Front Page Titles (by Subject) 13: Plunder and Law 1 - Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850
Return to Title Page for Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
13: Plunder and Law 1 - 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).
About Liberty Fund:
Liberty Fund, Inc. is a private, educational foundation established to encourage the study of the ideal of a society of free and responsible individuals.
The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.
Fair use statement:
This material is put online to further the educational goals of Liberty Fund, Inc. Unless otherwise stated in the Copyright Information section above, this material may be used freely for educational and academic purposes. It may not be used in any way for profit.
Plunder and Law1
[vol. 5, p. 1. “Spoliation et loi.” This pamphlet was first published in the 15 May 1850 issue of Le Journal des économistes.]
To Those Who Favor Protectionism in the General Council of Manufacturers
Sirs, let us converse for a moment in a moderate and friendly way.
You do not wish political economy to believe in and teach free trade.
This is as if you were saying, “We do not want political economy to concern itself with society, exchange, value, right, justice, or property. We recognize two principles only, oppression and plunder.”
Can you imagine political economy without society? Society without exchange? Exchange without a means of evaluation between the two objects or two services being exchanged? Can you imagine this rate, known as value, as anything other than a result of the free agreement of the people doing the exchanging? Can you imagine that a product is worth another if, in the exchange, one of the parties is not free?2 Can you imagine free agreement between the parties without freedom? Can you imagine that one of the contracting parties could be deprived of freedom, unless one contracting party is being oppressed by the other? Can you imagine exchange between an oppressor and an oppressed party without the equivalence value of the services being distorted and therefore without rights, justice, and ownership being very seriously infringed?
What do you want? Tell me frankly.
You do not want trade to be free!
Do you therefore want trade not to be free?
Do you therefore want it to be carried out under the influence of oppression? For if it were not carried out under the influence of oppression, it would be carried out under the influence of freedom and that is what you do not want.
Admit it, what is worrying you is right and justice; what is worrying you is ownership—not yours, of course, but that of others. You find it difficult to accept that others are free to dispose of their property (the only way to be an owner); you want to dispose of your property . . . and theirs.
You then require economists to draft into a body of doctrine this jumble of absurdity and monstrosity in order to establish the theory of plunder for your use.
However, this is just what they will never do, for in their view plunder is a principle of hatred and unrest, and if there is a more particularly hateful form for it to take on, it is above all the legal form.3
Here, M. Benoît d’Azy, I must take you to task. You are a moderate, impartial, and generous man. You do not set store by your interests and wealth; you are the one who constantly proclaims this. Recently at the General Council you said: “If the rich needed only to give up what they had for the people to be rich, we would all be ready to do it.” (Oh yes! That is true!) And yesterday at the National Assembly: “If I thought that it was up to me to give all workers the work they needed, I would give all I owned to achieve this good act . . . which is unfortunately impossible.”
Although the pointlessness of the sacrifice occasions in you the great sorrow of not performing it and has you echoing the words of Basile, “Money! Money! I despise it . . . but I am keeping it,” surely no one will doubt such striking generosity of mind, whatever its impotence. It is a virtue that likes to shroud itself in a veil of modesty, especially when it is purely inactive and negative. For your part, you do not miss an opportunity to display it in front of the entire country from the pedestal of the rostrum in the Luxembourg Palace to the Legislative Palace. This proves that you cannot contain its outbursts although you contain its effects, with regret on your part.
But when it comes to it, no one is asking you to give up your wealth, and I agree that it would not solve the social problem.
You would like to be generous, but you cannot do it to any good purpose. What I venture to ask you is to be just. Keep your wealth, but allow me to keep mine. Respect my property as I respect yours. Is this too bold a request that I am making?
Let us suppose that we were in a country in which free trade held sway, where everyone was able to dispose of his work and property. Does your hair stand on end? Calm yourself; this is only a hypothesis.
We are therefore all just as free as each other. There is indeed a rule of law, but this law, entirely impartial and just, far from undermining our freedom, guarantees it. It comes into action only if we try to exercise oppression, either you of me or I of you. There is public enforcement, there are magistrates and gendarmes, but all they do is to carry out the law.
This being so, you are an ironmaster and I am a hatmaker. I need iron for my own use or for my production. Naturally I ask myself, “How can I procure the iron I need for the least amount of work?” In view of my situation and knowledge, I discover that the best solution for me is to make hats and deliver them to a Belgian who will give me iron in return.
