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Sheldon Richman is the editor of Ideas on Liberty, the monthly
the Foundation for Economic Education. He is the author
of Separating School and State: How to Liberate America's Families; Your
Money or Your Life: Why We Must Abolish the Income Tax; and
(forthcoming) Tethered Citizens: Time to Abolish the Welfare State (all from The Future
of Freedom Foundation). He is a contributor to the
Fortune Encyclopedia of Economics.
Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) merits a hallowed place in the annals
of political economy. A member of the French Liberal, or laissez-faire,
school of economists that included the great J. B. Say, Bastiat
marshaled logic, clarity, and exuberant wit in the cause of
understanding society, prosperity, and liberty. In a series of brief
essays and pamphlets, and a treatise on political economy, Bastiat
taught, contra Rousseau, that there is a natural harmonious
order to the social world, an order that emanates from the free
exchange between human beings driven to satisfy unlimited wants with
limited resources. The result is a steady progress in the material
well-being of all. Interference with that freedom, and with its
corollaries, property and competition, he wrote, leaves people poorer
as well as oppressed. This is so because interference bars individuals
from the creative action they otherwise would have engaged in. The
fruits of the creativity thus forgone are "what is not seen" in any act
Claude Frédéric Bastiat was born in the southwestern French port
city of Bayonne. Orphaned at 9, he came of age during the Napoleonic
wars, with their extensive government intervention in economic affairs.
As a young man, he chose the study of economics over business and
farming. The multilingual Bastiat devoured the works of political
economists from throughout Europe, with the deepest impressions left by
Say, Adam Smith, Destutt de Tracy, and Charles Comte. In 1844 he began
his brief writing career, stimulated by the free-trade efforts of
Richard Cobden (who would become his close friend) and the Anti-Corn
Law League in England. Bastiat first garnered attention with "The
Influence of French and English Tariffs on the Future of the Two
Peoples," published in the Journal des Économistes. Thus began
his brief torrent of essays and pamphlets deftly exploding the economic
fallacies of his day. Two series of those essays were compiled under
the title Economic Sophisms (1845),1
a bestseller that went through many editions and was translated into
several languages. In 1850, as his life was nearing an end, Bastiat
published The Law,2 his eloquent foray into political and legal philosophy, and Economic Harmonies,3 his treatise on political economy. Other works, including Cobden and the League (1845)4 and Capital and Rent (1849),5 have not been translated.
Bastiat was an activist as well as an author. In 1846 he organized
the French Free Trade Association in Bordeaux, before moving to Paris
where he organized the free-trade effort on a national scale. He served
as secretary-general and editor of the weekly newspaper, Le Libre Échange (Free Trade).
In the revolutionary year of 1848, the French people, disgusted
with monarchical corruption on behalf of special-interests, forced
their king from power. In the turmoil that followed, socialist and
other utopian schemes gained adherents. To combat these ideas, Bastiat,
sick from tuberculosis, won a seat in the National Assembly from
Landes. His earlier amicable contact with the poet Lamartine had made
the future leader of the Second Republic something of a free trader.
But when Lamartine endorsed interventionist programs Bastiat publicly
opposed him. In the assembly Bastiat fought the socialists and
communists, on the one hand, and the monarchists, protectionists, and
militarists, on the other. His health failing, he valiantly tried to
stave off the barrage of assaults on economic and civil liberties. As
France veered toward another revolution in the summer of 1848 (this one
aborted), Bastiat, in speech and essay, continued his battle for
freedom and against statism.
Bastiat did not live to see the end of the republic and the
crowning of Napoleon III. He died in Rome on Christmas Eve of 1850—but
not before he wrote volume one and part of volume two of his magnum
opus, Economic Harmonies. In his final months he also wrote what would become perhaps
essay, "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen" (included in Selected Essays on Political Economy).6
It almost never saw print. Bastiat lost the original manuscript,
rewrote it, but was displeased with his effort and burned the second
manuscript. Fortunately, he tried again.
Bastiat's first book, Economic Sophisms, is a collection of
short essays showing with unparalleled imagination the fallacy of
government intervention. The underlying theme is that when government
interferes with peaceful, productive activities, it sets obstacles
against the process that improves the well-being of all. The most
famous essay in this work is "A Petition," in which the candle makers
of France petition for relief from the "ruinous competition of a
foreign rival who works under conditions so far superior to our own for
the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market
with it at an incredibly low price." The rival? The sun. The remedy
requested? The mandatory shuttering of all windows. The result
promised? The encouragement of not only of the candle industry, but
also of all industries that supply it. Bastiat here mocked the
multiplier effect long before Keynes was born.
