Front Page Titles (by Subject) 17: Private and Public Services - Economic Harmonies (Boyers trans.)
The Online Library of Liberty
A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.
Search this Title:
17: Private and Public Services - Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Harmonies (Boyers trans.) 
Economic Harmonies, trans by W. Hayden Boyers, ed. George B. de Huszar, introduction by Dean Russell (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996).
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.
Published online with the kind permission of the copyright holders, the Foundation for Economic Education.
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.
Private and Public Services
Services are exchanged for services.
The equivalence of services results from voluntary exchange and the free bargaining that precedes it.
In other words, every service tendered society is worth as much as any other service to which society attaches equal importance, provided that all bids and all asking prices are made, compared, and discussed in complete freedom.
There is no use in quibbling or making subtle distinctions. It is impossible to conceive of the idea of value without associating with it the idea of freedom.
When no violence, no coercion, no fraud is introduced to impair the equivalence of services, it may be said that justice prevails.
This does not mean that mankind will then have reached a state of perfection, for freedom always leaves room for errors in individual judgment. Man is often the dupe of his own opinions and passions, nor does he always rank his desires in their most reasonable order. We have seen that a service may be assigned a value that has no reasonable relation to its utility; we need only give certain desires priority over others. Only as our intelligence, our good sense, and our standards improve, shall we strike the ideal balance, putting every service in its proper moral place, if I may so express myself. A worthless article, a childish show, an immoral pleasure may command a high price in one country and be scorned and frowned upon in another. The equivalence of services is therefore something other than a just appraisal of their utility. Nevertheless, in this regard, it is freedom and a sense of responsibility that correct and improve our tastes, our desires, our satisfactions, and our judgment.
In every country in the world there is a class of services that, in the manner in which they are performed, distributed, and paid for, develop in a way quite different from that of private or voluntary services. These are public services.
When a want assumes a sufficiently general and widespread character to be called a public want, it may appear fitting to all those belonging to a given group (municipality, province, or nation) to provide for the satisfaction of this want through joint action or delegation of authority. In this case the citizens appoint functionaries to perform and make available throughout the community the particular service in question, and they provide for its payment through an assessment that, at least in principle, is commensurate with the means of each member.
Basically, the original elements of the social economy are not necessarily altered by this particular form of exchange, especially when the free consent of all parties is assumed. It is still an exchange of efforts, of services. The functionaries labor to satisfy the wants of the taxpayers; and the taxpayers labor to satisfy the wants of the functionaries. The relative value of these reciprocal services is determined by a procedure that we shall have occasion to examine; but the essential elements of exchange, at least theoretically, remain intact.
Therefore, certain writers, whose opinion has been biased by the sight of crushing and abusive taxation, have been wrong in considering as lost all values allocated to public services.1 This sweeping condemnation will not bear analysis. In so far as loss or gain is concerned, public service does not in any way differ, scientifically considered, from private service. Whether I guard my land myself or pay a man to guard it or pay the state to have it guarded for me, does not alter the fact that I make a sacrifice for the sake of an advantage. One way or another, to be sure, I give up something that has cost me effort, but I receive protection in return. This is not a loss, but an exchange.
Will someone object that I surrender a physical object and in return receive nothing that has either body or form? This would be falling back into the erroneous notion of value. As long as value was attributed to matter, not to services, it was necessarily believed that all public services were without value, that is, that they represented an actual loss. Later, when political economists wavered between true and false notions of value, they also necessarily wavered between true and false notions of taxation.
If taxation does not necessarily constitute a loss, even less does it necessarily constitute an act of plunder.2 In modern societies plunder by taxation is undoubtedly practiced on an exceedingly large scale; and, as we shall see, it is one of the most active of all the elements that upset the equivalence of services and disturb the harmony of interests. But the best way to combat and destroy the abuses of taxation is to avoid the extreme position that represents it as being inherently spoliative and extortionate.
Thus, considered in themselves, in their own nature, in their normal state, and apart from all abuses, public services are, like private services, purely and simply acts of exchange.
But the procedures by which, in these two forms of exchange, services are compared, bargained for, transmitted, balanced, and evaluated are so different in themselves and in their effects that the reader will permit me, I am sure, to treat this difficult subject in some detail, since it is one of the most interesting that can be presented for the consideration of economists and statesmen. Indeed, this is the connecting link between economics and government. It is here that we find the origin and the import of that most grievous error ever to infect the science of political economy, the error of identifying society with government—society, the whole that includes both private services and public services, and government, that mere fraction of the whole which includes only public services.
When, unfortunately, following the teaching of Rousseau and of all his faithful disciples, the French republicans, we use interchangeably the words “government” and “society,” we are deciding by implication, a priori, and without study of the facts, that the state can and must absorb all private activity, all individual liberty and responsibility; we are deciding that all private services must be converted into public services, that the social order is a mere convention that owes its existence to the law; we are declaring ourselves in favor of the omnipotence of the lawgiver and the downfall of humanity.
