Frederic Bastiat- The Law

The Law

The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted

along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its

proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose!

The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of

checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to


If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me

to call the attention of my fellow-citizens to it.

Life Is a Gift from God

We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This

gift is life—physical, intellectual, and moral life.

But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life has

entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing,

and perfecting it. In order that we may accomplish this, He has

provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties. And He has

put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources. By the application

of our faculties to these natural resources we convert

them into products, and use them. This process is necessary in

order that life may run its appointed course.

Life, faculties, production—in other words, individuality,

liberty, property—this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful

political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all

human legislation, and are superior to it.

Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have

made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and

property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in

the first place.

What Is Law?

What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the

individual right to lawful defense.

Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his

person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic

requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is

completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two.

For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality?

And what is property but an extension of our faculties?

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. Thus the 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.

Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary

to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own

individual rights. Who will dare to say that force has been given

to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual

acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the

rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle

also applies to the common force that is nothing more than

the organized combination of the individual forces?

If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this:

The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense.

It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces.

And this common force is to do only what the individual forces

have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties,

and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause

justice to reign over us all.

A Just and Enduring Government

If a nation were founded on this basis, it seems to me that

order would prevail among the people, in thought as well as in

deed. It seems to me that such a nation would have the most

simple, easy to accept, economical, limited, non-oppressive, just,

and enduring government imaginable—whatever its political

form might be.

Under such an administration, everyone would understand

that he possessed all the privileges as well as all the responsibilities

of his existence. No one would have any argument with government,

provided that his person was respected, his labor was

free, and the fruits of his labor were protected against all unjust

attack. When successful, we would not have to thank the state

for our success. And, conversely, when unsuccessful, we would

no more think of blaming the state for our misfortune than

would the farmers blame the state because of hail or frost. The

state would be felt only by the invaluable blessings of safety provided

by this concept of government.

It can be further stated that, thanks to the non-intervention

of the state in private affairs, our wants and their satisfactions

would develop themselves in a logical manner. We would not see

poor families seeking literary instruction before they have bread.

We would not see cities populated at the expense of rural districts,

nor rural districts at the expense of cities. We would not

see the great displacements of capital, labor, and population that

are caused by legislative decisions.

The sources of our existence are made uncertain and precarious

by these state-created displacements. And, furthermore,

these acts burden the government with increased responsibilities.

The Complete Perversion of the Law

But, unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its

proper functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions,

it has not done so merely in some inconsequential and

debatable matters. The law has gone further than this; it has

acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been

used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihi-

lating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting

and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The

law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the

unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty,

and property of others. It has converted plunder into a

right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful

defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.

How has this perversion of the law been accomplished?

And what have been the results?

The law has been perverted by the influence of two entirely

different causes: stupid greed and false philanthropy. Let us

speak of the first.

A Fatal Tendency of Mankind

Self-preservation and self-development are common aspirations

among all people. And if everyone enjoyed the unrestricted

use of his faculties and the free disposition of the fruits

of his labor, social progress would be ceaseless, uninterrupted,

and unfailing.

But there is also another tendency that is common among

people. When they can, they wish to live and prosper at the

expense of others. This is no rash accusation. Nor does it come

from a gloomy and uncharitable spirit. The annals of history bear

witness to the truth of it: the incessant wars, mass migrations,

religious persecutions, universal slavery, dishonesty in commerce,

and monopolies. This fatal desire has its origin in the

very nature of man—in that primitive, universal, and insuppressible

instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the

least possible pain.

Property and Plunder

Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor;

by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources.

This process is the origin of property.

But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants

by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others.

This process is the origin of plunder.

Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain—and

since labor is pain in itself—it follows that men will resort to

plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows

this quite clearly. And under these conditions, neither religion

nor morality can stop it.

When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes

more painful and more dangerous than labor. It is evident, then,

that the proper purpose of law is to use the power of its collective

force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to

work. All the measures of the law should protect property and

punish plunder.

But, generally, the law is made by one man or one class of

men. And since law cannot operate without the sanction and

support of a dominating force, this force must be entrusted to

those who make the laws.

