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4: Property and Law - 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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Property and Law
[vol. 4, p. 275. “Propriété et loi.” Originally published in the 15 May 1848 issue of Le Journal des économistes.]
The confidence of my fellow citizens has given me the title of legislator.
I would certainly have declined this title if I had understood it as Rousseau did.
“He who dares undertake to provide institutions to a people,” he said, “must feel that he is capable, so to speak, of changing human nature, of transforming each individual who, of himself, is a perfect and solitary whole, into a part of a much greater whole from which this individual is to receive to a certain degree his life and being; of changing the physical constitution of man in order to strengthen it, etc., etc. If it is true that a great prince is a rare man, what is to be said of a great legislator? The first has only to follow the model that the second has put forward. The second is the inventor of the machine, while the first is only the workman who assembles it and makes it work.”1
Since Rousseau was convinced that the social state was a human invention, he had to place law and the legislator on a high pedestal. Between the legislator and the rest of the human race, he saw the distance or rather the abyss that separates the inventor from the inert matter of which the machine is made.
According to him, the law ought to transform people and create or not create property. According to me, society, people, and property existed before the laws, and, to limit myself to a particular question, I would say: It is not because there are laws that there is property, but it is because there is property that there are laws.
The opposition of these two systems is radical. The consequences that result from them are constantly divergent; let me therefore set out the question clearly.
I warn you first of all that I am taking the word property in a general sense and not in the restricted sense of landed property. I regret, and probably all economists regret with me, that this word involuntarily awakens in us the idea of possession of land. What I mean by property is the right the worker has over the value he has created through his work.
That having been said, I ask myself whether this right is a creation of the law or if it is not, on the contrary, prior to and higher than the law, whether it was necessary for the law to give birth to the right of property or whether, on the contrary, property was a fact and right that existed before the law and that had given rise to it? In the first case the mission of the legislator is to organize, amend, and even eliminate property if he thinks this right; in the second his powers are limited to guaranteeing it and ensuring that it is respected.
From the preamble to a draft constitution issued by one of the greatest thinkers of modern times, M. Lamennais, I quote:
The French people declare that they acknowledge rights and duties that predate and are greater than all the positive laws and that are independent of them.
These rights and duties, directly handed down by God, are summarized in the triple dogma expressed by these sacred words: equality, liberty, fraternity.
I put the question whether the rights of property are not among those that, very far from deriving from positive law, predate the law and are its raison d’être.
This is not, as might be thought, a slight or pointless question. It is a vast and fundamental one. The answer to it is of the highest concern to society, something you will be convinced of, I hope, once I have compared the origins and effects of the two opposing theoretical systems.
Economists consider that property, like the person, is a providential fact. The law does not give existence to one any more than to the other. Property is a necessary consequence of the constitution of man.
In the full sense of the word, man is born a property owner, since he is born with needs whose satisfaction is essential to life, with organs and faculties whose exercise is essential to the satisfaction of these needs. These faculties are merely an extension of the person, and property is just an extension of these faculties. To separate man from his faculties is to make him die; to separate man from the product of his faculties is once again to make him die.
There are political writers who are greatly preoccupied with finding out how God ought to have made man. For our part, we study man as God has made him. We ascertain that he cannot live without satisfying his needs, that he cannot provide for his needs without work, and that he cannot work if he is not certain of applying the fruits of his work to his needs.
This is why we consider that property is a divine institution and that its safety and protection are the object of human law.
It is so true that property predates the law that it is acknowledged even by primitive people who have no laws or at least no written laws. When a savage has devoted his work to building himself a hut, no one disputes his possession or ownership of it. Doubtless another savage who is stronger than he can drive him out but not without angering and alarming the entire tribe. It is actually this abuse of strength that gives rise to association, agreement, and the law, which places public force in the service of property. Therefore the law arises out of property, a far cry from property arising from law.
It can be said that the principle of property is even recognized by animals. The swallow tends her young family with care in the nest she has built with her own efforts.
Even plants live and thrive by assimilation, by appropriation. They appropriate substances, the elements of air and salts that are within their reach. You have only to interrupt this phenomenon for them to dry up and die.
