Front Page Titles (by Subject) 9: The Law - Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850
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9: The 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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[vol. 4, p. 342. “La Loi.” Bastiat wrote this pamphlet while vacationing with his family in Mugron. June 1850. n.p.]
The law corrupt? The law—and in its train all the collective forces of the nation—the law, I repeat, not only turned aside from its purpose but used to pursue a purpose diametrically opposed to it! The law turned into an instrument of all forms of cupidity instead of being a brake on them! The law itself accomplishing the iniquity it was intended to punish! This is certainly a serious occurrence if it is true, and one to which I must be allowed to draw the attention of my fellow citizens.
We hold from God the gift that encompasses them all: life; physical, intellectual, and moral life.
However, life is not self-supporting. He who has given it to us has left us the job of looking after it, developing it, and improving it.
To do this, He has provided us with a set of exceptional faculties and immersed us in a milieu of diverse elements. It is through the application of our faculties to these elements that the phenomena of assimilation and appropriation take place, through which life proceeds along the circle allocated to it.
Existence, faculties, and assimilation—in other words, personality, freedom, and property—this is man in a nutshell.
It may be said that these three things, leaving aside any demagogical hair-splitting, precede and supersede all human legislation.
It is not because men have enacted laws that personality, freedom, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, freedom, and property are already in existence that men enact laws.
What is the law, then? As I have said elsewhere, it is the collective organization of the individual right of legitimate defense.1
Each of us certainly holds from nature and God the right to defend our person, our freedom, and our property, since these are the three elements that constitute or preserve life, elements that are mutually complementary and that cannot be understood independently of one another. For what are our faculties if not an extension of our personality, and what is property if not an extension of our faculties?
If each person has the right to defend, even by force, his person, his freedom, and his property, several people have the right to join together, to form an understanding and organize themselves into a common force in order to provide lawfully for this defense.
Collective right therefore roots its principle, its raison d’être, and its legitimacy in individual right, and common force cannot rationally have any other aim or mission than those of the individual forces for which it is a substitute.
Thus, since force on the individual level cannot legitimately be aimed at the person, freedom, or property of another individual, by the same argument force cannot legitimately be used collectively to destroy the person, freedom, or property of either individuals or classes.
This is because such misuse of force would in either case be a contradiction of our premises. Who would dare to say that we were given such power not to defend our rights, but to reduce the equal rights of our fellows to nothing? And if this is not true for each individual acting in isolation, how can it be true for collective power, which is nothing other than the organized union of the power of individuals?
Therefore, if there is one thing that is clear, it is this: law is the organization of the natural right of legitimate defense. It is the substitution of collective for individual power to facilitate action in the area in which individuals have the right to act, that is to say, to do what they have the right to do. It serves to guarantee the integrity of persons, freedoms, and property; to maintain each person within his right; and to ensure the reign of justice among all.
And if there were a people constituted on this basis, I consider that order would prevail both in fact and in theory. I consider that this people would have the simplest, the most economical, the least heavy, the least felt, the least culpable, the most just, and hence the most solid government imaginable, whatever its political form.
For, under such a regime, each person would fully understand that he had full enjoyment as well as full responsibility for his existence. Provided that each person was respected, work was free, and the fruits of work protected against any unjust infringement, no one would have any cause to take issue with the state. So long as we were happy, we would not, it is true, have to thank it for our success; however, should we be unhappy, we would no more attribute this to the state than our farmers would attribute hail and frost to it. Its only effect on us would be the inestimable benefit of security.
We can also state that, thanks to the noninterference of the state in private affairs, needs and satisfactions would develop naturally. We would not see poor families seeking literary education before they had bread. We would not see towns growing in population at the expense of the countryside or the countryside at the expense of towns. We would not see those large-scale migrations of capital, labor, or populations triggered by legislative measures, migrations that render the very sources of existence so uncertain and precarious and which increase the responsibility of governments to such a great extent.
Unfortunately, the law is far from being limited to its proper role. It is far from deviating from it only according to neutral and questionable opinions. It has done worse: it has acted against its own purposes; it has destroyed its own aim; it has concentrated on abolishing the justice which it should have put in command and effacing the boundaries between various rights that its mission was to uphold. It has placed collective power at the disposal of those who wish to exploit persons, freedom, or the property of others without risk or scruple; it has converted plunder into right in order to protect it and legitimate defense into crime in order to punish it.
How has this corruption of the law come about? What have its consequences been?
The law has become corrupt under the influence of two very different causes: unintelligent selfishness and bogus philanthropy.
Let us take the first of these.
Protecting and developing oneself is an aspiration common to all men to the extent that if each person enjoyed the free exercise of his faculties and the free disposition of his attendant products, social progress would be constant, uninterrupted, and unerring.
However, there is another disposition that is just as common to them. That is to live and grow, when they can, at the expense of others. This is not a fortuitous allegation from someone with a bitter and pessimistic turn of mind. History gives examples of such a disposition through the constant wars, migrations of populations, oppression by religious leaders, universal slavery, industrial fraud, and monopolies with which its annals are filled.
This disastrous disposition arises from the very constitution of man, in the primitive, universal, and invincible sentiment that propels him toward well-being and makes him flee suffering.
Man can live and enjoy life only by assimilation and personal appropriation, that is to say, by a constant application of his faculties to things or by work. Hence property.
However, in practice, he can live and enjoy life by assimilating or appropriating to himself the product of the faculties of his fellow men. Hence plunder.
Well, since work is in itself a burden and since man by his nature is drawn to escape burdens, it follows, and history is there to prove it, that wherever plunder is less burdensome than work, it triumphs over work. This happens without religion or morality being able to stop it.
When, then, will plunder cease? When it becomes more of a burden or more dangerous than work.
It is very clear that the aim of the law has to be to oppose the powerful obstacle of collective power to this disastrous tendency and that it has to be on the side of property against plunder.
But the law is, in the majority of cases, established by one man or a class of men. And since the law has no existence without the sanction or support of an overwhelming force, the very probable result is that this force is finally placed in the hands of those who make the laws.
This inevitable phenomenon, combined with the disastrous tendency we have noted in men’s hearts, explains the almost universal corruption of the law. It can be seen how, instead of being a brake on injustice, the law becomes an instrument and the most invincible instrument of injustice. It can be seen that, depending on the power of the legislator, to his profit and to varying degrees, the law destroys personality by slavery, freedom by oppression, and property by plunder among the bulk of mankind.
It is in the nature of men to react against the iniquity of which they are the victims. Therefore, when plunder is organized by law for the benefit of the classes that make it, all the classes that have been plundered attempt, by either peaceful or revolutionary means, to have a say in the making of laws. Depending on the level of enlightenment which they have attained, these classes may set themselves two very different aims when they pursue the acquisition of their political rights; they may either wish to stop legal plunder or they may aspire to take part in it.
Woe and misery three times over to any nation in which this last thought dominates the masses at the time when they in turn take the helm of the legislative power!
Up to now, legal plunder has been exercised by the minority over the majority as can be seen in those peoples in which the right to pass laws is concentrated in just a few hands. However, it has now become universal and equilibrium is being sought in universal plunder. Instead of the injustice existing in society being rooted out, it has become generalized. As soon as underprivileged classes recover their political rights, their first thought is not to rid themselves of plunder (that would suppose that they had an enlightenment that they cannot have) but to organize a system of reprisals against other classes and to their own detriment, as though it is necessary for a cruel retribution to strike them all, some for their iniquity and others for their ignorance, before the reign of justice is established.
No greater change or misfortune could therefore be introduced into society than this: to have a law that has been converted into an instrument of plunder.
What are the consequences of an upheaval like this? Volumes would be needed to describe them all. Let us content ourselves with pointing out the most striking.
The first is to erase from people’s consciences the notion of the just and the unjust.
No society can exist if respect for the law does not prevail to some degree, but the surest means of ensuring that laws are respected is for them to be worthy of respect. When law and morality contradict one another, citizens find themselves in the cruel quandary of either losing their notion of morality or losing respect for the law, two misfortunes that are equally great and between which it is difficult to choose.
It is so deeply ingrained in the nature of law to ensure that justice reigns, that law and justice are inseparable in the eyes of the masses. We all have a strong disposition to consider what is legal to be legitimate, to the extent that many people mistakenly consider all forms of justice to be founded in law. It is therefore enough for the law to order and consecrate plunder for plunder to appear just and sacred in the understanding of many. Slavery, restrictions, and monopoly find their defenders not only in those who benefit from them but even in those who suffer from them. Try to put forward a few doubts about the morality of these institutions, and you will be told, “You are a dangerous innovator, a utopian, a theoretician, and a despiser of laws; you are undermining the base on which society is built.” Do you give courses on morals or political economy? Official bodies will be found to express the following resolution to the government:
“That such subjects should be taught in the future no longer from the sole point of view of free trade (of freedom, property, and justice), as has been done so far, but also and above all from the point of view of the facts and the legislation (contrary to freedom, property, and justice) which govern economic life in France.
“That in the chairs in public universities whose salaries are paid for by the treasury, the professor should rigorously refrain from undermining in the slightest the respect due to the laws in force,2 etc.”
So that if there is a law that sanctions slavery or monopoly, oppression or plunder in any form, it cannot even be mentioned, since how can it be discussed without undermining the respect it inspires? What is more, it will be mandatory to teach morals and political economy from the point of view of this law, that is to say, on the premise that it is just merely because it is the law.
