[This will be part of an Appendix to volume 3 of The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat which will be published by Liberty Fund later in the year (2016). Volumes 1 and 2 are already online.]
[Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)]
A recurring theme in many essays in the Economic Sophisms is that of plunder (la spoliation) by one group of people of another group. According to Bastiat, his intention in writing the sophisms was to bring to the attention of the French people the fact that they were being deceived and that wholesale plundering was going on around them under the guise of subsidies to industry, tariffs on imported goods, taxes on essential items such as salt and sugar, and high military spending (see “Bastiat on Enlightening the “Dupes” about the Nature of Plunder” in the Introduction). A corollary of his ideas about plunder was his view of class, or the specific relationships which developed at any given historical moment between the group which benefited from institutionalised plunder and the group who were being plundered.
This was a topic Bastiat planned to discuss in much greater detail in a future book on “The History of Plunder” which he did not live long enough to complete. Fortunately, he left us many clues about what it would contain but these are scattered across a dozen or more essays and chapters, several of which are in his three collections of Economic Sophisms and the booklet WSWNS which constitute this volume of his Collected Works. The purpose of this note is to attempt a partial reconstruction of Bastiat’s theory of class from these fragments.
The basis for Bastiat’s theory of class was the notion of plunder which he defined as the taking of another person’s property without their consent by force or fraud. Those who lived by plunder constituted “les spoliateurs” (the plunderers) or “la classe spoliatrice” (the plundering class). Those whose property was taken constituted “les spoliés” (the plundered) or “les classes spoliées” (the plundered classes). Before the Revolution of February 1848 Bastiat used the pairing of “les spoliateurs” (the plunderers) and “les spoliés” (the plundered); after the Revolution he preferred the pairing of “la classe spoliatrice” (the plundering class) and “les classes spoliées” (the plundered classes) which is one indication of how deeply the events of 1848 and the rise of socialism affected his thinking.1 The intellectual origins of this way of thinking can be traced back to the innovative ideas of Jean-Baptiste Say concerning “productive” and “unproductive” labour which he developed in his Treatise of Political Economy (1803)2 and the work of two lawyers and journalists who were inspired by Say’s work during the Restoration, Charles Comte (1782-1837)3 and Charles Dunoyer (1786-1862).4 Comte and Dunoyer took the idea that those who were engaged in productive economic activity of any kind, or what they called “l’industrie”, creating either goods or services, comprised a class which they called “les industrieux” (industrious or productive workers). Dunoyer in particular developed from these ideas an “industrialist” theory of history and class analysis which was very influential among French liberals leading up to 1848. Bastiat’s reading of these three authors during the 1820s and 1830s laid the theoretical foundation of his own thinking about productive and unproductive labour, the nature of exploitation or plunder, and the system of class rule which was created when the unproductive class used their control of the state to live off the productive labour of the mass of the people.5
Bastiat took the ideas of Say, Comte, and Dunoyer about plunder and the plundering class which he had absorbed in his youth and developed them further during his campaign against protectionism between early 1843 and the beginning of 1848. Thus, it is not surprising that his definition originally began as an attempt to explain how an “oligarchy” of large landowners and manufacturers exploited consumers by preventing them from freely trading with foreigners and forcing them to buy from more expensive state protected local producers. This perspective is clearly shown in Bastiat’s lengthy introduction to his first book on Cobden and the League which was published by Guillaumin in July 1845.6 He wanted to apply his analysis of the English class system of an oligarchy protected by tariffs to France and to adapt the strategies used by Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League to France which he attempted to do, unsuccessfully as it turned out, between 1846 and early 1848. He returned to the English class system in the essay “Anglomania, Anglophobia” (c. 1847)7 where he discusses “the great conflict between democracy and aristocracy, between common law and privilege” and how this class conflict was playing out in England. In “The People and the Bourgeoisie” (May, 1847) he also analysed the class relationship between the aristocracy and the nation in France which he viewed as having such “an undeniable hostility of interests” that it would lead inevitably to conflict of some kind, such as “la guerre sociale” (class or social war).8
He later expanded his understanding of class and plunder to include other forms of exploitation such as ancient slavery, medieval feudalism, oppression by the Catholic Church, and in his own day financial and banking privileges, as well as redistributive socialism which began to emerge during 1848. We can see this clearly in the chapter “The Physiology of Plunder” which opened the second series of Economic Sophisms (published in January 1848 but written in late 1847) where he defined plunder in the following rather abstract way using his terminology of any exchange as the mutual exchange of “service for service”: “The true and just law governing man is ‘The freely negotiated exchange of one service for another.’9 Plunder consists in banishing by force or fraud the freedom to negotiate in order to receive a service without offering one in return.”10 Thus, the slave was plundered by the slave owner because the violent capture and continued imprisonment of the slave did not allow any free negotiation with the slave owner over the terms of contract for doing the labour which the slave was forced to do. Similarly, the French manufacturer protected by a tariff or ban on imported foreign goods prevented the domestic purchaser from freely negotiating with a Belgian or English manufacturer to purchase the good at a lower price.