In the same way, men live and develop through appropriation. Appropriation is a natural and providential phenomenon that is essential to life, and property is only appropriation that has become a right through work. When work has rendered assimilable and appropriable substances that were not so, I really do not see how it can be claimed that, in law, the phenomenon of appropriation has to be attained for the benefit of an individual other than he who has carried out the work.
It is in view of these primordial facts, necessary consequences of the very constitution of man, that the law intervenes. Since the aspiration toward life and development may induce a strong man to despoil a weak one, thus violating the rights of production, it has been agreed that the strength of all would be devoted to the prevention and repression of violence. The purpose of the law is therefore to ensure respect for property. It is not property that is conventional but law.
Let us now seek the origin of the opposing theoretical system.
All of our past constitutions proclaimed that property is sacred, which appears to assign to our coming together as a society the purpose of the free development either of individuals or of particular associations by means of work. This implies that property is a right that predates the law, law’s only objective being to guarantee property.
I wonder, however, whether this declaration has not been introduced into our charters instinctively, so to speak, by virtue of catchwords, of language spoken long ago, and above all I wonder whether it is at the root of all social convictions.
Now, if it is true, as people say, that literature is the expression of society, doubts may be raised in this connection, since it is certain that never have political writers, after having respectfully saluted the principle of property, so oft en called for the intervention of the law, not in order to have property respected but to amend, alter, transform, fine-tune, weigh down, and organize property, credit, and labor.
Now, this supposes that an absolute power over people and property is attributed to the law and consequently to the legislator.
This may distress us but it should not surprise us.
From where do we draw our ideas on these subjects, especially our notion of law? In Latin books and in Roman law.
I have not studied my Roman law, but it is enough for me to know that this is the source of our ideas to be able to assert that these ideas are erroneous. The Romans had to regard property as purely conventional, a product and an artificial creation of the written law. Obviously, the Romans could not, as political economy does, go back to the constitution of man and perceive the relationship and necessary links between these phenomena: needs, faculties, work, and property. This would have been a suicidal error. How could they, who lived by pillage, all their property being the fruit of plunder and their means of existence based on the labor of slaves, have brought into their legislation, without shaking the foundations of their society, the notion that the true title of property was produced by work? No, they could neither say this nor think it. They had to have recourse to the following empirical definition of property: jus utendi et abutendi,2 a definition that relates only to effects and not to causes or origins, since they were clearly obliged to keep the origins dark.
It is sad to think that the science of law in our country and in the nineteenth century is still at the level of ideas that the presence of slavery must have inspired in the classical world, but there is an explanation for this. The teaching of law is a monopoly in France, and monopoly rules out progress.
It is true that jurists do not mold the entire range of public opinion, but it has to be said that university and church education is a marvelous preparation for the young people of France to receive the erroneous notions of jurists on these subjects since, as though the better to make sure of this, for the ten finest years of our life, it plunges us all into this atmosphere of war and slavery that enveloped and permeated Roman society.
Let us not therefore be surprised to see reproducing itself in the eighteenth century this Roman idea that property is a mere convention and a legal institution, that far from law being a corollary of property, it is property that is a corollary of law. We know that according to Rousseau not only property but also society as a whole was the result of a contract, an invention originating in the mind of the legislator.
“Social order is a sacred right which forms the basis of all the others. However, this right does not come from nature. It is therefore based on conventions.”3
Thus, the right that is the basis of all the others is purely conventional. Therefore property, which is a subsequent right, is also conventional. It does not come from nature.
Robespierre was imbued with the ideas of Rousseau. From what the pupil had to say on property, we can recognize the theories and even the form of oratory of the master.
Citizens, I will first of all put before you a few articles which are necessary to complete your theory of property. Let no one be alarmed by the use of this word. You souls of mud, who esteem only gold, I do not wish to touch your treasures, however tainted their source. . . . For my part, I would prefer to be born in Fabricius’s hut than in Lucullus’s palace, etc., etc.4
I will draw to your attention here that when you analyze the notion of property, it is irrational and dangerous to make this word a synonym of opulence and in particular of ill-gotten opulence. Fabricius’s cottage is just as much an item of property as Lucullus’s palace. However, may I draw the reader’s attention to the following sentence, which sums up this entire outlook?