But what we actually observe is that public services or government action increases or decreases according to time, place, or circumstances, from the communism of Sparta or the Paraguay missions to the individualism of the United States, with French centralization as a midpoint along the way.
The first question to be asked, then, as we begin the study of political science is this:
What are the services that should remain in the realm of private activity? What are those that should fall within the domain of public or collective activity?
That question amounts to this:
Within the great circle that we call “society,” what should be the circumference of the smaller circle we call “government”?
It is evident that this question is connected with political economy, since it requires the comparative study of two very different forms of exchange.
Once this problem is solved, there still remains another: How can public services best be organized? We shall not consider this question, since it falls entirely within the field of government.
Let us examine the essential differences between private services and public services, since this is a necessary preliminary to determining what should be the logical line of demarcation between them.
This entire book up to the present chapter has been devoted to showing the evolution of private services. We have seen that it is, implicitly or explicitly, based on this formula: You do this for me, and I will do that for you; which implies a double and mutual consent regarding what is given and what is received. The notions of barter, exchange, appraisal, value, cannot, therefore, be conceived of without freedom, nor freedom without responsibility. Each party to an exchange consults, at his own risk and peril, his wants, his needs, his tastes, his desires, his means, his attitudes, his convenience—all the elements of his situation; and nowhere have we denied that in the exercise of free will there is the possibility of error, the possibility of an unreasonable or a foolish choice. The fault is imputable, not to the principle of exchange, but to the imperfection of human nature; and the remedy is to be found only in responsibility itself (that is, in freedom), since it is the source of all experience. To introduce coercion into exchange, to destroy free will on the pretext that men may make mistakes, would not improve things, unless it can be proved that the agent empowered to apply the coercion is exempt from the imperfection of our nature, is not subject to passion or error, does not belong to humanity. Is it not evident, on the contrary, that this would be tantamount not only to putting responsibility in the wrong place, but, even worse, to destroying it, at least in so far as its most precious attribute is concerned, that is, as a rewarding, retributive, experimental, corrective, and, consequently, progressive force? We have also seen that free exchange, or services voluntarily received and voluntarily rendered, constantly increases, thanks to the effect of competition, the relative proportion of gratuitous utility to onerous utility, the domain of common wealth in relation to the domain of private property; and we have thus come to recognize in freedom the power that in every way promotes equality, or social harmony.
As for the forms of free exchange, there is no need to describe them, for, if coercion assumes endless forms, freedom has only one. Once again, the free and voluntary transfer of services from one person to another can be defined in these simple words: Give me this, and I will give you that. Do this for me, and I will do that for you. Do ut des; facio ut facias.
This is not the way that public services are exchanged. In their case, coercion is to some degree inevitable; and we must expect to find infinite varieties, from the most complete despotism to the most widespread and direct participation by all the citizens.
Although this political ideal has never been fully realized anywhere, and perhaps never will be except in imagination, we shall nevertheless assume that it has been. For what do we seek to discover? The modifications that services undergo when they enter the public domain; and, for scientific purposes, we must abstract from all local and particular acts of injustice, in order to consider public service in its essence and under the most legitimate conditions. In a word, we must study the transformation it undergoes by the very fact of becoming public, apart from the causes that have made it public and the abuses that may enter into its administration.
The procedure is as follows:
The citizens appoint representatives. These representatives meet and decide by majority vote that a certain kind of want—education, for example—can no longer be satisfied by the citizens' own free efforts or free exchange, but is to be provided for by a class of functionaries specially assigned to this task. This is the procedure for rendering the service. As for the service received, since the state has availed itself of the time and talents of a new group of functionaries for the benefit of the citizens, it must also take from the citizens what is needed to support the functionaries. This is accomplished by means of a general tax or assessment.
In every civilized country this tax is paid in the form of money. It is hardly necessary to remark that behind this money there is labor. In the last analysis, it is a payment in kind. Ultimately, the citizens work for the functionaries, and the functionaries for the citizens, even as in their voluntary services the citizens work for one another.
We make this observation to guard against a very commonly accepted monetary fallacy. We often hear it said that the money functionaries receive falls back, like a refreshing rain, on the citizens, and the inference is drawn that this so-called rain is an additional benefit accruing to the service. This reasoning has been used to justify the most parasitical activities. Those who reason thus do not realize that if the service had remained a private one, the money, instead of going first to the state treasury and from there to the functionaries, would have gone directly from those receiving the service to those performing it voluntarily and from them would likewise have fallen, like a gentle rain, upon the entire community. The fallacy in this kind of reasoning becomes evident when we look beyond the circulation of currency to the fundamental fact of labor exchanged for labor, of services exchanged for services. In the realm of government operation it may happen that functionaries receive services from the citizens without rendering services in return; in that case the taxpayer suffers a loss, no matter what illusion the circulation of bank notes may create.
In any case, let us return to our analysis.
This, then, is exchange under a new form. Exchange implies ultimately two activities: giving and receiving. Let us see how the change from private to public status affects the transaction from the twofold point of view of services rendered and services received.
