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Bastiat on the scramble for political office (1848)

The French classical liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) observed in the early days of the French Revolution of February 1848 the unseemly scramble for political office which was taking place around him. The only solution he thought was to drastically reduce the number of government jobs and government spending:

All the newspapers, without exception, are speaking out against the scramble for office of which the Town Hall is given a sad example. Nobody could be more indignant about, or more disgusted by, this frenzied greed than we.

But at the end of the day we have to find the cause of the evil, and it would be puerile to expect the human heart to be other than it has pleased nature to make it.

In a country in which, since time immemorial, the labor of free men has everywhere been demeaned, in which education offers as a model to all youth the mores of Greece and Rome, in which trade and industry are constantly exposed by the press to the scorn of citizens under the label profiteering, industrialism, or individualism, in which success in office alone leads to wealth, prestige, or power, and in which the state does everything and interferes in everything through its innumerable agents, it is natural enough for public office to be avidly sought after.

How can we turn ambition away from this disastrous direction and redirect the activity of the enlightened classes toward productive careers?

Obviously by eliminating a great many public posts, limiting government action, leaving a wider, freer, and more prestigious role to private activities and reducing the salaries for high public office.

“The Scramble for Office”, La République française, 5 March 1848.

All the newspapers, without exception, are speaking out against the scramble for office of which the Town Hall is given a sad example. Nobody could be more indignant about, or more disgusted by, this frenzied greed than we.

But at the end of the day we have to find the cause of the evil, and it would be puerile to expect the human heart to be other than it has pleased nature to make it.

In a country in which, since time immemorial, the labor of free men has everywhere been demeaned, in which education offers as a model to all youth the mores of Greece and Rome, in which trade and industry are constantly exposed by the press to the scorn of citizens under the label profiteering, industrialism, or individualism, in which success in office alone leads to wealth, prestige, or power, and in which the state does everything and interferes in everything through its innumerable agents, it is natural enough for public office to be avidly sought after.

How can we turn ambition away from this disastrous direction and redirect the activity of the enlightened classes toward productive careers?

Obviously by eliminating a great many public posts, limiting government action, leaving a wider, freer, and more prestigious role to private activities and reducing the salaries for high public office.

What should our attitude be then to those theories, so fashionable currently, which propose the transfer into the world of paid public service, of activities still in the realm of private industry? La Démocratie pacifique wants the state to provide insurance, public transport, and haulage, and also to handle the trading of wheat, etc., etc., etc.

Do these ideas not provide fresh fuel for this disastrous mania which so offends honest citizens?

We do not want to discuss the other disadvantages of these proposals here. Examine one after the other all the industries managed by the state and see if these are not, indeed, the ones through which citizens are the most badly and most expensively served.

Take education, obstinately limited to the study of two languages dead these two thousand years.

See what kind of tobacco is provided to you and at what price.

Compare in terms of regular supply and proper market price the distribution of printed matter by the public authority in the rue Jean-Jacques Rousseau with that by individual enterprises in the rue de la Jussienne.

However, setting aside these considerations, is it not evident that the scramble for office is and will always be proportional to the enticement to it?

Is it not evident that having industry run by the state is to remove work from honest activity in order to deliver it to lazy and indolent intrigue?

Finally, is it not clear that it will make the disorder which the Town Hall exemplifies, a disarray which saddens the members of the provisional government, permanent and progressive?

About this Quotation:

Bastiat wrote this short essay when the February Revolution of 1848 was only in its second week. Already he noticed that there was an unhealthy “scramble for office” as people who had been excluded under the July Monarchy of King Louis Philippe now saw political opportunities for position and power under the Provisional Government. He wonders why more people are not satisfied with the opportunities that peaceful trade and production offer. However, he answers his own question with two responses: the benefits or “enticements” are so large that more people are drawn to political than market activities, and that the French people have been indoctrinated by the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature and their recently overthrown aristocratic culture where “the labor of free men has everywhere been demeaned.”

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