Bastiat on the most universally useful freedom, namely to work and to trade (1847)

Frédéric Bastiat

In this draft Preface for his major theoretical treatise the Economic Harmonies (1850), the French economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) argued with himself about his motivation for writing it. He decided on this key feature: that “ the most universally useful (freedom) to mankind … is the freedom to work and to trade”:

Like you I love all forms of freedom; and among these, the one that is the most universally useful to mankind, the one you enjoy at each moment of the day and in all of life’s circumstances, is the freedom to work and to trade. I know that making things one’s own is the fulcrum of society and even of human life. I know that trade is intrinsic to property and that to restrict the one is to shake the foundations of the other. I approve of your devoting yourself to the defense of this freedom whose triumph will inevitably usher in the reign of international justice and consequently the extinction of hatred, prejudices between one people and another, and the wars that come in their wake.

In a characteristic rhetorical device, Bastiat argues with himself about why he is spending so much time and effort in trying to write a theoretical treatise on political economy. He began writing as a journalist trying to defend the policy of free trade and found himself spending a lot of time debunking the false economic views most people held, not only about the benefits of free trade but about many other economic notions as well. This in turn led him to think that he could and should write a more substantial work showing the broader picture, which for him was the mutually beneficial and interlocking relationships which sprang up between people who were engaged in trade with each other (whether “domestic” or “international”). Bastiat did not live long enough to see his work finished but we have a substantial piece of work nevertheless which appeared in 1850. Perhaps to encourage himself in ths difficult enterprise, when he may well have known his days were numbered because of a serious throat condition (cancer probably), he wrote a clever “draft” preface to the work addressed to “himself” as if he were a close friend commenting on the task. If you read the full piece you will see Bastiat arguing with himself about why he does what he does. He fundamentally believes that “All forms of freedom go together. All ideas form a systematic and harmonious whole, and there is not a single one whose proof does not serve to demonstrate the truth of the others.” He wanted show how it all fitted together.