This fact, combined with the fatal tendency that exists in

the heart of man to satisfy his wants with the least possible

effort, explains the almost universal perversion of the law. Thus

it is easy to understand how law, instead of checking injustice,

becomes the invincible weapon of injustice. It is easy to understand

why the law is used by the legislator to destroy in varying

degrees among the rest of the people, their personal independence

by slavery, their liberty by oppression, and their property

by plunder. This is done for the benefit of the person who makes

the law, and in proportion to the power that he holds.

Victims of Lawful Plunder

Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are

victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of

those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow

to enter—by peaceful or revolutionary means—into the making

of laws. According to their degree of enlightenment, these plundered

classes may propose one of two entirely different purposes

when they attempt to attain political power: Either they

may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.

Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among

the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the

power to make laws!

Until that happens, the few practice lawful plunder upon

the many, a common practice where the right to participate in

the making of law is limited to a few persons. But then, participation

in the making of law becomes universal. And then, men

seek to balance their conflicting interests by universal plunder.

Instead of rooting out the injustices found in society, they make

these injustices general. As soon as the plundered classes gain

political power, they establish a system of reprisals against other

classes. They do not abolish legal plunder. (This objective would

demand more enlightenment than they possess.) Instead, they

emulate their evil predecessors by participating in this legal

plunder, even though it is against their own interests.

It is as if it were necessary, before a reign of justice appears,

for everyone to suffer a cruel retribution—some for their evilness,

and some for their lack of understanding.

The Results of Legal Plunder

It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change

and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an

instrument of plunder.

What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would

require volumes to describe them all. Thus we must content

ourselves with pointing out the most striking.

In the first place, it erases from everyone’s conscience the

distinction between justice and injustice.

No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain

degree. The safest way to make laws respected is to make

them respectable. When law and morality contradict each other,

the citizen has the cruel alternative of either losing his moral

sense or losing his respect for the law. These two evils are of

equal consequence, and it would be difficult for a person to

choose between them.

The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much the

case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice are one and

the same thing. There is in all of us a strong disposition to

believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This belief is so

widespread that many persons have erroneously held that things

are “just” because law makes them so. Thus, in order to make

plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only

necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions,

and monopoly find defenders not only among those who

profit from them but also among those who suffer from them.

The Fate of Non-Conformists

If you suggest a doubt as to the morality of these institutions,

it is boldly said that “You are a dangerous innovator, a

utopian, a theorist, a subversive; you would shatter the foundation

upon which society rests.”

If you lecture upon morality or upon political science, there

will be found official organizations petitioning the government

in this vein of thought: “That science no longer be taught exclusively

from the point of view of free trade (of liberty, of property,

and of justice) as has been the case until now, but also, in the

future, science is to be especially taught from the viewpoint of

the facts and laws that regulate French industry (facts and laws

which are contrary to liberty, to property, and to justice). That, in

government-endowed teaching positions, the professor rigorously

refrain from endangering in the slightest degree the

respect due to the laws now in force.”*

Thus, if there exists a law which sanctions slavery or

monopoly, oppression or robbery, in any form whatever, it must

not ever be mentioned. For how can it be mentioned without

damaging the respect which it inspires? Still further, morality

and political economy must be taught from the point of view of

this law; from the supposition that it must be a just law merely

because it is a law.

Another effect of this tragic perversion of the law is that it

gives an exaggerated importance to political passions and conflicts,

and to politics in general.

I could prove this assertion in a thousand ways. But, by way

of illustration, I shall limit myself to a subject that has lately

occupied the minds of everyone: universal suffrage.

Who Shall Judge?

The followers of Rousseau’s school of thought—who consider

themselves far advanced, but whom I consider twenty centuries

behind the times—will not agree with me on this. But universal

suffrage—using the word in its strictest sense—is not one

*General Council of Manufacturers, Agriculture, and Commerce, May

6, 1850.

of those sacred dogmas which it is a crime to examine or doubt.

In fact, serious objections may be made to universal suffrage.

In the first place, the word universal conceals a gross fallacy.

For example, there are 36 million people in France. Thus,

to make the right of suffrage universal, there should be 36 million

voters. But the most extended system permits only 9 million

people to vote. Three persons out of four are excluded. And

more than this, they are excluded by the fourth. This fourth person

advances the principle of incapacity as his reason for excluding

the others. Universal suffrage means, then, universal suffrage

for those who are capable. But there remains this question

of fact: Who is capable? Are minors, females, insane persons,

and persons who have committed certain major crimes the only

ones to be determined incapable?

