Frédéric Bastiat asks what came first, property or law? (1850)

Frédéric Bastiat

The French political economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) argues that it is in order to defend one’s already existing person, liberty, and property that laws are made:

It is not because men have enacted laws that personality, freedom, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, freedom, and property are already in existence that men enact laws.

What is the law, then? As I have said elsewhere, it is the collective organization of the individual right of legitimate defense.

Each of us certainly holds from nature and God the right to defend our person, our freedom, and our property, since these are the three elements that constitute or preserve life, elements that are mutually complementary and that cannot be understood independently of one another. For what are our faculties if not an extension of our personality, and what is property if not an extension of our faculties?

Bastiat wrote this powerful defence of property rights and natural law in June 1850, just six months before he would died of a crippling throat disease (possibly cancer) which had made his life as a politician and author so difficult. The essay sums up the ideological battles he had waged over the previous 18 months since the beginning of the February Revolution and formation of the Second Republic against attempts by socialists to create the beginnings of a welfare state with the National Workshops program and the attempt to get a government guaranteed “right to a job” clause inserted into the new constitution. In his typical fashion Bastiat took the debate back to its first principles by asking the question, which came first, the law or individual property? The socialists argued that the law came first, created property rights, and could thus take them away if necessary. Classical liberals like Bastiat argued that life, liberty, and property came first, and that laws were enacted by individuals and voluntary groups of individuals to protect them. It is worth noting here that Bastiat wrote two of his most important works in the summer of 1850 after he withdrew from politics for reasons of health, this essay on The Law (June 1850) and What is Seen and What is Not Seen (July 1850). They could rightly be seen as fitting epitaphs for his life.