Another effect of this deplorable corruption of the law is that it gives an exaggerated weight to political passions and conflicts and in general to politics itself.
I could prove this proposition in a thousand ways. I will limit myself to comparing it, as an example, with a subject that has recently been in the minds of all: universal suffrage.
Whatever the disciples of Rousseau 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.
Major objections may be made to it.
First of all, the word universal hides a crude sophism. There are in France thirty-six million inhabitants. In order for the right of suffrage to be universal it would have to be recognized for thirty-six million electors.3 The most generous account recognizes only nine million. Three out of four people are therefore excluded, and what is more they are excluded by the fourth. On what basis is this exclusion founded? On the principle of incapacity. Universal suffrage means the universal suffrage of those capable. There remains this practical question: who is capable? Are age, sex, and criminal record the only signs from which we can recognize incapacity?
If we look closely, we quickly see the reason the right of suffrage rests on the presumption of capacity, since the widest system differs in this respect from the most restricted system only by the appreciation of the signs from which this capacity can be recognized, which does not constitute a difference of principle but of degree.
This reason is that the elector does not stipulate for himself but for everybody.
If, as republicans of Greek and Roman hue claim, the right of suffrage was granted to us with life, it would be iniquitous for adults to prevent women and children from voting. Why should they be prevented from doing so? Because they are deemed to be incapable. And why is incapacity a reason for exclusion? Because the elector is not alone when given responsibility for his vote; because each vote commits and affects the entire community; because the community has the perfect right to demand a few guarantees with regard to the acts on which their well-being and existence depend.
I know what a possible answer might be. I also know what a possible reply to it might be. This is not the place to settle a controversy of this nature. What I want to draw attention to is that this controversy (as well as most political questions), one that so agitates whole nations, inflaming them and causing such distress, would lose almost all its importance if the law had always been what it ought to have been.
In fact, if the law limited itself to ensuring that all persons, freedoms, and properties were respected, if it were merely the organization of the individual right of legitimate defense, the obstacle, brake, and punishment that opposed all forms of oppression and plunder, would you believe that we would argue much, between citizens, as to whether suffrage was more or less universal? Do you believe that it would call into question the greatest of our benefits, public peace? Do you believe that the excluded classes would not wait patiently for their turn? Do you believe that the admitted classes would guard their privilege jealously? And is it not clear that, since personal interest is identical and common, some would take action without very much inconvenience on behalf of the others?
But if this fatal principle were to be introduced, if under the pretext of organization, regulation, protection, and subsidy the law would be able to take from some to give to others, to draw upon the wealth acquired by all classes to increase that of one class—sometimes that of farmers or manufacturers, traders, shipowners, artists, or actors—then, to be sure, in this case, there is no class that would not claim with reason that it too should have a hand in making the law, that would not fervently demand the right to vote and demand its eligibility to receive benefits and that would not overthrow society rather than be denied those benefits. Beggars and vagabonds themselves will prove to you that they have incontestable rights to it. They will say to you, “We never buy wine, tobacco, or salt without paying the tax, and part of this tax is given by law as premiums and subsidies to men who are richer than we are. Others use the law to raise the price of bread, meat, iron, and cloth artificially. Since each one exploits the law to his advantage, we want to exploit it too. We want it to enact the right to assistance, which is the share of plunder for the poor. To do this, we have to be electors and legislators in order to organize widespread alms for our class, just as you have organized widespread protectionism for yours. Do not tell us that you will provide our share and that, in accordance with M. Mimerel’s proposal, you will throw us the sum of six hundred thousand francs to keep us quiet and as a bone to gnaw. We have other claims, and in any case we wish to decide for ourselves, just as the other sectors have decided for themselves!”
What can we say in reply to this argument? Yes, as long as the accepted principle is that the law can be diverted from its proper mission, that it can violate property instead of upholding it, each class will want to make the law, either to defend itself against plunder or to organize it for its own benefit. The political question will always be prejudicial, dominant, and absorbing; in a word, people will be beating on the door of the legislative palace. The conflict will be no less bitter within it. To be convinced of this, it is scarcely necessary to look at what is going on in the debating chambers in France and England; all you need to know is how the question is being put.
Is there any need to prove that this odious perversion of the law is a constant source of hatred and discord, which may go so far as to cause social disruption? Just look at the United States. This is one country in the world in which the law most faithfully fulfills its role to uphold the freedom and property of each person. It is therefore the one country in the world in which social order appears to be based on the most stable foundations. However, within the United States itself there are two questions, and only two questions, which have threatened political order from the outset. What are these two questions? Slavery and tariffs, that is to say, precisely the only two questions in which, contrary to the general spirit of that republic, the law has taken on the character of a plunderer. Slavery is a violation of the rights of the person sanctioned by the law. Protectionism is a violation of the right of property perpetrated by the law. Certainly it is very remarkable that, in the middle of so many other discussions, this twin legal scourge, a sorry inheritance from the old world, is the only one that may lead and perhaps will lead to the breakup of the Union. Indeed, no more significant fact can be imagined within society than this: The law has become an instrument of injustice. And if this fact leads to such momentous consequences in the United States, where it is just an exception, what will it lead to in this Europe of ours, where it is a principle, a system?
M. de Montalembert, referring to the reasoning behind a famous proclamation by M. Carlier, said, “We must make war on socialism.” And by socialism, according to the definition by M. Charles Dupin, we have to understand that he meant plunder.
But what form of plunder was he wishing to talk about? For there are two forms. There is plunder outside the law and there is legal plunder.
As for plunder against the law, which we call theft or fraud and which is defined, provided for, and punished by the Penal Code, I really do not think this can be cloaked in the name of socialism. It is not this that systematically threatens the very foundations of society. Besides, the war against this sort of plunder has not waited for a signal from M. de Montalembert or M. Carlier. It has been waged since the beginning of time. France had already provided for it a long time before the February revolution, long before the apparition of socialism, by a whole apparatus of magistrates, police, gendarmes, prisons, convict settlements, and scaffolds. It is the law itself that wages this war, and what we should be hoping for, in my opinion, is that the law will always retain this attitude with regard to plunder.
But this is not the case. Sometimes the law takes the side of plunder. Sometimes it plunders with its own hands, in order to spare the blushes, the risk, and the scruples of its beneficiary. Sometimes it mobilizes the whole system of magistrates, police, gendarmes, and prisons to serve the plunderer and treats the victim who defends himself as a criminal. In a word, there is legal plunder, and it is doubtless to this that M. de Montalembert is referring.
Such plunder may be just an exceptional stain on the legislation of a people; and in this case the best thing to do, without undue oratory and lamentation, is to remove it as quickly as possible, in spite of the outcry from those it favors. How do we recognize it? That is easy; we need to see whether the law takes property owned by some to give to others what they do not own. We need to see whether the law carries out an act that a citizen cannot carry out himself without committing a crime, for the benefit of one citizen and at the expense of others. Make haste to repeal a law like this; it is not only an iniquity, it is a fruitful source of iniquity, for it generates reprisals, and if you are not careful an exceptional act will become widespread, more frequent, and part of a system. Doubtless, those who benefit from it will make a loud outcry; they will invoke acquired rights. They will say that the state owes their particular product protection and support. They will claim that it is a good thing for the state to make them richer because, as they are richer, they spend more and thus rain down earnings on their poor workers. Be careful not to listen to these sophists for it is exactly by the systematizing of such arguments that legal plunder becomes systematic.
This is what has happened. The illusion of the day is to make all sectors richer at each other’s expense; this is generalizing plunder on the pretext of organizing it. Well, legal plunder can be carried out in an infinite number of ways. This gives rise to an infinite number of plans for organizing it, through tariffs, protectionism, premiums, subsidies, incentives, progressive taxes, free education, the right to work, the right to assistance, the right to tools for work, free credit, etc., etc. And all of these plans, insofar as they have legal plunder in common, come under the name of socialism.
Well, what type of war do you wish to wage against socialism, thus defined and as it forms a body of doctrine, if not a doctrinal war? Do you find this doctrine wrong, absurd, or abominable? Refute it. This will be all the easier the more erroneous, absurd, or abominable it is. Above all, if you wish to be strong, start by rooting out from your legislation everything relating to socialism that has managed to creep into it—no small task.
M. de Montalembert has been reproached for wanting to turn brute force against socialism. This is a reproach from which he should be cleared, since he formally stated, “The war against socialism should be in accordance with the law, honor, and justice.”
But how has M. de Montalembert not seen that he has placed himself in a vicious circle? Do you want to oppose socialism by means of the law? But it is precisely socialism that invokes the law. It does not aim to carry out plunder against the law, but legal plunder. It is of the law itself that socialism claims to be the instrument, like monopolists of all stripes, and once it has the law on its side, how do you hope to turn the law against it? How do you hope to bring it within striking power of your courts, your gendarmes, or your prisons?
So what do you do? You want to prevent socialism from having any say in making laws. You want to keep it out of the legislative chamber. I dare to predict that you will never succeed in this while laws are being passed inside the chamber on the principle of legal plunder. It is too iniquitous and too absurd.
It is absolutely necessary for this question of legal plunder to be settled, and there are just three alternatives:
You have to choose between partial plunder, universal plunder, and no plunder at all. The law can pursue one of these three alternatives only.
