Liberty Matters

In Vino Libertas: Bastiat on Wine, Liberty, and Political Economy

The connection between wine, liberty, and political economy in Bastiat's thinking is close. Having read all the classic works in political economy, Bastiat was aware of the general arguments in favor of free trade articulated by Adam Smith, Jean-Baptiste Say, and David Ricardo. As an inhabitant of a wine-producing region in the southwest of France and as a land owner and agricultural producer, he also had personal reasons to oppose high taxes and export restrictions on wine production, as well as tariffs that raised the cost of inputs used in wine production and transportation. It seems that early in his life, while being a farmer, a local magistrate, and an elected councillor were the dominant influences, he tended to stress the personal arguments in favor of free trade. After his discovery of the Anti-Corn Law League and Richard Cobden around 1842-43, he broadened the reasons for his support for free trade and argued much more on the grounds of the interests of all consumers, who were being taken advantage of by powerful vested interests.
Bastiat was born in Bayonne, south of Bordeaux, in a part of France that was dependent on wine production and international trade for its livelihood. Bastiat inherited his family's estates in 1825, when his grandfather died (both his mother and father had died of tuberculosis when Bastiat was very young). The region's economy had been severely disrupted during the Napoleonic Wars, especially when Napoleon instituted the Continental Blockade in 1806 to deny Britain access to the European market. This severely curtailed France's wine trade with Britain and Portugal. With the return of the Bourbon monarchy in 1815, the old protectionist tariffs also returned. The government reviewed its tariff policy in 1822, when a new alliance between large landed interests and favored manufacturers was established and supported a strongly protectionist regime. Under the July Monarchy another review of tariff policy was conducted in October 1834, and any hopes of liberal reform were dashed because of the lock the protectionist interests had on the Chamber of Deputies.
Given these facts, it is not surprising that some of Bastiat's earliest writings dealt with the local wine industry, taxes, and electoral reform. Here I wish to examine some of his ideas before his contact with the Anti-Corn Law League and its leader Richard Cobden in order to show the evolution of Bastiat's views on the matter of free trade. It is clear that Bastiat already had liberal sympathies in the mid-1820s, and even after the less oppressive July Monarchy came to power in August 1830, Bastiat was concerned that real liberal reforms would be blocked by the privileged agricultural and manufacturing elites who controlled the electoral process.[87] During 1834 the government welcomed discussion by interested parties in revising the tariff policy but no one advocated an across-the-board liberalization of tariffs. Typical were the responses by various lobby groups, such as those from Bordeaux, that wanted to retain tariffs selectively so that their industry would benefit, or as Bastiat put it ,"to set up an unjust privilege in favor of traders and manufacturers to the detriment of farmers and the general public." Bastiat on the other hand, even at this quite early date in his career, began to argue that "Privilege is being claimed for a few; I come to claim freedom for all." The lobbyists' hypocrisy prompted Bastiat to write his "Reflections on the Petitions from Bordeaux, Le Havre, and Lyons Relating to the Customs Service" (April 1834), in which he pointed out the problems with defending liberty only partially and in a way that seemed partisan:
Free trade will probably suffer the fate of all freedoms; it will be introduced into our legislation only after it has taken hold of our minds. For this reason, we should applaud the efforts of the traders in Bordeaux, Le Havre, and Lyons even if the only effect of these efforts in the immediate future is to draw public attention to the matter.However, if it is true that a reform has to be generally understood to be firmly established, it follows that nothing can be more disastrous than something that misleads opinion. And nothing is more likely to mislead it than writings that clamor for freedom on the basis of the doctrines of monopoly.[88]
A proposal to increase taxes on wine and spirits was introduced by the government in 1841 in order to reduce a growing budget deficit. Bastiat opposed this, partly as a wine producer, but also because it clashed with his free-market ideas, and submitted a study on "The Tax Authorities and Wine" in January 1841 to the General Council of Les Landes to which he had been elected in 1833.[89] One of the things Bastiat objected to in this new tax was its inequality -- it was imposed on a particular sector of the French economy -- thus creating "a heavily taxed category" and another "privileged" category that does not have their industry taxed at the same rate.