However, you are an ironmaster, and you say to yourself, “I know how to make this rascal (referring to me) come to my company.”
Consequently, you adorn your belt with sabers and pistols, arm your many employees, go to the border, and there, when I am on the point of carrying out my exchange, you shout, “Stop, or I will blow your brains out!” “But, my lord, I need iron.” “I have some to sell.” “But, my lord, yours is very expensive.” “There are reasons for this.” “But, my lord, I also have reasons for preferring cheaper iron.” “Well then, see what is going to decide between your reasons and mine. You fellows, take aim!”
In short, you prevent Belgian iron from entering the country and at the same time you prevent my hats from leaving.
Given the free society we have assumed, you cannot deny that this is a clear act of oppression and plunder on your part.
I therefore quickly call on the law, a magistrate, and public enforcement. They all intervene; you are judged, condemned, and justly punished.
But all this gives you a bright idea.
You say to yourself: “I have been very stupid to go to so much trouble. What, exposing myself to killing or being killed! Making a journey! Taking my employees with me! Incurring huge expense! Making myself out to be a robber! Deserving to be condemned by the country’s courts! All this to oblige a lowly hatmaker to come to my workshop to buy iron at my price! If only I could win over the law, the magistrates, and public enforcement so that they serve my interests! If only I could have them carry out at the border the odious act I was going to do myself!”
Excited by this attractive prospect, you get yourself elected to office and you get legislation enacted with the following provisions:
Article 1: A tax will be levied on everybody (and in particular on my cursed hatmaker).
Article 2: With the product of this tax, we will pay men to guard the border well, in the interests of ironmasters.
Article 3: The guards will ensure that no one can trade hats or other goods with Belgians in return for iron.
Article 4: Ministers, public prosecutors, customs officers, tax collectors, and jailers will be responsible, in their respective domains, for carrying out this law.
I agree, sir, that in this form plunder would be infinitely gentler, more lucrative, and less dangerous for you than in the form you originally envisaged.
I agree that it would have a very pleasant side for you. You would certainly be able to laugh up your sleeve, since you would have burdened me with the entire expense.
However, I assert that you would have introduced into society the basis of ruin, immorality, unrest, hatred, and constant revolution; you would have opened the door to all forms of socialist and communist experimentation.4
You will doubtless consider my hypothesis very bold. Well then! Turn it round against me! I am quite willing, given my love of proof.
I am now a worker and you are still an ironmaster.
It would be an advantage for me to acquire the tools of my trade cheaply or even free. However, I know that there are axes and saws in your workshop. Therefore, with no further ado, I enter your shop and take everything that I want.
But you, using your right of legitimate defense, initially repel force with force. You then call upon the assistance of the law, magistrates, and public enforcement to have me thrown into prison, and you have acted rightly.
“Oh, dear!” I say to myself, “I have been stupid to do this. When you want to benefit from other people’s property, it is not in spite of but by virtue of the law that you should act if you are not an imbecile. Consequently, since you have become a protectionist, I will become a socialist. As you have arrogated to yourself the right to profit, I invoke the right to work, or to the tools of my trade.
What is more, in prison I read my Louis Blanc and I know this doctrine by heart: “What the proletariat need to throw off their yoke are the tools of their trade, and the function of the government is to give them the tools.” And also: “Once you agree that in order to be genuinely free, man needs the power to exercise and develop his faculties, it follows that society owes each one of its members both education, without which the human mind cannot develop, and the tools of his trade, without which human activity cannot forge a career for itself. But by whose intervention will society give each one of its members a suitable education and the tools of his trade that he needs if it is not by the intervention of the state?”5
Therefore, I, too, storm the doors of the Legislative Palace, even at the cost of causing a revolution in my country. I corrupt the law and make it accomplish the very act for which it had hitherto punished me, for my benefit and at your expense.
My decree is based on yours.
Article 1: A tax will be levied on all citizens and especially on ironmasters.
Article 2: With the product of this tax, the state will pay an armed body titled the Fraternal Gendarmerie.
Article 3: The fraternal gendarmes will enter stores that sell axes, saws, etc., seize these instruments, and distribute them to the workers who want them.
As you can see, sir, through this clever arrangement I will no longer run the risk nor incur the expense, opprobrium, or scruples of plunder. The state will rob for me as it does for you. There will be two of us playing the game.