What turned what might have been just a one-off act of violence against a slave or a domestic consumer into a system of class exploitation and rule was its regularisation, systematisation, and organisation by the state.11 All societies had laws which prohibited theft and fraud by some individuals against other individuals. When these laws were broken by thieves, robbers, and conmen we have an example of what Bastiat called “la spoliation extra-légale” (plunder which takes place outside the law)12 and we expect the police authorities to attempt to apprehend and punish the wrong-doers. However, all societies have also established what Bastiat termed “la spoliation légale” (plunder which is done with the sanction or protection of the law) or “la spoliation gouvernementale” (plunder by government itrself).13 Those members of society who are able to control the activities of the state and its legal system can get laws passed which provide them with privileges and benefits at the expense of ordinary people. The state thus becomes what Bastiat termed “la grande fabrique de lois” (the great law factory)14 which makes it possible for the plundering class to use the power of the state to exploit the plundered classes in a systematic and seemingly permanent fashion.15
We know Bastiat had plans to apply his class analysis to European history going back to the ancient Romans. When working through his papers in preparation for publishing the second part of Economic Harmonies his friend and literary executor Prosper Paillottet states that Bastiat had sketched out in seven proposed chapters what would in effect have been his History of Plunder: Chapter 16. Plunder, 17. War, 18. Slavery, 19. Theocracy, 20. Monopoly, 21. Government Exploitation, 22. False Brotherhood or Communism. This list was included in the second expanded edition of Economic Harmonies (1851) which “the friends of Bastiat” (Prosper Paillottet and Roger de Fontenay) put together from his papers after his death.16
The historical form of plunder which Bastiat discussed in most detail in his sketches and drafts was “theocratic plunder”, especially in ES2 1. “The Physiology of Plunder.”17 Bastiat believed that the era of theocratic plunder provided a case study of how trickery and sophistic arguments could be used to ensure compliance with the demands of the plundering class. He argued that the rule of the Church in European history was one which he believed had practised plunder and deception “on a grand scale”. The Church had developed an elaborate system of theocratic plunder through its tithing of income and production and on top of this it created a system of “sophisme théocratique” (theocratic sophistry and trickery) based upon the notion that only members of the church could ensure the peoples’ passage to an afterlife. This and other theocratic sophisms created dupes of the ordinary people who duly handed over their property to the Church. Bastiat had no squabble with a church in which the priests were “the instrument of the religion”, but for hundreds of years religion had become instead “the instrument of its priest”.18 The challenge to this theocratic plundering came through the invention of the printing press which enabled the transmission of ideas critical of the power and intellectual claims of the Church and gradually led to the weakening of this form of organised, legal plunder. The Reformation, the Renaissance, and the Enlightenment gradually exposed the theocratic sophisms for what they really were - so many tricks, deceptions, lies, and contradictions - and many people were thus no longer willing to be the dupes of the Church.
