Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Frédéric Bastiat’s theory of plunder (1850)

The French economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) developed a theory of plunder in the late 1840s which he defined in the following way:

When a portion of wealth passes from the person who has acquired it, without his consent and without compensation, to someone who has not created it, whether this is by force or fraud, I say that there has been a violation of property rights and that there has been an act of plunder.

Before going any further, I think I have to explain what I mean by the word plunder.

I do not take it to mean, as is only too often the case, something that is vague, undetermined, approximate, or metaphorical; I am using it in its properly scientific meaning, and as expressing the opposite idea to that of the right to property. When a portion of wealth passes from the person who has acquired it, without his consent and without compensation, to someone who has not created it, whether this is by force or fraud, I say that there has been a violation of property rights and that there has been an act of plunder. I say that it is this that the law should be repressing justly everywhere and always. That if the law is carrying out the very act that it should be repressing, I say that there is plunder nonetheless and even, socially speaking, with (even) worse consequences. Only in this case it is not the person who benefits from the plunder that is responsible for it, it is the law, the legislator, or society, and that is what constitutes the political danger.

It is unfortunate that this word has offensive overtones. I have tried in vain to find another, for at no time and still less today do I wish to cast an irritating word into the cauldron of our disagreements. For this reason, whether you believe it or not, I declare that I do not intend to question either the intentions or the morality of anyone whomsoever. I am attacking an idea that I consider to be false and a practice that appears to me to be unjust, and all this is so far beyond our intentions that each of us takes advantage of it unwittingly and suffers from it unknowingly. One would have to write under the influence of party spirit or out of fear, to cast doubt on the sincerity of (those who defend) protectionism, socialism, or even communism which are only one and the same plant at three different stages of its development. All that could be said is that plunder is more visible in protectionism60 because of its partiality, and in communism because of its universality. From this it follows that of the three systems socialism is still the most vague, indecisive, and consequently the most sincere.

About this Quotation:

As Bastiat delved deeper into the groups which benefited from tariff protection and subsidies to industry he began to realise that the official justification given to the public, that it was a way of protecting “French jobs” in “French owned industries”, was what he termed a “sophism” designed to obscure and confuse. So he began calling it as he saw it, using “harsh language” like “theft” and “plunder” (and many other similar words) to describe how a small minority used the power of the state - “the law factory” in Paris which churned out special dispensations and privileges to the well-connected - to benefit themselves. In this essay, the second last one he wrote before he died, he summed up his thoughts an the nature of plunder, both in its “legal” form (sanctioned or carried out by the state) and its “extra-legal” form (done by the usual petty criminals and highway robbers). The process and the injustice was the same, as far as he was concerned, in either case. This is the first of several quotations taken from our newly revised and updated translation of “The Law” (June 1850).

More Quotations