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Frédéric Bastiat asks what came first, property or law? (1850)

The French political economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) argues that it is in order to defend one’s already existing person, liberty, and property that laws are made:

It is not because men have enacted laws that personality, freedom, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, freedom, and property are already in existence that men enact laws.

What is the law, then? As I have said elsewhere, it is the collective organization of the individual right of legitimate defense.

Each of us certainly holds from nature and God the right to defend our person, our freedom, and our property, since these are the three elements that constitute or preserve life, elements that are mutually complementary and that cannot be understood independently of one another. For what are our faculties if not an extension of our personality, and what is property if not an extension of our faculties?

Existence, faculties, and assimilation—in other words, personality, freedom, and property—this is man in a nutshell.

It may be said that these three things, leaving aside any demagogical hair-splitting, precede and supersede all human legislation.

It is not because men have enacted laws that personality, freedom, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, freedom, and property are already in existence that men enact laws.

What is the law, then? As I have said elsewhere, it is the collective organization of the individual right of legitimate defense.

Each of us certainly holds from nature and God the right to defend our person, our freedom, and our property, since these are the three elements that constitute or preserve life, elements that are mutually complementary and that cannot be understood independently of one another. For what are our faculties if not an extension of our personality, and what is property if not an extension of our faculties?

If each person has the right to defend, even by force, his person, his freedom, and his property, several people have the right to join together, to form an understanding and organize themselves into a common force in order to provide lawfully for this defense.

Collective right therefore roots its principle, its raison d’être, and its legitimacy in individual right, and common force cannot rationally have any other aim or mission than those of the individual forces for which it is a substitute.

Thus, since force on the individual level cannot legitimately be aimed at the person, freedom, or property of another individual, by the same argument force cannot legitimately be used collectively to destroy the person, freedom, or property of either individuals or classes.

This is because such misuse of force would in either case be a contradiction of our premises. Who would dare to say that we were given such power not to defend our rights, but to reduce the equal rights of our fellows to nothing? And if this is not true for each individual acting in isolation, how can it be true for collective power, which is nothing other than the organized union of the power of individuals?

Therefore, if there is one thing that is clear, it is this: law is the organization of the natural right of legitimate defense. It is the substitution of collective for individual power to facilitate action in the area in which individuals have the right to act, that is to say, to do what they have the right to do. It serves to guarantee the integrity of persons, freedoms, and property; to maintain each person within his right; and to ensure the reign of justice among all.

About this Quotation:

Bastiat wrote this powerful defence of property rights and natural law in June 1850, just six months before he would died of a crippling throat disease (possibly cancer) which had made his life as a politician and author so difficult. The essay sums up the ideological battles he had waged over the previous 18 months since the beginning of the February Revolution and formation of the Second Republic against attempts by socialists to create the beginnings of a welfare state with the National Workshops program and the attempt to get a government guaranteed “right to a job” clause inserted into the new constitution. In his typical fashion Bastiat took the debate back to its first principles by asking the question, which came first, the law or individual property? The socialists argued that the law came first, created property rights, and could thus take them away if necessary. Classical liberals like Bastiat argued that life, liberty, and property came first, and that laws were enacted by individuals and voluntary groups of individuals to protect them. It is worth noting here that Bastiat wrote two of his most important works in the summer of 1850 after he withdrew from politics for reasons of health, this essay on The Law (June 1850) and What is Seen and What is Not Seen (July 1850). They could rightly be seen as fitting epitaphs for his life.

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