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Frédéric Bastiat, “Individualism and Fraternity” (June 1848)

Note: This extract is part of The OLL Reader: An Anthology of the Best of the OLL, the table of contents of which can be found here. It is from "Part X: The Critique of Socialism and Interventionism".

For more information on socialism see:

 


 

Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850)

Source

Frédéric Bastiat, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850, Jacques de Guenin, General Editor. Translated from the French by Jane Willems and Michel Willems, with an introduction by Pascal Salin. Annotations and Glossaries by Jacques de Guenin, Jean-Claude Paul-Dejean, and David M. Hart. Translation Editor Dennis O'Keeffe. Academic Editor, David M. Hart (Indianapolis: Liberty Fund, 2012). </titles/2450#lf1573-02_label_171>.

Copyright

The copyright to this edition, in both print and electronic forms, is held by Liberty Fund, Inc.

 

The Text

6: Individualism and Fraternity

A systematic view of history and the destiny of mankind, which seems to me to be as erroneous as it is dangerous, has recently been produced.1

According to this system, the world is divided into three principles: authority, individualism, and fraternity.

Authority relates to the aristocratic eras, individualism to the reign of the bourgeoisie, and fraternity to the triumph of the people.

The first of these principles is above all incarnated in the pope. It leads to oppression by stifling personality.

The second, inaugurated by Luther, leads to oppression through anarchy.

The third, announced by the thinkers in La Montagne, has given birth to true freedom by shrouding men in the ties of harmonious association.

As the people have been the masters in only one country, France, and for a short period, in'93, we still know the theoretical value and practical attractions of fraternity only through the attempt so noisily made at it at that time. Unfortunately, union and love, personified in Robespierre, were only half able to stifle individualism, which reappeared the day after 9 Thermidor.2 It still prevails.

What is individualism, then? The author of the work to which we are referring defines it as follows:

"The principle of individualism is that which, taking man out of society, makes him the sole judge of what surrounds him and of himself, gives him [83] an exalted view of his rights without indicating his duties, abandons him to his own resources, and, with regard to all matters of government, proclaims the system of laissez-faire."3

That is not all. Individualism, the driving force of the bourgeoisie, was bound to invade the three major branches of human activity: religion, politics, and industry. From this sprang three major individualist schools: the school of philosophy, with Voltaire as its leading light, which by demanding freedom of thought led us to a profound moral anarchy; the school of politics, founded by Montesquieu, which, instead of political freedom, brought us an oligarchy based on a property franchise; and the school of economists, represented by Turgot, which, instead of economic freedom, bequeathed us competition between rich and poor to the advantage of the rich.4

We see that up to now humanity has been very poorly inspired and that it has gone wrong at every turn. This has not, however, been through lack of warnings, since the principle of fraternity has always issued its protests and reservations through the voices of Jean Huss,5 Morelli, Mably, and Rousseau and through the efforts of Robespierre.

But what is fraternity? "The principle of fraternity is that which, considering the members of the extended family as being interdependent, tends to organize the various forms of society, the work of man, in line with the model of the human body, the work of God, and bases the power of government on persuasion and the voluntary acquiescence of the heart.6

This is M. Blanc's system. What makes it dangerous in my view, apart from the brilliance with which it is set out, is that in it the true and the false are intermingled in proportions that are difficult to determine. I have [84] no intention of studying it in all its symmetrical ramifications. In order to respect the requirements of this booklet, I will consider it principally from the point of view of political economy.

I must admit that when it is a question of setting out the principles which, in a given era, were the driving force of the social body, I would like them expressed in terms less vague than individualism and fraternity.

Individualism7 is a new word that has been simply substituted for egoism. It is an exaggeration of the concept of personality.

Man is essentially a sympathetic creature. The more his powers of sympathy are concentrated on himself, the more of an egoist he is. The more they embrace his fellow men, the more of a philanthropist he is.

Egoism8 is thus like all other vices, like all other prevarications; that is to say, it is as old as man himself. This can also be said of philanthropy. In all eras, under all regimes, and in all classes, there have been men who were hard, cold, self-centered, and who related everything to themselves, and others who were good, generous, humane, and selfless. I do not think that we can make one of these states of mind the basis of society any more than we can anger or gentleness, energy or weakness.

It is therefore impossible to accept that from a fixed date in history, for example, from the time of Luther, all the efforts of the human race have been systematically, and so to speak providentially, devoted to the triumph of individualism.