Partial plunder. This is the system that prevailed for as long as the electorate was partial and is the system to which people return to avoid the invasion of socialism.
Universal plunder. This is the system that threatened us when the electorate became universal with the masses having conceived the idea of making laws along the same lines as their legislative predecessors.
Absence of plunder. This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, conciliation, and common sense that I will proclaim with all my strength, which is, alas, very inadequate, and with my lungs until my final breath.
And sincerely, can anything else be asked of the law? Can the law, with compulsion as its essential sanction, be reasonably employed for anything other than ensuring everyone his right? I challenge anyone to cause the law to step outside this circle without diverting it and consequently without turning compulsion against right. As this would be the most disastrous, the most illogical social upheaval imaginable, we really have to acknowledge that the true solution of the social problem, so long sought after, is encapsulated in these simple words: law is organized justice.
Well, we should note this clearly: to organize justice by law, that is to say, by compulsion, excludes the idea of organizing by law or compulsion any manifestation of human activity: labor, charity, agriculture, trade, industry, education, the fine arts, or religion, for it is impossible for any of these secondary organizations not to destroy the essential organization. In effect, how can we imagine compulsion impinging on the freedom of citizens without undermining justice, without acting against its own goal?
Here I am coming up against the most popular preconception of our age. Not only do we want the law to be just, we also want it to be philanthropic. We are not content for it to guarantee each citizen the free and inoffensive exercise of his faculties as they apply to his physical, intellectual, and moral development; we require it to spread well-being, education, and morality directly across the nation. This is the seductive side of socialism.
However, I repeat, these two missions of the law are contradictory. A choice has to be made. A citizen cannot simultaneously be free and not free. M. de Lamartine wrote to me one day, “Your doctrine is only half of my program. You have stopped at freedom; I have reached fraternity.” I replied to him, “The second half of your program will destroy the first.” And in effect it is totally impossible for me to separate the word fraternity from the word voluntary. It is impossible for me to conceive a fraternity that is enforced by law without freedom being destroyed by law and justice trampled underfoot by law.
Legal plunder is rooted in two things: the first, we have seen, is human selfishness, the other bogus philanthropy.
Before going any further, I think I have to explain myself as to the word plunder.
I do not take it to mean, as is only too oft en the case, something that is vague, undetermined, approximate, or metaphorical; I am using it in its properly scientific meaning, and as expressing the opposite idea to that of property. When a portion of wealth passes from the person who has earned it, without his consent and without compensation, to one who has not created it, whether this is by force or fraud, I say that property is undermined and that there is plunder. I say that it is exactly this that the law should be repressing everywhere and always. If the law is carrying out the very act that it should be repressing, I say that there is plunder nonetheless and even, socially speaking, with aggravating circumstances. Only in this case it is not the beneficiary of the plunder who is responsible for it, it is the law, the legislator, or society; and that is what constitutes the political danger.
It is unfortunate that this word has offensive overtones. I have tried in vain to find another, for at no time and still less today do I wish to cast an irritating word into the cauldron of our disagreements. For this reason, whether you believe it or not, I declare that I do not intend to query either the intentions or the morality of anyone whomsoever. I am attacking an idea that I consider to be false and a practice that appears to me to be unjust, and all this is so far beyond our intentions that each of us takes advantage of it unwittingly and suffers from it unknowingly. It is necessary to write under the influence of the party spirit or out of fear to cast doubt on the sincerity of protectionism, socialism, or even communism, which are only one and the same plant at three different stages of its development. All that can be said is that plunder is more visible in protectionism4 because of its partiality and in communism because of its universality. From this it follows that of the three systems socialism is still the most vague, the most indecisive, and consequently the most sincere.
Be that as it may, agreeing that legal plunder has one of its roots in bogus philanthropy is obviously to exonerate its intentions.
This being understood, let us examine what the popular ambition that claims to achieve the general good through general plunder is worth, where it comes from, and where it will lead.
Socialists tell us, “Since the law organizes justice, why should it not also organize labor, education, or religion?”
Why? Because it could not organize labor, education, or religion without disorganizing justice.
Note therefore that law is compulsion, and that consequently the domain of the law cannot legitimately exceed the legitimate domain of compulsion.
When the law and compulsion hold a man in accordance with justice, they impose on him nothing other than pure negation. They impose only an abstention from causing harm. They do not interfere with his personality, his freedom, or his property. All they do is safeguard the personality, freedom, and property of others. They remain on the defensive; they defend the equal rights of all. They carry out a mission whose harmlessness is obvious, whose usefulness is palpable, and whose legitimacy is uncontested.
This is so true that, as one of my friends brought to my notice, to say that the aim of the law is to ensure the reign of justice is to use an expression that is not strictly true. What should be said is: The aim of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning. In reality it is not justice that has its own existence, it is injustice. The one results from the absence of the other.
But when the law, through the offices of its essential agent, compulsion, imposes a way of working, a method of teaching or the contents of the latter, a faith or a creed, it is no longer acting negatively but positively on men. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own will. Their role is no longer to question themselves, make comparisons, or plan for the future; the law does all that for them. Intelligence becomes a superfluous attribute; they cease to be men and lose their personality, their freedom, and their property.
Try to imagine a form of labor compulsorily imposed that does not infringe freedom or a transmission of wealth forcibly imposed that does not infringe property. If you do not succeed, then you must agree that the law cannot organize economic production without organizing injustice.
When, from the confines of his office, a political writer surveys society, he is struck by the spectacle of inequality that greets him. He weeps over the sufferings that are the lot of so many of our brothers, sufferings that appear even more saddening when contrasted with luxury and opulence.
Perhaps he should ask himself whether such a state of society has not been caused by former plunder carried out by conquest and by current plunder carried out by means of the law. He should ask himself whether, given that all men aspire to well-being and improving their lot, the reign of justice is not enough to achieve the greatest activity of progress and the greatest amount of equality that are compatible with the individual responsibility ordained by God, as the just reward for virtue and vice.
He does not even give this a thought. His thoughts go to deals, agreements, and organizations that are either legal or artificial. He seeks a remedy in perpetuating or exaggerating the situation that has produced the misfortune.
The fact is, outside justice, which, as we have seen, is just a genuine negation, is there a single one of these legal agreements that does not include the principle of plunder?
You say, “Here are men who lack wealth,” and you turn to the law. But the law is not a breast that fills by itself or whose milk-bearing ducts draw from elsewhere than society. Nothing enters the public treasury in favor of a citizen or a class other than that which other citizens and other classes have been forced to put in. If each person draws out only the equivalent of what he has put in, it is true that your law is not plunderous, but it does nothing for those men that lack wealth, it does nothing for equality. It can be an instrument for equality only to the extent that it takes from some to give to others, and in this case it becomes an instrument of plunder. If you look at the protection of tariffs, production subsidies, the right to profit, the right to work, the right to assistance, the right to education, progressive taxes, free credit, or social workshops from this point of view, you will always find at their root legal plunder and organized injustice.
You say, “Here are men who lack enlightenment,” and you turn to the law. But the law is not a torch that spreads its own light far and wide. It hovers over a society in which there are men with knowledge and others without, citizens who need to learn and others who are willing to teach. It can do only one of two things: either it allows this type of transaction to operate freely and permits this type of need to be freely satisfied, or it can constrain people’s wishes in this respect and take from some to pay teachers who will be responsible for educating the others free of charge. But in the second case it cannot do this without freedom and property being violated, signifying therefore legal plunder.
You say, “Here are men who lack morality or religion,” and you turn to the law. But the law is compulsion and do I need to say how violent and crazy it is to use force in this connection?
For all its theories and strivings it appears that socialism, however indulgent it is toward itself, cannot avoid catching a glimpse of the fiend that is legal plunder. But what does socialism do? It cleverly shrouds the legal plunder from all eyes, even its own, under the seductive names of fraternity, solidarity, organization, and association. And because we do not ask so much of the law since we require only justice of it, socialism presumes that we are rejecting fraternity, solidarity, organization, and association and hurls the epithet “Individualist!” at us.
Socialism ought to know, therefore, that what we are rejecting is not natural organization, but forced organization.
It is not free association, but the forms of association that socialism claims to have the right to impose on us.
It is not spontaneous fraternity, but legal fraternity.
It is not providential solidarity, but artificial solidarity, which is only an unjust displacement of responsibility.
Socialism, like the old politics from which it stems, confuses government with society. For this reason, each time we do not want something to be done by the government, socialism concludes that we do not want this thing to be done at all. We reject education by the state; therefore we do not want education. We reject state religion; therefore we do not want religion. We reject equality established by the state; therefore we do not want equality, etc., etc. It is like accusing us of not wanting men to eat because we reject the growing of wheat by the state.
How in the world of politics has the strange idea become dominant of having the law generate things that it does not encompass: Good in its positive aspect, wealth, science, and religion?
Modern political writers, particularly those of the socialist school, base their various theories on a common hypothesis, definitely the strangest and most arrogant hypothesis that the human brain has ever devised.
They divide humanity into two parts. All men minus one form the first and the political writer all on his own forms the second and by far the most important part.
In effect, they begin with the premise that men do not have within themselves either a principle of action or any means of discernment; that they lack initiative; that they are made of inert matter, passive molecules, and atoms deprived of spontaneity; and that they are at most a form of plant life that is indifferent to its own mode of existence and willing to accept an infinite number of more or less symmetrical, artistic, and developed forms from an external initiative and hand.
