Liberty Matters

Why Bastiat Is Wasted on the Young

Don Boudreaux raises a series of very interesting points about Bastiat's writing style, intellectual sophistication, and appeal (or lack thereof) to different audiences and age groups. If I too may be permitted some biographical reflections, I had quite a different reaction from Don's when I first read Bastiat.
I began reading Murray Rothbard and Ludwig von Mises when I was at high school and only discovered the existence of Bastiat after I had been grappling with Man, Economy, and State and Human Action for a few months. I got my copies of Economic Harmonies, Selected Essays on Political Economy, and Economic Sophisms from FEE, as everyone else did, and enjoyed his humor and clever free-trade arguments. The "broken window" fallacy became a staple of my set of rhetorical arguments in favor of free trade, and it has stayed with me for 40 years. But in the end, I dismissed Bastiat as a bit of an intellectual lightweight when compared to Rothbard and Mises, and agreed with Schumpeter and Hayek that Bastiat was a brilliant economic journalist but not much of a theorist. Leonard Liggio soon introduced me to the works of Gustave de Molinari (on whom I wrote my undergraduate honors thesis) and then Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer (on whom I wrote my Ph.D. dissertation), and I left Bastiat behind. It was only much later, after I had joined Liberty Fund and began work on the six-volume translation project of Bastiat's Collected Works that I revised my opinion of him.
Having to review the translation that Liberty Fund had commissioned led me to read Bastiat in the original French for the first time, and this was a revelation to me. Having to check and expand the footnotes and glossary entries on Bastiat's sources and the people and events of his time led me to appreciate the depth of his reading of economic theory and his understanding of how politics worked. I would now rank Bastiat, as Robert Leroux does, as "one of the most important liberal theorists of his time" in both economic and political theory, whose work is of "prime scientific importance." Had he lived long enough to complete his major work on economic theory (Economic Harmonies) and the next book he had planned on economic and historical sociology, A History of Plunder, Bastiat might well have been on his way to be becoming the Karl Marx of the 19th-century classical liberal-movement. (But more on that in another post.)
Reading Bastiat in the original French showed me for the first time Bastiat's considerable skill as a writer in both his serious, more scholarly mode and in his witty, sarcastic, more humorous mode. One sign of a good writer is the level of sophistication of the arguments used and the style in which these arguments are expressed. In Bastiat's case I think there are a least four levels that one can identify in his writing. Firstly, there is the witty free-trade journalist who appeals to most people at first reading. This was certainly the case with me when I first read him at the age of 16. Then there is the deeply read literary satirist and parodist who is well versed in the French classics and who can drop off references to them at will (often from memory, I think). Thirdly, there is the sophisticated economist who has read widely in political economy (in four different languages: French, English, Italian, and Spanish) and who can correctly apply economic theory to the analysis of a wide range of issues. And finally, there is the passionate and committed radical liberal free-trade activist and politician whose knowledge of how politics works in the real world is both deep and without any illusions. Towards the end of his life Bastiat came to the realization that "brutal" language had to be used in order to expose exactly what is was that the state was doing when it taxed, regulated, and subsidized. Calling a spade a spade (or as the French say, un chat un chat, a cat a cat), Bastiat used a new, forthright vocabulary in his writing, referring to plunder, theft, filching, deception, and many other similar terms that today are considered out of place for a disinterested scholar or theorist. He agonized over the correct choice of language to use in his articles, fluctuating between satire and humor on the one hand, and the more brutal and hard-hitting style on the other. This created a certain tension in Bastiat's writings that may not be obvious at first reading, but which is there nevertheless. I have to say that, when I first read Bastiat, I only saw the first layer of Bastiat's thinking, the witty free-trade journalist. The other three layers remained unseen until I returned for a reexamination of his work when I was in my mid-40s.
In this and subsequent comments, I would like to discuss briefly an example that illustrates each of these four levels in Bastiat's writing:
  1. the witty free trade journalist
  2. the deeply read literary satirist and parodist
  3. the sophisticated economist
  4. the radical liberal free trade activist and politician
Witty Free-Trade Journalist
Bastiat had a natural talent for creating plays on words and mocking the foolishness of his adversaries. This comes across to some extent in the English translation, but much is unfortunately lost to the reader. Only after I read him in the original did I realize the extent to which word play and humor were part of Bastiat's writing style. This led to a decision in volume 3 of the Collected Works (the collected Economic Sophisms) to stoop to explaining his jokes and puns in the footnotes, which unfortunately might come across as pedantic and humorless to the reader, but which is essential to understanding the richness of Bastiat's writing style.
One example of his skill at punning concerns the elaborate verbal joke in "The Right Hand and the Left Hand" (ES2 16, 13 December 1846),[49] where Bastiat mocks the idea that wealth can be created by increasing the amount of labor needed to produce a good. His amusing plan is for the government to force people to tie their right hands behind their backs and only work with their left hands. It would thus take longer for right-handed people to produce anything, which for the protectionists meant that the nation's wealth would be increased because more labor (i.e. more jobs) was required to produce things. The punning and jokes come about because Bastiat likens the resulting political struggle between the Dextérists (supporters of right-hand labor) and the Sinistristes (supporters of left-hand labor) to the struggle in which he was actively involved between the supporters of free trade and the protectionists. The puns continue at some length as Bastiat draws a number of witty verbal parallels between la liberté des mains droites (freedom for right hands) and la liberté des échanges (free trade); the association pour la liberté des main droites (the free-right hand association) and the association pour la liberté des échanges (association for free trade); and les libres-dextéristes (free right-handers) and les libre-échangistes (free traders). On the other side of the debate the Sinistrists have their association pour la défense du travail par la main gauche (association for the defense of work with the left hand), which of course is a reference to the protectionist association pour la défense du travail national (association for the defense of national employment), which was founded by the textile manufacturer Pierre Mimerel. For Bastiat, as for the modern free trader, this is all so much intellectual gaucherie, which of course is also part of the joke. To be continued…
[49] Until LF's new translation of the Economic Sophisms appears I will continue to cite the old FEE edition. The translations used in my post however are from the new translation: Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Sophisms, trans. Arthur Goddard, introduction by Henry Hazlitt (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996). Second Series, Chapter 16: The Right Hand and the Left (A REPORT TO THE KING) </title/276/23406>.