Liberty Matters

Bastiat: Originator of ‘Praxeological Storytelling


Guido doesn't think that Bastiat's use of Crusoe economics is original. I disagree. By "original," one could mean the first person to use the story of Robinson Crusoe to illustrate the difficulties faced by an individual in dire circumstances (these would include economic ones along with moral and religious ones, which the Protestant Daniel Defoe included) and to narrate how Crusoe (or his family) went about dealing with them. Defoe is without doubt the originator in this sense, and his story started an entire genre in 1719, the "Robinsonade," which became popular in the 19th century[96] and has continued until the present.[97]
Economists were just another group to seize upon this literary opportunity,[98] and given Bastiat's sharp eye for good stories and his skill in adapting them to explain economic ideas, it is not at all surprising that he would be attracted to Defoe's novel and the economic challenges faced by the protagonist. However, with Robinson Crusoe, Bastiat went far beyond his usual practice of using works of literature (say, by his favorite author, Molière) or concocting his own stories (often involving Jacques Bonhomme in Economic Sophisms or Jonathan in Economic Harmonies) to illustrate economic matters in an amusing way, making the Crusoe Gedankenbild (thought experiment) the centerpiece or foundation of his entire economic theory.
Other economic theorists and writers on political economy, such as Jeremy Bentham, Jane Marcet, Thomas Babington Macaulay, Richard Whately, and Thomas Hodgskin, only made passing reference to Crusoe.[99] Adam Smith referred to "a human creature (who grew) up to manhood in some solitary place," in The Theory of Moral Sentiments (1759), and more often to groups of men who live in "a low or rude state of society," such as "nations of hunters or shepherds," in The Wealth of Nations (1776). David Ricardo referred to "the early stages of society" inhabited by "the hunter," "the fisherman," and "the miner" in Principles of Political Economy and Taxation (1817). These individuals all suffered from an ignorance of technology and had little accumulated capital, little division of labor, and few opportunities to trade with others. These weren't so much examples of Crusoe economics as attempts to explain where people's moral ideas come from or explorations of societies in the earliest stages of economic development.
About these examples I would argue that the use of Robinson Crusoe was fairly perfunctory; the authors felt obliged to use him before moving on to what they regarded as more important economic topics, such as the division of labor, comparative advantage, and international trade, all of which required a society. I would agree with W.K. Tabb's rather dismissive description of these usages as "myths told in the form of simple stories, allegories that are said to explain profound truths and are driven home through allegedly 'real-world' examples," which have become somewhat old and "worn" through overuse.[100] Marx, of course, was equally dismissive of these usages.
Bastiat was different. He was original in another sense, using the story of Robinson Crusoe in a new, different, and creative way to make economic points which no other person had done. In fact, with the Crusoe story Bastiat was perhaps the inventor of praxeology (although my colleagues in this discussion might correct me on this claim), using it to understand the nature of human action in an abstract, even axiomatic way[101] to explain how a person makes the the simplest decisions about his needs and how to use his limited time and scarce resources to satisfy those needs (in other words, the "efforts" he makes to achieve his "satisfactions," to use Bastiat's terminology).
Beginning in early 1847 Bastiat began to use the Crusoe story, first as just another reference to a literary figure to make his points understandable to a popular audience,[102] but then increasingly as the foundation of his underlying theory about wants, obstacles, efforts, and satisfactions. He used the Crusoe figure alongside his idea of l'homme isolé (man living in isolation), which made its first appearance in his draft essays for Economic Harmonies, which he began publishing in the Journal des Économistes in late 1848.[103] He used it and the figure of Crusoe to explore what he called le principe actif (the principle of [human] action) and l'action humaine (human action) in the most general and abstract fashion to understand ces vérités, tenues pour si incontestables (these incontestable truths) or les véritables truismes (the veritable truisms) which lay beneath human action.[104] These sound to me precociously "Austrian" in both their terminology as well as the meaning behind them. In this, Bastiat is original indeed.