In defining liberty, this primary need of man, the most sacred of the rights he holds from nature, we have correctly stated that its limit lies in the rights of others. Why have you not applied this principle to property, which is a social institution, as though the eternal laws of nature were less inviolable than the conventions of mankind?
Following these introductory remarks, Robespierre establishes the principles in these terms:
Article 1: Property is the right of each citizen to enjoy and dispose of the portion of goods which is guaranteed to him by the law.
Article 2: The right to property is limited, like all others, by the obligation to respect the rights of others.5
In this way, Robespierre contrasts liberty and property. These are two rights with different origins: one comes from nature; the other is a social institution. The first is natural, the second conventional.
The common limit that Robespierre places on these two rights ought, it would seem, to have led him to think that they have the same source. Whether it is a question of liberty or property, respecting others’ rights is not to destroy or alter that right; it is to acknowledge and confirm it. It is precisely because property is a right that predates the law just as liberty does that both exist only on condition that they respect the rights of others, and the mission of the law is to ensure that this limit is respected, which means that it recognizes and maintains the very principle of it.
Be that as it may, it is certain that Robespierre, following Rousseau’s example, considered property to be a social institution, like a convention. In no way did he link it to its true justification, which lies in work. It is the right of disposal of the portion of goods guaranteed by the law, he said.
I have no need to remind you here that through Rousseau and Robespierre the Roman notion of property has been transmitted to all our so-called socialist schools. We know that the first volume by Louis Blanc on the Revolution6 is an extravagant eulogy to the Geneva philosopher and to the leader of the Convention.
Thus, this idea that the right of property is a social institution, that it is an invention of the legislator, a creation of the law, in other words, that it is unknown to man in a state of nature, this idea, say I, has been transmitted from the Romans to us through the teaching of law, classical studies, the political writers of the eighteenth century, the revolutionaries of’93, and the theorists of organization of today.7
Let us now move on to the consequences of the two theoretical systems that I have just contrasted beginning with the jurist view.
The first step is to open a limitless field to the imagination of utopian thinkers.
This is obvious. Once we establish the principle that property takes its existence from the law, there are as many possible means of organizing production as there are possible laws in the minds of dreamers. Once we establish the principle that the legislator is responsible for arranging, combining, and molding both people and property at will, there is no limit to the imaginable means by which people and property can be arranged, combined, and molded. Right now, there are certainly more than five hundred projects on the organization of production circulating in Paris, not counting an equal number of projects on the organization of credit. Doubtless these plans contradict one another, but they have in common the fact that they are based on this consideration: the law has created the right of property; the legislator is the absolute master in disposing of workers and the fruits of their work.
Among these projects, those that have attracted the greatest public attention are those by Fourier, Saint-Simon, Owen, Cabet, and Louis Blanc. However, it would be madness to think that these five methods of organization are the only ones possible. Their number is boundless. Every morning a new one may be hatched, more attractive than yesterday’s, and I leave you to imagine what would happen to the human race if, when one of these inventions was imposed on it, another more-specious one was suddenly revealed. The human race would be reduced to the choice of either changing its way of carrying on every morning or continuing forever down a path known to be erroneous, just because it had once set out on this path.
A second consequence is to arouse the thirst for power in all dreamers. Let us suppose that I have thought out a system for organizing work. Setting out my system and expecting people to adopt it if it is a good one would be to suppose that the prerogative of action lies with them. However, in the system that I am examining the principle of action lies with the legislator. “The legislator,” as Rousseau says, “must feel that he has the strength to transform human nature.”8 This being so, my ambition should be to become a legislator in order to impose the social order of my devising.
It is also clear that systems based on the idea that the right to property is a social institution all lead either to the most highly concentrated privilege or the most fundamental communism, depending on the good or bad intentions of the inventor. If he has sinister designs, he will make use of the law to enrich a few at the expense of all. If he obeys philanthropic impulses, he will want to equalize the level of well-being, and to do this he will think of stipulating that each person should legally share equally of the products created. It remains to be seen whether, under these conditions, it is possible to engage in production.
