Liberty Matters

Bastiat’s Style


David Hart and Donald Boudreaux remind us that Bastiat was a superb writer. For example, even in his most theoretical works, Bastiat dreams up personalities and has them dialogue with each other in order to describe situations and places. It is no accident that Gustave Flaubert was one of his greatest admirers. In a letter of 1852 to Louise Colet, Flaubert wrote: "As bedtime reading I am going through some little tomes on political economy by Bastiat. It is very good reading."[70] And in 1871 he wrote to George Sand: "In three years every Frenchman can know how to read. Do you think that we shall be the better off? Imagine on the other hand that in each commune there was one bourgeois, only one, who had read Bastiat, and that this bourgeois was respected, things would change."[71]
I would like to focus on two things about Bastiat's style. As we know, his dialogues often revolve around the imagined personality of "Jacques Bonhomme" (John Goodfellow), a carpenter, portrayed as a stout worker, an exploited consumer, an "average citizen" who speaks sense. In the course of a paragraph or a page, Jacques poses some simple, direct questions. For example: "People, how is the state going to provide you a living, when it is you who make a living for the state?... People, be smarter, do like the American Republicans: give the state what is strictly necessary, and keep the rest for yourself. Have it do away with all useless functions, have it cut back on big handouts, abolish privileges, monopolies and restrictions, and simplify bureaucratic red tape."[72]
But there is another, rather surprising - and interesting - aspect to Bastiat's particular style: He liked to write petitions addressed to imaginary recipients. His works contain dozens of such petitions. In one very amusing instance, he begs the King to create more employment by requiring workers henceforth to use only their left hand. "Once the workers in every branch of industry are restricted to the use of their left hands alone, imagine, Sire, the immense number of people that will be needed to meet the present demand for consumers' goods, assuming that it remains constant, as we always do when we compare different systems of production. So prodigious a demand for manual labor cannot fail to bring about a considerable rise in wages, and pauperism will disappear from the country as if by magic."[73]
Bastiat's most famous petition (see Michael Munger's comment), however, is the one he wrote on behalf of the candle merchants.
We are suffering from the ruinous competition of a foreign rival who apparently works under conditions so far superior to our own for the production of light that he is flooding the domestic market with it at an incredibly low price; for the moment he appears, our sales cease, all the consumers turn to him, and a branch of French industry whose ramifications are innumerable is all at once reduced to complete stagnation. This rival, which is none other than the sun, is waging war on us so mercilessly that we suspect he is being stirred up against us by perfidious Albion (excellent diplomacy nowadays!), particularly because he has for that haughty island a respect that he does not show for us. We ask you to be so good as to pass a law requiring the closing of all windows, dormers, skylights, inside and outside shutters, curtains, casements, bull's-eyes, deadlights, and blinds - in short, all openings, holes, chinks, and fissures through which the light of the sun is wont to enter houses, to the detriment of the fair industries with which, we are proud to say, we have endowed the country, a country that cannot, without betraying ingratitude, abandon us today to so unequal a combat.[74]
Yet Bastiat's style, with its elegance, its extreme readability, and its occasional flashes of poetry, must not blind us to the essential fact that his analyses are often highly rigorous, and for the most part perfectly scientific.
We may legitimately ask why Bastiat usually chose to express himself in a style quite foreign to most economists. Why did he employ such humor? Why did he make use of irony, sometimes to excess? The most likely answer is that he quickly became convinced that his ideas had little chance of prospering in an intellectual setting such as that of France, which was particularly hostile to liberalism (especially after 1848), and that his analysis and his advice were condemned in advance to be ignored. Hence his impatience, which he was not always successful in hiding, and the way he kept hammering away at his message. Indeed there are many texts that bear witness to this impatience. In Economic Harmonies, for example, we read: "I feel a real embarrassment in insisting on primary truths so clear that they seem childish."[75]
And in Economic Sophisms:
People are finding my little book of Sophisms too theoretical, scientific, and metaphysical. Very well. Let us try the effect of a trivial, banal, and, if need be, a ruder style of writing. Convinced that the public has been duped into accepting the policy of protectionism, I have tried to prove it by an appeal to reason. But the public prefers to be shouted at. Therefore, let us vociferate.... Frankly, dear public, you are being robbed. This may be put crudely, but at least it is clear."[76]
In the end, however, there is a price to pay for using such direct and trenchant language, and Bastiat himself was aware of this. "What annoys me a little," he wrote to his friend Félix Coudroy," is to see that the three or four pleasantries that I have slipped into this volume have been highly successful while the serious part has been widely overlooked.[77]
[70] G. Flaubert, Correspondence, vol. II (Saint-Genouph: Nizet, 2001), p. 14.
[71] Ibid., pp. 287-8.
[72]"Petites affiches de Jacques Bonhomme" (1848), in F. Bastiat, Œuvres complètes, II, pp. 459-60. A translation of this will appear as "The Immediate Relief of the People" in his Collected Works, vol. 3 "Economic Sophisms. It was originally published in Bastiat and Molinari's revolutionary magazine La République française, 12 March 1848.
[73] F. Bastiat, "The Right Hand and the Left" (1848), in Economic Sophisms, Series 2 (FEE edition), p. 259. </title/276/23406/1575064>.
[74] F. Bastiat, "Petition from the Manufacturers of Candles, Tapers, Lanterns, Candlesticks, Street Lamps, Snuffers, and Extinguishers and from the Producers of Oil, Tallow, Resin, Alcohol and Generally of Everything Connected with Lighting," in Economic Sophisms (1845), Series 1 (FEE edition), pp. 56-7. </title/276/23342/1573459>.
[75] F. Bastiat, Economic Harmonies (1850) (FEE edition), p. 49. Chapter 3 "Man's Wants" </title/79/35502/667891>.
[76] F. Bastiat, Economic Sophisms (1845), Series 1 (FEE edition), op. cit., p. 189. ES2 9 "Robbery by Subsidy" </title/276/23392/1574304>.
[77] F. Bastiat, Letter to Coudroy, 24 May 1846, in Frédéric Bastiat, The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics [2011], p. 72. </title/2393/225705/3706735>.