Bastiat criticizes the socialists of wanting to be the “Great Mechanic” who would run the “social machine” in which ordinary people were merely so many lifeless cogs and wheels (1848)

Frédéric Bastiat

Found in Economic Harmonies (FEE ed.)

The French economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) accused the socialists of wanting to create an “artificial” organisation by using coercion in which they would be the “Great Mechanic” who would run the “social machine,” and where ordinary people would be so many lifeless cogs and wheels to be manipulated (1848):

The moving parts are men, that is, beings capable of learning, reflecting, reasoning, of making errors and of correcting them, and consequently of making the mechanism itself better or worse. They are capable of pain and pleasure, and in that respect they are not only the wheels, but the springs of the machine. They are also the motive forces, for the source of the power is in them. They are more than that, for they are the ultimate object and raison d’être of the mechanism, since in the last analysis the problems of its operation must be solved in terms of their individual pain or pleasure.*

Now, it has been observed, and, alas, the observation has not been a difficult one to make, that in the operation, the evolution, and even the progress (by those who accept the idea that there has been progress) of this powerful mechanism, many moving parts were inevitably, fatally, crushed; that, for a great number of human beings, the sum of unmerited sufferings far exceeded the sum of enjoyments.

In an article “Natural and Artificial Organisations” (later a chapter in his book Economic Harmonies) Bastiat stated that there were two ways in which societies could be organised, by “artificial” means such as coercion and central planning, or by “natural” means such as voluntary cooperation and exchange in the market. Socialists believed in “artificial kinds of organisation” which could be designed and built by well-meaning social reformers like Louis Blanc or Victor Considerant. The socialists’s big mistake he argued was to think that individual human beings were inanimate objects (like metal cogs and wheels, or pieces of putty, or plants and tress) who could be manipulated by a central planner, designer, “mechanic,” or gardiner and not thinking, choosing, acting individuals with free will.

For these reformers, societies or economies were just “les inventions sociales” (social inventions or creations) and individuals were like pieces of putty in their hands which could be molded into any shape they wished, or like bushes which could be clipped into strange shapes by “social gardeners.” Bastiat, on the other hand, believed in “natural kinds of organisation.” These types of organisations emerged “providentially” or “spontaneously” (to use Hayek’s term) and evolved gradually over time. Their operation could be studied by economists empirically from the outside, or by introspection from the inside (as it were). A big difference with the socialist model of organisation was that Bastiat believed that the “cogs and wheels” which comprised the social mechanism were thinking, choosing, acting individuals with free will and personal interests they were pursuing.