Liberty Matters

To Do Nothing, or Not to Do Nothing: That Is the Question


I would like to return to some comments voiced by both Robert Leroux and Mike Munger, namely that Bastiat had "a theory about doing nothing." I can see two aspects to the matter: The first is that in regard to the state Bastiat had "a theory about doing practically nothing"; the second is how he conducted himself in his own affairs, where he had a theory of doing as much as he could even when it affected his rapidly failing health.
Like the good limited-state classical-liberal that he was, he wanted the state to essentially do nothing beyond protecting property rights. He did not go down the same path that Molinari was treading in 1849 with his views that even police and national defense services could be provided competitively by the free market.[61] However, on nearly every other matter he did have a theory of doing nothing that should guide how the state should conduct itself. In French parlance of course it was termed laissez-faire by Physiocrats like Gournay, and Bastiat used this phrase along with a number of variants to make his point clear.[62] For example, he used the phrases laissez-les faire (let them do these things), laissez-le entrer (let it freely enter), laissez-passer (leave them free to move about), and laissez agir les lois (allow the laws to operate freely). In the opening chapter of Economic Harmonies, "Natural and Artificial Order," he categorically states that "the doctrine of laissez faire, laissez passer, [is] the absolute formula of political economy."[63] However, in the face of criticism by socialists, Bastiat made a clear distinction between the laissez-faire operation of the law (laissez agir les lois) and the laissez-faire behavior of individual men (laissez faire les hommes) who might violate, or troubler, the law.
In Chapter XX of the unfinished Economic Harmonies a sentence breaks off and the editor Paillottet inserts a fragment of Bastiat's manuscript in a footnote in which Bastiat explains why he thinks laissez faire is the best policy for a government to follow:
[In the text proper] I say: Laissez faire; in other words: Respect freedom, human initiative. [1][the footnote reads] [1] We therefore believe in liberty because we believe in the harmony of the universe, that is, in God. Proclaiming in the name of faith, formulating in the name of science, the divine laws, flexible and vital, of our dynamic moral order, we utterly reject the narrow, unwieldy, and static institutions that some men in their blindness would heedlessly introduce into this admirable mechanism. It would be absurd for an atheist to say: Laissez faire! Leave it to chance! But we, who are believers, have the right to cry: Laissez passer! Let God's order and justice prevail! Let human initiative, the marvelous and unfailing transmitter of all man's motive power, function freely! And freedom, thus understood, is no longer an anarchistic deification of individualism; what we worship, above and beyond man's activity, is God directing all.[64]
Thus one meaning of his "theory of doing nothing" is for the state to step back and allow the harmonious nature of God's universe and its natural laws to unfold without artificial regulation by men. Unfortunately the harmonious operation natural law can be disrupted or "disturbed" (to use one of Bastiat's expressions) when individual men are ignorant of the ways in which natural law operates (as in ignorance of how the economy functions) or choose to prevent its functioning by using force or coercion to gain benefits for themselves at the expense of the liberty and property of others (by means of plunder). The role of the state according to Bastiat is to do noting to hinder the former but as much as is necessary to prevent the latter. In Chapter VIII "Private Property and Common Wealth" he states:
When we say, laissez faire, obviously we mean: Allow these laws to operate; and not: Allow the operation of these laws to be interfered with. According as these laws are conformed to or violated, good or evil is produced. In other words, men's interests are harmonious, provided every man remains within his rights, provided services are exchanged freely, voluntarily, for services. But does this mean that we are unaware of the perpetual struggle between the wrong and the right? Does this mean that we do not see, or that we approve, the efforts made in all past ages, and still made today, to upset, by force or by fraud, the natural equivalence of services? These are the very things that we reject as breaches of the social laws of Providence, as attacks against the principle of property; for, in our eyes, free exchange of services, justice, property, liberty, security, are all merely different aspects of the same basic concept.[65]
And further in Chapter XVIII "Disturbing Factors":
Do not accuse us, therefore, when we say laissez faire; for we do not mean by this to let men do as they will, even when they do wrong. We mean: Study the laws of Providence, marvel at them, and allow them to operate. Remove the obstacles that they meet in the form of abuses arising from violence and fraud, and you will discern among mankind this double mark of progress: greater equality and better living conditions.[66]
Bastiat's actual list of things he thought the state should do has not been properly explored, and there are some oddities which need explaining. Firstly, with regard to tariffs Bastiat, like Cobden, was opposed to any "protectionist tariff" designed to favor domestic industry. He believed tariffs should be levied purely for revenue-raising since, in the absence of income taxes, excise taxes on things like alcohol and tariffs on traded goods were some of the few ways the state could raise revenue. Bastiat believed that a revenue tariff should be set at 5 percent and no more. Yet in the Introduction to ES1 (1846) Bastiat seems to go beyond this low level when he suggests a new customs law which would levy 5 percent ad valorem on "objects of prime necessity"; 10 percent on "objects of normal usefulness," and 15-20 percent on "luxury objects." Unfortunately he does not define what he means by "normal" or "luxury."[67] On the other hand, in my favorite economic sophism, ES2 XI, "The Utopian" (17 January 1847), Bastiat (in the voice of "The Utopian" politician) wants to entirely abolish the national army and conscription and replace it with locally based and financed voluntary militias. He promises: "I shall demobilize the army."[68] This is a rather radical thing for a mid-19th century classical liberal to advocate; so once again, would the real Bastiat please stand up?