On what basis can it be held that an exaggerated sense of self was born in modern times? When ancient people pillaged and ravaged the world, reducing those they conquered to slavery, were they not acting under the influence of an egoism of the highest degree? If, in order to ensure victory, overcome resistance, and escape the frightful fate they reserved for those they called savages, alliances of warriors felt the need to join forces, if individuals were even disposed to make genuine sacrifices to this end, was egoism thereby any less egoism for being collective?

I would say the same thing with regard to domination by theological authority. Whether force or guile is used to achieve the servitude of men, whether their weakness or credulity is exploited, does not the very fact of unjust domination reveal a feeling of egoism in those who dominate? Did not Egyptian priests who imposed false beliefs on their fellow men in order [85] to make themselves masters of their actions and even of their thought seek personal advantage through the most immoral means?

As nations became stronger they rejected plunder achieved by force. They progressed toward moral propriety and the production and economic freedom attending it, and yet some people profess to find in freedom of production the primal manifestation of selfishness!

But you who do not want production to be free must want it constrained, for there is no halfway house. Yes, there is, you say, association. This is to misunderstand words, for as long as association is voluntary, production remains free. It is not an abandonment of freedom to enter into agreements or voluntary associations with your fellow men.

As men became more enlightened, they reacted against superstition, false beliefs, and opinions that were imposed. And there you go again discovering in free inquiry a second sign of selfishness.

But you who do not accept either authority or free examination, what would you put in its place? Fraternity, you say. Will not fraternity put into my mind either totally preconceived ideas or ones it has itself elaborated?

So you do not want men to examine opinions critically! I can understand this intolerance in theologians. They are logically consistent. They say: Seek the truth in everything, traditus est mundus disputationibus eorum,9 when God has not revealed it. Where He has said: This is the truth, it would be absurd for you to want to examine it critically.

However, by what right do modern socialists refuse us the free inquiry they use so widely? They have just one means of curbing our minds and that is to claim to be inspired. A few of them have tried, but up to now they have not shown us their qualifications to be prophets.

Without calling into question their intentions, I say that at the basis of these doctrines there is the most irrational of all despotisms and consequently of all individualisms. What is more tyrannical than to want to regiment our work and minds, leaving aside, indeed not even invoking, any supernatural authority? It is not surprising that we end up seeing in Robespierre the archetype, the hero, and the apostle of fraternity.

If selfishness is not the exclusive motivation of a period in modern history, no more is it the principle that guides one class to the exclusion of all the others.

In moral sciences a certain symmetry in presentation is oft en taken for the truth. Let us be wary of superficial appearance.

[86]

This is how the notion that modern nations are made up of three classes—the aristocracy, the bourgeoisie, and the common people—has gained credibility. Therefore, it is concluded that there is the same antagonism between the two lower classes as between the two upper ones. The bourgeoisie, it is said, has overthrown the aristocracy and taken its place. With regard to the common people, it constitutes another form of aristocracy and will, in turn, be overthrown by it.

For my part, I see only two classes in society: conquerors who fall on a country, taking possession of the land, the wealth, and legislative and judiciary power; and a common people that has been overcome, that suffers, works, grows, breaks its chains, reconquers its rights, and governs itself more or less well, or very badly, for a long time, is taken in by a great many charlatans, is oft en betrayed by its own members, learns through experience, and gradually achieves equality through freedom and fraternity through equality.10

Each of these two classes obeys an indestructible sense of itself. But if this disposition deserves the name "selfishness," it is certainly in the case of the conquering and dominating class.

It is true that within the common people there are men who are more or less rich in infinite variation. But the difference in wealth is not enough to make up two classes. As long as a man of the common people does not turn against the common people themselves to exploit them, as long as he owes his wealth only to work and an ordered and economic life, despite the few riches he acquires and the limited influence that these riches give him, he will remain a member of the common people and it is a misuse of terminology to claim that he has entered another class, an aristocratic class.

If this were so, see what the consequences would be. An honest artisan who works hard and plans for the future, who imposes severe privations on himself, who increases the number of his customers because of the confidence he inspires, who gives his son a rather fuller education than the one he received himself, would be on the way to joining the bourgeoisie. This is a man to be distrusted, a nascent aristocrat, an egoist.

If, on the contrary, he is lazy, dissipated, improvident, if he totally lacks the dynamism necessary for making a few savings, we can then be certain that he will remain one of the common people. He will adhere to the principle of fraternity.