Each of them then quite simply supposes that he is himself, wearing the hats of organizer, prophet, legislator, teacher, and founder, this driving force and hand, this universal dynamo and creative power whose sublime mission is to gather together in society the scattered stuff of humanity.
From this given starting point, just as each gardener according to his whim prunes his trees into pyramids, umbrellas, cubes, cones, vases, fruit-tree shapes, distaffs, or fans, each socialist, according to his vision, prunes poor humanity into groups, series, centers, subcenters, honeycombs, and social, harmonious, or contrasting workshops, etc., etc.
And just as the gardener needs axes, saws, sickles, and shears in order to prune his trees, the political writer needs forces that he can find only in the laws in order to marshal his society: customs laws, tax laws, laws governing assistance or education.
It is so true that the socialists consider humanity to be material that can be modeled to fit social templates that if by chance they are not certain of the success of these arrangements, they claim at least a part of humanity as material for experimentation. We know just how popular the idea of trying out all their systems is among them, and we have already seen one of their leaders5 come in all seriousness to ask the Constituent Assembly to give them a commune with all its inhabitants in order for them to carry out tests.
In this way, every inventor makes a small-scale model of his machine before making it full scale. In this way, chemists sacrifice a few reagents and farmers a little seed and a corner of a field in order to test an idea.
But what incommensurable distance there is between a gardener and his trees, the inventor and his machine, the chemist and his reagents, and the farmer and his seed! This is the very distance that the socialist quite sincerely believes separates him from humanity.
We should not be surprised that nineteenth-century political writers consider society to be an artificial creation resulting from the genius of the legislator.
This idea, the fruit of a classical education, has dominated all the thinkers and great writers of our country.
All have seen the same relationship between humanity and the legislator as there is between clay and the potter.
What is more, while political writers have agreed to acknowledge a principle of action in the hearts of men and a principle of discernment in their intelligence, they have thought that this was a fatal gift from God and that humanity, under the influence of these two stimuli, was progressing inexorably toward its downfall. They have assumed that left to its own devices humanity would concern itself with religion only to end up with atheism, with education only to achieve ignorance, and with work and trade only to end up in destitution.
Fortunately, according to these same writers, there are a few men known as rulers and legislators who have received contrary tendencies from heaven not only for themselves but also on behalf of all the others.
Although human propensity is toward evil, the propensity of these few is toward good; although humanity marches on toward darkness, they aspire to the light; and although humanity is drawn to vice, they are attracted to virtue. And assuming this, they lay claim to force to enable them to substitute their own propensities for those of the human race.
All you have to do is to open at random a book on philosophy, politics, or history to see how deeply rooted in our country is the idea that humanity is mere inert matter that receives alike life, organization, morality, and wealth from government, an idea born of study of the classics and having socialism for its offspring—or, what is worse, that humanity itself is drawn toward degradation and is saved from this slippery slope only by the mysterious hand of the legislator. Classic conventionalism shows us everywhere that behind a passive society there is an occult power that, going by the names of the law and the legislator, or under the cloak of the more convenient, vaguer word one,6 moves humanity, brings it to life, enriches it, and infuses it with morality.
One of the things that one (who?) imprinted most strongly on the minds of the Egyptians was love of their country. . . . No one was allowed to be of no use to the state; each person had his work assigned to him by law and this was passed from father to son. No one could have two employments or change his own . . . but there was one obligatory communal activity, namely the study of the laws and conventional wisdom. Ignorance of the religion and policies of the country was not excused under any circumstances. Besides, each occupation had its own coinage assigned to it (by whom?). . . . Among good laws, the best was that everyone was fed (by whom?) with a view to his being observed. Their traveling traders filled Egypt with marvelous inventions and saw to it that they were aware of almost everything that might make life easier and more peaceful.
According to Bossuet, therefore, men draw nothing from themselves whether it be patriotism, wealth, activity, wisdom, inventions, agriculture, or science; all these they received by way of the laws or from their kings. All they had to do was to let themselves go. Bossuet takes his argument to such a pitch that he corrects Diodorus for having accused the Egyptians of rejecting wrestling and music. How could that be possible, he says, since these arts had been invented by Trismegistus?
Similarly, in Persia:
One of the principal cares of the prince was to ensure that agriculture flourished. . . . Just as there were specific responsibilities laid down for directing the armies, so there were specific responsibilities for supervising agrarian labor. . . . The respect for royal government that was inspired among the Persians reached excessive proportions.
Although the Greeks had highly developed minds, they were no less powerless as to their lot in life, to the point that, left to their own devices, they would not have risen, as do dogs or horses, to the heights of the simplest games. The agreed classical tradition is that everything comes from outside the people.
The Greeks, naturally full of intelligence and courage, had been developed from the start by the kings and colonies that came from Egypt. It is from them that they learned to exercise their bodies, run races on foot, on horseback, or in chariots . . . The best thing the Egyptians taught them was to be docile and to let themselves be formed by laws enacted for the public good.
Brought up on the study and admiration of antiquity and a witness to the power of Louis XIV, Fénelon could scarcely escape from the idea that humanity is passive and that both its misfortunes and prosperity, its virtues and vices came to it because of external action exercised on it by the law or by the person who makes the law. Thus, in his utopian Salente,7 he subjects men with all their personal interests, faculties, desires, and goods to the absolute discretion of the legislator. Whatever the circumstances, they never judge for themselves; it is the prince who judges for them. The nation is just a formless entity of which the prince is the soul. In him are united the thought, the foresight, the very principles of all forms of organization and progress, and consequently all responsibility.
To prove this assertion, I would need to copy the entire tenth book of Télémaque.8 I refer the reader to this and am content to quote a few passages taken at random from this famous poem, the quality of which, in every other respect, I am the first to acknowledge.
With that surprising credulity that characterizes the classics, Fénelon accepts the general happiness of the Egyptians, in spite of the authority of reason and facts, and attributes it not to their own wisdom but to that of their kings.
We cannot look at the two banks without glimpsing opulent towns, country houses with pleasant situations, land that each year is covered with a golden harvest without any fallow period, grasslands full of herds, farmers bowed under the weight of the fruit that overflows from the bosom of the land, or shepherds who cause the sweet sounds of their flutes and pipes to be echoed round about. Happy are the people, said Mentor, who are led by a wise king.
Mentor then pointed out to me the joy and abundance that extended over the entire country of Egypt in which up to twenty-two thousand towns could be counted, the justice exercised in favor of the poor against the rich, the proper education of children who were trained in obedience, work, sobriety, and love of arts and letters, the exact observance of all religious ceremonies, disinterestedness, a desire for honor, fidelity to men, and fear of the gods that every father inculcated into his children. He never tired of admiring such fine order. Happy are the people, he said to me, whom a wise king leads thus.
Fénelon creates an idyll of Crete that is even more attractive. Then he adds, through the words of Mentor:
All that you see in this marvelous island is the fruit of Minos’s laws. The education whose provision he ordered for children makes the body healthy and strong. The laws make them accustomed first of all to a life that is simple, frugal, and physically taxing. They assume that all sensual pleasure makes body and mind soft. They never offer them any other pleasure than that of being invincible through virtue and gaining a great deal of glory. Here, they punish three vices that go unpunished in other peoples: ingratitude, dissimulation, and greed. They never need to repress ostentation and dissipation since these are unknown in Crete. They do not allow valuable furniture, magnificent clothes, delicious feasts, or gilded palaces.9
This is how Mentor prepares his pupil to grind down and manipulate the people of Ithaca, doubtless with the most philanthropic of intentions, and for greater safety he gives him an example of this in Salente.
This is how we are given our first notions of politics. We are taught to treat men almost in the way Olivier de Serres teaches farmers to treat and mix their soil.
To maintain the spirit of trade, all laws need to encourage it, and the details of these same laws should be framed to divide up wealth as trade increases it, in such a way as to put each poor citizen in sufficient comfort to be able to work like the others, and each rich citizen in such a state of mediocrity that he needs to work to conserve or acquire.
The laws thus dispose of all wealth.
Although in democracy genuine equality is the soul of the state, this is, however, so difficult to establish that an extreme punctiliousness in this respect is not always suitable. It is sufficient that one establishes a quota that reduces or sets the differences at a certain level. After this, it is up to particular laws to equalize inequality, so to speak, through the charges they impose on the rich and the relief they give to the poor.
This again advocates the equalization of wealth by the law and by force.
In Greece, there were two forms of republic. One form was military, exemplified by Sparta; the other was commercial, exemplified by Athens. In the former, they wanted its citizens to be idle; in the latter, they sought to instill a love of work.
I would ask people to give some attention to the extent of the genius these legislators demonstrated in seeing that by upsetting all the accepted customs, by confusing all the virtues, they would be demonstrating their wisdom to the universe. Lycurgus, combining robbery with a spirit of justice, the most severe slavery with the heights of freedom, the most atrocious sentiments with the greatest moderation, gave his town stability. He appeared to remove from it all resources, arts, trade, money, and city walls. There was ambition with no hope of being better off. The Spartans had natural sentiments and were neither child, husband, nor father. Even modesty was removed from chastity. It is along this route that Sparta was led to greatness and glory. . . .
We have also seen this extraordinary situation that was observed in the institutions in Greece in the dregs and corruption of modern times.