It remains to be seen what will become of French society if my second hypothesis comes true, or at least what it has become following the almost complete realization of the first.
I do not want to deal here with the question from the point of view of economics. People believe that when we demand free trade, we are solely driven by a desire to leave labor and capital free to take the most advantageous route. People are mistaken. This is only a secondary consideration for us. What wounds us, what distresses us, and what terrifies us about the protectionist regime is that it is the negation of rights, justice, and property; that it turns the law, which should guarantee property and justice, against them; and that it thus overturns and corrupts the conditions of the existence of society. And it is on this aspect of the question that I call on you to meditate most seriously.
What therefore is the law or at least what ought it to be? What is its rational and moral mission? Is it not to hold accurately the balance between all forms of right, all forms of freedom, and all forms of ownership? Is it not to ensure that justice reigns over all? Is it not to prevent and eliminate oppression and plunder, wherever they are found?
And are you not appalled by the immense, radical, and deplorable innovation that is introduced into the world on the day on which the law is made responsible for carrying out itself the crime whose punishment was its mission? The day on which it turns against freedom and ownership, both in principle and deed?
You deplore the symptoms exhibited by modern society. You bewail the unrest that reigns in institutions and in ideas. But is it not your principles that have corrupted everything, both in institutions and ideas?
What! The law is no longer a refuge for the oppressed but the arm of the oppressor! The law is no longer a shield but a sword! The law no longer holds in its august hands a set of scales but false weights and false keys. And you want society to be properly organized!
It is your principles that have written the following words on the pediment of the Legislative Chamber: “Whoever acquires any influence here may obtain his share of legal plunder here.”
And what has happened? Each class has rushed to the doors of this palace shouting, “For me, too, I want my share of plunder!”
Following the February revolution, when universal suffrage was proclaimed, I hoped for a moment that its great voice would be heard to say: “No more plunder for anyone, justice for all!” And in that lay the true solution of the social problem. This did not happen; protectionist propaganda had for centuries past effected too deep a change in sentiments and ideas.
No, by bursting into the National Assembly, each class came to make the law an instrument of plunder for itself according to the principles you uphold. They demanded progressive taxes, free credit, the right to work, the right to state assistance, guaranteed interest rates, a minimum rate of pay, free education, subsidies to industry, etc., etc.; in short, each wanted to live and develop at other people’s expense.
And under what authority have these claims been levied? Following precedents you set yourselves. What sophisms were invoked? Those that you have been propagating for centuries. Like you, people have been talking of leveling the conditions of work.6 Like you, people have spoken out against anarchical competition. Like you, people have scorned laissez-faire, that is to say, freedom. Like you, people have said that the law should not limit itself to being just but should come to the aid of tottering industries, protect the weak from the strong, ensure profits for individuals at the expense of the community, etc., etc. In short, as M. Charles Dupin said, socialism has come to put the theory of plunder into practice. It has done what you do and what you want teachers of political economy to do, with you and for you.
It is no good your being clever, you people who support restriction; it is no good softening the tone, boasting of your hidden generosity or winning over your opponents through appealing to sentiment; you will not stop logic from being logic.
You will not stop M. Billault from saying to the legislator, “You are giving favors to some people; you must give them to everyone.”
You will not stop M. Crémieux from saying to the legislator, “You are making manufacturers richer; you must make the proletariat richer.”
You will not stop M. Nadeau from saying to the legislator, “You cannot refuse to do for the suffering classes what you do for those that are privileged.”
You will not even stop M. Mimerel, your leader of the chorus, from saying to the legislator, “I demand twenty-five thousand francs worth of subsidies for workers’ retirement funds,” and developing his motion thus:
Is this the first example of this nature that our legislation is offering? Will you establish a system in which the state is able to encourage everything, open science courses at its expense, subsidize fine arts, give grants to theaters, provide higher education, a wide variety of leisure pursuits, enjoyment of the arts, and rest in old age to the classes that are already favored by wealth, and give all this to those who have not experienced deprivation, making those who have nothing pay for their part in this deprivation, refusing them everything, even the essential items of life?. . .