In a similar manner, Bastiat thought, the modern bureaucratic and regulatory state of his day was, like the Church, based upon a mixture of outright violence and coercion on the one hand, and trickery and sophisms on the other. The violence and coercion came from the taxes, tariffs, and regulations which were imposed on taxpayers, traders, and producers; the ideological dimension which maintained the current class of plunderers came from a new set of political and economic sophisms which confused, mislead, and tricked a new generation of dupes into supporting the system. The science of political economy, according to Bastiat, was to be the means by which the economic sophisms of the present would be exposed, rebutted, and finally overturned, thus depriving the current plundering class of their livelihood and power: “I have said enough to show that Political Economy has an obvious practical use. It is the flame that destroys this social disorder which is Plunder, by unveiling Fraud and dissipating Error.”19
The outbreak of Revolution in February 1848 and the coming to power of organised socialist groups forced Bastiat to modify his theory in two ways. The first was to adopt the very language of “class” used by his socialist opponents as we have seen with his change in usage from the pairing of “les spoliateurs” (the plunderers) and “les spoliés” (the plundered) before the Revolution to that of “la classe spoliatrice” (the plundering class) and “les classes spoliées” (the plundered classes) after the Revolution. The second way he changed his theory was to consider more carefully how state organised plunder would be undertaken by a majority of the people instead of a small minority. Before the socialists became a force to be reckoned with in the Second Republic when they introduced the National Workshops program under Louis Blanc, a small minority of powerful individuals (such as slave owners, high Church officials, the military, or large landowners and manufacturers) used the power of the state to plunder the ordinary taxpayers and consumers to their own advantage. Bastiat termed this “la spoliation partielle” (partial plunder).20 He believed that what the socialists were planning during 1848 was to introduce a completely new kind of plunder which he called “la spoliation universelle” (universal plunder) or “la spoliation réciproque” (reciprocal plunder). In this system of plunder the majority (that is to say the ordinary taxpayers and consumers who made up the vast bulk of French society) would plunder itself, now that the minority of the old plundering class had been removed from political power. Bastiat thought that this was unsustainable in the long run and in his famous essay on “The State” (June, September 1848) called the socialist-inspired redistributive state “the great fiction by which everyone endeavors to live at the expense of everyone else.”21
At this time I don’t think Bastiat fully grasped how the modern welfare state might evolve into a new form of class rule in the name of the people where “les fonctionnaires” (state bureaucrats and other functionaries), supposedly acting in the name of the people, siphoned off resources for their own needs. Bastiat gives hints that this might happen in his discussion of the “parasitical” nature of most government services22 and his ideas about “la spoliation gouvernementale" (plunder by government) and “le gouvernementalisme” (rule by government bureaucrats)23 which suggest the idea that government and those who work for it have their own interests which are independent of other groups in society. These are insights which Bastiat’s younger friend and colleague Gustave de Molinari took up two years after Bastiat’s death in his class analysis of how Louis Napoléon came to power and brought the Second Republic to an end.24
In two private letters to Madame Hortense Cheuvreux, the wife of a wealthy benefactor who helped Bastiat find time to work on his economic treatise during the last two years of his life, Bastiat makes some interesting observations about the nature of the class antagonisms which were dividing France. In the first letter (January 1850) he offered Mme Cheuvreux an analysis of the conflict between the people and the bourgeoisie based upon what he had observed during the revolution. He concludes that the French bourgeoisie had had an opportunity to bring class rule in France to an end and by not doing so had alienated a large section of the working class:
In France, I can see two major classes, each of which can be divided into two. To use hallowed although inaccurate terms, I will call them the people and the bourgeoisie. The people consist of a host of millions of human beings who are ignorant and suffering, and consequently dangerous. As I said, they are divided into two; the vast majority are reasonably in favor of order, security, and all conservative principles, but, because of their ignorance and suffering, are the easy prey of ambitious sophists. This mass is swayed by a few sincere fools and by a larger number of agitators and revolutionaries, people who have an inborn attraction for disruption or who count on disruption to elevate themselves to fortune and power. The bourgeoisie, it must never be forgotten, is very small in number. This class also has its ignorance and suffering, although to a different degree. It also offers dangers, but of a different nature. It too can be broken down into a large number of peaceful, undemonstrative people, partial to justice and freedom, and a small number of agitators. The bourgeoisie has governed this country, and how has it behaved? The small minority did harm and the large majority allowed them to do this, not without taking advantage of this when they could. These are the moral and social statistics of our country.25
In the second letter (23 June, 1850) he is even more pessimistic in believing that France (and perhaps all of Europe) is doomed to never-ending “guerre sociale” (social or class war). He talks about how history is divided into two alternating phases of “struggle” and “truce” to control the state and the plunder which flows from this:
As long as the state is regarded in this way as a source of favors, our history will be seen as having only two phases, the periods of conflict as to who will take control of the state and the periods of truce, which will be the transitory reign of a triumphant oppression, the harbinger of a fresh conflict.26
Bastiat’s way of looking at plunder and class did not end with his death on 24 December 1850. His ideas inspired one of his colleagues associated with the Journal des Économistes, Ambroise Clément,27 to write an article on “De la spoliation légale” (On Legal Plunder) in July 1848,28 in which he developed some of Bastiat’s ideas further with a more detailed categorization of the kinds of legal state theft or plunder, such as aristocratic theft, monarchical theft, theft by government regulation, industrial theft, theft under the guise of philanthropy, and administrative theft by the government itself.