An honest legislator has formed a people in which probity appears to be as natural as bravery was in the Spartans. Mr. Penn is a genuine Lycurgus and, while Mr. Penn’s object was peace in the same way that Lycurgus’s was war, they resemble one another in the singular path in which they set their people, in the influence they had on free men, in the preconceptions they overcame, and in the passions they subdued.
Another example is Paraguay.10 Those who regard the pleasure of governing as the sole good thing in life have wished to make it a crime against society, but it will always be a fine thing to govern men while making them happy. . . .
Those who wish to establish similar institutions will set up the communality of assets of Plato’s republic, the respect for the gods that he demanded, the separation from foreigners in order to preserve customs, with the city, not the citizens, carrying out trade. They will give us our arts without our luxury and our needs without our desires.”
However much popular enthusiasm cries, “It is by Montesquieu, so it is marvelous! It is sublime!” I will have the courage of my convictions and say:
What? You have the effrontery to find that beautiful?
It is dreadful! Abominable! And these quotations that I could increase in number show that in Montesquieu’s view people, freedom, property, and the entire human race are just materials suited to the exercise of the legislator’s sagacity.
Although this political writer, the supreme authority for democrats, bases the social edifice on the general will, no one has accepted as completely as he does the hypothesis of the total passivity of the human race in the presence of the legislator.
While it is true that a great prince is a rare person, how much more so is a great legislator? The former has only to follow the model that the latter has to put forward. The latter is the mechanic who invents the machine, while the former is the worker who gets on it and makes it go.11
And what is the role of men in all this? The machine that you get on and make go, or rather the raw material out of which the machine is made!
Thus, between the legislator and the prince and between the prince and his subjects there is the same relationship as between the agronomist and the farmer and the farmer and the soil. At what height above humanity, therefore, do we place the political writer who governs the legislators themselves and teaches them their job in such imperative terms as the following?
Do you want to give consistency to the state? Reduce the distance between the extreme levels as far as is possible. Do not allow either wealthy people or paupers.
Is the soil hard to till or infertile or the country too small to hold its inhabitants? Turn toward industry and the arts whose productions you can trade for the goods you lack. . . . Do you lack inhabitants where the land is good? Concentrate on farming, which increases the number of men, and turn away from the arts, which will succeed only in reducing the population of the country. . . . Are you concerned with shorelines that are broad and accessible? Cover the sea with ships and you will have a brilliant and short existence. Does the sea bathe only inaccessible rocks on your shoreline? Remain savages and eaters of fish; your life will be more peaceful, perhaps better, and certainly happier. In a word, apart from the maxims common to all, each people carries within it a cause that orders it in a particular way and makes its legislation proper to it alone. This is why in former times the Hebrews and more recently the Arabs have had religion as their principal object, the Athenians letters, Carthage and Tyre trade, Rhodes naval matters, Sparta war, and Rome virtue. The author of the Spirit of the Laws12 has shown with what art the legislator directs the system of institutions toward these objects. But if the legislator makes a mistake and takes a principle other than that which arises from the nature of things and one tends toward slavery while the other tends toward freedom, one toward wealth and the other toward population, one to peace and the other to conquests, the laws will be seen to become imperceptibly weaker, the constitution will be changed, and the state will not cease to suffer agitation until it is either destroyed or changed and invincible nature has regained its empire.
But if nature is sufficiently invincible to regain its domination, why does Rousseau not admit that it did not need such a legislator to take this domination from the outset? Why does he not admit that by obeying their own initiative men will of their own accord turn toward trade on broad and accessible shorelines without a Lycurgus, a Solon, or a Rousseau interfering at the risk of making a mistake?
Be that as it may, we can understand the awesome responsibility that Rousseau places on inventors, teachers, leaders, legislators, and the manipulators of societies. This is why he is very demanding with regard to them.
He who dares to undertake to teach a people must feel that he is, so to say, capable of changing human nature and transforming each individual who, of himself, is a perfect and solitary whole, into a part of a greater whole from which this individual receives totally or in part his life and being; he must be capable too of changing the constitution of man in order to strengthen it and substituting an incomplete and moral existence for a physical and independent one which we have all received from nature. In a word, he needs to remove from man his own forces in order to give him some that are foreign to him. . . .
Poor human race, what will Rousseau’s disciples do with your dignity?
The climate, that is to say the sky and the soil, is the first rule of the legislator. Its resources dictate his duty to him. First of all, it is its local situation that he must consult. A people cast upon a seacoast will have laws that relate to navigation. . . . If the colony is concerned with the land, a legislator must provide for both its type and level of fertility. . . .
It is above all in the distribution of property that the wisdom of the legislation will shine through. In general and in all the countries of the world, when a colony is founded, land must be given to each man, that is to say, a sufficient amount to each person to provide for a family. . . .
In an uncivilized island that one would people with children, one would only have to leave the seeds of truth to blossom in the development of reason. . . . But when one establishes a people that is already old in a new country, the art lies in leaving to it only those harmful opinions and habits from which it cannot be cured and corrected. If one wants to prevent them from being passed on, one will supervise the second generation through the communal and public education of its children. A prince or legislator should never found a colony without sending wise men in advance to educate the young. . . . In a new colony every facility is open to the precautions of the legislator who wishes to purify the blood and manners of a people. If he has genius and virtue, the lands and men he will have in his hands will inspire in his soul a plan for society which a writer would outline only in a vague manner subject to unstable hypotheses that vary and complicate one another with an infinite number of circumstances that are too difficult to forecast and combine.
Does he not appear to hear a teacher of agriculture say to his pupils, “The climate is the farmer’s first rule? Its resources dictate his duties. It is its local situation that he has to consult. If the farm is on a clay soil, he has to take these steps. If he has to deal with sand, this is what he has to do. All facilities are available to the farmer who wishes to clear and improve his soil. If he is clever, the land and fertilizers he has in his hands will inspire in him an operating plan that a teacher will be able to outline only in a vague manner subject to unstable hypotheses that vary and complicate one another with an infinite number of circumstances that are too difficult to forecast and combine.”
But, O sublime writers, please remember on occasion that this clay or sand, this compost of which you so arbitrarily dispose, is made up of men, your equals, who are intelligent and free beings like you, who, like you, have received from God the faculty of sight, foresight, thought, and making judgments for themselves!
(He takes the laws to be rusty from age, security to be neglected, and continues thus:)
In these circumstances, you have to be convinced that the springs of government have been loosened. Give them renewed tension [Mably is addressing the reader] and the ill will be cured. . . . Think less of punishing faults than of encouraging the virtues you need. This way, you will restore the vigor of youth to your republic. Free peoples have lost their freedom because they did not know this! But if the ill has progressed so far that ordinary magistrates cannot remedy it effectively, turn to an extraordinary group of magistrates with a short tenure and considerable power. The citizens’ imagination in such circumstances needs to be struck.
And more in this vein for twenty volumes.
There was a time when, under the influence of such teaching, which is the foundation of classical education, everyone wanted to place himself outside and above humanity in order to arrange it, organize it, and set it up according to his views.
My Lord, make yourself out to be a Lycurgus or a Solon. Before continuing to read further, amuse yourself by giving laws to some uncivilized tribe in America or Africa. Settle these nomadic men in sedentary houses; teach them to feed their herds and work at developing the social qualities that nature has given them. Order them to start practicing the duties of humanity. Use punishment to poison the pleasures promised by passion and you will see that these savages will lose a vice and gain a virtue with each article of your legislation.
All peoples have had laws. But few of them have been happy. Why is this so? It is because legislators have almost always ignored the fact that the object of society is to unite families through a common interest.
The impartiality of laws lies in two things: establishing equality in the wealth and equality in the dignity of citizens. . . . As your laws establish greater equality, they will become dearer to each citizen. . . . How will avarice, ambition, sensuality, laziness, idleness, envy, hatred, and jealousy operate in men who are equal in fortune and dignity and in whose eyes the laws will give no opportunity of disrupting equality? [The idyll follows.]
What you have been told about the republic of Sparta should give you greater enlightenment on this question. No other state has ever had laws that conformed more to the order of nature and equality.14
It is not surprising that the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries considered the human race to be inert matter that waits, receives everything—form, face, stimulus, movement, and life—from a great prince, a great legislator, or a great genius. These centuries were fed on the study of antiquity and antiquity effectively offers us everywhere—in Egypt, Persia, Greece, and Rome—the sight of a few men manipulating at will a human race that is subjugated by force or imposture. What does that prove? It shows that because man and society can be improved, error, ignorance, despotism, slavery, and superstition must have existed in greater quantity at the dawn of time. The mistake of the writers I have quoted is not to have noted the fact but to have offered it as though it were a rule to be admired and imitated by future races. Their mistake is to have accepted with an inconceivable lack of critical analysis and on the faith of puerile conventionalism what is unacceptable, that is to say, the grandeur, dignity, morality, and well-being of these artificial forms of society in the ancient world; to have failed to understand that time produces and propagates light; and that, as the light grows brighter, the force takes the side of the right and society takes possession of itself again.
And in fact, what is the political work we are witnessing? It is none other than the instinctive effort of all peoples to achieve liberty.15 And what is liberty, this word that has the power of making all hearts beat faster and causing agitation around the world, if it is not the sum of all freedoms: freedom of conscience, teaching, and association; freedom of the press; freedom to travel, work, and trade; in other words, the free exercise of all inoffensive faculties by all men and, in still other terms, the destruction of all despotic regimes, even legal despotism, and the reduction of the law to its sole rational attribution, which is to regulate the individual law of legitimate defense or to punish injustice.