Sirs, our society in France, our behavior, and our laws are so organized that the intervention of the state, as regrettable as you may think it, is found everywhere, and nothing appears stable or long-lasting if the state does not play a part in it. It is the state that makes Sèvres porcelain and the Gobelins tapestries. It is the state that exhibits periodically and at its expense the works of our artists and our manufacturers. It is the state that rewards our stockbreeders and our fishing fleets. All this costs a great deal; this is yet another tax that everyone pays; everyone, let that be understood! And what direct benefit do the people gain from this? What direct benefit do your porcelains, tapestries, and exhibitions give them? We can understand this principle of resisting what you call a state of being carried along, although only yesterday you voted for grants for flax. We can understand this on condition that the weather is considered and above all on condition that impartiality is clearly evident. If it is true that, through all the means I have just indicated, the state has appeared up till now to come to the aid of the comfortably off classes rather than those less favored, it is essential for this appearance to disappear. Will this be by closing the Gobelins factory or forbidding exhibitions? Certainly not but by giving the poor a direct share in this distribution of benefits.”7
In this long list of favors granted to a few at the expense of all, you will note the extreme reticence with which M. Mimerel glosses over customs favors,8 even though they are the most explicit expression of legal plunder. All the speakers who supported or contradicted him were equally reticent. That is very clever! Perhaps they hoped that by giving the poor a direct share in this distribution of benefits, they would preserve the great iniquity from which they benefit but never mention.
They are deluding themselves. Do they believe that once they have achieved partial plunder through the institution of customs, other classes will not want, through other institutions, to achieve universal plunder?
I am fully aware that you always have a sophism at the ready; you say: “The favors that the law grants us are not intended for industrialists, but for industry. The products they enable us to skim off at the expense of consumers are just a deposit in our hands.”9
“They make us rich, it is true; but our wealth, which enables us to spend more and increase the size of our businesses, falls like fertile dew on the working class.”
This is your language, and what I deplore is that your dreadful sophisms have corrupted the public mind enough for them to be quoted today to support all the processes of legal plunder. The suffering classes also say: “Let us take the goods of others through law. We will be more comfortably off; we will buy more wheat, more meat, more cloth, more iron and what we will have received through taxes will return as a beneficial rain on capitalists and landowners.”
However, as I have already said, I am not discussing today the economic consequences of legal plunder. When the supporters of protectionism are ready, they will find me ready to examine the ricochet sophism10 ,11 which, besides, can be quoted for all sorts of theft and fraud.
Let us limit ourselves to the political and moral effects of trade that is deprived of freedom by the law.
I say this, the time has come to establish finally what the law is and what it ought to be.
If you make the law the safeguard of freedom and property for all citizens, if it is limited to the organization of the individual right of legitimate defense, you will found on justice a government that is rational, uncomplicated, economical, understood by all, loved by all, useful to all, supported by all, given responsibility that is perfectly defined, highly restricted, and endowed with unshakeable solidity.
If, on the other hand, you make the law an instrument of plunder in the interest of particular individuals and classes, each one at first would want to make the law and each would then want to make it to his advantage. There would be a throng at the gates of the Legislative Palace, a bitter battle within it, anarchy in people’s minds, the wreck of all morality, violence in the institutions representing various interests, fierce electoral battles, accusations, recriminations, jealousy, inextinguishable hatred, public enforcement in the service of unjust greed instead of containment of greed, the concept of right and wrong obliterated from people’s minds just as the concept of justice and injustice is obliterated from all consciences, a government that is responsible for each person’s existence and that is bowed under the weight of such responsibility, political convulsions, and fruitless revolutions and ruins on which all forms of socialism and communism will be tried out. These are the scourges that corruption of the law will not fail to unleash.
Consequently, oh you supporters of prohibition, these are the scourges to which you have opened the door by using the law to stifle free trade, that is to say, to stifle the right to property. Do not speak out against socialism; you are promoting it. Do not speak out against communism; you are promoting it. And now you are asking us economists to provide you with a theory that proves you are right and justifies you! Heavens above! Do it yourselves.12
[1. ](Paillottet’s note) On 27 April 1850, following a very curious discussion, printed in Le Moniteur, the General Council on Agriculture, Industry, and Trade issued the following wish:
[2. ](Paillottet’s note) See the theory of value in chapter 5 of Economic Harmonies. (OC, vol. 6, chap. 5, p. 140, “De la valeur.”)