And now, how will all these men retained in the ranks of the lowest of [87] society through improvidence, through vice, and only too oft en, I admit, because of misfortune understand the principle of equality and fraternity? Who will be their defender, their idol, their apostle? Do I need to name him? . . .

Abandoning the theater of polemics, I will endeavor, as far as my strength and time allow, to consider egoistical individualism and fraternity from the point of view of political economy.

I will begin by declaring very frankly that the concept of the individual, of self-love, the instinct of self-preservation, the indestructible desire within man to develop himself, to increase the sphere of his action, increase his influence, his aspiration to happiness, in a word, individuality, appears to me to be the point of departure, the motive and universal dynamic to which Providence has entrusted the progress of humanity. It is absolutely in vain that this principle arouses hostility in modern socialists. Alas! Let them look into themselves; let them go deep into their consciences and they will rediscover this drive, just as we find gravity in all the molecules of matter. They may reproach Providence for having made man as he is and, as a pastime, seek to find out what would happen to society if the divinity, accepting them as counselors, changed his creatures to suit another design. These are dreams for distracting the imagination, but it is not on these that social sciences are founded.

There is no feeling that is so constantly active in man or so dynamic as the sense of self.

We can differ in the way we conceive happiness or seek it in wealth, power, and glory or the terror we inspire, in the responsiveness of our fellow men, in the satisfaction of vanity or the crown of election, but continue to seek it we do and we cannot stop ourselves from doing so.

From this it must be concluded that egoistic individualism, which is the sense of self taken in its unfavorable meaning, is as old as the concept itself, since there is not one of his qualities, above all the one most inherent in its nature, that man cannot abuse and has not abused through the ages. To claim that the sense of self has always been held within just limits, except since the time of Luther and among the bourgeoisie, can be considered only a form of wit.

I think that the contrary thesis, in any case a more consoling one, could with more reason be held, and here are my arguments.

It is a sad truth, but one born of experience, that men in general give full rein to the sense of self and consequently abuse it up to the point at which they can do so with impunity. I say in general, since I am far from claiming [88] that the inspiration of conscience, natural benevolence, or religious prescriptions have not oft en been enough to prevent personality from degenerating into egoism. However, it can be stated that the general obstacle to the exaggerated development or abuse of the sense of self is not in us but outside us. It is in the other personalities who surround us and react when we upset them to the point of keeping us in check, if you will excuse the expression.

This having been said, the more a gathering of men finds itself surrounded by weak or credulous beings and the less it finds obstacles in them, the more the concept of personality has to grow stronger in them and break the bounds that reconcile it with the general good.

Thus we see the peoples in classical times desolated by war, slavery, superstition, and despotism, all manifestations of egoism in men stronger or more enlightened than their fellows. It is never through action on itself in obedience to the moral laws that the concept of personality is confined within its just limits. To restrict it to these, it has been necessary for force and enlightenment to become the common heritage of the masses; and it is just as necessary that individualism, when manifested through force, is brought to a halt by a superior force, and when manifested through deceit, perishes through lack of support from public credulity.

Perhaps it will be thought that the representation of personalities as in a state of virtually perpetual antagonism containable only by a balance of force and enlightenment constitutes a very gloomy doctrine. It would follow that, as soon as this balance is disturbed, as soon as a people or a class realizes that they are endowed with irresistible force or an intellectual superiority that might make other peoples or classes subservient to them, the sense of self is always ready to exceed its limits and degenerate into egoism and oppression.

It is not a question of knowing whether this doctrine is gloomy, but whether it is true and whether the constitution of man is not such that he has to win his independence and security by the development of his strength and intelligence. Life is a conflict. This has been true up to now, and we have no reason to believe that that will ever cease to be the case as long as man carries within his heart this sense of self that is so ready to exceed its limits.

The socialist schools endeavor to fill the world with hopes that we cannot prevent ourselves from considering to be illusory, precisely because they take no account, in their trivial theories, of this indelible disposition and the unchangeable nature that drives it, if it is not contained, toward its own exaggeration.

We search in vain in their mathematical systems of series and harmonies [89] for the obstacle to the abuse of personality, for we will never find it. The socialists appear to us to be revolving ceaselessly in this vicious circle: if all men wish to be selfless, we have found social forms that will maintain fraternity and harmony between them.

For this reason, when they come to propose something which appears to be practical, we always see them dividing humanity into two parts: on the one hand, the state, the ruling power which they take to be infallible, impeccable, and free from any egoistic character; on the other, the people who no longer need plans for the future or any guarantees as to their security.

