Front Page Titles (by Subject) 1.: Electoral Sophisms - The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics
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1.: Electoral Sophisms - Frédéric Bastiat, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics 
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics, translated from the French by Jane and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Jacques de Guenin and Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation editor Dennis O’Keeffe (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2011).
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[vol. 7, p. 271]
I have made my commitments.
I am not supporting M. So and So because he has not asked for my vote.
I am voting for M. So and So because he has done me a good turn.
I am voting for M. So and So because he has rendered service to France.
I am voting for M. So and So because he has promised to do me a favor.
I am voting for M. So and So because I would like a position with him.
I am voting for M. So and So because I am worried about keeping my job.
I am voting for M. So and So because he comes from the region.
I am voting for M. So and So because he does not come from the region.
I am voting for M. So and So because he will speak up.
I am voting for M. So and So because if he is not elected, our prefect or subprefect will be dismissed.
Each of these sophisms has its own particular nature, but at the base of each of them there is a common thread which needs to be disentangled.
They all are based on this twin premise:
The election is being run in the interest of the candidate.
The elector is the exclusive owner of one thing, that is to say, his vote, which he is free to use as he pleases and in favor of whomever he wishes.
The error of this doctrine and its daily application will be made clear by our examination.
I am not voting for M. A—— because he has not asked for my vote.
This sophism, like all the others, is based on an attitude which, in itself, is not reprehensible, the sense of personal dignity.
When men seek encouragement in pursuit of some bad action, it is rare for the paradoxes with which they deceive themselves to be totally false. Such paradoxes make up a fabric. It is a fabric in which there are always a few threads of good sense to be seen. They always contain a grain of truth and this is why they impress. If they were totally false, they would not delude so many people.
The meaning of the one we are examining is as follows:
“M. A—— aspires to becoming my deputy. Being a deputy is the road to honors and wealth. He knows that my vote can contribute to his election. This is the least of what he is asking of me. If he behaves proudly, I in turn will behave proudly, and when I agree to use something as precious as my vote in someone’s favor, I am determined that he should show gratitude to me, that he should not disdain coming to my house, entering into a relationship with me, shaking my hand, etc., etc.”
It is very clear that the elector who reasons thus will make the twin mistakes we have pointed out.
In a word, he disregards all the public good and evil which may result from his choice.
For, if he considered that the aim of the entire electoral mechanism is to send to the Chamber of Deputies those who are conscientious and devoted, he would probably reason in a contrary manner and say:
“I will vote for M. A—— for this reason, among others, that he has not asked for my vote!”
In fact, in the eyes of anyone who does not lose sight of the object of the function of deputies, I do not think that there can be a stronger presumption against a candidate than his insistence on seeking votes.
For, in the end, what drives this man to come and torment me in my own house, to endeavor to prove to me that I ought to give him my confidence?
When I know that so many deputies, holding two balls,1 have dictated the law to ministers and have obtained good positions, should I not fear that this candidate has no other aim in view when he comes—sometimes from the other end of the kingdom—to beg for the trust of people he does not know?
One can doubtless be betrayed by the deputy one has freely selected. But if we, the electors, go to seek out a man in his retirement (and we can go to seek him out only because his reputation for integrity is perfectly established), if we drag him away from his solitary life to confer on him a mandate which he has not requested, do we not give ourselves the best possible chance of handing over this mandate into pure and faithful hands?
If this man had wanted to make a business out of being a deputy, he would have sought it. He has not done so and therefore has no base ulterior motives.
What is more, he to whom the mandate of deputy is freely given, as free evidence of general confidence and universal esteem, would feel so very honored, so grateful for his own reputation, that he would hesitate to tarnish it.
And, after all, would it not be natural for things to happen thus?
What are we discussing? Is it a question of rendering service to M. So and So, favoring him or setting him on the road to wealth?
No, it is a question of giving ourselves a representative who has our trust. Would it not be very simple to take the trouble to look for him?