In the first place, we note that always or nearly always public service eliminates, in law or in fact, private services of the same nature. When the state undertakes a service, it generally takes pains to decree that no one except itself shall render it, especially if it anticipates revenue from the venture. In France the postal service, tobacco, playing cards, gunpowder, etc., etc., are cases in point. But even if the state did not take this precaution, the end result would be the same. What industry can undertake the rendering of a service to the public that the state performs for nothing? We rarely find anyone seeking a means of livelihood in the private teaching of law or medicine, the construction of highways, the breeding of thoroughbred horses, the founding of schools for the arts and crafts, the clearing of Algerian land, the establishment of museums, etc., etc. The reason is that the public will not buy what the state offers it for nothing. As M. Cormenin∗ said, the shoe industry would fail very quickly, even though the first article of the Constitution declared it inviolate, if the government were to decide to give everyone shoes free of charge.
The truth is, the word “gratuitous” as applied to public services contains the grossest, and, I may add, the most childish of fallacies. I marvel at the public's extreme gullibility in being taken in by this word. People ask us, “Are you against gratuitous education? Gratuitous stud farms?”
Quite the contrary! I'm for them and I would also be for gratuitous food and gratuitous housing.... if these were possible.
But the only thing that is really gratuitous is what does not cost anyone anything. Now, public services cost everybody something; the reason they cost the receiver nothing is that everybody has paid for them in advance. The person who has already paid his share of the general assessment will certainly not pay again in order to have the same service performed for him by private industry.
Thus, public service replaces private service. It adds nothing to the nation's general industry nor to its wealth. It has functionaries do what private industry would have done. It remains for us to determine which of the two systems will involve the greater incidental inconvenience. The purpose of this chapter is to answer these questions.
When the satisfaction of a want becomes the object of a public service, it is in large part removed from the sphere of individual freedom and responsibility. The individual is no longer free to buy what he wishes, when he wishes, to consult his means, his convenience, his situation, his tastes, his moral standards, any more than he can determine the relative order in which it seems reasonable to him to provide for his wants. Willy-nilly, he must accept from society, not the amount of service that he deems useful, as he does with private services, but the amount that the government has seen fit to prepare for him, whatever be its quantity and quality. Perhaps he does not have enough bread to satisfy his hunger, and yet the government takes from him a part of this bread, which would be indispensable to him, in order to give him instruction or public spectacles that he neither needs nor desires. He ceases to exercise free control over the satisfaction of his own wants, and, no longer having any responsibility for satisfying them, he naturally ceases to concern himself with doing so. Foresight becomes as useless to him as experience. He becomes less his own master; he has lost, to some extent, his free will; he has less initiative for self-improvement; he is less of a man. Not only does he no longer judge for himself in a given case, but he loses the habit of judging for himself. This moral torpor, which takes possession of him, likewise takes possession of his fellow citizens, and we have seen entire nations fall in this way into disastrous inertia.3
As long as a set of wants and corresponding satisfactions remains in the realm of free choice, every man is a law unto himself in this regard and does as he sees fit. This seems natural and just, since no two men find themselves in identical circumstances, nor is there any one man whose circumstances do not vary from day to day. As long as there is free choice, all the human faculties—comparison, judgment, foresight—continue to be exercised. As long as there is free choice, every good decision brings its reward; every error, its punishment; and experience, that harsh complement of foresight, fulfills its mission, so that society cannot fail to improve.
But when the service becomes public, all individual rules of conduct cease to exist and become merged and generalized in a single written law, which is coercive, which is the same for everyone, which makes no provision for special situations, and which atrophies the noblest faculties of human nature.
If state intervention takes from us our control over ourselves in respect to the services we receive, it does so even more completely in respect to the services we perform for the state in return. This counterpart, this second element of exchange, is likewise withdrawn from the domain of freedom and is, instead, regulated without reference to particular cases by a law enacted in advance, carried out by force, and from which no one is exempt. In a word, as the services rendered us by the state are imposed upon us, those it demands from us in return are also imposed upon us, and, indeed, in all languages bear the name of imposts.
At this point countless difficulties and inconveniences present themselves in theory; for in practice the state surmounts all obstacles by means of armed force, which is the inevitable corollary of every law. But (to remain in the realm of theory) the conversion of a private service into a public one raises the following serious questions:
Will the state under all circumstances demand of every citizen a tax equivalent to the services it renders? This would be justice, and this, very definitely, is the equivalence that almost unfailingly manifests itself in free and voluntary transactions and in the price arrived at in the bargaining that precedes them. If the state, therefore, were desirous of achieving this kind of equivalence, which is justice in the most exact sense, it would not be worth while to remove any given type of services from the domain of private enterprise. But the state does not care about this and cannot care about it. One cannot haggle with functionaries. The law follows a uniform pattern and cannot stipulate conditions for each particular case. At the very most, that is, where it is conceived in the spirit of justice, it seeks to establish a kind of average and approximate equivalence between the two types of services exchanged. Two principles of taxation, the one proportional and the other progressive, have seemed, on different grounds, to carry this approximation to its ultimate limits. But the most superficial reflection will be enough to show that proportional taxation cannot, any more than progressive taxation, bring about a rigorously accurate equivalence of services exchanged. Public services, therefore, not only doubly deprive the private citizen of his freedom in regard to both services received and services rendered, but also commit the wrong of distorting the value of these services.