With regard to this, the Luxembourg Palace9 recently offered us an extraordinary sight. A few days after the February revolution, in the middle of the nineteenth century, did we not hear a man who was more than a minister, a member of the provisional government, a civil servant invested with unlimited revolutionary authority speak in the name of liberty and coldly ask whether, in distributing salaries, it was a good thing to take account of the strength, talent, activity, and skill of the worker, that is to say the wealth he produced, or whether it was not better to disregard these personal virtues and their beneficial effect and in future give everyone the same pay. The question amounts to this: will a meter of cloth sold by a lazy man be sold for the same price as two meters offered by someone who is industrious? And, something that beggars belief, this man has proclaimed that he preferred profits to be uniform, whatever the work offered for sale, and in his wisdom he has decided that although two equals two by nature, they would in future be by law only one.
That is what happens when we act on the basis that the law is stronger than nature.
His audience apparently grasped the fact that the very constitution of man rose up against such an arbitrary decision and that people would never allow one meter of cloth to claim the same remuneration as two meters. If this were to be so, the competition that he wished to abolish would be replaced by another form of competition a thousand times more deadly: everyone would compete to work the least and demonstrate the least activity since, by law, the reward would be always guaranteed and equal for all.
However, Citizen Blanc had foreseen the objection and, to prevent this sweet do-nothing, alas so natural to man when work is not rewarded, he had thought of setting up a post in each commune on which would be inscribed the names of those who were lazy. However, he did not say whether there would be inquisitors to uncover the sin of laziness, courts in which to judge it, and gendarmes to execute the sentence. It should be noted that utopians never concern themselves with the huge machine of government indispensable for putting their legal machinery in motion.
Since the delegates in the Luxembourg Palace were rather incredulous, Citizen Vidal, Citizen Blanc’s secretary, appeared to complete his master’s thought. Using Rousseau’s example, Citizen Vidal suggested nothing less than changing the nature of man and the laws of Providence.10
It has pleased Providence to place within each individual certain needs and their consequences and faculties and their consequences, thus creating personal interest, in other words, an instinct for preservation and a love of development that is the mainspring of the human race. M. Vidal will be changing all that. He has looked at the work of God and seen that it was not good. Consequently, starting from the principle that the law and the legislator can do anything, he will be abolishing personal interest by decree and replacing it by point of honor.
Men will no longer work to live, to provide for and raise their families, but to obey a point of honor, to avoid the hangman’s noose, as though this new motive were not still a personal interest of another kind.
M. Vidal constantly refers to what the question of honor encourages armies to do. But alas! Everything must be stated clearly, and if the wish is to regiment workers we should be told whether the military code, with its thirty transgressions carrying the death penalty, would become the labor code!
An even more striking effect of the disastrous principle which I am endeavoring to combat here is the uncertainty it always holds suspended, like the sword of Damocles, over production, capital, trade, and industry. This is so serious that I dare to claim the reader’s entire attention.
In a country like the United States, where the right of property is placed above the law, and where the sole mission of the forces of public order is to have this natural right respected, every individual may with total confidence devote his capital and strength to production. He has no need to fear that his plans and arrangements will be upset by the legislative power from one minute to the next.
But when on the contrary, on the principle that it is not work but the law that is the basis of property, all the creators of utopias are allowed to impose their arrangements generally and through the authority of decrees, who can fail to see that all the farsightedness and prudence that nature has implanted in men’s hearts are being turned against industrial progress?
Where is the bold speculator now who would dare to set up a factory or take on a business? Yesterday, it was decreed that people would be allowed to work for only a given number of hours.11 Now it is being decreed that the payment for this type of work will be fixed, and who can predict what will be decreed tomorrow, the day after tomorrow, and the days after that? Once the legislator has set himself at such an incommensurable distance from other men and in all conscience thinks that he can dispose of their time, work, transactions, everything that is property, what man in all the land will have the slightest knowledge of what constraints he and his profession will be placed under tomorrow by the law? And in such circumstances, who will be able or want to undertake anything?
