Bastiat on the state vs. laissez-faire (1848)

Frédéric Bastiat

The French classical liberal economist and member of parliament Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) wrote in his revolutionary magazine in June 1848 that the policy of “laissez-faire”, or “let things be done” was in opposition to the policy of the state, which was to “prevent things being done”:

Laissez-faire! I will begin by saying, in order to avoid any ambiguity, that laissez-faire is used here for honest things, with the state instituted precisely to prevent dishonest things.

This having been said, and with regard to things that are innocent in themselves, such as work, trade, teaching, association, banking, etc., a choice must be made. It is necessary for the state to let things be done or prevent them from being done.

If it lets things be done, we will be free and optimally administered most economically, since nothing costs less than laissez-faire.

If it prevents things from being done, woe to our freedom and our purse. Woe to our freedom, since to prevent things is to tie our hands; woe to our purse, since to prevent things requires agents and to employ agents takes money.

In reply to this, socialists say: “Laissez-faire! What a disaster!” Why, if you please? “Because, when you leave men to act, they do wrong and act against their interests. It is right for the state to direct them.”

This is simply absurd. Do you seriously have such faith in human wisdom that you want universal suffrage and government of all by all and then you proclaim these very men whom you consider fit to govern others unfit to govern themselves?

Twice during the revolutionary year of 1848 Frédéric Bastiat and some younger friends took to the streets of Paris in an attempt to persuade the rioters not to be seduced by the superficial appeal of socialism. In February he helped edit and distribute La République française. In June he did the same with Jacques Bonhomme. The articles were short and written to appeal to the average worker. Some were designed to made into wall posters which could be glued to the walls of the streets of Paris to attract the attention of passers-by. This one is simply called “Laissez-faire” and here Bastiat contrasts the policy of the state, which is to “prevent things being done” with that of the market and enlightened policy making, which is “laissez-faire”, or “let things be done”. It is interesting to note that one of the areas of the economy Bastiat thinks should enjoy “laissez-faire” is banking. He also chastises his socialist opponents by saying that he is only claiming for the economy and the consumer the same “rights” of choice that they are claiming for voters in a democratic government, albeit in a different sphere of activity.