Liberty Matters

What kind of an economist was Bastiat? Part 1

It is important to ask ourselves two questions: What kind of economist was Bastiat and how good an economist was he? I think Bastiat moved between being four different kinds of economist during his rather short life. I will discuss the first two briefly here and leave the other two to a later date.
  1. the precocious self-taught economist in the provinces (1820-1844)
  2. the economic journalist and lobbyist for free trade (1845-1848)
  3. the economic theorist (1847-1850)
  4. the adviser on economic policy to the Revolutionary government (1848-1850)
1. Precocious Self-taught Economist in the Provinces. When Bastiat burst onto the scene in late 1844 with his article "The Influence of French and English Tariffs on the Future of the Two Nations",[54] he caused a sensation among the Parisian-based political economists. He followed this up the following year with a book on Cobden and the League,[55] which was a combination of a history of the activities and ideas behind the Anti-Corn Law League and a plea for the creation of a similar organization in France. These two works demonstrated his command of economic theory, economic data, and current policy, but what was even more impressive to the fraternity of political economists was that he had emerged out of nowhere seemingly fully formed as a more-than-competent professional economist. As Robert Leroux has noted in a previous post, Bastiat at age 43 had already spent 20 years or so incubating in the provinces (Mugron in Les Landes) before revealing himself in Paris. This period of incubation was one of Bastiat's self-education in economics in which he read everything about economics he could get his hands on in four different languages (English, Italian, Spanish, and of course French). Having only his local book club and one close friend (Felix Coudroy) to talk to meant that Bastiat's achievements were even more remarkable. He had no mentor, no other professionals to discuss his ideas with, and no feedback from critics or supporters of his ideas. He wrote the occasional piece for local newspapers but nothing of real significance until his essay on French and English tariffs in 1844.
A relationship with other economists did not really start until Bastiat moved to Paris sometime in early 1845. We know that in May 1845 a dinner was held in his honor, organized by the Political Economy Society, to welcome him to Paris. It was here that he met many of the leading political economists for the first time and received considerable support from them because of their high regard for his book on Cobden and the League. Bastiat was invited to join the Political Economy Society, and there is a hard-to-confirm suggestion that he was even asked to edit the Society's journal, the Journal des économistes, an offer Bastiat declined because he had committed himself to starting and working fulltime on a French free-trade association modeled on the English Anti-Corn Law League. During 1845 Bastiat began writing a steady stream of articles that appeared in the JDE on topics dealing with tariff policy, the wine trade, and the first of what were to become the "economic sophisms." [56]
2. Economic Journalist and Lobbyist for Free Trade. Bastiat's dream of a free-trade association came true in early 1846 when the Association pour la liberté des échanges (Free Trade Association) was founded in February 1846 in Bordeaux. Bastiat was made the secretary of the board and appointed editor of the Association's journal, Le Libre-Échange, which he largely wrote himself and which appeared in 72 issues between 29 November 1846 and its closure on 16 April 1848, after the outbreak of Revolution. I would categorize the period from early 1845 to the beginning of 1848 as Bastiat's period of "economic journalism," when he showed his growing talent as a writer, critic of government tariff policy, and advocate for free trade in both print and the lecture hall. This period produced the two series of Economic Sophisms, the first of which appeared in early 1846, the second in January 1848. While working on Liberty Fund's volume 3 of his Collected Works (the complete Economic Sophisms), I have been able to assess his work as an economist, since Bastiat makes constant reference to the French government's regulation of the economy, the level of taxation and expenditure, and the consequences of these policies for the French economy. I checked all his claims and statements about what the government taxed and spent against the published budget papers for 1848 and 1849 in the annual publication Annuaire de l'économie politique et de la statistique.[57] In all the fact checking I did, I only found one error in the economic data Bastiat cited. My conclusion is that Bastiat was meticulous in his use of economic data. The only "error" on his part I could find concerned the subsidy the French government began paying to encourage the colonization of Algeria. He may have had data I was not able to find, since his per capita figures of the subsidies are different from what I could find. But not a bad record!
[54] "De l'influence des tarifs français et anglais sur l'avenir des deux peuples," JDE Octobre 1844, T. IX, pp. 244-271. This essay will appear in vol. 6 of LF's edition of Bastiat's CW: "The Struggle Against Protectionism: The English and French Free-Trade Movements."
[55] Cobden et la Ligue, ou l'agitation anglaise pour la liberté du commerce (Paris: Guillaumin, 1845). Bastiat's lengthy introduction to this book, which consists mainly of translations of Anti-Corn Law League material, will appear in vol. 6 of LF's edition of Bastiat's CW: "The Struggle Against Protectionism: The English and French Free-Trade Movements".
[56] For a list of all the articles Bastiat wrote for the JDE (some 37) see this page at my personal website <>.
[57] See Alphonse Courtois,"Le budget de 1848" in the Annuaire de l'économie politique et de la statistique pour 1848. 5e Année (Guillaumin, 1848), pp. 29-51.; A. Bernard, "Résumé des Budgets de la France de 1814 à 1847" in the Annuaire de l'économie politique et de la statistique pour 1849. 6e Année (Guillaumin, 1848), pp. 67-76; and Alphonse Courtois, "Le budget de 1849" in Annuaire de l'économie politique et de la statistique pour 1850 par MM. Joseph Garnier. 7e année (Paris: Guillaumin, 1850), pp. 18-28.