[3. ](Paillottet’s note) The author had expressed this opinion three years previously in the issue of the journal Le Libre échange dated 28 November 1847. In reply to Le Moniteur industriel, he had said: We would ask the reader to forgive us if we become casuists for a moment. Our opponents oblige us to put on our doctor’s mortarboard. This is apposite since it oft en pleases them to refer to us as doctors.An illegal act is always immoral for the sole reason that it disobeys the law, but it does not follow that it is immoral in itself. When a mason (we apologize to our colleague for drawing his attention to such a small point) exchanges his earnings from a hard day’s work for a length of Belgian cloth, his action is not intrinsically immoral. It is not the action that is immoral in itself; it is the violation of the law. And the proof of this is that, should the law be changed, no one would find anything wrong with this exchange. It is not immoral in Switzerland. But what is immoral in itself is immoral everywhere and at all times. Will Le Moniteur industriel claim that the morality of acts depends on their time and place?If some acts can be illegal without being immoral, others are immoral without being illegal. When our colleague changes our words by trying to find a meaning in them that is not there, when certain people, after privately declaring that they are in favor of freedom, write and vote against it, when a master makes his slave work by beating him, it is possible that the Code is not violated, but the consciences of all honest men are revolted. It is at the head of this category of actions that we place these restrictions. A Frenchman says to another Frenchman who is his equal or ought to be, “I forbid you to buy Belgian cloth because I want you to be obliged to come to my shop. That may upset you but it suits my purpose. You will lose four but I will gain two and that is enough.” We would say that this action is immoral. If someone makes so bold as to bring it about himself forcibly or by means of the law, this does not change the character of the act. It is immoral by nature, in essence; it would have been so ten thousand years ago and would be in the Antipodes or on the moon, since whatever Le Moniteur industriel says, the law, which can do a great deal, cannot, however, turn something that is bad into good.We are not even afraid to say that the contribution of the law increases the immorality of the act. If it were not involved, if for example the manufacturer had his restrictive wishes executed by those in his pay, the immorality would be blindingly obvious to Le Moniteur industriel itself. What then! Because this manufacturer was able to spare himself this effort, because he was able to appropriate the services of public compulsion and saddle those oppressed with part of the costs of repression, what was immoral has become meritorious!It is true that the people thus trampled on may imagine that it is for their good and that oppression results from an error common to both oppressors and those oppressed. This is enough to justify the intention and remove from the act the odiousness that it would otherwise have. Where this happens, the majority approves of the law. We have to accept this and would never say otherwise. However, nothing will stop us from telling the majority that in our opinion, it is mistaken.
[4. ](Paillottet’s note) See “Protectionism and Communism” in vol. 4. (OC, vol. 4, p. 504, “Protectionisme et communisme.”) [See also “Protectionism and Communism,” p. 235 in this volume.]
[5. ](Bastiat’s note) Organization of Work, pages 17 and 24 of the introduction [Blanc, L’Organisation du travail].
[6. ]See OC, vol. 4, p. 27, “Égaliser les conditions de production” (Sophism no. 4).
[7. ](Bastiat’s note) The issue of Le Moniteur dated 28 April 1850.
[8. ]As indicated in “Protectionism and Communism,” p. 252, note 11 , in this volume customs gave subsidies to some exporters in order to encourage—or maintain in existence—a specific industrial sector.
[9. ](Bastiat’s note) The issue of Le Moniteur dated 28 April. See the opinion of M. Devinck.
[10. ](Paillottet’s note) This is implicitly refuted in chapter 12 of the first series and chapters 4 and 12 of the second series of “Sophisms.” (OC, vol. 4, chap. 12, p. 74, “La Protection élève-t-elle le taux des salaires?”; chap. 4, p. 160, “Conseil inférieur du travail,” and chap. 12, p. 213, “Le Sel, la poste, la douane.”)
[11. ]Ricochet sophism is best translated as “the sophism of indirect consequences.” The allusion is to the sophists, who pretend that there are very beneficial, indirect consequences to some duties for which they are asking.
[12. ](Paillottet’s note) In this response to the protectionists, which he addressed to them on his departure for the Landes, the author, obliged to give his views rapidly on the rational domain of legislation, felt the need to set them out in more detail. He did this a few days later during a short stay in Mugron when he wrote The Law, a pamphlet included in this volume. (OC, vol. 4, p. 342, “La Loi.”) [See also “The Law,” p. 107 in this volume.]