Liberty Matters

Some Personal Reflections On Coming to Realize the Importance of Bastiat the Theorist


Over the past 10 years I have been deeply involved in Liberty Fund's project to translate the Collected Works of Bastiat and Gustave de Molinari's Conversations on Saint Lazarus Street. This required a close reading of all of Bastiat's extant works in the original French and exploring in some detail the interlocking set of classical-liberal organizations active in Paris throughout the 1840s in which both Bastiat and Molinari were active. This rereading of the texts caused me to drastically revise my opinion of Bastiat the theorist.[82.]
My interest in 19th-century French classical-liberal thought goes back to the early 1970s, when I was a high school student in Sydney, Australia, and first came across the works of Bastiat in the translations made by the Foundation for Economic Education in 1964. I found his journalism in the Economic Sophisms (1846, 1848) witty and amusing, but I did not quite know what to make of his treatise, Economic Harmonies (1850, 1851), which seemed rather abstract and woolly minded, too religious (i.e., much of his theory was based upon the notion of Providential intent as the reason for the existence of order and harmony in the market -- an early version of "Intelligent Design" applied to economics), too optimistic about the possibility of human "perfection," and devoid of real historical meat. When I began reading essays by Leonard Liggio on the work of two theorists whose work had influenced Bastiat's thinking, Charles Comte (1782-1837) and Charles Dunoyer (1786-1862),[83.] and Murray N. Rothbard on Molinari (1819-1912),[84.] I dropped Bastiat as a bit of a lightweight and devoted my scholarly activities to these figures, writing an undergraduate honors thesis on Molinari and a Ph.D. on Comte and Dunoyer.[85.] I had shared Hayek's overall assessment that Bastiat was probably the greatest economic journalist ever, but that it was probably best not to examine too closely his theoretical writings.[86.]
I returned to Bastiat only a few years after Liberty Fund decided in 2001 to undertake the ambitious project of translating the Collected Works of Bastiat in six large volumes, naming me academic editor. The rereading of his works, which this task demanded, revealed to me a side to Bastiat I had never known existed, along with the classical-liberal groups in which he became involved in the last years of his life. In my mind Bastiat was no longer just "Bastiat the economic journalist" but had to be taken seriously as, firstly, Bastiat the economic and social theorist who made important contributions to the development of classical-liberal economic and political theory, and, secondly, as Bastiat the committed liberal politician and activist who had been part of a much broader classical-liberal political movement, which opposed interventionism and, after the 1848 February Revolution, the rise of socialism and the welfare state in France.
I can summarize my revised view of Bastiat and his place in the classical-liberal movement in Paris in the 1840s as follows:
  1. My rereading confirmed in my mind the brilliance of Bastiat as an economic journalist and impressed me with his deep knowledge of economic theory, his grasp of economic data, and his witty and clever style which I have called his "rhetoric of liberty."[87.]
  2. I began to realize how sophisticated he was as an economist and the originality of many of his ideas, especially in What is Seen and What is Not Seen (July 1850) and Economic Harmonies (especially his ideas about opportunity cost; subjective value theory; the mathematical calculation of the effects of government intervention; the spontaneous order, or "harmony," of the free market; rent-seeking; and so on).
  3. I became aware of the impressive, almost Rothbardian breadth of his interests and activities, which he was to pack into only the five or six years between his arrival in Paris in 1845 and his death at the end of 1850. This included his activities in the Free Trade Association, his work in the Political Economy Society, the large number of articles he wrote for the Journal des Économistes, the revolutionary street journalism he engaged in with his younger friends like Molinari in February-March and June 1848, his election as a deputy in the Constituent Assembly and then his activities as vice president of the finance committee, his work on economic and political theory under considerable difficulties, and his interest in the historical sociology of the state. (He planned to write a History of Plunder after he finished Economic Harmonies.)
  4. Reading all of his letters led me to develop considerable respect for his character, his commitment to classical-liberal ideas and to bringing about change, the radical nature of his republicanism and libertarianism, and the personal strength and courage he showed while continuing to work as his fatal disease (probably throat cancer) made his life increasingly unbearable in late 1849 and 1850.
  5. The important role he and Molinari played in the interlocking "networks for liberty" in Paris in the late 1840s,[88.] which included: 
    1. the Guillaumin publishing network (1835-1910), the Journal des économistes (1841-42), the Société d'Économie politique (1842), and the Dictionnaire de l'économie politique (1852-53);
    2. Hippolyte Castille's network of friends who participated in his soirées at his home on the rue Saint-Lazare (1844-1848);
    3. Bastiat's free-trade network within the French Free Trade Association (1846-1848);
    4. the group of friends who started two small revolutionary magazines, which were handed out on the streets of Paris in February and June 1848, their members including  Molinari, Charles Coquelin, Alcide Fonteyraud, and Joseph Garnier;
    5. Coquelin's and Fonteyraud's network of debaters and public speakers in the Club de la liberté du travail in March 1848;
    6. Garnier's Friends of Peace peace network (1848-50), which was active in organizing a peace conference in Paris in 1849; and
    7. the group of economics teachers who were active in schools and colleges, such as the Athénée, Collège de France, most particularly Michel Chevalier, Garnier, and from late 1847 Bastiat and Molinari
In addition to my growing respect for Bastiat as a theorist, I experienced suprise and frustration over several things. I was surprised at how radical a libertarian, or classical-liberal, he was with his idea of self-ownership,[89.] his view of victimless crimes,[90.] his desire to abolish the standing army and replace it with American-style militias,[91.] and his hatred of war and colonialism. I was also surprised at how quickly and relatively late in life he formulated his theoretical ideas, roughly between 1843, when he first started getting interested in the English free-trade movement (he was 42 years old) and late 1844 and early 1845, when he published his first articles in the Paris-based Journal des Économistes, especially his "Letter from an Economist to M. de Lamartine. On the Occasion of His Articles Entitled The Right to a Job" (JDE, Feb. 1845) and "On the Book by M. Dunoyer. On The Liberty of Working" (JDE, May, 1845).[92.] Thus in my view, he came to Paris with most of his original ideas already in his head. Finally, I was also surprised at how ambitious his plans were for a multivolume work on classical-liberal social and economic theory, of which Economic Harmonies would be only a part.[93.]
