Front Page Titles (by Subject) The Right to Work vs the Right or Freedom of Working - Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850
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The Right to Work vs the Right or Freedom of Working - Frédéric Bastiat, Collected Works of Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850 
The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850, Jacques de Guenin, General Editor. Translated from the French by Jane Willems and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Pascal Salin. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation Editor Dennis O’Keeffe. Academic Editor, David M. Hart (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012).
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The Right to Work vs the Right or Freedom of Working
The “right to work” (le droit au travail, which one might translate in English as the “right to a job”) had been a catch phrase of the socialists throughout the 1840s. What they meant by this term was that the state had the duty to provide work for all men who demanded it. In contrast, the classical liberal economists called for the “right of working,” or the “freedom to work” (la liberté du travail, or le droit de travailler), by which they meant the right of any individual to pursue an occupation or activity without any restraints imposed upon him by the state. The latter point of view was articulated by Charles Dunoyer in his De la liberté du travail and by Bastiat in many of his writings. The socialist perspective was provided by Louis Blanc in L’Organisation du travail and Le Socialisme, droit au travail and by Victor Considérant in La Théorie du droit de propriété et du droit au travail.
Matters came to a head in May 1848, when a committee of the Constituent Assembly was formed to discuss the issue of “the right to work” just prior to the closing of the state-run National Workshops, which prompted widespread rioting in Paris. In a veritable “who’s who” of the socialist and liberal movements of the day, a debate took place in the Assembly and was duly published by the classical liberal publishing firm of Guillaumin later in the year along with suitable commentary by such leading liberal economists as Léon Faucher, Louis Wolowski, Joseph Garnier, and, of course, Bastiat.24 Here is the beginning of the “opinion” Bastiat wrote for the volume, in which he distinguished between the right to work (droit au travail, where “work” is used as a noun and thus might be rendered as the “right to a job”) and the “right to work” (droit de travailler, where “work” is used as a verb):
My dear Garnier,
You ask for my opinion of the “right to a job” (droit au travail), and you seem to be surpised that I did not present it on the floor of the National Assembly. My silence is due solely to the fact that when I asked for the floor, thirty of my colleagues were lined up before me.
If one understands by the phrase “right to a job” (droit au travail) the right to work (droit de travailler) (which implies the right to enjoy the fruit of one’s labor), then one can have no doubt on the matter. As far as I’m concerned, I have never written two lines that did not have as their purpose the defense of this notion.
But if one means by the “right to a job” that an individual has the right to demand of the state that it take care of him, provide him with a job and a wage by force, then under no circumstances does this bizarre thesis bear close inspection.
First of all, does the state have any rights and duties other than those that already exist among the citizens? I have always thought that its mission was to protect already existing rights. For example, even if we abstract the state away from consideration, I have the right to work (droit de travailler) and to dispose of the fruit of my work. My fellow citizens have the same rights, and we have in addition the right to defend them even by the use of force. This is why we have the community, the communal force. The state can and ought to protect us in the exercise of these rights. It is its collective and regularized action that is substituted for individual and disordered action, and the latter is the raison d’être for the former.25
We can see clearly in these passages that Bastiat has a strong view of individual rights, that they exist prior to the formation of the state, that the state exists only to protect these preexisting rights, and that if state force is used to do anything else then it steps outside of its just boundaries. It was precisely this expansion of illegitimate state power that Bastiat was battling during the revolution in 1848 and 1849.
[24. ]See Le Droit au travail à l’Assemblée Nationale. See also Faucher, “Droit au travail” in Coquelin, Dictionnaire de l’économie politique, vol. 1. pp. 605–19.
[25. ]Le Droit au travail à l’ Assemblée Nationale, pp. 373–74.