A far more than minor drawback to public services is that they destroy the principle of responsibility or at the very least misdirect it. But, for man, responsibility is everything! It is his motive force, his teacher, his rewarder and punisher. Without responsibility man no longer has free will, he is no longer perfectible, he is no longer a moral being, he learns nothing, he is nothing. He falls into inertia and no longer counts except as a unit of the herd.
If it is a misfortune when the sense of responsibility is extinguished in the individual, it is an even more serious misfortune when the state develops an exaggerated sense of its own responsibility. Man, however degraded, is always sufficiently enlightened to perceive the source of the good and the evil that come to him; and when the state takes charge of everything, it becomes responsible for everything. When subjected to these artificial arrangements, a people in distress can only blame its government; and its only remedy, its only political recourse, is to overthrow it. Hence an inevitable succession of revolutions. I say “inevitable,” for under this regime the people necessarily must suffer; and the reason is that the system of public services, over and beyond the fact that it distorts values, which is an injustice, also brings about an inevitable loss of wealth, which is ruination and injustice and the cause of suffering and resentment—four disastrous incitements of social disorder that, combined with loss of responsibility, cannot fail to produce those political convulsions of which we have been the unfortunate witnesses for more than fifty years.
I would prefer not to digress from my subject. Yet I cannot refrain from observing that, when things are organized in this way, when the government, by turning one free and voluntary transaction after another into a public service, has come to assume gigantic proportions, there is reason to fear that revolutions, which are in themselves so great an evil, will cease even to have the advantage of being a remedy, except by dint of repeated experience. The loss of responsibility has perverted public opinion. The people, accustomed to calling upon the state for everything, accuse the government, not of doing too much, but of not doing enough. They overthrow it and replace it by another, to which they do not say: Do less, but: Do more; and thus the abyss that yawns before us becomes ever deeper.
Does the moment finally come when men's eyes are opened? Do they feel that they must set about reducing the prerogatives and responsibilities of the state? Then they are stopped by other difficulties. On the one hand, vested interests are aroused and unite; and the citizens hesitate to disturb all those functionaries who have been enjoying an artificial livelihood. On the other hand, the citizens have lost their capacity for initiative. At the very instant that they are about to regain the liberty that they have so ardently pursued, they become frightened; they reject it. Do you offer them the freedom to provide their own education?4 They fear that all learning will be lost. Do you offer them freedom of worship? They fear that atheism will make inroads everywhere. They have been told so many times that all religion, all wisdom, all knowledge, all enlightenment, all morality reside in the state or are derived from the state!
But I shall come back to these considerations later and shall now return to my subject.
We have investigated the true role of competition in the formation of wealth. We have seen that it consists in passing its beneficial results on from the producer to the rest of mankind, in turning the progress it makes to the profit of the commonwealth, in steadily increasing the domain of gratuitous utility and consequently in bringing about a higher degree of equality.
But when private services become public, they are exempt from competition, and this admirable harmony is no longer manifested. The public official, in fact, is deprived of the stimulus that urges us on to progress. And how can progress work for the common good when it is nonexistent? The civil servant acts, not under the spur of self-interest, but under the shadow of the law. The law says to him: “You will render the public a certain fixed service, and you will receive from the public a certain other fixed service in return.” A little more or a little less zeal changes nothing in these fixed terms. Self-interest, on the other hand, whispers these words into the ear of the free worker: “The more you do for others, the more others will do for you.” In this case the remuneration depends entirely on how great and how intelligent is the effort made. Undoubtedly, group morale, the desire for advancement, a sense of duty can serve as active stimuli for the government official. But never can they replace the irresistible drive of self-interest. All experience confirms this line of reasoning. Everything that falls within the realm of bureaucracy is more or less static; it is doubtful whether teaching is better today than in the time of Francis I, and I do not think that anyone would propose comparing the activity that goes on in a government bureau with that of a private industry.
In proportion, then, as private services enter the category of public services, they lose momentum, at least to some degree, and become sterile, not to the detriment of those rendering the services (their pay does not change), but to the detriment of the whole community.
While these disadvantages, which I have merely sketched briefly, trusting to the reader's ingenuity to work out the details, are tremendous from the moral, political, and economic point of view, nevertheless, there is sometimes an advantage in substituting collective action for individual action. There are certain types of services of which the principal merit consists in regularity and uniformity. It is even possible, under certain conditions, for this change to public status to effect an economy of resources and, for a given satisfaction, to spare the community a certain amount of effort. The question to be answered, therefore, is this: What services are to remain in the realm of private initiative? What services are to be provided by collective or public activity? The study that we have just made of the essential differences between these two types of services will make easier the solution of this important problem.