I certainly do not deny that, among the innumerable systems to which this erroneous principle will give rise, many and perhaps the majority will be based on benevolent and generous intentions. But what is to be feared is the principle itself. The manifest aim of each individual arrangement is to equalize well-being. But the even more manifest effect of the principle on which these arrangements are based is to equalize deprivation; I cannot put this too plainly, it will reduce affluent families to the ranks of the poor and decimate poor families through illness and starvation.
I admit that I am afraid for the future of my country when I consider the gravity of the financial difficulties that this dangerous precedent will make even worse.
On 24 February, we found a budget that exceeds the proportions that France can reasonably achieve and what is more, according to the current minister of finance, with nearly a billion francs in debts that are for immediate repayment.
Because of this situation, already alarming enough, expenditure has steadily increased and revenue steadily decreased.
That is not all. Two types of promises have been tossed with a boundless prodigality to the general public. According to one lot, they are going to be given a countless mass of institutions that are beneficial but expensive. According to the second lot, all taxes will be reduced. In this way, on the one hand the numbers of day nurseries, asylums, primary schools, free secondary schools, workshops, and industrial pensions will be increased. The owners of slaves will be indemnified and the slaves themselves paid damages. The state will found credit institutions, lend workers their instruments of work, double the size of the army, reorganize the navy, etc., etc., and on the other hand it will abolish the salt tax, city tolls, and all the most unpopular contributions.
Certainly, whatever idea one has of the resources of France, it has at least to be admitted that such resources must increase if they are to meet twin aspirations that are so vast in scale and so contradictory in appearance.
But, in the midst of this extraordinary movement, which might be considered beyond human strength even when the entire energy of the country is being directed toward productive work, a cry can be heard: the right toproperty is a creation of the law. Consequently, the legislator can issue, at any time and in accordance with the theoretical systems with which he is imbued, decrees that overturn all the arrangements made by industry. Workers are not the owners of any object or thing of value because they have created these through their work but because the laws in effect today guarantee this. Tomorrow’s law may withdraw this guarantee, at which time property will no longer be legitimate.
I ask you, what is bound to happen? Capital and production are terrified; they can no longer count on the future. Under the influence of a doctrine like this, capital will hide, flee, and be reduced to nothing. And what will then happen to the workers, these very workers for whom you profess such a lively, sincere, but so unenlightened affection? Will they be better fed when farming production has ceased? Will they be better clothed when no one dares start up a factory? Will they be more fully occupied when capital has vanished?
And taxes, where will you obtain these? And the financial position, how will this be restored? How are you going to pay the army? How will you pay your debts? What money will there be to lend for investment in machinery? With what resources will you support the charitable institutions whose existence it is so easy to decree?
I hasten to abandon these somber considerations. It remains for me to examine the consequences of the opposite principle that prevails today, namely, the “economists’ principle,”12 the principle that attributes the right of property to labor [travail] and not to the law; the principle that says that property existed before the law; the sole mission of the law is to ensure respect for property wherever it is and wherever it is formed, in whatever manner in which the worker has created it, either in isolation or in association, provided that he respects the rights of others.
First, just as the jurists’ principle virtually implies slavery, that of the economists espouses liberty. Property, the right to enjoy the fruit of your labor, the right to work, develop yourself, and exercise your faculties as you please without the intervention of the state except in its protective role, that is liberty. And I still cannot understand why the many partisans of opposing persuasions allow the word liberty to remain on the republican flag. It is said that some of them have removed it and substituted the word solidarity. Such people are more frank and consistent. However, they should have put communism, not solidarity, since the solidarity of interests, like property, exists outside the law.
It also implies unity. We have already seen this. If the legislator creates the right to property, there are as many ways for property to exist as there may be errors in the minds of utopians, that is to say, an infinite number. If, on the other hand, the right to property is a providential fact that predates any human legislation and the aim of human legislation is to ensure its respect, there is no place for any other arrangements.