I would like to conclude with some remarks about the second aspect of Bastiat's "do nothing" policy. It did not seem to apply to the way he conducted himself in his own affairs. Here he seems to have had "a theory of doing everything," even if it meant adversely affecting his rapidly failing health. The range of activities he undertook to help bring about a freer society is quite remarkable given his relatively short life. His theory of "doing things" was not a limited Hayekian theory of only influencing the opinion molders in the academies, but stretched from the narrowly local to the broadly international, and encompassed the intellectual, the journalistic, the academic, as well as the political realms. From his 20s to his death at the age of 50, Bastiat did the following to promote liberty:
  1. In the 1820s he was active in his local book club, where he discussed intellectual matters with his neighbors and friends.
  2. He participated in a demonstration by young liberals in 1824 in support of Jacques Laffite, who becomes a minister in King Louis Philippe's government after 1830.
  3. He participated in the Revolution in August 1830 to overthrow the Bourbon monarchy by helping to persuade the officers in the strategically located Bayonne garrison to support the revolution by singing songs by Béranger and drinking red wine with them late one night.
  4. He became active in politics by writing pamphlets and standing for election during the 1830s (he was elected to the General Council of Les Landes (a government advisory body) in November 1833.
  5. He published many articles and letters to the editor in several local newspapers on economic and agricultural matters.
  6. He became active in the French Free Trade Association in the mid-1840s by lobbying the Chamber of Deputies, editing and writing their journal, and public speaking.
  7. As a budding academic economist he wrote many articles for the JDE, lectured on economics at the School of Law in 1847, and was an active, if somewhat dissident, participant in the monthly discussion of the Political Economy Society in Paris.
  8. He was a revolutionary activist for the second time handing out leaflets on the street corners of Paris and dragging the injured from the barricades in February and June 1848.
  9. He was elected to the National Assembly and appointed VP of the Finance Committee.
  10. He was a speaker at the International Peace Congress held in Paris in 1849
So we can see that Bastiat kept trying many different means to achieve his end of a freer society: He participated in intellectual discussions of all kinds; he wrote articles for newspapers and letters to the editor; he participated in political demonstrations and even revolutions; he stood for election and was occasionally successful; he was a lobbyist and journalist for a medium-sized single-issue group; he was an academic lecturer and researcher; and he was active in the European-wide peace movement. Thus one might sum up Bastiat's philosophy as follows: "if you are a State, then do nothing ("ne faites rien"); but, if you are an individual do everything ("faites tous"), or as much as time, energy, and the principles of natural law permit," which in Bastiat's case was rather a lot.
The question all this activity (or inactivity) raises, then as now, is what is the most effective strategy for bringing lasting change in a direction favorable to liberty? Is Bastiat a useful model for us to follow? What can we learn from his success and failures? If you will grant me a churlish moment, in retrospect, might it not have been better for the discipline of political economy if Bastiat had spent less time on political matters and more time in finishing his Economic Harmonies, which was so pregnant with Austrian and Pubic Choice insights years ahead of its time. Or perhaps there would never have been even a half-finished Economic Harmonies if Bastiat had not started down the path of journalism, lobbying, and participation in revolutionary politics. Maybe in this case you can't have the one without the other.
[61] See Gustave de Molinari, "The 11th Evening" in Les Soirées de la rue Saint-Lazare (draft translation by LF) < draft chapter>.
[62] Passages in Economic Harmonies where the word laissez is used:
  1. </title/79/35498/667658>
  2. </title/79/35530/668590>
  3. </title/79/35530/668592>
  4. </title/79/35556/669775>
  5. </title/79/35556/669779>
  6. </title/79/35556/669780>
  7. </title/79/35562/669863>
  8. </title/79/35562/669864>
  9. </title/79/35562/669865>
  10. </title/79/35562/669877>
  11. </title/79/35562/670406>
There are more occurrences in the French version as several instances of the word laissez were translated as "permit" or "allow."
[63] Bastiat, Chapter 1 "Natural and Artificial Order," Economic Harmonies (FEE ed.) </title/79/35498/667658>.
[64] Bastiat, Chapter 20 "Responsibility," Economic Harmonies (FEE ed.) </title/79/35562/670406>.
[65] Bastiat, Chapter 8 "Private Property and Common Wealth," Economic Harmonies (FEE ed.) </title/79/35530/668590>.
[66] Bastiat, Chapter 18 "Disturbing Factors," Economic Harmonies (FEE ed.) </title/79/35556/669779>.
[67] Bastiat, Introduction to ES1 (1846) (FEE ed.) </title/276/23328/1573228>.
[68] Bastiat, ES2 XI. "The Utopian" (17 January 1847), (FEE ed.) </title/276/23396/1574547>.