To carry out their plans, they are reduced to entrusting the ruling of the world to a power that is drawn, so to speak, from outside humanity. They invent a word: the state. They suppose that the state is a being that exists in itself, that possesses an inexhaustible amount of wealth independent from society's wealth, and that by means of this wealth the state can provide work for everyone and ensure everyone's existence. They take no heed of the fact that the state can only give back to society goods that it started off taking from it, and that it can actually give back only a part of these; nor furthermore, that the state is made up of men endowed with the sense of self, which in them just as in those being governed is inclined to degenerate into abuse; nor that one of the greatest temptations enticing one personality to offend others occurs when the man concerned is powerful and able to overcome resistance. In truth, although they have never expressed many views on this subject, the socialists probably hope that the state will be supported by institutions, by education, by foresight, and by close and severe supervision of the masses. However, if this is to be so, the masses have to be enlightened and farsighted, and the system of governance that I am examining tends precisely to destroy the foresight of the masses since it makes the state responsible for supplying all necessities, combating all obstacles, and providing for everyone.

But, people will say, if the sense of self is indestructible, if it has the disastrous tendency to degenerate into abuse, if the force that represses it is not within us but exterior to us, if it is contained within just limits only by the resistance and reaction of other selves, if the men who exercise power do not escape this law any more than those on whom power is exercised, so that society can be maintained in good order only by the constant vigilance of all its members over each other and in particular by those governed over those who govern, then radical antagonism is irremediable. We have no other safeguards against oppression than a sort of balance among all the [90] egoisms that keep one another in check; and fraternity, the principle that is so comforting, whose very name touches and softens hearts, that is capable of realizing all the hopes of all men of goodwill, uniting men through the bonds of friendship, this principle, proclaimed eighteen centuries ago by a voice that almost all of humanity has held to be divine, would be banished forever from the world.

God forbid that this should be our thought. We have ascertained that the sense of individuality is a general human law, and we believe that this fact is beyond doubt.

It is now a matter of knowing whether the fully understood and constant interest of a man, a class, or a nation is radically opposed to the interest of another man, class, or nation. If this is so, it has to be stated with sorrow but truthfully that fraternity is just a dream, since it must not be expected that each person will sacrifice himself for others, and if this happened, we cannot see how humanity would gain, since the sacrifice of each one would be equivalent to the sacrifice of the entire human race; this would constitute universal misfortune.

But if, on the contrary, by studying the action that men exercise over one another, we discover that their general interests concur, that progress, morality, and the wealth of all are conditions for the progress, morality, and wealth of each individual, we will then understand how the concept of individuality is reconciled with that of fraternity.

There is one condition, however. It is that this agreement does not consist in a vain proclamation but is clearly, rigorously, and scientifically demonstrated.

When this happens, as this demonstration is better understood and inculcated in a greater number of intelligent minds, that is to say, as enlightenment and moral science progress, the principle of fraternity will extend further and further throughout the human race.

Well, this is the comforting demonstration that we think we can make.

First of all, what should we understand by the word fraternity?

Should we, as it is said, take this word literally? And does it imply that we should love everyone currently living on the surface of the globe as we love the brother who was conceived in the same womb and fed on the same milk and whose cradle, games, emotions, sufferings, and joys we have shared? Obviously this is not the meaning of the word that we should accept. No man could exist for more than a few minutes if each sorrow, each setback, or each death that occurred around the world had to arouse in him the same emotion [91] as if it concerned his brother, and if the socialist gentlemen are adamant on this point (and they are very adamant . . . when it applies to others), they have to be told that nature is much less demanding. It is useless for us to beat our breasts or indulge in the affectation of words, so commonly seen these days; we will never, fortunately, be able to raise our sensitivity to this height. If nature does not allow this, morality forbids it, too. We all have to fulfill our duties toward ourselves, those close to us, our friends, our colleagues, and all those whose existence depends on us. We are also responsible to our profession and for the functions entrusted to us. For most of us these duties take up all our time, and it is impossible for us to be able always to have a thought for and make our immediateaim the general interests of humanity.

The question is to establish whether the scheme of things, resulting from the way men organize themselves and their perfectibility, does not lead to individual interests becoming increasingly merged with the general interest, and whether we are not brought by observation and perhaps by experience to desire the general good and consequently to contribute to it. In this case, the code of fraternity would arise from the very sense of self to which at first sight it is opposed.

Here, I need to return to a fundamental idea, one I have already discussed in this book11 in the articles titled "Competition" and "Population."

