Liberty Matters

Bastiat on Story Telling and Other Rhetorical Devices

I would like to thank my colleagues for their thoughtful and interesting responses. I think we all agree that Bastiat was a serious, important, and unjustly neglected theorist whose work needs careful study. Although we share some common ground (recognizing his important contribution to understanding the bigger picture of the market process and his understanding of human action), we do differ on a number of topics (such as his theory of value of which Guido thinks more highly than the rest of us, the originality of his use of stories about Robinson Crusoe, and whether or not Bastiat was "too optimistic" [Don Boudreaux]), and we have all singled out different areas of his thought to emphasize and urge further research on (Joe on his impact on Menger and me on his impact on Rothbard).
In this post I would like to respond to some of the comments concerning Bastiat the storyteller.
Bastiat as Masterful Storyteller
Don presents a very interesting idea of "the theorist as storyteller. argueing that theory itself should be seen as the story which is told and the theorist as the teller of such stories -- the "economist as bard," as it were. The purpose of these stories is to improve our understanding of the world around us, and Don rightly concludes that Bastiat was a "masterful applied economic theorist" who told wonderful economic stories.
I was struck by the same thing as I was editing Economic Harmonies and decided to count the stories:  I counted 55,  which I think is surprisingly large -- and see how he compares to other economists, such as Adam Smith, J.B. Say, and John Stuart Mill.[56] Did they tell economic stories in the same way, or were they more "expositional" in their analyses? One might further ask, does economic storytelling have a place in modern economic theory, or is this approach now out of date and thus to be avoided? Previously, I had realized that storytelling was an important part of Bastiat's approach to "applied economics" in his journalism and described this as Bastiat's "rhetoric of liberty," which he used brilliantly in the Economic Sophisms."[57] But had not fully realized he also used this approach in his main work of theory.
I think in my earlier readings of Economic Harmonies I had not paid these stories much attention and just wanted to move on to the theoretical meat these stories were attempting to describe and explain. I am sure other modern readers would have done the same, dismissing these stories as somewhat unnecessary and perhaps aimed at more juvenile or unsophisticated readers. Perhaps this is another reason why modern economic theorists have dismissed Bastiat as a serious economic theorist.
Yet some of the stories show the extraordinary depth of his understanding of theory which cannot be dismissed as superficial or childish. I have in mind in particular the following stories in EH:
  1. Story S6 of the village carpenter and S7 about a simple student living in Paris (Bastiat's version of Leonard Read's "I, Pencil" story).
  2. Story S23, which is about a wealthy banker in Paris who employs an outstanding opera singer (on the value of nonmaterial services)
  3. Six stories about Robinson Crusoe and praxeology: S9, S10, S16, S28, S30, S31
Don commends Bastiat's stories in his journalistic and theoretical work for providing his readers with many "Ah ha!" moments. Unfortunately, neither Schumpeter nor Hayek seemed to ever have such a moment, at least with Economic Harmonies.
Other Innovative Rhetorical Devices Bastiat Used
I am unsure about the originality of other rhetorical devices found in Economic Harmonies, for example, his elaborate metaphors of channels, clock mechanisms, basins filled with water, centripetal and centrifugal forces, apparatuses, spheres, geometric line lengths, and domains and their boundaries. We might ask whether the modern reader finds any of this useful in producing "Ah, ha!" moments, or whether it just produces confusion.
One thing you can say about Bastiat is that he has a certain genius for inventing a new vocabulary to describe his theoretical insights, both economic and sociological, which I have tried to describe in a number of "concept maps" I have made for his sociological theory, such as plunder and class, and for his economic theory, such as disturbing factors, human action, and harmony. Again, these elaborate interlocking sets of vocabulary may have contributed to his being dismissed by other economic theorists as a bit strange and unfamiliar. This is a subject perhaps for a future post. Below is the "concept map" for his theory of human action. As an example:
Standard in economic theory, of course, is the graph, especially the supply and demand curve. Bastiat did not use it, and I wonder who was the first economist to do so. Perhaps the other participants in this discussion could enlighten me. Harro and Morgan have an interesting article on graphical analysis, but it does not answer my specific question.[58]
In chapter XI, "Producer and Consumer," Bastiat for the first and only time used geometric shapes like lines and spheres to make a theoretical point.
I wonder what to make of this. Is it an inkling of an important insight about how economic theory might be done (graphical analysis), or is it an idiosyncratic theoretical dead end?
Bastiat's use of stories and geometrical shapes remind me of Deirdre McCloskey's work on the "rhetoric of economics"[59] in which theory can be seen as a set of arguments intended to persuade the listener (in the modern case, the reader) of the merits of one's case. Economists have evolved a collection of rhetorical tools which they as a "profession" have come to accept as persuasive arguments. These include stories similar to those that Bastiat liked to tell, tables of economic data and more recently graphs (like the supply and demand curve), and mathematical equations. Perhaps in the pre-mathematical age of economic theory, Bastiat took economic storytelling to its ultimate limit, and I wonder what its place might now be in modern economic theory. We all probably use his stories in our teaching, but do modern economic theorists use them in their theorizing anymore?
[56.] See "The Use of Economic Stories to Explain Economic Ideas," in Appendix 1 CW5. <>.
[57.] See "Bastiat's Rhetoric of Liberty: Satire and the 'Sting of Ridicule'," in the Introduction (CW3, pp. lviii-lxiv). <>.
[58.] Harro Maas and Mary S. Morgan. "Timing History: The Introduction of Graphical Analysis in 19th Century British Economics," Revue d'Histoire des Sciences Humaines, vol. no 7, no. 2, 2002, pp. 97–127.
[59.] Deirdre N. McCloskey, The Rhetoric of Economics (Madison, WI: University of Wisconsin Press, 1998).