Bastiat asks the fundamental question of political economy: what should be the size of the state? (1850)

Frédéric Bastiat

In his incomplete magnum opus Economic Harmonies (1850) Frédéric Bastiat asks the fundamental question of political economy: what should be the proper size of the state? His answer is that it should limit its functions to a very “small circle” of activity which would include only defence and policing:

The first question to be asked, then, as we begin the study of political science is this: What are the services that should remain in the realm of private activity? What are those that should fall within the domain of public or collective activity? That question amounts to this: Within the great circle that we call “society,” what should be the circumference of the smaller circle we call “government”?

Frédéric Bastiat died before he could finish his great work on political economy. He published a truncated version shortly before he died and some of his colleagues added a few extra chapters which they found among his papers in a larger edition the year after his untimely death from a serious throat condition (possibly TB, an infection, or even throat cancer). As he states in this quotation the whole purpose of his book was to trace the evolution of private, voluntary economic activity and to show how coercive, “public” or government activity intruded upon and disturbed the harmonious operation of this private activity. Bastiat thought of “society” as a very large circle which incorporated all manner of personal, social, and collective voluntary activity. Within this circle was a very “small circle” which incorporated the sphere of government activity which was based upon coercion and taxation. Bastiat wanted to keep this “small circle” of the state as small as possible. The exact extent of the government activity he favored will be the subject of future quote.