“The state is the great fictitious entity by which everyone seeks to live at the expense of everyone else.”
–Frédéric Bastiat, Selected Essays on Political Economy
Frédéric Bastiat (pronounced “bahst-ja”) (1801 – 1850) was a French Catholic, born in the Atlantic seaport of Bayonne, France near the border with Spain. He was orphaned at the age of nine and raised to work in his family’s export business.
Bastiat had a youthful fling with religious skepticism, but that “skepticism was short lived and Bastiat soon returned to the traditional catholic faith.” Frédéric Bastiat: A Man Alone.
When Frédéric was twenty-four, his grandfather died, leaving him the family farm in the inland town of Mugron where he would spend twenty years, reading widely and developing intellectual interests in philosophy, religion, history, political theory and biography. He became active in the local government and was elected as justice of the peace and as a county councilman.
Bastiat’s business experiences and his studies coalesced to form an unshakable conviction that free trade was essential to economic prosperity. He began to write essays opposing protective tariffs and he closely followed Richard Cobden’s free trade movement in England. In 1844, with the publication of Bastiat’s piece on English and French tariffs he finally became recognized in French economic circles. Numerous lectures, books and articles followed, not only on tariffs and free trade, but much economic analysis that holds up as well in the 21st century as in the 19th.
Fable of the Broken Window
One of Bastiat’s best known contributions is his “fable of the broken window,” in which he demolished the still popular idea that events like war, natural disasters and even the deliberate destruction of otherwise useable property will stimulate the economy. Bastiat tells the story of an unfortunate shopkeeper whose window is broken out by his careless son:
“If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact, that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation: “It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?”
“Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.
“Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier’s trade — that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs — I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.
“But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, “Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.”
“It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way which this accident has prevented.
In the end, the glazier has traded his labor and a pane of glass for six francs, a fair trade. The shopkeeper, however, gains nothing he did not have before the window was broken, but also suffers a loss of six francs. Destruction never stimulates the economy; it only diverts resources from a desired activity to a remedial one.
Bastiat explained how the free market–based on self-interest and competition–works better than any other system; how even the greedy man is compelled to serve his fellow man. Bastiat writes:
“[S]elf-interest is that indomitable individualistic force within us that urges us on to progress and discovery, but at the same time disposes us to monopolize our discoveries.
“Competition is that no less indomitable humanitarian force that wrests progress, as fast as it is made, from the hands of the individual and places it at the disposal of all mankind. Economic Harmonies
“By virtue of exchange, one man’s prosperity is beneficial to all others. Economic Harmonies
Bastiat and Human Freedom
While Frédéric Bastiat’s public fame was based on free trade and economic issues, he recognized that the underlying issue was human freedom. He believed that the role of government was limited to the protection of life, liberty and property because any authority of the state could only be derived from individual men:
“If every person has the right to defend – even by force – his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. This principle of collective right — its reason for existing, its lawfulness — is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force — for the same reason — cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups. Frédéric Bastiat, The Law
Bastiat’s critique of the state from 170 years ago could have been written today:
“I find here so many nascent abuses . . . appearing on the horizon of the new social order, that I do not know where to begin.
“We have, first of all, licenses of all kinds. No one can become a barrister, a physician, a teacher, a broker, a dealer in government bonds, a solicitor, an attorney, a pharmacist, a printer, a butcher, or a baker without encountering legal restrictions. Each one of these represents a service that is forbidden by law, and hence those to whom authorization is granted raise their prices . . .
“Next comes the attempt to set an artificial price . . . by levying tariffs . . . .
“Next comes taxation. It has become a much sought-after means of livelihood. We know that the number of government jobs has been increasing steadily, and that the number of applicants is increasing still more rapidly than the number of jobs. . . . Very soon there will be two or three of these bureaucrats around every Frenchman, one to prevent him from working too much, another to give him an education, a third to furnish him credit, a fourth to interfere with his business transactions, etc. Selected Essays on Political Economy (1848)
Bastiat’s view of human freedom was grounded in his Catholic worldview and his works show his “deep and abiding belief in God as the source of human dignity.” Frederic Bastiat: A Man Alone. Believing the purpose of law was to protect life, liberty and property, it follows that only an unjust government infringes those rights by benefiting some at the expense of others: “Let us never forget that, in fact, the state has no resources of its own. It has nothing, it possesses nothing that it does not take from the workers.” Selected Essays.
By the time Bastiat became well known in France he was suffering from the tuberculosis which would kill him. His doctors prescribed rest, but there was no time to rest, for in 1848 his country was being torn apart from within.
Bastiat was elected to the French legislative assembly as he poured himself into finishing his life’s work. Bastiat’s greatest efforts for liberty and the role of law came at the very end of his life. His short but influential book, The Law, was completed the year that he died. He regretted that he had yet more work to do. “Before his death he declared that if God would but grant him a new lease of life he would devote his energy to the development of Christian harmony and political economy, but he did not live to fulfill his vow.” Catholic Encyclopedia, 1914. Frédéric Bastiat died in Rome on Christmas Eve, 1850 of tuberculosis at the age of 49. He is buried in the Church of San Luigi dei Francesi.
Let’s finish with Frédéric Bastiat’s short classic satire, “The Candlemakers’ Petition,” guaranteed to make a politician blush with pride. Here is the link for the written version. Or just click on the video below. I think it is the best Youtube version of this delicious slap at the rulers of Bastiat’s day.
The Candlemakers’ Petition, Frédéric Bastiat