This tendency in the human race, it must be agreed, is grossly countered, particularly in our country, by the fatal disposition—the fruit of classical teaching—that is common to all political writers, to put themselves in a position outside the human race in order to sort it out, organize it, and institute it according to their lights.
For while society agitates to achieve freedom, the sole thought of the great men who put themselves at its head and who are imbued with the principles of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries is to bend it to suit the philanthropic despotism of their social inventions and to have it, as Rousseau says, bear docilely the yoke of public felicity as they have conceived it.
We saw this clearly in 1789. Scarcely had the legal former regime been destroyed when the new form of society was made to bear other artificial systems all based on the agreed concept: the omnipotence of the law.
The legislator holds sway over the future. It is up to him to want what is good. It is up to him to make men what he wants them to be.
The function of the government is to direct the physical and moral forces of the nation toward the purpose behind its institution.
It is necessary to re-create the people to whom we wish to restore freedom. Since it is necessary to destroy former prejudices, change long-standing habits, improve depraved affections, restrict superfluous needs, and root out inveterate vices, strong action and a fervent drive are needed. . . . Citizens, in Sparta the inflexible austerity of Lycurgus became the unshakeable foundation for the republic; the weak and trusting character of Solon plunged Athens once again into slavery. This parallel encapsulates the entire science of the government.
Considering how far the human race has degenerated, I am convinced of the need to carry out total regeneration and, if I may put it this way, to create a new people.
As you can see, men are nothing other than vile material. It is not up to them to want what is good; they are incapable of this. It is up to the legislator, according to Saint-Just. Men are only what he wants them to be.
According to Robespierre, who echoes Rousseau literally, the legislator begins by designating the purpose for which the nation is established. There-after, all the government has to do is to direct all physical and moral forces toward this aim. The nation itself always remains passive in all this, and Billaud-Varennes teaches us that it should have only the prejudices, habits, affections, and needs that are authorized by the legislator. He goes so far as to say that the inflexible austerity of one man is the foundation of the republic.
We have seen that, where evil is so great that ordinary magistrates cannot remedy it, Mably recommended dictatorship in order to make virtue flourish. “Turn to an extraordinary group of magistrates,” he says, “whose tenure will be short and whose power will be considerable. They need to have a strong impact on citizens’ imaginations.” This doctrine has not been lost. Listen to what Robespierre says:
The principle of republican government is virtue, and its means, while it is becoming established, is terror. In our country, we want to substitute morality for selfishness, probity for honor, principles for customs, duty for the proprieties, the empire of reason for the tyranny of fashion, a scorn of vice for a scorn of misfortune, pride for insolence, greatness of spirit for vanity, a love of glory for a love of money, good people for good company, merit for intrigue, genius for a finely turned phrase, truth for brilliance, the attraction of happiness for the boredom of sensuality, the greatness of man for the small-mindedness of the great, a people that is magnanimous, powerful, and happy for a people that is likable, frivolous, and wretched, in a word, all the virtues and all the miracles of a republic for all the vices and absurdities of the monarchy.16
At what height above the rest of humanity Robespierre sets himself here! And note the circumstance in which he is speaking. He does not limit himself to expressing a wish for a major regeneration of the human heart; he does not even expect that this will be the result of a proper system of government. No, he wants to achieve this by himself, and through terror. The speech from which this puerile and plodding heap of antitheses is taken aimed to set out the moral principles that ought to direct a revolutionary government. Note that when Robespierre comes forward to request a dictatorship, it is not just to repel foreigners and combat factions but really to achieve the triumph of his own moral principles through terror, and this prior to the application of the Constitution. His pretension is to root out from the country, through terror, nothing less than selfishness, honor, customs, the proprieties, fashion, vanity, a love of money, good society, intrigue, brilliance of mind, sensuality, and wretchedness. It is only after he, Robespierre, has accomplished these miracles, as he quite rightly calls them, that he will allow the law to regain its empire. Oh, you poor people who think you are so great, who hold humanity to be so insignificant, who want to reform everything, reform yourselves and that task will suffice.
However, in general, reformers, legislators, and political writers do not ask to exercise an immediate despotism over the human race. No, they are too moderate and philanthropic for that. They demand only the despotism, absolutism, and omnipotence of the law. The only thing is that they aspire to make the law.
To show how universal this strange disposition of minds has been in France, not only would I have had to copy out the entire works of Mably, Raynal, Rousseau, and Fénelon, and long quotations from Bossuet and Montesquieu, I would also have had to copy the entire minutes of the sessions of the Convention. I will refrain from doing so and merely refer the reader to them.
We can be sure that this idea was very attractive to Bonaparte. He embraced it with fervor and put it energetically into practice. Since he considered himself to be a chemist, all he saw in Europe was a source of material on which to experiment. However, this material showed itself to be a powerful reagent. When he was three quarters disillusioned on Saint Helena, Bonaparte appeared to acknowledge that there was a certain amount of initiative in peoples and he seemed to be less hostile to freedom. However, this did not stop him from giving the following lesson to his son in his will, “To govern is to spread morality, education, and well-being widely.”
Is it still necessary to use fastidious quotations to show where Morelly, Babeuf, Owen, Saint-Simon, or Fourier takes his source? I will limit myself to offering the reader a few extracts of the book by Louis Blanc on the organization of work.17
“In our project, society receives its drive from government.” (Page 126)
In what does the drive that authority gives society consist? In imposing the project of M. Louis Blanc.
On the other hand, society is the human race.
Therefore, in the end, the human race receives its inspiration from M. Louis Blanc.
Let him get on with it, people will say. Doubtless the human race is free to follow the advice of no matter whom. But this is not how M. Louis Blanc sees things. He thinks that his project should be converted into law and consequently be imposed by force by the government.
In our project, the state gives only a legislative structure for labor production (excuse the only) in virtue of which productive activity can and ought to accomplish its task in total freedom. It (the state) merely places freedom on a slope (that is all) which it descends once it has been put there simply through the force of things and by a natural consequence of the established mechanism.
But what is this slope? “The one indicated by M. Louis Blanc.” Does it not lead to an abyss? “No, it leads to happiness.” Why then does society not put itself on the slope of its own accord? “Because it does not know what it wants and needs a stimulus.” Who will give it this stimulus? “The government.” And who will give a stimulus to the government? “The inventor of the mechanism, M. Louis Blanc.”
We will never escape this circle, that of a passive human race and one great man who sets it in motion through the intervention of the law.
Once on this slope, will society at least enjoy a measure of freedom? “Doubtless.” And what is freedom?
Let us say this once and for all: freedom consists not only in the right awarded but in the power given to man to develop and exercise his faculties under the rule of justice and the safeguard of the law.
And this is not a worthless distinction: its meaning is profound and its consequences immense. For, when it is admitted that, in order to be truly free, man needs the power to exercise and develop his faculties, it follows that society owes a suitable education to each of its members, without which the human mind cannot flourish, together with the instruments of work, without which human activity cannot be given full scope. However, by whose intervention will society give each of its members a suitable education and the necessary tools of work if it is not through the intervention of the state?
Thus freedom is power. In what does this power consist? “In taking possession of education and the tools of work.” Who will dispense education and hand out the tools? “Society, which owes them to its members.” Through whose intervention will society hand out tools to those who lack them? “Through the intervention of the state.” From whom will the state take them?
It is up to the reader to reply and to see where all this will lead.
One of the strangest phenomena of our time, which will probably astonish our descendants a great deal, is that the doctrine based on this triple hypothesis—the radical inertia of humanity, the omnipotence of the law, and the infallibility of the legislator—is the sacred cow of the party that proclaims itself exclusively democratic.
It is true that the party also calls itself social.
Insofar as it is democratic, it has boundless faith in the human race.
Since it is social, it ranks the human race lower than mud.
Is it a question of human rights, or of producing a legislator from its bosom? In this case, indeed, in its view the people know everything instinctively; they have admirable tact. Their will is always right and the general will cannot err. Suffrage cannot be too universal. No one owes society any guarantees. The will and capacity to make a good choice is always assumed. Can the people make a mistake? Are we not in the century of enlightenment? Well, then! Will the people always remain in a state of guardianship? Have they not won their rights by enough effort and sacrifice? Have they not provided sufficient proof of their intelligence and wisdom? Have they not become mature? Are they not in a position to judge for themselves? Do they not recognize their own interests? Is there a man or a class that dares to claim the right to take the people’s place and make decisions and act on their behalf? No, no, the people want to be free and will be free. They want to run their own affairs and will do so.
However, once the legislator has freed himself from electoral meetings through the elections, oh, how he changes his language! The nation reverts to passiveness, inertia, and nothingness, and the legislator enters into possession of omnipotent powers. Invention, direction, inspiration, and organization are all up to him! All humanity has to do is go along with it; the hour of despotism has rung. And note that this is fatal; for the people who only recently were so enlightened, moral, and perfect now have no propensities, or if they have any, these are leading them all to degradation. And they should be left a shred of freedom! Are you not aware that, according to M. Considérant, freedom inexorably leads to monopoly? Are you not aware that freedom is competition and that competition, according to M. Blanc, is a system of extermination for the people and a cause of ruin for the bourgeoisie? That it is for this reason that peoples have been all the more exterminated and ruined the freer they are, as Switzerland, Holland, England, and the United States show? Are you not aware that, still according to M. Louis Blanc, competition leads to monopoly and that for the same reason, a good bargain leads to high prices? That competition leads to the drying up of sources of consumption and propels production to become a devouring activity? That competition forces production to increase and consumption to decrease? From which it follows that free peoples produce in order not to consume and that competition is simultaneously oppression and dementia and that it is absolutely essential for M. Louis Blanc to meddle with it.