In "The Negative Railroad," he takes up a suggestion that the
railroad from Paris to Spain have a break in the tracks at Bordeaux to
profit the businesses there. But what's good for Bordeaux's producers
is also good for the producers of every town along the line. So why not
"a railroad composed of a whole series of breaks in the tracks, i.e., a negative railroad"?
Such absurdity, Bastiat writes, is what comes of focusing on the
producer and neglecting the consumer in economic analysis. No wonder
Henry Hazlitt called him a "master of the reductio ad absurdum" and F.A. Hayek dubbed him a "publicist of genius."
Bastiat's next book, The Law, is his venture into explicit
political philosophy. In its clarity and brevity it is an achievement
to behold. Philosophers have conceived law as resulting from a social
contract with a paternalistic sovereign (Thomas Hobbes), as designed to
effect the greatest happiness for the greatest number (Jeremy Bentham
and the utilitarians), or as an arbitrary convention defining right and
wrong (the legal positivists). In contrast, Bastiat is squarely in the
natural law camp (along with John Locke): "Life, liberty, and property
do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the
fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused
men to make laws in the first place." He locates the source of law in
human nature: to live, human beings need liberty and property in order
to transform nature's potential into usable things. Thus law that
conflicts with liberty and property is not proper law, but legalized
plunder, a constant temptation since men wish to achieve their
objectives with the least exertion. The result is moral chaos,
oppression, and material deprivation. Bastiat concludes with a call for
freedom and a rejection of all proposals to impose unnatural social
arrangements on people.
Bastiat moved to the broader examination of the market system as a whole
his third book, Economic Harmonies.
In it Bastiat methodically builds his theoretical edifice. He begins by
recognizing the economic regularity that daily permits Paris to be fed.
Remarkably, that regularity is not designed or maintained by any grand
master. It results from the acts of countless individuals looking after
their own interests. For Bastiat the task of economics is to explain
this order produced by that "prodigiously ingenious mechanism"—the free
market—which harmonizes the interests of the multitude, enabling each
person to enjoy an array of consumer goods no one of them could produce
in ten centuries. Bastiat leaves the reader no choice but to marvel at
both the market's complexity and its peerless facility at improving our
material circumstances. For him, society is a system of exchange of services founded on self-interest, private property, and free competition, whose rationale is the benefit of consumers.
This stands in contrast to the British economists—notably Adam Smith
and David Ricardo—who concentrated on the production of material
wealth. It is in the very nature of this system, Bastiat taught, that
it requires no central direction; indeed, all attempts at directing it
leads to poverty and despair. Bastiat thus left a monumental and
eloquent brief against socialism and all other forms of government
economic intervention, most famously protectionism. The tour de force
covers exchange, value, wealth, capital, land, competition, rent,
wages, savings, population, and even that scourge of progress, war.
While the work lacks some of the insights achieved later by the
subjectivist Austrian school of economics, Bastiat's picture of the
market process is sophisticated and valuable.
Selected Essays on Political Economy, a posthumous
collection of essays and pamphlets, contains some of Bastiat's best
writings. Here he debunks, for example, the doctrine of the balance of
trade, pointing out that if it is better to export than to import, then
best of all would be for ships carrying exports to sink so that no
imports may return as a result. Also in this volume is his essay "The
State," which contains the oft-quoted truth, "The state is the great
fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of
In "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen," Bastiat's perspicacity and
perspicuity are on display. He begins with a story of a boy who has
broken a window. An onlooker points out the silver lining of the boy's
mischief: the glazier will earn six francs plying his trade, his
industry thus encouraged. To which Bastiat protests, "That will never
do! Your theory stops at what is seen. It does not take account of what is not seen."
What is not seen is that had the window not been broken, the six francs
would have been available for things that the window-owner must now do
without. He is therefore poorer! There is no silver lining.
The phenomenon of the unseen has its roots in two of Bastiat's themes: human wants are unlimited and resources are scarce.
As long as nature imposes these conditions, there is no danger of
general overproduction. The work to be done is without end. All
government interventions designed to create or save jobs, such as
tariffs, are obstacles to progress because, by creating or maintaining
artificially high prices, they leave consumers less money with which to
satisfy other wants. If cheap imported textiles are banned, people are
unable to afford other goods the savings would have allowed. As a
result, the community is less well off than it would have been.
