Online Library of Liberty

A collection of scholarly works about individual liberty and free markets. A project of Liberty Fund, Inc.

Advanced Search

Frédéric Bastiat argues that socialism hides its true plunderous nature under a facade of nice sounding words like “fraternity” and “equality” (1850)

The French economist Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) argues that under socialism’s facade of nice-sounding terms like fraternity, solidarity, and equality lies the “monster” of legal plunder and state coercion:

For all its theories about systems and (all) its efforts it appears that socialism, however indulgent it is toward itself, cannot avoid catching a glimpse of the monster which is legal plunder. But what does it do? It cleverly shrouds it from all eyes, even its own, under the seductive names of fraternity, solidarity, organization, and association. And because we do not ask so much of the law since we require only justice from it, (socialism) presumes that we are rejecting fraternity, solidarity, organization, and association and hurls the epithet “Individualist!” at us. It ought to know, therefore, that what we are rejecting is not natural organization, but coerced organization.

You say, “Here are men who lack wealth” and you turn to the law. But the law is not a breast that fills by itself or whose milk-bearing ducts draw from elsewhere than in society. Nothing enters the public treasury in favor of a citizen or a class other than that which other citizens and other classes have been forced to put in. If each person draws out only the equivalent of what he has put in, it is true that your law is not plunderous, but it does nothing for those men that lack wealth, it does nothing for equality. It can be a tool for equality only to the extent that it takes from some to give to others, and in this case it becomes a tool of plunder. If you look at tariff protection, subsidies to industry, the right to profit, the right to work (a job), the right to public assistance, the right to education, progressive taxation, free credit, or social workshops from this point of view, you will always find at their root legal plunder and organized injustice.

You say, “Here are men who lack enlightenment” and you turn to the law. But the law is not a torch that spreads its own light far and wide. It hovers over a society in which there are men with knowledge and others without, citizens who need to learn and others who are willing to teach. It can do only one of two things; either it allows this type of transaction to operate freely and permits this type of need to be freely satisfied, or it can coerce the wills (of those involved) and take from some to pay teachers who will be responsible for educating the others free of charge. But in the second case it cannot do this without violating (their) freedom and property, signifying therefore legal plunder.

You say, “Here are men who lack morality or religion” and you turn to the law. But the law is force and do I need to say what a violent and mad enterprise it is to have coercion interfere in matters like these?

For all its theories about systems and (all) its efforts it appears that socialism, however indulgent it is toward itself, cannot avoid catching a glimpse of the monster which is legal plunder. But what does it do? It cleverly shrouds it from all eyes, even its own, under the seductive names of fraternity, solidarity, organization, and association. And because we do not ask so much of the law since we require only justice from it, (socialism) presumes that we are rejecting fraternity, solidarity, organization, and association and hurls the epithet “Individualist!” at us.

It ought to know, therefore, that what we are rejecting is not natural organization, but coerced organization.

It is not free association, but the forms of association that it wants to impose on us.

It is not spontaneous fraternity, but legally (imposed) fraternity.

It is not providential solidarity, but artificial solidarity, which is only an unjust displacement of responsibility.

Socialism, like the old politics from which it stems, confuses government with society. For this reason, each time we do not want something to be done by the government, it concludes that we do not want this thing to be done at all. We reject education by the state; therefore we do not want education. We reject a state (established) religion; therefore we do not want religion. We reject equality established by the state; therefore we do not want equality, etc. It is as though it was accusing us of not wanting men to eat because we reject the growing of wheat by the state.

About this Quotation:

Frédéric Bastiat first made a name for himself as a gifted economic journalist who attacked the economic absurdities and injustices of tariff protection (his essays were collected in two serties of Economic Sophisms (1846, 1848)). After the February Revolution of 1848 brought a group of socialists to power he turned his considerable skills to fighting the equally absurd and unjust practices of socialism in a series of 12 pamphlets which he published between May 1848 and July 1850, which included several for which Bastiat has become justly famous such as “The State” (September 1848), “The Law” (July 1850), and “What is Seen and What is Not Seen” (July 1850). The essay from which this quote is taken, “The Law”, is a tour de force which surveys the history of socialist thinking leading up to the revolution of 1848 and presents in more detail his own emerging theory of legal plunder. He distinguished between “partial plunder” where a small privileged elite (like large owners and manufacturers whom he called “the plundering class”) benefit at the expense of ordinary taxpayers and consumers (“the plundered class”), and “universal plunder” which the socialists were attempting to introduce. Here, the socialists wanted too use the coercive power of the state to plunder everybody, rich and poor, in order to “organise” (what today we would call centrally plan) the entire economy so that everybody had a job, an income, basic necessities, and so on. Bastiat and the other Parisian free market economists thought that this plan was economically inefficient, wasteful, chaotic, self-defeating, but most of all unjust. Socialism was a veritable “monster” in their view.

More Quotations