Liberty Matters

Multidisciplinary Man

I should start by thanking my three colleagues for their generous and insightful comments.
There are many interesting and thought-provoking metaphors in Donald J. Boudreaux's comment. He argues that Bastiat was trying to build neither microscopes (i.e., rational-choice theory) nor telescopes (à la Marxism). Throughout his work, Bastiat places individuals in context and takes into account the role and the weight of the social phenomena. This approach favors integral political economy or social science. Even when Bastiat deals with macro phenomena (free trade, value, etc.), he never ignores individuals and their rationality. It means that there can be no conflict between the interests of the individuals and that of society. But according to Bastiat, individuals are the only concrete reality: "Individuality seems to me the point of departure, the motive, the universal wellspring to which Providence has confided human progress. It is surely in vain that modern socialists set themselves against this principle." [43] On this basis, Bastiat criticized all kind of collectivist determinism. As Donald Boudreaux suggests, at least implicitly, there are many methodological issues in Bastiat's work, especially his essay "What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen." In this famous essay Bastiat's lenses prevent myopia and presbyopia. But these lenses are useless to cure socialist thinkers' blindness.
David Hart raises crucial questions. He explains that Bastiat became a fully formed theorist between 1846 and 1848. I do agree with David Hart, but we should not forget the long period of gestation between 1820 and 1846. During those years Bastiat, as we can see in his correspondence, read many French liberal theoreticians such as Jean-Baptiste Say, Destutt de Tracy, Charles Dunoyer, and Charles Comte. In short, Bastiat fully embodies the intellectual legacy of French liberalism. Today he is sometimes presented as an important forerunner of the Austrian school. For Bastiat, as for Mises and Hayek, the possibility of a methodological unity between the natural sciences and the social sciences must be firmly dismissed. (See Hayek's critique of what he called "scientism." )[44]
What then is the method of economics and the social sciences at large? For Bastiat a scientific explanation of social phenomena must begin with individual intentions and designs. He suggests that it is futile to think about society, about people, about humanity or about the nation as though they were perfectly autonomous, devoid of individual rationality. From this perspective he does not hesitate to say, in a nicely turned phrase that contrasts sharply with the intellectual climate of the time, that "national progress is nothing other than individual progress." [45] I think that Bastiat could not have stated his methodological position more clearly.
David Hart discusses briefly Bastiat's theory of the "economic sociology" of the state. I am probably the only sociologist who believes that Bastiat must be considered a founder of "economic sociology," along with Max Weber, Vilfredo Pareto, and Thorstein Veblen. His theory of social classes, inspired by Dunoyer, Charles Comte, and the Idéologues, is more robust than of those Marxists. The importance of Bastiat's theory lies in the role played by individuals.
I think Michael Munger is right on target when he suggests that Bastiat was well served by the clarity of his style -"it is more difficult to write clearly than to obfuscate." That explains why Bastiat had so little recognition in his own country. Since Bastiat, the situation has not changed. Let me take a contemporary case. Since the 1960s, Pierre Bourdieu, Michel Foucault, and Jacques Derrida have been three of the main thinkers of the so called "French theory." In an interview, [46] John Searle, one of the few philosophers who writes clearly, related an amusing discussion he had with Foucault. Searle asked Foucault: "Why the hell do you write so badly?" Foucault replied: "Look, if I wrote as clear as you do, people in Paris wouldn't take me seriously.… In France you got to have 10 percent incomprehensible." Having spent the last 12 years in a department of sociology, I have seen many kinds of obscurantism and fashionable nonsense (like postmodernism, relativism, feminism, queer studies, etc.). I am convinced - as a black-sheep sociologist - that a good theory must be realist. This theory refuses to explain phenomena by postulating social forces (structure, civilization, etc.). But today, most social scientists tend to use theory to propose an ideal form of social organization.
Bastiat, Michael Munger argued, developed a theory about doing nothing. This is right, especially when he is discussing the role and the weight of the state. On this basis, Bastiat was unrelenting in his attack on the leading socialists of his time, whom he described as those who sought "to mould the human clay." [47] According to Bastiat, the socialists are dreamers who "draw it all, men and things alike, out of their own heads. They dream up a social order not connected with the human heart; then they invent a new human heart to go with their social order." [48] This could be developed in a future post.
To sum up, there are of course, as David Hart said, "multiple Bastiats." He was of course an economist, a sociologist, a philosopher, etc. Bastiat's thought was in fact grounded in the multidisciplinary spirit of age. It was only in the early 20th century, for better or for worse, that the academic disciplines became distinct intellectual universes.
[43] "Individualisme et fraternité" (1847), in Œuvres complètes, t. VII, p. 335; "Individualism and Fraternity" in CW2, p. 87 </title/2450/231333/3920435> .
[44] F.A. Hayek, The Counter-Revolution of Science: Studies in the Abuse of Reason (Indianapolis, Ind.: LibertyPress, 1979 [1952]).
[45] "Anglomanie, anglophobie" (1847), in Œuvres complètes, t. VII, p. 321; "Anglomania, Angophobia" in CW1, p. 330 </title/2393/226012/3708328>.
[47] Economic Harmonies, Chapter: 22: The Motive Force of Society. </title/79/35567/670055>.
[48] Economic Harmonies (Irvington-on-Hudson, N.Y.: Foundation for Economic Education, 1968 [1850], p. 528. Chapter: 22: The Motive Force of Society </title/79/35567/670067>.