First of all, is there some principle by which we may distinguish between what can legitimately be put within the sphere of collective activity and what should remain within the sphere of private activity?
I shall begin by stating that I call collective activity that great organization which finds its rule in the law and its means of execution in force, in other words, government. Let me not be told that free and voluntary associations also involve collective activity. Let it not be supposed that I give to the words private activity the sense of isolated activity. On the contrary: I assert that free and voluntary association still belongs in the domain of private activity, for it is one of the most powerful forms of exchange. It does not impair the equivalence of services; it does not affect the free appraisal of value; it does not destroy free will; it does not eliminate competition or the effects of competition; in a word, it does not have coercion as its principle.
But government action involves coercion by its very nature. It necessarily invokes the doctrine of compelle intrare.∗ It proceeds by virtue of a law, and all men must submit, for law implies punishment. I do not believe that anyone can challenge these premises; for they have the support of the most impressive of all authorities, the authority of universal practice. Everywhere there are laws and the physical force to bring the recalcitrant into line.
And this, doubtless, is the origin of the axiom invoked by those who, identifying government with society, believe that the latter is, like the former, a mere convention: “Men, by joining together in society, have sacrificed a part of their liberty in order to preserve the rest.”
Obviously this axiom is false when it is applied to free and voluntary transactions. When two men, with a view to their personal advantage, exchange their services or unite their efforts in preference to working alone, where can one see a sacrifice of their liberty in such an arrangement? Is it sacrificing one's liberty to put it to better use?
At the very most one could say: Men sacrifice a part of their liberty in order to preserve the rest, not at all when they unite in a society, but when they place themselves under a government, since the necessary mode of action of a government is force.
Now, even with this modification, the so-called axiom is still a fallacy, as long as the government stays within its legitimate prerogatives.
But what are these prerogatives?
Their scope and their limits are indicated to us by this special characteristic of having force as a necessary adjunct. I therefore declare: Government acts only by the intervention of force; hence, its action is legitimate only where the intervention of force is itself legitimate.
Now, force may be used legitimately, not in order to sacrifice liberty, but to safeguard it.
Consequently, the axiom, once alleged to be the basis of political science, which we have already proved to be fallacious for society, is also fallacious when applied to government. It is always with a sense of joy that I see these dismal theoretical discords disappear when subjected to careful analysis.
In what case is the use of force legitimate? There is one, and, I believe, only one: the case of legitimate defense. If this is so, the justification of government has been found, as well as the rational limit of its prerogatives.5
What is the right of the individual? The right to carry on free and voluntary transactions with his fellow men, who consequently have the same right. When is this right violated? When one of the parties encroaches upon the other's liberty. In that case it is incorrect to say, as is often done: “These are excesses; these are abuses of liberty!” We must say: “Liberty is lacking; liberty has been destroyed.” There has been excessive use of liberty, undoubtedly, if we consider only the aggressor; but destruction of liberty if we consider the victim, or even if we consider, as we should, the phenomenon in its entirety.
The right of the man whose liberty is attacked, or, what is tantamount to the same thing, whose property, capabilities, or labor is attacked, is to defend them, even by force; and this is what is done by all men everywhere, whenever they can.
This is the origin of the right of any number of men whatsoever to join together, to associate, in order to defend, even by their joint force, the individual's liberty and property.
But the individual has no right to use force for any other end. I cannot legitimately force my fellow men to be industrious, sober, thrifty, generous, learned, or pious; but I can force them to be just.
For the same reason, the collective force cannot be legitimately employed to foster the love of labor, sobriety, thrift, generosity, learning, religious faith; but it can be legitimately employed to further the rule of justice, to defend every man's rights.
For where can we find the origin of collective rights except in the rights of the individual?
It is the unfortunate obsession of our age to wish to give pure abstractions a life of their own, to imagine a city apart from the people who live in it, mankind independently of the individual men who constitute it, a whole aside from its component parts, collective life without the individual units that comprise it. One might just as well say: “Here is a man. Imagine his limbs, his vital organs, his body and his soul, all the elements of which he is formed, to be destroyed. He still remains a man.”
If a right does not exist for any one of the individuals whom collectively we designate, for the sake of brevity, as a nation, how can it exist for that fraction of the nation having merely delegated rights, which is the government? How can individuals delegate rights that they do not possess?
We must therefore consider this incontestable truth as the fundamental principle of political science:
Among individuals the intervention of force is legitimate only in the case of legitimate defense. A collective body of individuals can legally have recourse to force only within the same limitations.
Now, it is in the very nature of government to act upon its citizens by way of force. Hence, it can have no rationally justifiable functions other than the legitimate defense of the rights of the individual; it can be called upon only to safeguard the liberty and the property of all the citizens.
Note that, when a government goes beyond these limits, it sets out upon an endless course and can never escape the consequences, i.e., that it not only goes beyond its proper function, but also destroys it, which is the most monstrous of contradictions.
