Liberty Matters

What Might Bastiat Have Achieved If He Had Lived as Long as Karl Marx? Some Counterfactual Thoughts, Some What Might Have Beens, and Some Regrets


Robert Leroux is right to say that "the body of work that Bastiat bequeathed to posterity is of prime scientific importance." This only makes his untimely death, which prevented him from seeing at least two major projects through to completion, such a blow to the classical-liberal tradition. We have here a large body of work (six 500-page volumes in Liberty Fund's edition of his Collected Works), which he produced in an extraordinarily short time, between 1844 and 1850, and potentially another body of work he might have produced in the same vein had he lived longer. We can only get glimpses of what the latter might have been from sketches and drafts and hearsay from his friends. The danger of course is to read too much into these promising leads and possibilities and to exaggerate Bastiat's true contribution to economics and social theory. I don't think this is the case, but we must be on guard to avoid this.
An intriguing counterfactual thought experiment is to ask oneself what Bastiat might have accomplished if he had lived as long as Karl Marx (1818-1883 - that is, 65 years), who was incidentally born the year before Bastiat's close friend and colleague Gustave de Molinari (1819-1912). The two writers had quite a lot in common, being accomplished journalists and economic theorists, and having a strong interest in class and the sociology of the state. Marx finished volume one of his magnum opus, Das Capital, in 1867 when he was 49, the same age as Bastiat when he died. If Bastiat had been in good health, had not been distracted by the 1848 Revolution, and had lived another 16 years like Marx (and died in 1866 not 1850), perhaps he might have finished Economic Harmonies in 1851 or 1852, with perhaps a second volume to come a couple of years later. If he had thought through his proto-Austrian insights into subjective value theory, the notion of "the exchange of service for service," and his ideas on rent, perhaps he might have precipitated the marginal revolution 20 years ahead of time, thus setting classical political economy on an entirely new trajectory at a time when it had its most influence.
Perhaps also, he might have had time to finish his History of Plunder (possibly in 1860, when the free-trade treaty with Britain was signed by Chevalier and Cobden), which, had it continued to show the same depth of economic analysis and historical awareness of his other writings, might have been one of the seminal social theory texts of the 19th century. In many respects Molinari took up Bastiat's work on plunder later in life, during the 1880s (when Molinari was in his 60s), with a series of books of historical sociology: L'évolution économique du XIXe siècle: théorie du progrès (1880) and L'évolution politique et la révolution (1884), which were very much inspired by Bastiat's theory of plunder, even if he lacked the wit and literary sophistication of his mentor.[78]
It is hard to know what Bastiat would have done after Napoleon III came to power and declared himself emperor in December 1852. Radical liberals like Bastiat were not welcome in Paris during the 1850s, and Molinari, for example, felt obliged to leave and take up residence in Brussels, where he held an academic post and continued his journalism with his magazine, L'Économiste belge (1855-68). Thus Bastiat would have faced two choices: either to stay in Paris or go into exile. If he had decided to stay in Paris, Bastiat might have been able to retain his seat in the Chamber of Deputies and stay in politics, forming a radical liberal rump of delegates opposed to the regime. Or more likely in my view, he might have taken up the earlier offer to edit the Journal des Économistes, where he might have had a significant influence on the direction of French political economy. Alternatively, he might have felt the same way towards the régime as Molinari did and "retired" to his beloved Les Landes in the south of France. There he might have found the time to work on completing Economic Harmonies and History of Plunder.
Of course, we will never know what might have happened, but I think it is interesting to speculate. In many respects Bastiat had a much broader experience of politics than Marx (having had real experience working in government in the Chamber of Deputies), and his understanding of economics was much deeper and had the significant advantage of being more correct than Marx's. Thus, given his understanding of how political power and free markets really operated, he had, I think, the potential to have become "the Karl Marx of the classical-liberal movement," which might have had profound implications for the course of history in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Excuse me if I engage in some "Utopian dreaming" about what might have been had Bastiat lived long enough to achieve his potential. Bastiat's work in economic theory and the history and sociology of the state might have become part of the dominant liberal critique of European society on the eve of the cataclysm of the First World War. Imagine if in 1917 and 1918 the revolutions that were to break out were driven by the ideas of Bastiat not Marx, and if the new regimes that emerged from the destruction of the war were radically anti-statist and pro-free market, modeled on the dreams of "The Utopian" deregulating politician in one of Bastiat's economic sophisms.[79] How differently the 20th century might have turned out! But as Bastiat recognized in his story:
"Mr. Utopian, you are taking on too much, the nation will not follow you!" "You have given me a majority." "I withdraw it." "About time, too! So I am no longer a Minister, and my plans remain what they are, just so many UTOPIAS."
[78] Gustave de Molinari, L'évolution économique du XIXe siècle: théorie du progrès (Paris: C. Reinwald 1880); and Gustave de Molinari, L'évolution politique et la révolution (Paris: C. Reinwald, 1884).
[79] The concluding lines of ES2 11 "The Utopian" (17 January 1847). Frédéric Bastiat, Economic Sophisms, trans. Arthur Goddard, introduction by Henry Hazlitt (Irvington-on-Hudson: Foundation for Economic Education, 1996). Second Series, Chapter 11: The Utopian. </title/276/23396/1574574>.