It is also security, and this is perfectly clear: if a people fully acknowledge that each person has to provide for his means of existence but also that each person has a right to the fruit of his work that predates and is higher than the law, also that human law has been necessary and has intervened only to guarantee to all the freedom to work and the property of the fruit of that work, it is clearly evident that a totally secure future opens out before human activity. It no longer has to fear that legislative power will through successive decrees stop its efforts, disrupt its arrangements, and bring to nothing its forecasts. Within the shelter of this security capital will spring up rapidly. The rapid increase in capital, for its part, is the sole reason for growth in the value of labor. The working classes will therefore become better off and will themselves contribute to providing new sources of capital. They will be increasingly capable of freeing themselves from wage-labor,13 becoming partners in the businesses, founding their own businesses, and recovering their dignity.
Last, the eternal principle that the state should not be a producer but should provide security for producers would inexorably lead to economy and order in public finances. The implication is that only this principle makes it possible to establish a good foundation and just distribution for taxes.
In fact, we should never forget that the state has no resources of its own. It has nothing and it owns nothing that it does not take from workers. Therefore, when it interferes in everything, it substitutes the grim and expensive activity of its agents for private activity. If, as happens in the United States, people came to realize with regard to this matter that the mission of the state is to provide a perfectly safe context for all, the state would be able to accomplish this mission with a few hundred million. This saving, combined with economic prosperity, would at last make it possible to establish a single direct tax which would bear only on actual property, of whatever kind.
But for this contingency we would have to wait until a few experiences, sometimes cruel ones, had somewhat diminished our faith in the state and increased our faith in humanity.
I will end with a few words on the Free Trade Association. It has oft en been reproached for this title. Its opponents have rejoiced, and its supporters have regretted, what both have considered to be a fault.
“Why cause alarm in this way?” say its partisans. “Why emblazon a principle on your flag? Why do you not limit yourselves to demanding those wise and prudent alterations to the customs tariff that time has made necessary and experience has shown to be opportune?”
Why? First, because, in my view at least, free trade has never been a matter of customs and tariffs but a question of right, justice, public order, and property. Second, because privilege, in whatever form it is manifested, implies a negation or scorn for property. Third, because state intervention to level out fortunes, increasing some shares at the expense of others, is communism, just as one drop of water is water just as the entire ocean is water.
Fourth, because I foresaw that once the principle of property has been undermined in one form, it would soon be attacked in a thousand different forms. Fifth, because I did not quit my solitude to pursue a partial amendment of the tariffs, which would have implied my adherence to the false notion that law predates property, but to fly to the aid of the opposite principle, compromised by protectionism. Finally, because I was convinced that the landowners and capitalists had themselves, with the tariff, sown the seed of the communism that terrifies them now, since they were demanding additional profits from the law at the expense of the working classes. I could see clearly that the working classes would not be slow to demand, in the name of equality, the benefits of the law applied to leveling out well-being, which is communism.
Let people read the first statement of principles issued by our Association, the program drawn up in a preparatory session on 10 May 1846; this will convince them of our central approach.
Trade is a natural right, like property. Every citizen who has created or acquired a product should have the option either of using it immediately or of selling it to someone anywhere in the world who is willing to give him what he wants in exchange. Depriving him of this faculty, when he is not using it for a purpose contrary to public order or morals and solely to satisfy the convenience of another citizen, is to justify plunder and violate the laws of justice.
It also violates the conditions of order, since what order can exist within a society in which each economic activity, with the assistance of the law and the powers of government, seeks success by oppressing all the others?
We placed this question so far above that of tariffs that we added the following:
The undersigned do not dispute society’s right to establish, on goods that cross the border, taxes intended to meet common expenditure, provided that they are determined by the needs of the treasury.
However, as soon as the tax loses its fiscal nature and is aimed at discouraging foreign products—to the detriment of the tax authorities themselves—in order to raise the price of a similar home product artificially and thus hold the community to ransom for the benefit of a particular class of people, it then becomes protection or rather plunder, and these are the ideas and practices that the Association is seeking to discredit and remove totally from our laws.
