Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Left, Taxes, and Trade Unions - Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850
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The Left, Taxes, and Trade Unions - 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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The Left, Taxes, and Trade Unions
In Bastiat’s lifelong quest to instill into the French people the ideals of liberty, peace, and prosperity—that is, those principles today associated with the conservative right—Bastiat sat on the parliamentary benches with the left. His political position is more easily understood if one remembers that, in his time, those who sat on the right in the Assembly were mainly conservatives, not classical liberals. They were nostalgic for the ancien régime of the pre-1789 period, namely the era of the monarchy and aristocratic class privileges. In fact, Bastiat was very critical of the efforts made by the wealthiest and most politically connected individuals to protect their own interests by manipulating the power of the legislature and the state. Like his friend and colleague in England Richard Cobden, Bastiat passionately believed that in advocating for free markets, low taxes, and free trade he was defending the interests of the poor.
The difficulty of Bastiat’s balancing act in the Assembly between left and right can clearly be seen in the reaction to two of his speeches: “Discourse on the Tax on Wines and Spirits” (1849) and “The Repression of Industrial Unions” (1849).
In the first speech Bastiat, who represented an agricultural district in which the production of wine was particularly important, attempts to convince his colleagues that the farmers in his locality have to bear an unfair tax burden. He defends the interests of his constituents without compromising what he rightly considers to be the lessons of sound economic theory. What is particularly striking in this speech is the fact that he receives applause from those sitting on the left’s benches. Bastiat points out that poor people suffer the most from state interventionism and that politically influential businessmen are able to induce the state to pass laws giving them protection from foreign competition, with the result that higher prices are created for ordinary consumers.
Bastiat concludes therefore that liberalizing trade and freeing up markets benefit the poor. Note that in Bastiat’s time, as in ours, it was a commonly held view that liberals (in the classical sense of the word) supported business interests over the interests of ordinary consumers. It is fascinating to discover that when Bastiat gave this speech, both the champions of the poor and the supporters of the republic (the left) seemed to understand what he was saying and to approve it. Unfortunately, the applause he received in the Assembly was not followed up by any concrete legislation to bring about the reforms he advocated.
In the second speech, “The Repression of Industrial Unions,” Bastiat opposes legislation that restricts the right of workers to form the unions proposed by the right. Bastiat explains why both businessmen and workers must be granted the freedom to form trade unions; he argues that “the word union is synonymous with association”22 and that human freedom implies the right to associate with whomever and for whatever purpose one chooses. In addition, Bastiat strongly supports the right to strike, since an individual can legitimately decline to sell his or her work and “when it [an action] is innocent in itself, it cannot become guilty because it is carried out by a large number of individuals.”23 He further proclaims, “For what is a slave if not a man obliged by law to work under conditions that he rejects?” This sentence was greeted in the Assembly with repeated shouts of “Hear! Hear!” from the benches of the left.
Contrary to frequently held modern views, Bastiat’s belief is that a consistent (classical) liberal is necessarily against all forms of slavery and is in favor of the right to associate and also to strike, with the important condition that violence is not used. Thus, the state should not forbid trade unions and strikes, but it should punish those who use violence in any strike-related activity. On the basis of these clear principles of individual liberty, Bastiat supported the proposal to allow the creation of trade unions, concluding that “only principles have the power to satisfy people’s minds, to win over their hearts, and to unite all serious minds.”24
[22. ]“The Repression of Industrial Unions,” p. 349. Italics in the original.
[23. ]Ibid., p. 350.
[24. ]Ibid., p. 361.