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Walter Williams on Bastiat

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Source: The Law, trans. Dean Russell, introduction by Walter E. Williams, foreword by Sheldon Richman (Irvington-on-Hudson NY: Foundation for Economic Education, 1998).

Introduction by Walter E. Williams*

I must have been forty years old before reading Frederic Bastiat's classic The Law. An anonymous person, to whom I shall eternally be in debt, mailed me an unsolicited copy. After reading the book I was convinced that a liberal-arts education without an encounter with Bastiat is incomplete. Reading Bastiat made me keenly aware of all the time wasted, along with the frustrations of going down one blind alley after another, organizing my philosophy of life. The Law did not produce a philosophical conversion for me as much as it created order in my thinking about liberty and just human conduct.

Many philosophers have made important contributions to the discourse on liberty, Bastiat among them. But Bastiat's greatest contribution is that he took the discourse out of the ivory tower and made ideas on liberty so clear that even the unlettered can understand them and statists cannot obfuscate them. Clarity is crucial to persuading our fellowman of the moral superiority of personal liberty.

Like others, Bastiat recognized the greatest single threat to liberty is government. Notice the clarity he employs to help us identify and understand evil government acts such as legalized plunder. Bastiat says, “See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.” With such an accurate description of legalized plunder, we cannot deny the conclusion that most government activities, including ours, are legalized plunder, or for the sake of modernity, legalized theft.

Frederic Bastiat could have easily been a fellow traveler of the signers of our Declaration of Independence. The signers' vision of liberty and the proper role of government was captured in the immortal words: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men....” Bastiat echoes the identical vision, saying, “Life, faculties, production—in other words individuality, liberty, property—that is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.” Bastiat gave the same rationale for government as did our Founders, saying, “Life, liberty and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it is the fact that life, liberty and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.” No finer statements of natural or God-given rights have been made than those found in our Declaration of Independence and The Law.

Bastiat pinned his hopes for liberty on the United States saying, “... look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the protection of every person's liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the social order rests on a firmer foundation.” Writing in 1850, Bastiat noted two areas where the United States fell short: “Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property.”

If Bastiat were alive today, he would be disappointed with our failure to keep the law within its proper domain. Over the course of a century and a half, we have created more than 50,000 laws. Most of them permit the state to initiate violence against those who have not initiated violence against others. These laws range from anti-smoking laws for private establishments and Social Security “contributions” to licensure laws and minimum wage laws. In each case, the person who resolutely demands and defends his God-given right to be left alone can ultimately suffer death at the hands of our government.*

Bastiat explains the call for laws that restrict peaceable, voluntary exchange and punish the desire to be left alone by saying that socialists want to play God. Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations. To them— the elite—“the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter.” And for people who have this vision, Bastiat displays the only anger I find in The Law when he lashes out at do-gooders and would-be rulers of mankind, “Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don't you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough.”

Bastiat was an optimist who thought that eloquent arguments in defense of liberty might save the day; but history is not on his side. Mankind's history is one of systematic, arbitrary abuse and control by the elite acting privately, through the church, but mostly through government. It is a tragic history where hundreds of millions of unfortunate souls have been slaughtered, mostly by their own government. A historian writing 200 or 300 years from now might view the liberties that existed for a tiny portion of mankind's population, mostly in the western world, for only a tiny portion of its history, the last century or two, as a historical curiosity that defies explanation. That historian might also observe that the curiosity was only a temporary phenomenon and mankind reverted back to the traditional state of affairs—arbitrary control and abuse.

Hopefully, history will prove that pessimistic assessment false. The worldwide collapse of the respectability of the ideas of socialism and communism suggests that there is a glimmer of hope. Another hopeful sign is the technological innovations that make it more difficult for government to gain information on and control its citizens. Innovations such as information access, communication and electronic monetary transactions will make government attempts at control more costly and less probable. These technological innovations will increasingly make it possible for world citizens to communicate and exchange with one another without government knowledge, sanction or permission.

Collapse of communism, technological innovations, accompanied by robust free-market organizations promoting Bastiat's ideas, are the most optimistic things I can say about the future of liberty in the United States. Americans share an awesome burden and moral responsibility. If liberty dies in the United States, it is destined to die everywhere. A greater familiarity with Bastiat's clear ideas about liberty would be an important step in rekindling respect and love, and allowing the resuscitation of the spirit of liberty among our fellow Americans.

[*]Walter E. Williams, John M. Olin Distinguished Professor of Economics and Chairman of the Economics Department at George Mason University, Fairfax, Virginia.

[*]Death is not the stated penalty for disobedience; however, death can occur if the person refuses to submit to government sanctions for his disobedience.

Last modified April 10, 2014