Of course, if we had pursued only the immediate modification of the tariffs, if we, as was claimed, had been the agents only of a few commercial interests, we would have taken care not to emblazon on our flag a word that implies a principle. Does anyone believe that I did not foresee the obstacles that this declaration of war against injustice would raise for us? Did I not know full well that by scheming, concealing our aim, and hiding half of our thought we would arrive more quickly at this or that partial victory? But how would these triumphs, which are fleeting anyway, have identified and safeguarded the great principle of property which we ourselves would have kept in the shadows and ruled out?
I repeat, we were asking for the abolition of the protectionist regime, not as a good government measure but as justice, as the achievement of freedom, as the rigorous consequence of a right that is higher than the law. We should not conceal behind its outward form that which we most desire.14
The time is coming when it will be recognized that we were right in not agreeing to insert a catch, a trap, a surprise, or an ambiguity in the title of our Association but rather a frank expression of an eternal principle of order and justice, since only principles have power. They alone are the flame of intelligent minds or the rallying point for misguided convictions.
Recently, a universal shiver of terror has run through the entire territory of France. At the single word communism, every soul has become alarmed. Seeing the strangest systems appear in broad daylight and almost officially, and subversive decrees issued in succession, which may be followed by even more subversive ones, everyone has asked himself where we are all going. Capital has become terrified, credit has fled, work has been suspended, and the saw and hammer have been stopped in mid task as though a disastrous and universal electric current had suddenly paralyzed both mind and arm. Why? Because the principle of property, whose essence has already been compromised by the protectionist regime, has suffered further violent shocks as a consequence of the first. Because the intervention of the law with regard to industry and as a way of adjusting values and redistributing wealth, an intervention of which the protectionist regime was the first manifestation, is threatening to reveal itself in a thousand known or unknown forms. Yes, I say it loud and clear; it is the landowners, those who are considered to be property owners par excellence, who have undermined the principle of property, because they have called upon the law to give their lands and products an artificial value. It is the capitalists who have suggested the idea of leveling out wealth by law. Protectionism was the forerunner of communism; I will go even further, it was its first manifestation. For what are the suffering classes asking for now? Nothing other than what the capitalists and landowners have asked for and obtained. They are asking for the intervention of the law to balance, adjust, equalize wealth. What the capitalists and landowners have done by means of customs, the poor want to do by way of other institutions, but the principle is always the same: to take from some people on the basis of legislation to give the proceeds to others, and certainly, since it is you, property owners and capitalists, who have had this disastrous principle accepted, you should not complain if those more unfortunate than you claim the benefit. They have at least a right to it that you did not.15
But at last our eyes are being opened, and we see toward what abyss this initial blow against the essential conditions of public safety is driving us. Is this not a terrible lesson, clear proof of the chain of cause and effect through which at long last the justice of providential retribution is appearing, when we now see the rich terrified out of their wits by the invasion of a false doctrine whose iniquitous foundations they themselves laid and whose consequences they thought they could peacefully turn to their own profit? Yes, protectionists, you have been the promoters of communism. Yes, landowners, you have destroyed in people’s minds the true concept of property. It is political economy that disseminates this concept; and you have proscribed political economy because, in the name of the right to property, it opposed your unjust privileges.16 And when they have seized power, what has also been the first thought of these modern schools of thought that so terrify you? It is to eliminate political economy, since economic science is a constant protestation against the legal leveling out that you have sought and others are seeking today, following your example. You have asked the law for things that are far and away beyond what may be demanded of the law. You have asked it not for security (which would have been your right) but for added value on what belongs to you, which could not be given to you without damaging the rights of others. Now the folly of your claims has become universal folly. And if you wish to stave off the storm that threatens to engulf you, you have just one means left. Acknowledge your mistake; renounce your privileges; restrict the law to its own powers and limit the legislator to his role. You have abandoned us and you have attacked us, probably because you did not understand us. At the sight of the abyss you have opened up with your own hands, make haste to come over to our side and adopt our propaganda in favor of the right to property by, I repeat, giving this word its widest meaning, including in it both the faculties of man and all that they are able to produce, whether in production or trade!