Throughout his writings, Bastiat dealt with a single
question: What sort
of economy best promotes human flourishing? As noted above,
builds on two facts about the world around us: unlimited wants and scarce resources. Taken together, these conditions imply
that a free
society, one in which people can use their property as they
see fit, is
the best society. Only such a society allows people to
diverse goals and interests through trade—and this trade in
supports the division of labor, which allows each to prosper
to a degree
far beyond what any could achieve alone.
To maintain this prosperity, Bastiat emphasizes that government
interference with the system of free exchange, no matter how well
intentioned, has perverse effects. To fully understand this, we must
look beyond the immediate effects to the secondary, "unseen"
consequences. Only if we do so can we be sure that government policy is
not "legal plunder," benefiting the few at the expense of the many.
Bastiat was neither the first nor the last political economist to
recommend a free society. Others from Adam Smith to F. A. Hayek have
done so. Nor was he the most influential: while he influenced important
American and English economists in the 19th century, including Amasa
Walker and William Stanley Jevons, he has been largely ignored since
then. However, he has few peers when it comes to presenting the case
for liberty with clarity and wit. Who can not see the folly of the
proposal for the negative railroad or of the petition of the candle
makers? And who can forget the formulation of "the seen and the
unseen"? These and other literary gems constitute Bastiat's genius,
making his works a treasure trove that can still instruct and delight
readers who happen across them today.
1 Economic Sophisms,
trans. and ed. Arthur Goddard, with introduction by Henry Hazlitt.
Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996
(1845). Online edition: Economic Sophisms, by Frédéric Bastiat.
2 The Law, trans. Dean
Russell, with introduction by Walter E. Williams and foreword by
Sheldon Richman. Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic
Education, 1996 (1850). Online editions: The Law, (Russell translation) by Frédéric Bastiat, and The Law, (Cain translation, in Selected Essays on Political Economy) by Frédéric Bastiat.
3 Economic Harmonies, trans.
W. Hayden Boyers, ed. George B. de Huszar, with introduction by Dean
Russell. Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education,
1996 (1850). Online edition: Economic Harmonies, by Frédéric Bastiat.
4 Cobden et la Ligue, ou, L'agitation anglaise pour la liberte du commerce. Paris: Guillaumin, 1845.
5 Capital et rente. Paris: H. Bellaire, 1849. Online English translation: Capital and Interest,
by Frédéric Bastiat. [Cris Crawford contributes the following about
this 1869 English edition: Horace White, in his introducation, said,
"The translation of the essay on 'Capital and
Interest' is from a duo-decimo volume published in London a year or two
ago, the name of the translator being unknown to me."]
6 Selected Essays on Political Economy,
trans. Seymour Cain, ed. George B. de Huszar, with introduction by F.A.
Hayek. Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education,
1995 (1964). Online edition: Selected Essays on Political Economy, by Frédéric Bastiat.
Bibliography of Secondary Works:
Hébert, Robert F. "Claude Frédéric Bastiat, New Palgrave Dictionary: A Dictionary of Economics, I. London: Macmillan, and New York: Stockton Press, 1987.
Henderson, David R. "Frédéric Bastiat," The Fortune Encyclopedia of
Economics, ed. David R. Henderson. New York: Warner Books, 1993.
Roche, George. Free Markets, Free Men: Frederic Bastiat, 1801-1850,
foreword by Dick Armey. Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, and
Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: and Foundation for Economic Education, 1993.
Originally published as Frederic Bastiat: A Man Alone. New Rochelle, N.Y.: Arlington House, 1971, and Hillsdale, Mich.: Hillsdale College Press, 1977.
Russell, Dean. Frédéric Bastiat: Ideas and Influence. Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1965.
The New School: Bastiat
Frédéric Bastiat (bastiat.org)
Frédéric Bastiat (bastiat.net)
More on Frédéric Bastiat on this website:
Preface to Economic Sophisms, by Arthur Goddard
Introduction to Economic Sophisms, by Henry Hazlitt
Preface to Selected Essays on Political Economy, by George B. de Huszar
Introduction to Selected Essays on Political Economy, by F. A. Hayek
Preface to Economic Harmonies, by George B. de Huszar
Bibliographical Notice, by W. Hayden Boyers
Introduction to Economic Harmonies, by Dean Russell
Introduction to The Law, by Walter E. Williams
Foreword to The Law, by Sheldon Richman