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Bastiat's "The Law": An Overview

Updated on December 22, 2017
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Bill has advanced degrees in education and political science. He has been a political science teacher for over 28 years.


The Law by Frederic Bastiat is one of the classic primers in the economics of freedom. Bastiat was a member of the French Assembly, elected to that body in 1848. However, even by that time, he was too ill to give many speeches in the assembly as he had contracted tuberculosis, probably as a result of traveling through the area promoting his ideas. Bastiat wrote his book, The Law, in 1849 and published it in 1850, just months prior to his dying on Christmas Eve of 1850.

The Law provides for both a model of the classical liberal view of politics and economics as well as a critique of socialism.

Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist and member of the General Assembly. He wrote his work "The Law" in 1849, one year before his death.
Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist and member of the General Assembly. He wrote his work "The Law" in 1849, one year before his death.

A Model of Classical Liberalism

Life, liberty, and property are gifts from God and are given to men individually. Law is merely the collective right to defend our life, liberty and property. In this sense, the law’s function is a minimalist one: the government exists to protect our freedoms. This idea is vintage liberalism and can be traced back to John Locke’s Second Treatise on Government (1690) in which Locke said that governments are essentially contractual arrangements to protect the life, liberty and property of their citizens. More recently, Thomas Jefferson used these same concepts in his drafting of the Declaration of Independence (1776) in which he said that the rights of “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness“ were “unalienable rights” and that governments exist to secure these rights.

The ideas of Basiat were rooted in the ideas of the English philsopher John Locke (1632-1704). Locke said that men are rational agents, had rights to life, liberty, and property, and the purpose of government was to secure those rights.
The ideas of Basiat were rooted in the ideas of the English philsopher John Locke (1632-1704). Locke said that men are rational agents, had rights to life, liberty, and property, and the purpose of government was to secure those rights. | Source

Law is Force—Bastiat also provides some other characteristics of the law. For example, Bastiat says that the law is force. As he puts it “The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces.” Force should be used sparingly. As such it cannot be used to organize or perpetuate such areas as labor, education, or religion. As he puts it “the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of force.” Bastiat’s reservation about the use of force is reminiscent of another man that was apparently equally reserved, George Washington, who once remarked “Government is not reason, it is not eloquence. It is force, and like fire, it is a dangerous servant and a fearful

Law is negative—Bastiat also holds that the law is "negative." As he puts it “the purpose of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning.” For Bastiat, the absence of injustice results in a just condition. Furthermore, law should refrain from being positive: dictating orders to others. The law should especially refrain from dictating orders in the areas of labor, education, and religion. When it does not, “the people no longer need to discuss, to compare, to plan ahead; the law does all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless prop for the people; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their property.”

A Critique of Socialism

The Law is also a reaction to socialism. Bastiat is witnessing the rise of socialism in France which is where modern socialism began. What is ironic, says Bastiat, is that the law now acts in a way that is contrary to its purpose. Its purpose is to defend the life, liberty and property of citizens. Now it is attacking that very property it's supposed to defend. Bastiat calls this action on the part of the law legal plunder.

Plunder—Legal plunder occurs when the law takes from one man and gives it to another. Note that Bastiat is not assailing mere confiscation of property by government. An organization can’t be a government unless it can tax. Rather, it is the transfer of property, where the law takes property from one person and gives it to another. This is how you can recognize legal plunder.

There are three systems of plunder as Bastiat sees it: first protectionisms (like a tariff). Bastiat is an “international free trader.” Second, socialism which is the confiscation of private property with the purpose of redistributing that property based on some principle of equality. Third, communism. Keep in mind that there was no “Marxist communism” in the mid nineteenth century (Marx and Engel’s Communist Manifesto had only been published in 1848). Rather, what Bastiat is referring to in “communalism” the practice of living in communes for the purpose of achieving socialist ends.

Those that advance legal plunder also adopt certain instruments of socialism such as progressive taxation, minimum wage, and public schools to assist in the income transfer. Bastiat finds the source of this propensity to redistribute the wealth in two causes: first, human greed: people who want what others have. As long as plunder is easier than work, says Bastiat, men will continue to plunder and not work. Hence, the law gives justification and encourages men to clamor at the doors of government, demanding that they seize the property of others (like through taxation) and give it to them.

A second source of legal plunder is a “false philanthropy.” Bastiat reacts against those that say that the law should be charitable. The law is not an instrument of charity, says Bastiat. It's an instrument of force. Given that law is force, the only way it can insist on property from citizens is to seize it under threat of force. We don’t usually think of a robber with a gun pointed at your head as being “charitable.” Charity must be voluntary, so to Bastiat, ascribing charity to the law is a misnomer. Furthermore, charity is unlimited: you can give away as many of your possessions as you wish. However, because the law is force, it should be constrained, so while charity is unlimited, the law must be limited.

Doctrine—Bastiat says that the Democrats (socialists) have three vital doctrines. First, the belief that mankind is inert. Men are passive beings, raw material to be shaped by the will of the legislator. Second, the law is omnipotent. It was a hubris of the Enlightenment that laws could be used to shape society and perfect mankind. Bastiat is confronting such hubris in challenging the idea that the law is an unlimited source of knowledge to create a better world. Third, the legislator is infallible. The Democrats tend to treat legislators as if they can do no wrong. They are willing to give them almost unlimited power to shape and control the society.

A fitting lesson for out time, Bastiat says that we should relinquish state plunder and try liberty:

Away, then, with quacks and organizers! Away 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!

© 2011 William R Bowen Jr


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