Front Page Titles (by Subject) Republicanism and Universal Suffrage - Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850
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Republicanism and Universal Suffrage - Frédéric Bastiat, Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850 
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850, Jacques de Guenin, General Editor. Translated from the French by Jane Willems and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Pascal Salin. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation Editor Dennis O’Keeffe. Academic Editor, David M. Hart (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012).
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Republicanism and Universal Suffrage
Bastiat was a “sincere” republican in the sense that he favored a republican system of government (as opposed to a monarchical one) and, more precisely, because he favored universal suffrage. Yet he was also aware of the dangers of unrestrained democracy if it were allowed to violate the people’s rights to property (“plunder”) and liberty (“slavery”). In his famous pamphlet “The Law” (1850) Bastiat explains that the law, far from being what it ought to be, namely the instrument that enabled the state to protect individuals’ rights and property, had become the means for what he termed “spoliation,” or plunder.
As the will and the capacity to legislate became commonplace—the result of universal suffrage—plunder, too, became commonplace. Bastiat’s views on law and plunder are both modern and prophetic, given that democracy was a relatively new experience in France. Like his contemporary Alexis de Tocqueville, Bastiat was an astute observer of the society of his time as well as a visionary of what unrestrained democracy might lead to, as the following passage shows:
Whatever the disciples of the Rousseau school think, those who say that they are very advanced and whom I believe to be retarded by twenty centuries, universal suffrage (taking this word in its strictest sense) is not one of the sacred dogmas with regard to which any examination or even doubt is a crime.6
Bastiat points out the logical contradiction of the Rousseauean law-makers who believed that ordinary citizens are naturally inclined to make bad choices in their own lives (but not in choosing their political representatives apparently), so that they must be deprived of their freedom, whereas the elected rulers of society would necessarily be inclined to make good choices concerning the lives of others: “And if humanity is incapable of making its own judgments, why are people talking to us about universal suffrage?”7
Bastiat concludes with a sad commentary on the effects that unbridled democracy has had in France, writing that although the French people “have led all the others in winning their rights, or rather their political guarantees, they nevertheless remain the most governed, directed, administered, taxed, hobbled, and exploited of all peoples.”8
In the pamphlet “Plunder and Law”9 (1850), written before “The Law” appeared, Bastiat had already expressed his uneasiness concerning the idea of universal suffrage:
Following the February revolution, when universal suffrage was proclaimed, I hoped for a moment that its great voice would be heard to say: “No more plunder for anyone, justice for all!” . . . No, by bursting into the National Assembly, each class came to make the law an instrument of plunder for itself according to the principles they upheld. They demanded progressive taxes, free credit, the right to work, the right to state assistance, guaranteed interest rates, a minimum rate of pay, free education, subsidies to industry, etc., etc.; in short, each wanted to live and develop at other people’s expense.10
We thus find in Bastiat’s writings clear statements about the dangerous confusion that exists between two opposite concepts of the law, “law and legislation”—to use the words of the twentieth-century Nobel Prize–winning economist Friedrich Hayek (1899–1992). Legislation is the output of the political process; it is an instrument of plunder and it breeds a war of all against all. But law, properly conceived, is, as Bastiat states, “the common power organized to obstruct injustice and, in short, the law is justice”11 —a straightforward but striking formula that encapsulates a whole body of theory.
In witnessing these processes at work in the French assemblies of 1848 and 1849, Bastiat was led to some important theoretical insights into the nature of the state itself. He most clearly expressed these views in another pamphlet, “The State,” which he wrote in that most revolutionary year of 1848 and from which comes perhaps his best-remembered quotation: “The state is the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else.”12
[6. ]“The Law,” p. 112. Italics in the original.
[7. ]Ibid., p. 140.
[8. ]Ibid., p. 140.
[9. ]See “Plunder and Law,” p. 266.
[10. ]Ibid., p. 273.
[11. ]“The Law,” p. 142. Italics in the original.
[12. ]“The State,” p. 97. Italics in the original.