With the exception of blood relationships and acts of pure selflessness and self-sacrifice, I think it can be said that the whole economy of a society is based on exchanged services.

However, to anticipate any misinterpretation, I have to say a word on self-sacrifice, which is the voluntary sacrifice of the sense of self.

Economists are accused of not taking self-sacrifice into account and perhaps despising it. Please God, we will never fail to recognize the power and grandeur in self-sacrifice. Nothing that is great and generous, nothing that arouses fellow feeling and admiration in men can be accomplished except [92]through selflessness. Man is not just an intelligent mind, and he is not merely a calculating being. He has a soul, and in this soul there is a germ of fellow feeling which may be developed until it attains universal love, to the point of the most absolute sacrifice, at which point it produces the generous actions that, when narrated, bring tears to our eyes.

However, economists do not think that everyday events in our lives, the daily and constant actions that men carry out to keep themselves alive and fed and to develop themselves can be based on the principle of self-sacrifice. Well, these acts and transactions that are freely negotiated are the very ones that are the subject of political economy. The field is sufficiently large to constitute a science. Men's actions relate to a variety of sciences: when they give rise to dispute, they are subject to the science of law; when they are subject to the direct influence of the established authority, they relate to politics; and when they call for the effort we consider virtue, they concern morality or religion.

None of these sciences can do without the others and even less contradict them. However, we should not require one of them to embrace the others totally. And although economists have little to say about self-sacrifice since this is not their subject, we dare to assert that their biographies in this respect can bear comparison with those of writers who have embraced other doctrines. In the same way as priests have little to say about value and competition because these things are only indirectly concerned with the sphere of their predications, they buy and sell just like common mortals. This can also be said of socialists.

Let us say, then, that in human actions, those that form the subject of economic science involve the exchange of services.

Perhaps people will find that this is to disparage the science. However, I sincerely believe that it is substantial, although simpler than is supposed, and that it is entirely based on these vulgar notions: give me this and I will give you that; do this for me and I will do that for you. I cannot conceive of any other forms of human transaction. The intervention of cash, merchants, and middlemen may complicate this elementary system and obscure our view of it. It is nonetheless typical of all economic acts.

 

Endnotes

1. 

Bastiat is possibly referring to the first two volumes of a history of the French Revolution (Histoire de la Révolution française, 1847) that the socialist Louis Blanc had published just prior to the outbreak of the February Revolution of 1848. (See also the entry for "Blanc, Louis," in the Glossary of Persons.)

2. 

Date of the arrest of Robespierre (27 July 1794). He was guillotined the fol lowing day.

3. 

(Bastiat's note) Blanc, Histoire de la Révolution française, vol. 1, p. 9. [Bastiat is quoting from the 1847 edition of Blanc's work.]

4. 

(Bastiat's note) Blanc, Histoire de la Révolution française, vol. 1, pp. 350–51. [Bastiat is again quoting from the 1847 edition of Blanc's work. In this passage Bastiat is summarizing Blanc's critique of eighteenth-century theories of individualism.]

5. 

Jan Hus.

6. 

(Paillottet's note) As Bastiat had not finished copying the passage of the book he is dealing with by hand in his manuscript, I have had to make good this lacuna and present the whole sentence. With regard to the last few words, I make so bold as to say that they imply a contradiction with the thought of achieving any form of social system through the intervention of the state, that is to say, by force. Those who put forward social systems they have invented do not limit themselves, any more than Robespierre does, to claiming to persuade or to obtain the voluntary acquiescence of the heart, and have no greater justification than he in assuming the flag of freedom.

7. 

See "Bastiat's Political Writings: Anecdotes and Reflections," pp. 407–8.

8. 

Ibid., p. 408.

9. 

"And the world has been handed over to their discussions."

10. 

See "Note on the Translation," pp. xiii–xiv, and also "Bastiat's Political Writings: Anecdotes and Reflections," pp. 409–10.

11. 

It is not clear to what book Bastiat is referring here. He published only three book-length works before his death: Cobden and the League (1845), Economic Sophisms (1847), and Economic Harmonies (1850). The last was only partially completed when it was first published and contained only the first ten chapters. A more complete edition was published in 1851, after his death. Chapter 10 of Economic Harmonies was titled "Competition," and chapter 16 was titled "Population." This essay appeared with no date or place of publication and may have been written in June 1848. Bastiat thus may be referring to a draft of the Economic Harmonies, which he was writing at the time this essay appeared.

 

Last modified July 24, 2018