In fact, when the state has enforced respect for that fixed, invariable line which separates the rights of one citizen from those of another, when it has maintained justice for all, what more can it do without itself overstepping the boundary it has been called upon to protect, without destroying with its own hands, and by force, the liberty and the property entrusted to its keeping? Beyond the upholding of justice, I defy anyone to imagine a case in which government intervention would not be an act of injustice. Protest as much as you like that its acts are inspired by the purest philanthropy, are designed as incentives to virtue and industry, are bonuses, favors, direct protection, so-called gratuitous gifts, alleged acts of generosity; behind these fine appearances, or if you will, these fine realities, I will show you other less gratifying realities: the rights of some violated for the advantage of others, liberties sacrificed, property rights usurped, capabilities curtailed, acts of plunder perpetrated. And can the world witness a more sorry, a more lamentable spectacle than the sight of the public forces of law and order engaged in committing the very crimes that it was their duty to suppress?
In theory, it is enough that the government have the necessary instrumentality of force at hand for us to know what private services can legitimately be converted into public services. They are those services whose object is the maintenance of liberty, property, and individual rights, the prevention of crime—in a word, all that relates to the public safety.
Governments also have another function.
In all countries there is a certain amount of public property, some goods used collectively by all the citizens, like rivers, forests, and highways. On the other hand, there are also, unfortunately, debts. It is the government's duty to administer these active and passive parts of the public domain.
Finally, from these two functions stems a third: that of levying the taxes necessary for the efficient administration of public services.
Thus, it must watch over the public safety, administer public property, and levy taxes.
Such are, I believe, the reasonable limits within which government functions must be kept or to which they must be reduced.
This opinion, I know, conflicts with many widely accepted ideas.
“What!” people will say; “you propose to reduce the government to the role of judge and policeman? You would deprive it of all initiative? You forbid it to promote and encourage literature, the arts, commerce, navigation, agriculture, moral and religious ideas; you would strip it of its noblest prerogative, that of opening up to the people the road to progress!”
To those who express this opinion, I should like to address several questions.
Where has God implanted the motivating impulse of human actions and the longing for progress? In all men, or only in those men who have received or usurped a legislator's mandate or a bureaucrat's authority? Does not everyone of us carry within himself, within his very being, that indefatigable and boundless motive force which we call desire? As our more basic and material wants are satisfied, are not new desires of a higher order constantly forming, overlapping, expanding within us? Does love of the arts, of literature, of science, of moral and religious truth, does the thirst to know the answers to the problems involving our present or future existence, descend from society to the individual, that is, from the abstract to the real, from the merely verbal symbol to sentient and living beings?
If you start with the already absurd assumption that the government is the morally active force and that the nation is passive, are you not putting morals, doctrines, opinions, wealth, everything that makes up the life of the individual, at the mercy of the men who one after another come to power?
Besides, does the state have any resources of its own to perform the tremendous task that you propose to assign to it? Is it not obliged to take everything it spends, down to the last centime, from the citizens themselves? If the state, therefore, asks the individual citizens for the means to carry out its projects, it is because the individual citizens have already produced these means. It is, therefore, a contradiction to allege that the individual citizens are passive and inert. To what end had they created resources? To provide for satisfactions of their own choosing. What, then, is the state doing when it lays its hands on these resources? It does not create satisfactions; it reallocates them. It takes them away from the man who has earned them in order to give them to the man who has no right to them. Injustice, which it had a mandate to punish, it organizes into a system.
Will it be said that by reallocating satisfactions, it purifies and elevates them morally, that the wealth which individuals would have squandered on wants of a low order is redirected by the state to highly moral ends? But who will dare affirm that it is advantageous to interfere violently, by force, by plunder, with the natural order in which man's wants and desires develop, that it is moral to take a morsel of bread from the hungry peasant in order to provide the city dweller with the dubious morality of a theatrical performance?
Furthermore, wealth is not redistributed without a redistribution of industry and population. Such an arrangement is always, therefore, an artificial and precarious substitute for the solid and normal order that rests upon the immutable laws of Nature.
There are those who believe that a government whose authority is strictly circumscribed is the weaker on that account. It appears to them that numerous functions and numerous agencies give the state the stability of a broader base. But this is purely an illusion. If the state cannot go beyond certain definitely established limits without becoming an instrument of injustice, ruination, and plunder, without upsetting the natural distribution of industry, satisfactions, capital, and manpower, without creating potent causes of unemployment, industrial crises, and poverty, without increasing crime, without having recourse to ever more stringent repressive measures, without stirring up discontent and resentment, how will it derive any guarantee of stability from these accumulated elements of civil disorder?