The first person to realize the importance of Bastiat's theoretical innovation was Murray Rothbard, who borrowed Bastiat's use of Crusoe in the opening chapters of his treatise on economics, Man, Economy, and State (1962).[105] Interestingly, Rothbard also tried his hand at expanding the cast of characters of his praxeological stories by inventing Jackson, Smith, Jones, and Brown, but he had less skill in engaging the reader than Bastiat. Bastiat was, and still is in my view, the master.
[96.] Nearly 100 years later the Swiss Protestant minister Johann David Wyss wrote for his own children Der Schweizerische Robinson (The Swiss Family Robinson, 1812, 1827, 1828) about a family that got shipwrecked in the East Indies while en route to Port Jackson (Sydney), Australia. The success of this publication spawned an entire genre of works known as "Robinsonades," which included such works as James Fenimore Cooper's The Crater, or Vulcan's Peak: A Tale of the Pacific (1847) and several by Jules Verne, L'Oncle Robinson (1870, 1991), L'Île mystérieuse (The Mysterious Island, 1874-1875), L'École des Robinsons (1882), Deux ans de vacances (1888), and Seconde Patrie (1900).
[97.] This tradition continued into the 20th and 21st centuries, moving beyond works of literature into the realm of TV and film, such as the TV series created by Irwin Allen, Lost in Space, which aired between 1965 and 1968 and featured a family of explorers called Robinson, and more recently Ridley Scott's film The Martian (2015), starring Matt Damon as the biologist left behind by his comrades on Mars to fend for himself, which he did by industriously growing potatoes.
[98.] A good survey of the use made by economists of the Crusoe story can be found in Ulla Grapard, "Robinson Crusoe: The Quintessential Economic Man" (1995) and William S. Kern, "Robinson Crusoe and the Economists," in the collection Robinson Crusoe's Economic Man: A Construction and Deconstruction, ed. Ulla Grapard and Gillian Hewitson (London: Routledge, 2011). See also some of the comments in "The use of Robinson Crusoe in economics," Marginal Revolution (September 27, 2012), especially those by Dan Klein. <>.
[99.] I discuss this in more detail in "Bastiat's Invention of 'Crusoe Economics,'" in the Introduction to CW3, pp. lxiv-lxvii. <>.
[100.] Tabb, Reconstructing Political Economy (1999), pp. 26, 27.
[101.] See "Human Action," in appendix 1, in CW4  <>.
[102.] See Bastiat's first references to Robinson Crusoe in ES3 16, "Making a Mountain Out of a Molehill" (c. 1847), in CW3, pp. 343-50 (17 references), and ES2 14 "Something Else" (LE, 21 March 1847), in CW3, pp. 226-34 (16 references).
[103.] In September and December, 1848. These are translated in CW4 (forthcoming). Online <> and <>.
[104.] These terms come from his article on "Economic Harmonies IV," which first appeared in JDE December 1848, and then rearranged as part of chapter III, "The Needs of Man," in the book version of Economic Harmonies. There are four main stories about Crusoe in Economic Harmonies (S16, S28, S30, and S31); 25 uses of the term l'homme isolé; and 16 references to "Robinson," especially in chapter 4, "Exchange," but also in chapter VII, "Capital," and chapter VIII, "Property and Community."
[105.] I discuss this in greater length in my unfinished paper "Literature IN Economics, and Economics AS Literature II: The Economics of Robinson Crusoe from Defoe to Rothbard by way of Bastiat" (April, 2015). I also discuss Rothbard's use of Crusoe in The Ethics of Liberty to put forward his argument for anarcho-capitalism, and briefly examine references to Crusoe by Jevons, Böhm-Bawerk, and Mises. <>. See the reference to Bastiat's chapter IV, "Exchange," in MES, chapter 2, "Direct Exchange," p. 84, fn. 7.