What freedom, besides, can we leave men? Will it be freedom of conscience? But we will see them all take advantage of permissiveness to become atheists. Freedom of education? But fathers will hasten to pay teachers to teach their sons immorality and error; what is more, according to M. Thiers, if education were left to national freedom, it would cease to be national and we would raise our children according to the views of the Turks or Hindus, instead of which, through the legal despotism of the university, they have the good fortune to be raised according to the noble views of the Romans. Freedom to work? But this is competition, which leaves products unconsumed, exterminates the people, and ruins the middle classes. Freedom to trade? But we know only too well, and protectionists have demonstrated this ad nauseam, that men are ruined when they carry out free trade and that in order to become rich they should trade without freedom. Freedom of association? But according to socialist doctrine, freedom and association are mutually exclusive precisely because one takes freedom away from men only in order to force them to form associations.
You can thus see clearly that social democrats cannot, in all conscience, leave men any freedom, since by their very nature, and if these fine gentlemen did not put it right, they would all tend everywhere toward all forms of degradation and demoralization.
We are left guessing, if this is so, on what basis universal suffrage is being demanded so insistently on their behalf.
The pretensions of the organizers raise another question, which I have oft en asked them and to which, as far as I know, they have never replied. Since the natural tendencies of man are sufficiently bad for their freedom to have to be removed, how is it that those of the organizers are good? Are the legislators and their agents not part of the human race? Do they think they are formed from a different clay from the rest of mankind? They state that society, left to itself, rushes inexorably toward the abyss because its instincts are perverse. They claim to be able to stop society on this slope and redirect it to a better goal. They have therefore received from heaven a level of intelligence and virtues that place them outside and above humanity; let them show the justification for this. They wish to be shepherds and want us to be sheep. This arrangement assumes that they have superior natures, and we have every right to demand prior proof of this.
Note that what I am questioning is not their right to invent social combinations and propagate them, recommend them, and try them out on themselves at their own risk, but in particular their right to impose them on us through the law, that is to say, using public compulsion and finance.
I demand that the followers of Cabet, Fourier, and Proudhon, the academics and protectionists, renounce, not their specific ideas, but the idea that is common to them, which is to subject us by force to their causes and writings, to their social workshops, their “free” banks, their Greek and Roman systems of morality, and their hindrances to trade. What I demand from them is for us to be allowed to judge their plans and to refuse to join them, whether directly or indirectly, if we find that they run counter to our interests or are repugnant to our consciences.
For, apart from the fact that it is oppressive and plunderous, the call for bringing in the government and more taxes implies once again this damaging hypothesis, the infallibility of the organizer, and the incompetence of humanity.
And if humanity is incapable of making its own judgments, why are people talking to us about universal suffrage?
The contradiction in these ideas is unfortunately reflected in events, and while 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.
They are also the people where revolutions are most likely to happen, and this should be so.
As soon as you start with the idea, accepted by all our political writers and so energetically expressed by M. Louis Blanc in the following words, “Society receives its motive force from the government”; as soon as men consider themselves to be sensitive but passive, incapable of lifting themselves up by their own discernment and energy to any form of morality or well-being and reduced to expecting everything to be provided by the law; in a word, when they accept that their relationship with the state is that of sheep with their shepherd, it is clear that the responsibility of the government is immense. Good and evil, virtues and vices, equality and inequality, wealth and poverty all flow from it. It is responsible for everything, it undertakes everything, and it does everything, so therefore it answers for everything. If we are happy, the state rightfully claims our gratitude, but if we are unhappy we can blame only it. Does it not, in principle, dispose of our persons and our belongings? Is not the law omnipotent? When the state created the university monopoly, it undertook to meet the hopes of heads of families who were deprived of their freedom, and if these hopes have been dashed, whose fault is this? By regulating industry, the state undertook to make it prosper; otherwise the state would have been absurd to remove freedom from industry, and if industry suffers, whose fault is it? By interfering in adjusting the balance of trade by playing with the tariffs, the state undertook to make the stale trade flourish and if, far from flourishing, it dies, whose fault is that? By awarding the shipbuilders protection in exchange for their freedom, the government undertook to make them generate wealth, and if they become a financial burden, whose fault is this?
Thus, there is no suffering in the nation for which the government has not voluntarily made itself responsible. Should we be surprised therefore that each cause of suffering is a cause for revolution?
And what remedy are they proposing? They propose the indefinite widening of the domain of the law, that is to say, the responsibility of the government.
But if the government makes itself responsible for raising and regulating all earnings and cannot do this, if it makes itself responsible for giving assistance in every misfortune and cannot do this, if it makes itself responsible for ensuring all the pensions of all the workers and cannot do this, if it makes itself responsible for supplying all the workers with their working tools and cannot do this, if it makes itself responsible for allocating free credit to all those craving loans and cannot do this, if, according to the words we have with regret seen escape from the pen of M. de Lamartine, “The state has set itself the mission of enlightening, developing, enlarging, fortifying, spiritualizing, and sanctifying the souls of peoples,” and it fails, do we not see with each disappointment, alas, that it is more than likely that a revolution is inevitable?
I repeat my thesis and say: the overriding question to be asked is where the dividing line between economic and political science18 lies. It is this:
What is the law? What ought it to be? What domain does it cover? What are its limits? Consequently, where do the attributions of the legislator cease?
I have no hesitation in replying: the law is the common power organized to obstruct injustice and, in short, the law is justice.
It is not true that the legislator has absolute power over our persons and property, since they existed before him and his task is to surround them with guarantees.
It is not true that the mission of the law is to rule over our consciences, our ideas, our will, our education, our feelings, our work, our trade, our gift s, and our enjoyment.
Its mission is to ensure that in none of these areas does the right of one person override the right of another.
Because it wields the necessary sanction of coercion, the law can have as its legitimate domain only the legitimate domain of force, that is to say, justice.
And as each individual has the right to have recourse to force only in the case of legitimate defense, collective force, which is just the union of individual forces, cannot reasonably be applied in any other case.
Therefore, the law is solely the organization of the pre-existing individual right of legitimate defense.
The law is justice.
It is entirely wrong for it to be able to oppress persons or plunder their property, even for a philanthropic reason, since its mission is to protect them.
And let it not be said that it can at least be philanthropic provided that it refrains from any oppression or plunder; that is contradictory. The law cannot fail to act with regard to our persons or our property; if it does not guarantee them, it violates them by the very fact that it acts, the very fact that it exists.
The law is justice.
This is a statement that is clear, simple, perfectly defined and delimited, easy to understand, and easy to see, for justice is a given quantity that is unmovable and inalterable and does not allow any ifs or buts.
If you exceed these bounds, and make the law religious, fraternal, egalitarian, philanthropic, industrial, literary, or artistic, you will immediately be in the realm of the infinite, uncertainty, and the unknown and in an imposed utopia or, what is worse, in the host of utopias struggling to take over the law and impose themselves, for fraternity and philanthropy, unlike justice, do not have established limits. Where will you stop? Where will the law stop? One person, like M. de Saint-Cricq, will extend his brand of philanthropy only to certain sectors of industry and will demand of the law that it disadvantage consumers in favor of producers. Another, like M. Considérant, will take up the cause of the workers and claim from the law on their behalf an assured minimum, by way of clothing, accommodation, food, and everything necessary for the preservation of life. A third, M. Louis Blanc, will say, correctly, that this is just a rough outline of fraternity and that the law ought to provide all the tools for work and education. A fourth will call to our attention that such an arrangement will still leave an opening for inequality and that the law should ensure that luxury, literature, and the arts reach the most far-flung hamlet. You will thus be led right up to communism, or rather, the legislation will be . . . what it already is: a battlefield for all forms of dreams and cupidity.
The law is justice.
Within this circle a simple, unshakable government is conceived. And I defy anyone to tell me how the thought of revolution or insurrection, or even a simple riot, could arise against a public authority that is limited to repressing injustice. Under a regime like this, there would be greater fulfillment, well-being would be spread more evenly, and as for the suffering that is endemic to the human race, no one would think of attributing it to the government, which would have had as little effect over suffering as it has on variations in the weather. Has anyone ever seen the people rise up against the court of appeal or burst into the chamber of a justice of the peace to demand a minimum wage, free credit, tools for work, favorable tariffs, or social workshops? They are fully aware that these arrangements are beyond the judge’s powers and will learn at the same time that they are beyond the powers of the law.
But if you make the law based on the principle of fraternity and proclaim that all benefits and misfortunes flow from it, that it is responsible for all individual suffering and all social inequality, you will open the floodgates to an unending flow of complaints, hatred, unrest, and revolution.
The law is justice.