People complain of men's proneness to revolution. Surely those who make this complaint do not stop to think. When we see private services raided and turned into public services, a third of the wealth that the citizens produce seized by the government, the law made into a weapon of plunder wielded by the citizens themselves, because its object is to impair the equivalence of services on the pretext of stabilizing it; when we see population and industry dislocated by legislative act, an ever deeper abyss yawning between the wealthy and the poor, capital reserves incapable of being formed in sufficient amounts to provide employment for the increasing population, whole classes condemned to the harshest privations; when we see governments, in order to be able to take credit for what little good is done, proclaiming themselves the initiators of every enterprise, and thus accepting responsibility for all that is bad; we wonder only that revolutions are not more frequent and are moved to admiration at the sacrifices that the people are capable of making for the sake of public order and tranquillity.
If only laws and the governments that are the instruments of their enforcement and administration were kept within the limits I have indicated, I wonder from what source revolutions could come. If every citizen were free, he undoubtedly would suffer less; and if, at the same time, the feeling of his own responsibility were brought to bear on him from all sides, how could it occur to him to place the blame for his sufferings upon a legal system, a government, that intervened in his affairs only to the extent of stopping him from committing acts of injustice and protecting him from the unjust acts of others. Have we ever seen a village rise in revolt against its justice of the peace?
The influence of liberty on law and order can be clearly seen in the United States. There, except for the administration of justice and of public property, everything is left to men's free and voluntary transactions, and we instinctively feel that it is the one country in the world where revolutions would have the least reason or opportunity. What advantage, even a seeming one, could the citizens expect to gain by changing the established order by violence, when, on the one hand, that order harms no one, and, on the other, can legally be amended, if the need arises, with the greatest of ease?
I am wrong. There are two potential causes of revolution in the United States: slavery and the high protective tariff. Everyone knows that these two questions are a constant threat to the public peace and to the Union. Now, please note carefully, can any more cogent argument be advanced in favor of my thesis? Do we not see that in these two cases the law is working against its proper purpose? Do we not see that in these instances law and the agents of its enforcement, whose mission should be the protection of liberty and property, are sanctioning, supporting, perpetuating, systematizing, and protecting oppression and plunder? In regard to the question of slavery, the law says: “I shall create an armed force, at the citizens' expense, not to maintain each one in his rights, but to destroy, in the case of some, all rights.” In regard to the tariff question the law says: “I shall create an armed force, at the citizens' expense, not to make sure that their transactions are free, but to make sure that they are not free, to impair the equivalence of services, so that one citizen may have the liberty of two, and that another may have none at all. I take it upon myself to perpetrate these injustices, but I shall punish them most severely if the citizens make bold to perpetrate them without my consent.”
It is not, therefore, because of a scarcity of laws or civil servants—in other words, of public services—that revolutions are to be feared. On the contrary: it is because of a multiplicity of laws, bureaucrats, and public services. For, by their very nature, public services, the law that regulates them, the force that carries them out, are never impartial. They can and they may be extended without danger, even advantageously, as far as is necessary to assure absolute justice for all; beyond that point they become so many instruments of legalized oppression and plunder, so many causes of disorder, so many incitements to revolution.
Shall I speak of the corrupting immorality that seeps into the veins of the whole body politic when, in principle, the law puts itself at the service of every spoliative impulse? Attend a meeting of the National Assembly when bonuses, subsidies, bounties, restrictions are on the agenda. See with what shameless rapacity everyone tries to make sure of his share of the plunder—plunder to which he would blush to stoop as a private individual. A man who would consider himself a bandit if, pistol in hand, he prevented me from carrying out at the border a transaction that was in conformity with my interests has no scruples in working and voting for a law that replaces his private force with the public force and subjects me, at my own expense, to the same unjust restriction. In this respect, what a sorry sight France presents at the present time! All classes are suffering; yet instead of demanding the abolition, for all time to come, of every act of legal plunder, every class turns to the law and says: “You who can do everything, you who have force at your command, you who turn wrong into right, despoil the other classes to my profit. Force them to buy from me or to pay me a subsidy or to give my children a gratuitous education or to lend me money without interest, etc., etc.....”
Thus, the law becomes a great school for demoralization; and if anything should surprise us, it is that private theft does not increase more rapidly than it does, when the nation's moral sense is thus perverted even by its own legislation.
What is most deplorable is that plunder, when thus aided and abetted by the law, with no individual's scruples to stand in its way, eventually becomes quite a learned doctrine which has its professors, its journalists, its eminent authorities, its legislators, its sophisms, and its subtleties. Among the time-honored specious arguments advanced in its favor, this one is worth noting: Other things being equal, an increase in demand is advantageous to those supplying a service, since this new ratio between a more active demand and a static supply is what increases the value of the service. We therefore draw this conclusion: Plunder is good for everybody. The plundering class is benefited directly; the other classes, by the indirect effect of increased spending. In fact, the plundering class, having become richer, is in a position to enlarge the circle of its satisfactions. It cannot do this without demanding, in greater quantity, the services of the classes it has plundered. Now, for any service, an increase in demand is an increase in value. Consequently, the classes that have been legally robbed are only too happy to be robbed, since the product of the theft contributes to their employment.