One should also note that Bastiat’s ideas on plunder and class were taken up in a few places in the Dictionnaire de l’Économie politique (1852), most notably in the article on “La Loi” (Law) which consisted mostly of very large quotations from Bastiat’s own essay, a short entry on “Fonctionnaires” (civil servants) by Ambroise Clément, and a very interesting article on “Parasites” by Renouard.29
Bastiat’s ideas also probably influenced the thinking of his younger friend and colleague Gustave de Molinari who began to develop his own ideas about class analysis in more detail after Bastiat’s death in December 1850. After he left Paris in a self-imposed exile to Brussels after Louis Napoléon’s coup d’état of December 1851 he gave a lecture in which he explored the nature of the class dynamics which had brought Louis Napoléon to power - “Les Révolutions et le despotisme envisagés au point de vue des intérêts matériel” (Revolutions and Despotism seen from the perspective of Material Interests).30 Molinari would return to writing on class theory after a stint as editor of the prestigious Journal des Débats in the late 1860s and 1870s when he published two important works of historical sociology in which the evolution of the state and market institutions, and the class relationships between producers and the state would play a very important role - L'évolution économique du XIXe siècle: théorie du progrès (The Economic Evolution of the 19th Century: A Theory of Progress) (1880), and L'évolution politique et la Révolution (Political Evolution and the Revolution) (1884).31
In conclusion, to show the various theoretical threads Bastiat was pursuing in formulating his theory of class we list here in chronological order the main works where he discusses plunder and class. Note that of the 15 items, six are from the Economic Sophisms and two are from WSWNS:
1 Bastiat’s first use of the terms “la classe spoliatrice” and “les classes spoliées” occurred in “The Law” (July 1850) and then in EH 17 “Services privés, services publiques”, CW5 (forthcoming).
2 Say, Jean-Baptiste, Traité d'économie politique, ou simple exposition de la manière dont se forment, se distribuent et se consomment les richesses (1st edition 1803, Paris: Deterville). 4th edition, Paris: Deterville, 1819.
3 Comte, Charles, Traité de législation, ou exposition des lois générales suivant lesquelles les peuples prospèrent, dépérissent ou restent stationnaire, 4 vols. (Paris: A. Sautelet et Cie, 1827); Traité de la propriété, 2 vols. (Paris: Chamerot, Ducollet, 1834). Bruxelles edition, H. Tarlier, 1835.
4 Dunoyer, Charles, L'Industrie et la morale considérées dans leurs rapports avec la liberté (Paris: A. Sautelet et Cie, 1825); "Esquisse historique des doctrines auxquelles on a donné le nom industrialisme, c'est-à-dire, des doctrines qui fondent la société sur l'Industrie," Revue encyclopédique, février 1827, vol. 33, pp. 368-94. Reprinted in Notices d'économie politique, vol. 3 of Oeuvres, pp. 173-199; De la liberté du travail, ou simple exposé des conditions dans lesquelles les force humaines s'exercent avec le plus de puissance (Paris: Guillaumin, 1845).
5 On the rich but not well known French liberal theory of class see the work of Leonard P. Liggio, Ralph Raico, and David M. Hart: Liggio, Leonard P., "Charles Dunoyer and French Classical Liberalism," Journal of Libertarian Studies, 1977, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 153-78; Ralph Raico, “Classical Liberal Exploitation Theory: A Comment on Professor Liggio’s Paper,” Journal of Libertarian Studies, 1979, vol. 1, no. 3, pp. 179–183; “Classical Liberal Roots of the Marxist Doctrine of Classes.” in Requiem for Marx, edited by Yuri N. Maltsev (Auburn, AL: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 1992), pp. 189-220; “The Centrality of French liberalism” in Classical Liberalism and the Austrian School, Foreword by Jörg Guido Hülsmann. Preface by David Gordon (Auburn, Alabama: Ludwig von Mises Institute, 2012), pp. 219–53; David M. Hart, Class Analysis, Slavery and the Industrialist Theory of History in French Liberal Thought, 1814-1830: The Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer (unpublished PhD, King's College Cambridge, 1994). <davidmhart.com/liberty/Papers/ComteDunoyer/CCCD-PhD/HTML-version/index.html>.
6 This will appear in CW6 (forthcoming). A shortened version of the Introduction also appeared as an article in the JDE: “Situation économique de la Grande-Bretagne. Réformes financières. Agitation pour la liberté commerciale”, JDE, June 1845, T. XI, no. 43, pp. 233-265.