And it would be very strange if it could in fairness be anything else! Does justice not encapsulate right? Are all rights not equal? How then could the law intervene to subject me to the social designs of MM Mimerel, de Melun, Thiers, and Louis Blanc rather than subject these gentlemen to my designs? Does anyone believe that I have not received sufficient imagination from nature to invent a utopia of my own? Is it the role of the law to choose among so many illusions and assign public compulsion to serve just one of these?
The law is justice.
And let nobody say, as is constantly said, that if the law were thus designed to be atheist, individualistic, and with no substance it would make the human race in its image. That is an absurd deduction, only too worthy of this government obsession with seeing humanity in the law.
What then! Once we are free, does it follow that we would cease to act? Once we no longer receive our animation from the law, does it follow that we will be devoid of any stimulus? Once the law limits itself to guaranteeing us the free exercise of our faculties, does it follow that our faculties will be struck by inertia? Once the law no longer imposes forms of religion, systems of association, methods of teaching, procedures for working, instructions for trading, or rules for charitable work on us, does it follow that we will rush into atheism, isolation, ignorance, deprivation, and selfishness? Does it follow that we will no longer be capable of recognizing the power and goodness of God, form associations, help each other, love and assist our brothers in misfortune, examine the secrets of nature, and aspire to achieving the perfection of our being?
The law is justice.
And it is under the law of justice, under the regime of right, under the influence of freedom, security, stability, and responsibility that each person will attain his full value, the full dignity of his being, and that humanity will accomplish with order and calmness, doubtless with slowness but certainty, the progress which is its destiny.
I think that I have theory on my side, for whatever question I subject to reason—whether it concerns religion, philosophy, politics, or economics; whether it relates to well-being, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, solidarity, property, work, trade, capital, earnings, taxes, population, credit, or government; at whatever point on the scientific horizon I place the point of departure of my research—I invariably reach this conclusion: the solution to the social problem is to be found in freedom.
And have I not also experience on my side? Take a look at the globe. What countries have the happiest, most moral, and most peaceful peoples? Those countries in which the law intervenes the least in private activity; in which the government is the least felt; in which individuality has the most vigor and public opinion the greatest influence; in which the administrative systems are the least in number and degree of complexity, the taxes the least heavy and the least unfair, popular discontent the least heated and the least justifiable; in which the responsibility of individuals and classes is the most active and, consequently, where habits are imperfect, they tend most indefatigably to improve; in which transactions, agreements, and associations are the least hindered; in which labor, capital, and the population are subject to the fewest artificial displacements; in which humanity obeys its proper leanings most readily; in which the thought of God prevails the most over the designs of men; those in a word that come the closest to the following state of affairs: all things to be achieved through man’s free and perfectible spontaneous action, within the limits of what is right; nothing to be achieved by the law or by force other than universal justice.
It has to be said: there are too many great men in the world. There are too many legislators, organizers, founders of society, leaders of peoples, fathers of nations, etc., etc. Too many people put themselves above humanity in order to rule it and too many people think their job is to become involved with it.
People will say to me: you yourself are becoming involved, you who talk about it. That is true. But they will agree that it is for a very different reason and from a very different point of view, and while I am taking on those who wish to reform, it is solely to make them abandon their effort.
I am becoming involved with it not like Vaucanson with his automaton but like a physiologist with the human organism, in order to examine it and admire it.
I am becoming involved with it in the same spirit as that of a famous traveler.
He arrived among a savage tribe. A child had just been born and a host of fortune-tellers, warlocks, and quacks were crowding around it, armed with rings, hooks, and ties. One said, “This child will never smell the aroma of a pipe if I do not lengthen his nostrils.” Another said, “He will be deprived of the sense of hearing if I do not make his ears reach down to his shoulders.” A third said, “He will never see the light of the sun unless I make his eyes slant obliquely.” A fourth said, “He will never stand upright if I do not make his legs curve.” A fifth said, “He will never be able to think if I do not squeeze his brain.” “Away with you,” said the traveler. “God does His work well. Do not claim to know more than He does and, since He has given organs to this frail creature, leave those organs to develop and grow strong through exercise, experimentation, experience, and freedom.”
God has also provided humanity with all that is necessary for it to accomplish its destiny. There is a providential social physiology just as there is a providential human physiology. The social organs are also constituted so as to develop harmoniously in the fresh air of freedom. Away with you, therefore, you quacks and organizers! Away with your rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with your artificial means! Away with your social workshop, your phalanstery, your governmentalism, your centralization, your tariffs, your universities, your state religion, your free credit or monopolistic banks, your constraints, your restrictions, your moralizing, or your equalizing through taxes! And since the social body has had inflicted on it so many theoretical systems to no avail, let us finish where we should have started; let us reject these and at last put freedom to the test, freedom, which is an act of faith in God and in His work.
[1. ](Paillottet’s note) See vol. 5, the last two pages of the pamphlet titled “Plunder and the Law.” (OC, vol. 5, p. 1, “Spoliation et loi.”) [The last two pages are 14 and 15.] [See also “Plunder and Law,” p. 275 in this volume.]
[2. ](Bastiat’s note) The General Council for Agriculture, Industry, and Trade. (Session on 6 May 1850.)
[3. ]Under France’s restrictive eligibility rules for voting only the wealthiest taxpayers were allowed to vote. Under King Charles X (1824–30) fewer than 100,000 taxpayers were able to vote out of a total population of about 32 million. By 1848 the increase in the size of the wealthy merchant and industrial classes had increased the number of voters to about 200,000 out of a total population of 36 million. By contrast, in England restrictions on voter eligibility were determined by the value of land one owned. The First Reform Bill of 1832 increased the size of the electorate from 435,000 to 652,000 out of a total population of 13 million.
[4. ](Bastiat’s note) If in France protection were granted only to a single sector, for example to ironmasters, it would be so absurdly plunderous that it would be impossible to maintain it. For this reason, we see all forms of protected industry forming leagues, making common cause, and even recruiting each other to the extent that they appear to be embracing the whole of national labor. They feel instinctively that plunder is as concealed as it is generalized.
[5. ]Victor Considérant.
[6. ]The French word on has no real equivalent in English and is translated as “one,” “we,” “you,” “they,” or “people,” depending on the context. We have chosen “one” in this context. In this passage, by Bossuet, Bastiat asks “who” and “by whom” these decisions were made for Egyptian society. It is not Bossuet who is asking this.
[7. ]Fénelon published Les Aventures de Télémaque in 1699. It is the story of Telemachus’s search for his father in the company of Mentor, who instructs the young Telemachus on the virtues required by a prince. They come across the fictitious city of Salentum (Salente in French), which has been corrupted by luxury and military despotism. Only the dictatorship of an enlightened legislator could reform Salentum according to Fénelon. The complete works of Fénelon were published in multivolume editions in 1830 and again in 1848–52: Œuvres complètes de Fénelon.
[9. ]In this passage we translate the French word on as they. Bastiat again wants to show that the ruling elite imposes restrictions on its citizens. He changes the quotation by Fénelon slightly to make this point. See also note 6 , p. 124.
[10. ]Between 1609 and their expulsion from Latin America in 1767, the Jesuits organized among the native people of Paraguay a community based on Christian and communist principles. The Jesuits’ aim was to Christianize the native people, organize the social and economic life of the communities, and create “the kingdom of God on earth.” Bastiat rejected the idea of these communities, just as he did the contemporary attempts to create utopian socialist communities in Europe and America in the 1830s and 1840s, on the grounds that the communities owned property, in particular land, in common; sought an equality of ownership; and strictly regulated the free market.
[11. ]Rousseau, Du contrat social, bk. 2, chap. 7, “The Legislator.”
[12. ]The edition of Spirit of the Laws to which Bastiat might have had access was Œuvres de Montesquieu, avec éloges, analyses, commentaires, remarques, notes, réfutations, imitations, par MM Destutt de Tracy, Villemain, et al. (Paris, 1827), in eight volumes. The editor was Victor Destutt de Tracy, the son of Antoine Destutt de Tracy, who had earlier written an extensive commentary on the Spirit of the Laws for Thomas Jefferson, which Jefferson had published in 1811, A Commentary and Review of Montesquieu’s Spirit of Laws.
[13. ]Bastiat is wrong here. This passage, which he attributes to Condillac, is Mably’s Droits et devoirs, p. 510.
[14. ](Paillottet’s note) In the pamphlet Baccalaureate and Socialism, the author reveals the filiation of this very error through a series of similar quotations. (OC, vol. 4, p. 442, “Baccalauréat et socialisme.”) [See also “Baccalaureate and Socialism,” pp. 185–234 in this volume.]
[15. ](Paillottet’s note) For a people to be happy, it is essential for the individuals that make it up to be farsighted and prudent and to have the confidence in one another that is rooted in security.
And the state, having ordered everything, will be responsible for everything.
This will constitute a hotbed of revolution and revolutions with no outcome, since they will be carried out by a people who, by forbidding experience, have been forbidden to progress. (Idea drawn from the manuscripts of the author.)
[16. ]The edition of the writings of Robespierre to which Bastiat very likely would have had access was titled Œuvres de Maximilien Robespierre, a three-volume edition of Robespierre’s collected works. It was published in the late 1830s as the French socialist movement was beginning to grow on the eve of the revolution of 1848.
[17. ]Blanc, L’Organisation du travail.
[18. ](Bastiat’s note) Political economy precedes politics; politics states whether human interests are naturally harmonious or antagonistic, which political economy ought to know before establishing the attributes of government.