Once there was a case of an important trusteeship. A family council of many members had met in the court. A man arrived out of breath, covered in sweat, having worn out several horses. No one knew him personally. All that was known was that he managed, somewhere far away, the properties of underage children and that he would soon have to account for these. This man begged them to appoint him as trustee. He spoke to the relatives on the father’s side and then to those on the mother’s side. He sang his own praises at length, speaking of his probity, wealth, and connections. He uttered prayers, promises, and threats. Deep anxiety could be read on his features, as well as an immoderate desire for success. Vain objections were raised that the trusteeship was a weighty burden, that it would take up much of the time and wealth of the person to whom it was entrusted and override his other businesses. He brushed aside each difficulty. He asked no more than to devote his time to serving the poor orphans. He was prepared to sacrifice his wealth, so heroic was the disinterestedness he felt in his heart! He would view with stoicism his businesses’ decline, provided that those of the underage children prospered in his hands! “But you manage their property!” “All the more reason, I will account to myself for this and who is more equipped to examine these accounts than he who has set them up?”
I ask you, would it be reasonable for the family council to entrust to this earnest lobbyist the functions he requested?
Would it not be wiser to entrust this task to a relative known for his probity and scrupulousness, especially if it were the case that the interests of this relative and the underage children were identical to the extent that he could not do anything to their advantage or disadvantage without similarly affecting his own situation?
. . . . . . .
I am voting for M. A—— because he has done me a favor.
Gratitude, it is said, is the only virtue that cannot be abused. This is wrong. There is a very common method of abusing it, and that is to settle the debt imposed on us by it at the expense of others.
I acknowledge that an elector, who has received frequent acts of kindness from a candidate whose opinions he does not share, is put in an extremely delicate and embarrassing position if this candidate is bold enough to ask for his vote. Ingratitude is itself a repugnant characteristic; to go so far as to make an official display of it, in so many words, can become genuine torment. In vain will you paint this defection in the colors of the most reasoned of political motives; in the depths of universal understanding there is an instinct that will condemn you. This is because political mores have not achieved nor been able to achieve the same progress as private mores. The public will always see your vote as a property of which you can dispose and it will censure you for not allowing it to be directed by a virtue as popular and honorable as gratitude.
However, let us examine this.
The question facing the electoral body, as raised in France, is in most cases so complex that it leaves great latitude in moral awareness. There are two candidates, one for the government, the other for the opposition. Yes, but if the government has committed a great many faults, so has the opposition. In addition, look at the manifestos of the two opponents: one wants order and liberty; the other demands liberty with order. The only difference is that one puts in second place what the other puts first; in essence they want the same thing. It was not worth the trouble, for such subtle differences, to betray the rights to your vote for one of the candidates because of the benefits received. You have no excuse for this.
But let us suppose that the question put before the electors is less vague and you will see that not only the rights but also the popularity and even the claim to gratitude are weakened.
In England, for example, long experience of representative government has taught electors that they should not pursue all types of reform simultaneously, but pass on to the second when the first has been carried out and so on.
As a result, there is always a central question facing the public on which all the efforts of the press, associations, and electors are focused.
Are you for or against electoral reform?
Are you for or against Catholic emancipation?
Are you for or against the emancipation of slaves?
At the moment, the sole question is:
Are you for or against free trade?
When this has been settled, doubtless this other question will be raised:
Are you for or against voluntary arrangements with regard to religion?
As long as there is campaigning with regard to any of these questions, everyone takes part, everyone seeks enlightenment, and everyone takes one side or another. Doubtless, the other major political reforms, although relegated to the shade, are not totally neglected. However, this is a debate which is engaged within each party and not between one party and the other.
Thus, at the present time, when free traders have to oppose a candidate to those supporting monopoly, they hold preparatory assemblies in which a person is proclaimed their candidate who, beyond the conformity of his principles with those of the free traders in matters of trade, is also more in line with the majority because of his opinions on Ireland or the Maynooth2 bill, etc., etc. However, on the day of the great combat, the only question put to candidates is this:
Are you free traders? Do you support monopoly?
Consequently, it is on this alone that the electors will be called upon to vote.
It is thus easy to understand that a question couched in such simple terms will not allow any of the sophisms dealt with in this book to creep into the parties, in particular that of gratitude.