On the other hand, several things quite frustrated me as I delved deeper into the project. Speaking as a historian, I was frustrated at not having access to Bastiat's original papers, instead having to use the "pre-edited" collection compiled  by his friends Prosper Paillottet and Roger de Fontenay. Who knows what they cut out (much personal material I imagine) or "rearranged"? In a conversation the late Leonard Liggio told me he suspected that the files of the Guillaumin publishing firm (which would have included much by and about Bastiat as well as all the main figures of the Paris school) were probably destroyed when the Nazis commandeered it building in Paris during the Second World War. We also do not have any of his personal files from his home in Mugron and thus know nothing about his estranged wife, Marie Clotilde Hiart (married February 1831), or any other affairs he might have had after their separation. (I suspect there might have been a close relationship with Hortense Cheuvreux, the wife of the wealthy benefactor of the economists in general and Bastiat in particular in his final years.) And we know nothing about his activities as a local magistrate in Mugron, as a member of the General Council of Les Landes, and as the vice president  of the Chamber's finance committee. Moreover, we know little about his life as a landowner, journalist, and politician.
I also got frustrated with Bastiat himself for getting distracted by politics when he could or should have been working on his treatise, and for his stubborn refusal to take the next step in subjective value theory by taking Henri Storch's and Condillac's ideas more seriously and developing them further. The latter is a topic for a further post.
[82] I first wrote about this in a paper I gave to the Free Market Institute, Texas Tech University, Lubbock, TX, October 2, 2015. Available online <>.
[83] Leonard Liggio, "Charles Dunoyer and French Classical Liberalism," Journal of Libertarian Studies, vol. 1, no. 1, 1977, pp. 153-78 <>; and "Bastiat and the French School of Laissez-Faire" in Journal des Économistes et des Études Humaines, vol. 11, no. 2/3 (June 2001). Editor-in-chief: Garello, Pierre. Special issue devoted to papers given at the Bastiat bicentennial conference. Online <>; also here <>.
[84] Murray N. Rothbard, "Preface" to Gustave de Molinari, The Production of Security, trans. J. Huston McCulloch (Auburn, AL: Mises Institute, 2009), pp. 9-13. First edition: Gustave de Molinari, The Production of Security, trans. J. Huston McCulloch, Occasional Papers Series #2, Richard M. Ebeling, ed. (New York: Center for Libertarian Studies, May 1977).
[85] See David M. Hart, "Gustave de Molinari and the Anti-statist Liberal Tradition: Part I," Journal of Libertarian Studies, Summer 1981, vol. V, no. 3, pp. 263-90, <>; and Class Analysis, Slavery and the Industrialist Theory of History in French Liberal Thought, 1814-1830: The Radical Liberalism of Charles Comte and Charles Dunoyer (unpublished Ph.D., King's College Cambridge, 1994) <>.
[86] Hayek's "Introduction," Bastiat, Selected Essays (FEE ed.), p. ix, </titles/956#Bastiat_0181_14> .
[87] See my paper "Opposing Economic Fallacies, Legal Plunder, and the State: Frédéric Bastiat's Rhetoric of Liberty in the Economic Sophisms (1846–1850)," paper given at the July 2011 annual meeting of the History of Economic Thought Society of Australia (HETSA) at the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology. <>.A revised version of this paper appeared as "Bastiat's Rhetoric of Liberty: Satire and the 'Sting of Ridicule,'" in the Introduction to CW3, pp. lviii-lxiv.
[88] See my essay on "The Paris School of Liberal Political Economy, 1803-1853," in The Cambridge History of French Thought, ed. Jeremy Jennings (Cambridge University Press, 2019).
[89] "Self-Ownership and the Right to Property," in Appendix 1 (CW5) <>.
[90] "Victimless Crimes," in Appendix 1 (CW5) <>.
[91] "Standing Armies, Militias, and the Utopia of Peace," in Appendix 1 (CW3, pp. 464-70). <>.
[92] See for example, "Letter from an Economist to M. de Lamartine. On the occasion of his article entitled: The Right to a Job" (JDE, February 1845) in CW4 (forthcoming) <>; and "On the Book by M. Dunoyer. On The Liberty of Working" (Ma, 1845) <>.
[93] "The Writing of the Harmonies," in Appendix 1 (CW5) <>.