The doctrine that we are defending arouses a certain mistrust because of its extreme simplicity; it limits itself to asking the law for security for all. People find it hard to believe that the mechanics of government can be reduced to these proportions. What is more, since this doctrine encloses the law within the limits of universal justice, some reproach it for excluding fraternity. Political economy does not accept this accusation. That will be the subject of another article.
[1. ]Rousseau, Du contrat social, bk. 2, chap. 7.
[2. ]“The right of using and abusing.”
[3. ]Rousseau, Du contrat social, bk. 1, chap. 1.
[4. ]Gaius Fabricius Luscinus was a Roman ambassador and consul (282 bc) renowned for his probity, incorruptibility, and parsimonious life. He was much admired by Cicero as a model of good behavior. Lucius Licinius Lucullus (117 bc–57 bc) was a successful Roman general who amassed a huge fortune during his twenty years of military service. He used his wealth to build sumptuous palaces, libraries, and gardens in Rome.
[5. ]Bastiat is quoting from a speech Robespierre gave in the National Convention on 24 April 1793. In this speech Robespierre argues that the Convention in its deliberations on a new Declaration of the Rights of Man and the Citizen (which it passed in June) was too favorable to the natural right of property and did not give adequate attention to the “social” and “moral” aspects of property. He gave his own formulation in four articles, two of which Bastiat quotes above. The third and fourth articles, which Bastiat did not quote, are quoted here: Article 3: “He (the citizen) can harm neither the security, liberty, existence, nor property of others.” Article 4: “All possession, all exchange (traffic) which violates this principle is illicit and immoral.” Robespierre then offers his own proposal for a Declaration of Rights, which is turned down by the Convention as too radical. (Œuvres de Maximilien Robespierre, vol. 3, pp. 352–53.)
[6. ]Bastiat is referring to Blanc’s Histoire de la Révolution française. The first and second volumes appeared before the revolution of 1848 broke out.
[7. ]Bastiat distinguishes between the “revolutionaries of 1789” and the “revolutionaries of 1793.” By the former he means the liberals and constitutional monarchists, such as the Girondin group, who wanted to replace the monarchy and the ancien régime with a new regime limited by a constitution and the rule of law. By the latter he means the radical Jacobins around Robespierre, who used the Terror to eliminate their enemies and to introduce socialist legislation between 1793 and 1795. (See also the entry for “Girondins” in the Glossary of Subjects and Terms and the entry for “Robespierre, Maximilien de,” in the Glossary of Persons.)
[8. ]Rousseau, Du contrat social et autres œuvres politiques, p. 260.
[9. ]The Luxembourg Palace was the seat of the Government Commission for the Workers, created on 20 February 1848. Louis Blanc was the president and François Vidal, the secretary.
[10. ](Paillottet’s note) See vol. 1 for the report on the work by M. Vidal on the Distribution of Wealth and vol. 2 for the reply to five letters published by M. Vidal in the journal La Presse. (OC, vol. 1, p. 440, “De la répartition des richesses”; and vol. 2, p. 147, “L’Organisation et liberté.”)
[11. ]The decree of 2 March (1848) appeared in the first few weeks of the new regime that came to power following the February revolution of 1848. The decree limited working time to ten hours a day in Paris and eleven hours in the provinces.
[12. ]Bastiat uses the expression “le principe économiste,” which is the name that the free-market political economists gave themselves in France, for example, Le Journal des économistes. See also the term “Les Économistes” in the Glossary of Subjects and Terms.
[13. ]That is, workers paid by the hour.
[14. ](Paillottet’s note) See in vol. 1 the letter dated January 1845 and addressed to M. de Lamartine on the Right to Work. (OC, vol. 1, p. 406, “Du droit au travail.”)
[15. ](Paillottet’s note) See vol. 2 for a group of articles on the question of subsistence and, following this, Protectionism and Communism. (OC, vol. 2, pp. 63ff., “Subsistances”; and vol. 4, p. 504, “Protectionisme et communisme.”)
[16. ](Paillottet’s note) See vol. 5, Plunder and Law—The War Against Chairs of Political Economy. (OC, vol. 5, p. 16, “Guerre aux chaires d’économie politique.”)