Let us say that in private life I have done an elector some notable favors. However, I know that he is in favor of free trade, while I am standing as a candidate for the partisans of protection. It would not cross my mind to expect him, through gratitude, to sacrifice a cause to which I know that he has devoted all his efforts, one to which he has subscribed and in favor of which he has allied himself with powerful interests. If I did this, his reply would be clear and logical and it would obtain public approval not only from his party but also mine. He would say to me: “I have personal obligations to you. I am personally ready to carry these out. I do not expect you to ask me for them and I will take every opportunity to prove to you that I am not ungrateful. There is, however, a sacrifice I cannot make to you, that of my conscience. You know that I am committed to the cause of free trade which I consider to be consistent with public interest. You, on the other hand, uphold the opposite view. We have met here to ascertain which of these two principles is upheld by the majority. On my vote may depend the triumph or defeat of the principle I support. In conscience I cannot raise my hand for you.”
It is clear that, unless he were dishonest, the candidate would not be able to insist on proving that the elector is bound by a benefit received.
The same doctrine should prevail in our midst. Only, as the questions are very much more complicated, they give rise to a painful contest between the benefactor and the person in his debt. The benefactor will say: “Why are you refusing me your vote? Is it because a few shades of opinion separate us? But do you think in exactly the same way as my opponent? Do you not know that my intentions are pure? Do I, like you, not want order, liberty, and the public good? Are you afraid that I will vote for such and such a measure of which you disapprove; who knows whether it will be brought before the Chamber during this session? You can see perfectly well that you do not have sufficient reason to forget what I have done for you. You are just seeking a pretext to avoid offering any token of gratitude.”
I think that the English method, that of pursuing just one reform at a time, without considering one’s own advantages, also has the considerable advantage of invariably classifying the electors, sheltering them from bad influences, and preventing sophisms from taking hold, in short of shaping frank and firm political mores. This is why I would like it to be adopted in France. In the event, there are four reforms which are competing for priority.
I do not know to which of these questions my country will give preference. If I have a voice in the matter in this respect, I would designate parliamentary reform as being the most important and urgent, the one for which public opinion is best prepared and which is most likely to lead to the triumph of the three others.
For this reason, I will say a few words about it at the end of this book.
. . . . . . .
I am voting for M. A—— because he has rendered great service to the country.
Once upon a time, an elector’s vote was sought for a general of great merit. “Who in the region,” it was said, “has given greater service to the country? He has shed his blood on countless battlefields. All his promotions in rank have been due to his courage and military talent. He is a self-made man and, what is more, he has raised to senior positions his brothers, nephews, and cousins.”
“Is our district threatened?” asked the elector. “Is there a mass uprising? Is it a matter of selecting a military leader? My vote is assured for the honorable general since all you tell me of him and what I know give him an irrefutable right to my trust.”
“No,” said the lobbyist, “it is a question of voting for a deputy, a legislator.”
“What will his functions be?”
“To make laws; to revise the civil code, the code on procedures, and the penal code; to restore order to the finances; and to supervise, contain, restrain, and if necessary indict ministers.”
“And what do the massive sword strokes made against the enemy by the general have to do with legislative functions?”
“That is not the question; it is a question of awarding him, through the office of deputy, a worthy recompense for his services.”
“But if, through ignorance, he passes bad laws and if he votes for disastrous financial plans, who will suffer the consequences?”
“You and the general public.”
“And can I in all conscience invest the general with the right to make laws if he is liable to make bad ones?”
“You are insulting a man of great talent and noble character. Do you think he is ignorant and of evil intent?”
“God forbid! My supposition must be that having been concerned all his life with the military training he is very knowledgeable on strategy. I am sure he insists on tip-top inspections and parades. But, here again, what is there in common between this area of knowledge and the kind required by a representative, or rather those being represented?” . . .
[1 ]In order to vote for or against a law, deputies used to put a white or a black ball in an urn. (See also Letter 110, note 230.) Therefore, the reference to “holding two balls” implies that the deputy is withholding his vote in order to get political favors.
[2 ]In 1845 Robert Peel proposed a subsidy of thirty thousand pounds to rebuild the Irish college of Maynooth for young priests. The bill was adopted in spite of numerous petitions against it.