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Bastiat on disbanding the standing army and replacing it with local militias (1847)

The French economist and free trade activist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) dreams of slashing the size of the French government’s budget by abolishing the standing army and replacing it with local militias:

The Utopian politician: “[Cutting tariffs] have given me something even more precious.”

His adviser: “And what is that, if you please?”

The Utopian politician: “International relationships based on justice, and the likelihood of peace, which is almost a certainty. I would disband the army.”

Adviser: “The entire army?”

The Utopian politician: “Except for some specialized divisions, which would recruit voluntarily just like any other profession. And as you can see, conscription would be abolished.” …

His adviser: “In short, you are disarming the country based on a Utopian faith.”

The Utopian politician: “I said that I was disbanding the army and not that I was disarming the country. On the contrary, I intend to give it an invincible force.”

His adviser: “How are you going to sort out this heap of contradictions?”

The Utopian politician: “I will call on the services of all citizens.‘ …

The Utopian becomes excited: “Thank heavens; my budget has been reduced by 200 million! …"

The Utopian politician: “I have scarcely begun.”

His adviser: “I beg you, let me into your other Utopian plans.”

The Utopian politician: “I have lost 60 million on salt and the postal services. I have recovered them on Customs duties, which have given me something even more precious.”

His adviser: “And what is that, if you please?”

The Utopian politician: “International relationships based on justice, and the likelihood of peace, which is almost a certainty. I would disband the army.”

His adviser: “The entire army?”

The Utopian politician: “Except for some specialized divisions, which would recruit voluntarily just like any other profession. And as you can see, conscription would be abolished.”

His adviser: “Sir, you should say recruitment.”

The Utopian politician: “Ah, I was forgetting! I admire the ease with which in certain countries it is possible to perpetuate the most unpopular things by giving them a different name.”

His adviser: “It is just like combined duties which have become indirect contributions.”

The Utopian politician: “And gendarmes who have adopted the name municipal guards.”

His adviser: “In short, you are disarming the country based on a Utopian faith.”

The Utopian politician: “I said that I was disbanding the army and not that I was disarming the country. On the contrary, I intend to give it an invincible force.”

His adviser: “How are you going to sort out this heap of contradictions?”

The Utopian politician: “I will call on the services of all citizens.‘ …

The Utopian politician: “Following this, I would base national defense on a law with two articles: Article 1. All eligible citizens, without exception, will remain under the flag for four years, from the ages of 21 to 25, in order to receive military instruction.”

His adviser: “That is a fine saving! You dismiss 400,000 soldiers and you make 10 million of them!”

The Utopian politician: “Wait for my second article. Article 2. Unless they can prove at the age of 21 that they have successfully attended a training unit.”

His adviser: “I was not expecting this outcome. It is quite certain that, to avoid four years of military service, there would be a terrific rush in our youth to learn ‘by the right, quick march’ and ‘in double quick time, charge.’ The idea is very odd.”

The Utopian politician: “It is better than that. For finally, without causing grief to families and without upsetting the principle of equality, would it not simply and cheaply ensure the country 10 million defenders capable of meeting a coalition of all the standing armies in the world?”

His adviser: “Truly, if I were not on my guard, I would end up by being interested in your fantasies.”

The Utopian becomes excited: “Thank heavens; my budget has been reduced by 200 million! I will abolish city tolls, I will reform indirect taxes, I …”

About this Quotation:

In this economic sophism entitled “The Utopian” (1847) Bastiat dreams of being appointed head of the French government with dictatorial powers to introduce all of his liberal reforms. He lets his head go and comes up with a long list of taxes he would cut and entire government programs he would abolish: cutting taxes on sending letters and the tax on salt; ending the prohibition on importing textiles from Belgium, and cutting tariffs on imported wheat, meat, and wood for fuel; cutting all other tariffs to a maximum of 5%; cutting the city tolls on wine; ending state subsidies to religious groups; and freeing up education. Having slashed government revenue he then turns to drastically cutting government expenditure, beginning with the largest single item in the government budget, i.e. military spending (30%). Bastiat was a very strong opponent of war, colonialism (especially France’s colony in Algeria), conscription, and standing armies. The French army of his day consisted of 400,000 men most of whom were young men conscripted for 7 years when they turned 20 years of age. By immediately abolishing the French standing army he would liberate 400,000 men from conscripted servitude and save French taxpayers some 400 million francs each year. It would be replaced by a system of volunteer, local militias based upon the model of the American militias which he admired very much. In a speech on “Disarmament and Taxes” which he gave at an international Friends of Peace Conference in Paris in August 1849 he made a similar argument, this time with the added twist that high indirect taxes on the poor to pay for the standing army increased poverty and led to outbreaks of revolution like that which occurred in February 1848. He was still making the same argument in the last work he published before he died, the famous essay *What is seen and what is not seen" (July 1850).

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