At the same time it places all the classes of citizen whose industry it regulates in a separate, heavily taxed category, it creates among these very classes inequalities of a second order: all are placed outside common law; each is held at varying degrees of distance.It appears that the minister of finance has taken not the slightest notice of the radical inequality we have just pointed out, but on the other hand he has shown himself to be extremely shocked by the secondary inequalities created by the law: he considers as privileged the classes that have not yet suffered from all of the rigors it imposes on other classes. He is devoted to removing these nice differences not by relaxing them but by making them worse. [90]
It was at this time that Bastiat first expressed interest in forming an association for the defense of the interests of wine producers.[91] What is interesting is that he was still not calling for the creation of a general free-trade association but another lobby group to protect the interests of a particular sector of the agricultural industry. That was to come later, after he learned of the activities of the English Anti-Corn League (when he first learned of this is not clear, possibly as early as 1842 according to Dean Russell[92] ) and sought to create a French version using it as the model. By January 1843, when he presented a "Memoir on the Wine-Growing Question" to the Agricultural Society of Les Landes,[93] Bastiat was denouncing the "protectionist régime" and the "spirit of monopoly" more harshly, and this tendency grew throughout 1843 and 1844. According to the draft resolution Bastiat wrote for the Society, Bastiat states that:
the principal causes of this hardship are indirect taxation, city tolls, and the protectionist regime…The Society also attributes the decline of wine producing in the département of the Landes to the absolute stoppage of exports of wines and spirits through the port of Bayonne, an effect that the protectionist regime could not fail to produce. It has also gained the hope of a speedy improvement in our external outlets from the recent words of the king of the French.The Society does not pretend that the obstacles that the spirit of monopoly will put in the path of the accomplishment of this benefit do not exist. It will point out that by temporarily turning the action of tariffs to the advantage of a few industrial firms, France never intended to relinquish the right to use customs dues for a purely fiscal purpose; rather, far from this, France has always proclaimed that protection was by its very nature temporary. The time has come at last when private interests should be subjugated to the interests of consumers, [to] industries suffering hardship, [to] the maritime commerce of trading towns, and [to] the overall interest of peace between nations of which trade is the surest guarantee.[94]
By the time he submitted his breakthrough article to the JDE in October 1844, Bastiat had become a very knowledgeable and articulate advocate for free trade in general and no longer framed his arguments primarily in the context of an industry lobby group; now he argued for the interests of consumers in general, whether they be international consumers or national consumers.[95]
I will conclude by retelling an amusing anecdote that shows how closely wine and liberty were linked in Bastiat's own personal life. The story comes from a letter he wrote to his friend Félix Coudroy on the night of 5 August, 1830, during the uprising against the autocratic Bourbon monarch Charles X. The garrison in Bayonne (Bastiat's place of birth) was torn between supporting the more liberal revolutionaries in Paris who wanted to install Louis Philippe and upholding the oath they had sworn to Charles X. The Bayonne garrison was strategically located where the Bourbon King of Spain, Ferdinand VII, could have sent troops through the south of France to support his kinsman and thus tip the balance in favour of Charles X. The 29-year-old Bastiat broke off his letter to Coudray in mid-sentence and rushed to the garrison to persuade the officers to support the revolutionaries. He succeeded in winning them over, and he related the events to Coudroy upon his return. Bastiat won them over by drinking red wine with them and singing popular political songs written by the liberal poet Béranger. So for Bastiat, liberty had literally become a matter of wine and song: "in vino libertas" (in wine there lies liberty).[96]
After what has happened in Paris, what is most important is that the national flag should fly over the citadel in Bayonne. Without that, I can see civil war in the next ten years, and, although I do not doubt the success of the cause, I would willingly go so far as to sacrifice my life, an attitude shared by all my friends, to spare our poor provinces from this fearful scourge.Yesterday evening, I drafted the attached proclamation to the 7th Light, who guard the citadel, as we intended to have it delivered to them before the action.This morning, when I got up, I thought that it was all over; all the officers of the 9th were wearing the tricolor cockade, the soldiers could not contain their joy, and it was even being said that officers of the 7th had been seen wearing these fine colors. An adjutant had even shown me personally the positive order, given to the entire 11th division, to display our flag. However, hours went by and the banner of liberty was still not visible over the citadel. It is said that the traitor J-- is advancing from Bordeaux with the 55th regulars. Four Spanish regiments are at the border, there is not a moment to lose. The citadel must be in our hands this evening or civil war will break out. We will act with vigor if necessary, but I, who am carried along by enthusiasm without being blind to the facts, can see that it will be impossible to succeed if the garrison, which is said to be imbued with a good spirit, does not abandon the government. We will perhaps have a few wins but no success. But we should not become discouraged for all that, as we must do everything to avoid civil war. I am resolved to leave straight away after the action, if it fails, to try to raise the Chalosse. I will suggest to others that they do likewise in the Landes, the Béarn, and the Basque country; and through famine, wiles, or force we will win over the garrison.I will keep the paper remaining to me to let you know how this ends.The 5th at midnightI was expecting blood but it was only wine that was spilt. The citadel has displayed the tricolor flag. The military containment of the Midi and Toulouse has decided that of Bayonne; the regiments down there have displayed the flag. The traitor J-- thus saw that the plan had failed, especially as the troops were defecting on all sides; he then decided to hand over the orders he had had in his pocket for three days. Thus, it is all over. I plan to leave immediately. I will embrace you tomorrow. This evening we fraternized with the garrison officers. Punch, wine, liqueurs, and above all, Béranger contributed largely to the festivities. Perfect cordiality reigned in this truly patriotic gathering. The officers were warmer than we were, in the same way as horses which have escaped are more joyful than those that are free. Farewell, all has ended. The proclamation is no longer useful and is not worth the two sous it will cost you.[97]
[87] See his essay "To the Electors of the Département of the Landes" (November 1830) CW1, </title/2393/226018>.
[88] "Reflections on the Petitions from Bordeaux, Le Havre, and Lyons Relating to the Customs Service" (April 1834) in CW2, </title/2450/231308>.
[89] "The Tax Authorities and Wine" (January 1841) in CW2, </title/2450/231316>.
[91] 27. Letter to Félix Coudroy" (2 January, 1841), in CW1, p. 43.
[92] Dean Russell, Frédéric Bastiat: Ideas and Influence (Irvington-on-Hudson, New York: The Foundation for Economic Education, 1965), p. 27.
[93] "Memoir Presented to the Société d'agriculture, commerce, arts, et sciences du département des Landes on the Wine-Growing Question" (22 January 1843) in CW2 </title/2450/231326>.
[95] "De l'influence des tarifs français et anglais sur l'avenir des deux peuples," JDE, Octobre 1844, T. IX, pp. 244-271.
[96] I have amended the traditional Latin phrase "in vino veritas" (in wine there lies the truth).
[97] CW1, 18.: Letter to Félix Coudroy (Bayonne 5 August 1830) </title/2393/225615>.