Liberty Matters

What kind of an economist was Bastiat? Part 2

In a previous comment I argued that Bastait engaged in four different kinds of economic activity during his rather short life. I discussed the first two then and I will discuss the last two here:
  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)
3. Economic Theorist. Sometime during late 1846 and early 1847, Bastiat must have come to the realization that he might have something new and interesting to say about economic theory. There were some aspects of the classical orthodoxy that he was critical of (Malthusianism, theory of rent, theory of value), as we know from his later writings. Thus there begins in mid-1847 a parallel course of activity to that of his journalism, namely, that of lecturing on economic theory and writing a theoretical treatise. In July Bastiat began lecturing on political economy at the School of Law in Paris. The title was the "Harmony of Social Laws" and was probably an early version of what would later become the Economic Harmonies. We have a draft of a Foreword that Bastiat wrote for this future economic treatise, which the editor Paillottet dates to late 1847.[58] His work on economic theory was constantly interrupted beginning in early 1848 with the outbreak of the February Revolution, his election to the Constituent and then the National Assembly, his work on the Finance Committee of the Chamber, and then of course his declining health. All we know about where his theoretical thinking was taking him is a few articles on theoretical matters published in the JDE; reports of discussions about his work in meetings of the Political Economy Society (the members of which were largely hostile to Bastiat's theoretical innovations); the first half of Economic Harmonies, which appeared in early 1850 a few months before he died; and what Paillottet and Fontenay (as the "Société des amis de Bastiat") published in an expanded edition from his remaining notes and papers in 1851. I have already stated in a previous post what I think Bastiat's original contributions to economic theory are, so I won't repeat myself here
4. Adviser on Economic Policy. Bastiat also became involved in what I think is a fourth kind of economic activity, that of an economic policy adviser to the government of which he was a member. Because of his economic expertise, after he was elected to the Constituent Assembly in April 1848 he was appointed vice president of the Chamber's Finance Committee, a position to which he was reelected many times. I found in the printed records of the National Assembly summaries of reports Bastiat gave on behalf of the Committee on the state of the government's finances.[59] He was constantly hectoring officials about declining tax revenue because of the impact of the turmoil of the revolution on economic activity, the need to cut spending and thus taxes, and the dangers of increasing expenditure on the new programs being advocated by the socialists, especially the National Workshops. These were government-funded make-work programs designed to provide subsidized jobs to the unemployed and were a favorite of the newly elected socialist deputies in the Chamber. Bastiat predicted the cost of the programs would explode and eventually collapse. Indeed they did in June 1848, sparking rioting in the streets of Paris (the "June Days"), which was bloodily repressed by the army. Bastiat's role as VP of the Finance Committee would be a wonderful topic for a Ph.D. The official records of this Committee need to be discovered and studied so we can form a better picture of Bastiat's activities in this important body. We do not know how effective he was in this role or what options he had in influencing government policy.
Thus my assessment of what kind of economist Bastiat was and how good he was can be summarized as follows:
  1. Precocious Self-taught Economist in the Provinces. I think it is amazing that Bastiat was able to become such a well-read, knowledgeable, and wise economist through a process of self-education over 20 years all alone in a remote south west province of France.
  2. Economic Journalist and Lobbyist for Free Trade. I think everybody agrees (even Schumpeter) that Bastiat became one of the best economic journalists the world has ever seen. I also think that the full scope of his talents in this area have yet to be fully appreciated.
  3. Economic Theorist. Bastiat's life was cruelly shortened by cancer [possiby some form of thrioat cancer] before he could show the world his full talents as an economic theorist.[60] He left us half a finished book, some articles, and some incomplete notes and papers, which friends compiled into the second half of Economic Harmonies. Bastiat was struggling to redefine the nature of economic theory and to break away from some of the errors of the classical school of political economy, and he even foresaw some of the innovations of the Marginal Revolution of the 1870s. I would conclude that as an economic theorist Bastiat had great promise and some startlingly original insights, but he died before he could bring it all together into a coherent whole.
  4. Adviser on Economic Policy. I think this is the aspect of Bastiat's contribution to economics that we know least about and that needs much more research before we can make a final assessment of him as an economic policy adviser and politician.
[58] CW vol. 1, "4. Draft Preface for the Harmonies." </title/2393/226010>.
[59] See Table analytique par ordre alphabétique de matières et de noms de personnes du Compte rendu des séances de l'Assemblée nationale constituante (4 mai 1848 - 27 mai 1849) et des documents imprimés par son ordre. Rédigée aux Archives de l'Assemblée nationale (Paris: Henri et Charles Noblet, Imprimeurs de l'Assemblée nationale, 1850); and Table analytique par ordre alphabétique de matières et de noms de personnes du Compte rendu des séances de l'Assemblée nationale législative (28 mai 1849 - 2 décembre 1851) et des documents imprimés par son ordre. Rédigée aux Archives du Corps législatifs (Paris: Henri et Charles Noblet, Imprimeurs de l'Assemblée nationale, 1852).
[60] Traditionally it has been thought that tuberculosis killed Bastiat, as it did so many people at this time. However, a closer reading of his correspondence, especially in the last few months of his life, shows that Bastiat revealed to his closest friends some of the symptoms he displayed, and these were definitely not those of tuberculosis. It is my hunch that what he was describing was cancer of the throat or the larynx. Some passages from his correspondence that describe the suffering he endured at this time can be found here: "Selected Quotations from Bastiat's Collected Works vol. 1." In particular, 191. Letter to Louise Cheuvreux, Lyons, 14 September 1850: "Here I am, the plaything of a tiny pimple growing in my larynx." And 203. Letter to Félix Coudroy, Rome, 11 November 1850: "I would ask for one thing only, and that is to be relieved of this piercing pain in the larynx; this constant suffering distresses me. Meals are genuine torture for me. Speaking, drinking, eating, swallowing saliva, and coughing are all painful operations. A stroll on foot tires me and an outing in a carriage irritates my throat; I cannot work nor even read seriously. You see the state to which I am reduced. Truly, I will soon be just a corpse that has retained the faculty of suffering. I hope that the treatment that I have decided to undergo, the remedies I am given, and the gentleness of the climate will improve my deplorable situation soon."