Bastiat on the scramble for political office (1848)

Frédéric Bastiat

The French classical liberal economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) observed in the early days of the French Revolution of February 1848 the unseemly scramble for political office which was taking place around him. The only solution he thought was to drastically reduce the number of government jobs and government spending:

All the newspapers, without exception, are speaking out against the scramble for office of which the Town Hall is given a sad example. Nobody could be more indignant about, or more disgusted by, this frenzied greed than we.

But at the end of the day we have to find the cause of the evil, and it would be puerile to expect the human heart to be other than it has pleased nature to make it.

In a country in which, since time immemorial, the labor of free men has everywhere been demeaned, in which education offers as a model to all youth the mores of Greece and Rome, in which trade and industry are constantly exposed by the press to the scorn of citizens under the label profiteering, industrialism, or individualism, in which success in office alone leads to wealth, prestige, or power, and in which the state does everything and interferes in everything through its innumerable agents, it is natural enough for public office to be avidly sought after.

How can we turn ambition away from this disastrous direction and redirect the activity of the enlightened classes toward productive careers?

Obviously by eliminating a great many public posts, limiting government action, leaving a wider, freer, and more prestigious role to private activities and reducing the salaries for high public office.

Bastiat wrote this short essay when the February Revolution of 1848 was only in its second week. Already he noticed that there was an unhealthy “scramble for office” as people who had been excluded under the July Monarchy of King Louis Philippe now saw political opportunities for position and power under the Provisional Government. He wonders why more people are not satisfied with the opportunities that peaceful trade and production offer. However, he answers his own question with two responses: the benefits or “enticements” are so large that more people are drawn to political than market activities, and that the French people have been indoctrinated by the study of ancient Greek and Latin literature and their recently overthrown aristocratic culture where “the labor of free men has everywhere been demeaned.”