Bastiat on the spirit of free trade as a reform of the mind itself (1847)

Frédéric Bastiat

In a letter to the English politician and free trader Richard Cobden written in 1847, Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) expresses his frustration at the slow progress of the free trade movement in France. He grudgingly admits that legislation cannot run ahead of popular opinion which means that there will not be free trade in France until there has been a “reform of the mind itself”. Once support for individual liberty was widespread there would then be a “spirit of free trade” in the popular mind and this would inevitably lead to policy reforms:

What immense good our journal might do if it contrasted the inanity and danger of current policy with the grandeur and security of free-trade policies! Before the journal was founded, I had a plan to publish a small book each month in the same mold as the Sophisms, in which I would have free rein. I really think it would have been more useful than the journal itself.

Our campaigning is not very active. We still need a man of action. When will he appear? I do not know. I should be that man, I am propelled forward by the unanimous confidence of my colleagues, but I cannot. My character is not suited to this and all the advice in the world cannot turn a reed into an oak. In the end, when the question will preoccupy people’s minds, I very much hope a Wilson will appear

I am sending you the five or six latest issues of Le Libre échange. It is not very widely distributed, but I have been assured that it was not without some influence on a few of our leading men.

It appears that this year our government will not dare to put forward a customs law that introduces significant changes into the current legislation. This is discouraging a few of our friends. As for me, I do not even want the current amendments. Down with the laws that precede the advance of public opinion! And I want not so much free trade itself as the spirit of free trade for my country. Free trade means a little more wealth; the spirit of free trade is a reform of the mind itself, that is to say, the source of all reform.

Bastiat was inspired by the success of Richard Cobden’s Anti-Corn Law League which was able to get the Corn Laws abolished in 1846. Bastiat slowly realized that change would be much slower in coming to France, admitting to Cobden that it was unlikely the Chamber of Deputies would pass a similar piece of legislation when it came up for a vote later in 1847. This disappointment led Bastiat to realize that before such legislation could become possible in France, a “revolution of the mind” had to occur first. As he so eloquently put it, there had to be widespread support for what he called “the spirit of free trade” before there could be any legislation in favor of free trade. He doesn’t state in the letter what he means by this but one can infer the meaning from his other writings, namely a respect for private property, an abhorrence of violence and plunder, an understanding of how both parties benefit from voluntary exchanges, and the notion that international free trade promotes peace and understanding between nations.