7 ES3 14, pp. 000.
8 ES3 6, “The People and the Bourgeoisie” (22 May 1847, Le Libre-Échange), pp. 11-12. In this volume pp. 000. Bastiat first began to use the phrase “social or class war” in 1847 and used it several times in early 1849 in speeches in the Chamber of Deputies and in his campaign for re-election in April 1849.
9 In French the key phrase is “L’échange librement débattu de service contre service.”
10 ES2 1, pp. 000.
12 Bastiat first used the terms “la spoliation extra-légale” and “la spoliation légale” in the essay “Justice and Fraternity” (15 June 1848, JDE) and CW2, pp. 60-81; and then in “The Law” (June 1850).
13 ES2 1. “The Physiology of Plunder,” pp. 000.
14 WSWNS Chap. VII “Trade Restrictions,” pp. 000.
16 See the “List of Chapters”, in Frédéric Bastiat, Harmonies économiques. 2me édition. Augmentée des manuscrits laissés par l’auteur. Publiée par la Société des amis de Bastiat (Paris: Guillaumin, 1851). An expanded edition of 25 chapters edited by Prosper Paillottet and Roger de Fontenay. List on p. 335. They can also be found in the FEE edition, p. 554 and online </titles/79#lf0187_head_074>.
17 ES2 1. “The Physiology of Plunder,” pp. 000; FEE, pp. 16ff. He also talks about theocratic plunder in the conclusion to ES1, ES2 2 “Two Moral Philosophies”, the conclusion to part 1 of Economic Harmonies, and EH 16 “On Population”.
18 ES2 1. “The Physiology of Plunder,” pp. 000; FEE, pp. 20-21.
19 ES2 1. “The Physiology of Plunder,” pp. 000; FEE, p. 132
20 Bastiat first used the terms “partial” and “universal” plunder in “Plunder and the Law” (15 May, 1850) (CW2, p. 275) and then again in “The Law” (July 1850) ( CW2, p. 117).
22 See the scattered references to parasites in WSWNS III. “Taxes”, CW3, pp. 000, and WSWNS VI, “The Middlemen”, CW3, pp. 000.
24 See, Gustave de Molinari, Les Révolutions et le despotisme envisagés au point de vue des intérêts matériel; précédé d'une lettre à M. le Comte J. Arrivabene, sur les dangers de la situation présente, par M. G. de Molinari, professeur d'économie politique (Brussels: Meline, Cans et Cie, 1852).
25 “159. Letter to Mme Cheuvreux,”(2 January 1850), CW1, pp. 229-31.
26 “176. Letter to Mme. Cheuvreux,” (23 June, 1850), CW1, pp. 251-52.
27 Ambroise Clément (1805-86) was an economist and secretary to the mayor of Saint-Étienne for many years. In the mid 1840s he began writing on economic matters and so impressed Guillaumin that the latter asked him to assume the task of directing the publication of the important and influential Dictionnaire de l’économie politique, in 1850.
28 Ambroise Clément, "De la spoliation légale," Journal des économistes, 1 July,1848, T. 20, no. 83, pp. 363-74.
29 Bastiat, “La Loi,” DEP, vol. 2, pp. 93-100; A. Clément, “Fonctionnaires,” DEP, vol. 1, pp. 787-89; and Renouard, “Parasites,” DEP, vol. 2, pp. 323-29.
30 Gustave de Molinari, Les Révolutions et le despotisme envisagés au point de vue des intérêts matériel; précédé d'une lettre à M. le Comte J. Arrivabene, sur les dangers de la situation présente, par M. G. de Molinari, professeur d'économie politique (Brussels: Meline, Cans et Cie, 1852).
31 Gustave de Molinari, L'évolution économique du XIXe siècle: théorie du progrès (Paris: C. Reinwald 1880), and L'évolution politique et la Révolution (Paris: C. Reinwald, 1884).
32 This will appear in CW6 (forthcoming).
33 In his parody of Molière’s parody of an oath of induction into the fraternity of doctors, Bastiat has a would-be customs officer promise “to steal, plunder, filch, swindle, and defraud” travellers. ES2 9, pp. 000.
40 This, “the trickle down effect”, is the second meaning FB gave to the term “ricochet effect” which he later reserved to the idea of perhaps unintended flow on effects of government intervention. See the glossary entry on “The Ricochet Effect.”
Last modified May 23, 2016