDUAL RESPONSIBILITY – The problem with socialist measures is that they attack it : “Their natural pitfall is in the displacement of Responsibility. It is never without creating great dangers and great difficulties for the future that the individual is removed from the consequences of his own acts.

The day when all the citizens would say: “We join to help those who cannot work or cannot find work”, it would be to be feared that we will see develop, to a dangerous point, the penchant naturalness of man toward inertia, and that soon the hardworking were reduced to being the dupes of the lazy. Mutual aid therefore implies mutual surveillance, without which the aid fund would soon be exhausted. »VI, p.459

SPOLIATION – Surrounded by beautiful slogans, it will develop in the future : “I say it sincerely: I believe that we are entering a path where, with very soft, very subtle, very ingenious forms, wearing beautiful names of solidarity and fraternity, spoliation will take developments whose imagination hardly dares to measure the extent. »IV, p.432

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