As long as the law did not go beyond plundering the great majority to the profit of a small minority, this argument appeared very plausible and was always invoked with considerable success. “Let us turn over to the rich the taxes levied against the poor,” it was said; “in this way we shall add to the capital of the rich. The rich will indulge in luxury, and luxury will provide work for the poor.” And everybody, the poor man included, agreed that the recipe was infallible. Because I tried to point out the flaw in it, I was for long regarded, and still am regarded, as an enemy of the working classes.
But since the February Revolution, the poor have had a voice in making the laws. Have they demanded an end to legalized plunder? Not at all. The specious argument of the indirect effect of spending was too deeply implanted in their minds. What, then, have they demanded? That the law, playing no favorites, should now in its turn consent to plunder the rich. They have demanded gratuitous education, interest-free capital advances, state pension funds, progressive taxation, etc., etc..... The rich have begun to cry out: “How scandalous! All is lost! New barbarian hordes have overrun society!” They have put up a desperate resistance to the demands of the poor. At first they fought at the barricades; now they are fighting the battle at the ballot box. But have the rich on that account renounced the policy of plunder? It has never occurred to them. The argument of the indirect beneficial effects of spending continues to serve as their pretext.∗
We could, however, point out to them that if, instead of perpetrating plunder through the instrumentality of the law, they perpetrated it directly, their specious argument would lose its force. If, on your own personal authority, you stole a franc from a worker's pocket to help to pay for your admission to the theater, would you perchance have said to this worker, “My friend, this franc is being put into circulation and will provide work for you and your fellow workers”?
And would not the worker have had good reason to reply, “This franc will certainly go into circulation whether you steal it from me or not; it will go to the baker rather than to the stage-hand; it will provide me with bread rather than you with a theatrical performance”?
It must be observed, furthermore, that the sophism of the indirect effect of spending could be equally well invoked by the poor. They could say to the rich, “Let the law help us steal from you. We shall consume more cloth, and that will help your factories. We shall consume more meat, and that will help your farms. We shall consume more sugar, and that will help your shipping.”
Unhappy, thrice unhappy the nation in which such questions are asked; where it occurs to no one to make the law the rule of justice; where each one seeks only an instrument of theft to use to his own advantage; where all one's intellectual faculties are devoted to finding excuses for plunder in its remote and indirect consequences!
In support of the foregoing reflections, it will perhaps not be without value to quote an extract from the discussion that took place at the meeting of the General Council of Manufacturing, Agriculture, and Commerce on Saturday, April 27, 1850.6
[∗][Louis Marie de la Haye, Vicomte de Cormenin (1788–1868), French jurist and political pamphleteer.—Translator.]
[∗][Luke XIV, 23: “And the lord said unto the servant, Go out into the highways and hedges, and constrain them to come in.” These words from the Parable of the Great Supper have historically been used as a pretext to force someone to do a thing against his will on the ground that it is to his ultimate good. Its greatest abuse was as a justification for the persecution of the heretics.—Translator.]
[∗][This description of the aftermath of the February Revolution should be compared with the similar passage in chap. 4, pp. 87 ff.—Translator.]
[1.]“As soon as this value is paid by the taxpayer, it is lost to him; as soon as it is consumed by the government, it is lost to everybody and does not revert to society.” (Say, Traité d'économie politique, Bk. III, chap. 9, p. 504.)
[2.]“Public taxes, even with the nation's consent, are a violation of property rights, since they can be levied only on values that have been produced by the land, the capital, or the industry of private individuals. Thus, whenever they exceed the indispensable minimum necessary for the preservation of society, they may justly be considered as an act of plunder.” (Ibid.)
[3.]The effects of this transformation are given concrete meaning by an example cited by M. d'Hautpoul, the Minister of War. “Each soldier,” he said, “receives sixteen centimes a day for his food. The government takes these sixteen centimes from him and agrees to feed him. The result is that every soldier has precisely the same ration, whether it fits his individual needs or not. One has too much bread and throws it away. Another does not have enough meat, etc. We have tried an experiment: We allow the soldiers to spend the sixteen centimes for whatever they wish, and we are happy to find a perceptible improvement in their condition. Each one consults his own taste, his inclinations, and current prices. Generally speaking, they have, of their own accord, partially substituted meat for bread. Here they buy more bread, there more meat, elsewhere more vegetables, in another place more fish. Their health has benefited; they are more content, and the state has been freed of a great responsibility.”
[4.][See the pamphlet entitled “Academic Degrees and Socialism” (Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 9).—Editor.]
[5.][The author in one of his previous works proposed to answer this same question. He investigated the subject of the legitimate domain of the law. All the arguments contained in the pamphlet entitled “The Law” (Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 2) apply to his present thesis. We refer the reader to it.—Editor.]
[6.][The manuscript ends here. We refer our readers to the pamphlet entitled “Plunder and Law” (Selected Essays on Political Economy, chap. 8), in the second part of which the author gives their just due to the sophisms pronounced at this meeting of the General Council.