The Reason Why Voting Is Restricted

A closer examination of the subject shows us the motive

which causes the right of suffrage to be based upon the supposition

of incapacity. The motive is that the elector or voter does

not exercise this right for himself alone, but for everybody.

The most extended elective system and the most restricted

elective system are alike in this respect. They differ only in

respect to what constitutes incapacity. It is not a difference of

principle, but merely a difference of degree.

If, as the republicans of our present-day Greek and Roman

schools of thought pretend, the right of suffrage arrives with

one’s birth, it would be an injustice for adults to prevent women

and children from voting. Why are they prevented? Because

they are presumed to be incapable. And why is incapacity a

motive for exclusion? Because it is not the voter alone who suffers

the consequences of his vote; because each vote touches

and affects everyone in the entire community; because the people

in the community have a right to demand some safeguards

concerning the acts upon which their welfare and existence


The Answer Is to Restrict the Law

I know what might be said in answer to this; what the objections

might be. But this is not the place to exhaust a controversy

of this nature. I wish merely to observe here that this controversy

over universal suffrage (as well as most other political

questions) which agitates, excites, and overthrows nations,

would lose nearly all of its importance if the law had always been

what it ought to be.

In fact, if law were restricted to protecting all persons, all

liberties, and all properties; if law were nothing more than the

organized combination of the individual’s right to self defense; if

law were the obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppression

and plunder—is it likely that we citizens would then argue much

about the extent of the franchise?

Under these circumstances, is it likely that the extent of the

right to vote would endanger that supreme good, the public

peace? Is it likely that the excluded classes would refuse to

peaceably await the coming of their right to vote? Is it likely that

those who had the right to vote would jealously defend their


If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone’s

interest in the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under

these circumstances, those who voted could not inconvenience

those who did not vote?

The Fatal Idea of Legal Plunder

But on the other hand, imagine that this fatal principle has

been introduced: Under the pretense of organization, regulation,

protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from

one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all

and gives it to a few—whether farmers, manufacturers,

shipowners, artists, or comedians. Under these circumstances,

then certainly every class will aspire to grasp the law, and logically


The excluded classes will furiously demand their right to

vote—and will overthrow society rather than not to obtain it.

Even beggars and vagabonds will then prove to you that they

also have an incontestable title to vote. They will say to you:

“We cannot buy wine, tobacco, or salt without paying the

tax. And a part of the tax that we pay is given by law—in privileges

and subsidies—to men who are richer than we are. Others

use the law to raise the prices of bread, meat, iron, or cloth.

Thus, since everyone else uses the law for his own profit, we also

would like to use the law for our own profit. We demand from

the law the right to relief, which is the poor man’s plunder. To

obtain this right, we also should be voters and legislators in order

that we may organize Beggary on a grand scale for our own class,

as you have organized Protection on a grand scale for your class.

Now don’t tell us beggars that you will act for us, and then toss

us, as Mr. Mimerel proposes, 600,000 francs to keep us quiet,

like throwing us a bone to gnaw. We have other claims. And anyway,

we wish to bargain for ourselves as other classes have bargained

for themselves!”

And what can you say to answer that argument!

Perverted Law Causes Conflict

As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from

its true purpose—that it may violate property instead of protecting

it—then everyone will want to participate in making the law,

either to protect himself against plunder or to use it for plunder.

Political questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and allabsorbing.

There will be fighting at the door of the Legislative

Palace, and the struggle within will be no less furious. To know

this, it is hardly necessary to examine what transpires in the

French and English legislatures; merely to understand the issue

is to know the answer.

Is there any need to offer proof that this odious perversion

of the law is a perpetual source of hatred and discord; that it

tends to destroy society itself? If such proof is needed, look at

the United States [in 1850]. There is no country in the world

where the law is kept more within its proper domain: the pro-

tection of every person’s liberty and property. As a consequence

of this, there appears to be no country in the world where the

social order rests on a firmer foundation. But even in the United

States, there are two issues—-and only two—that have always

endangered the public peace.

Slavery and Tariffs Are Plunder

What are these two issues? They are slavery and tariffs.

These are the only two issues where, contrary to the general

spirit of the republic of the United States, law has assumed the

character of a plunderer.

Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff

is a violation, by law, of property.

It is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime—a

sorrowful inheritance from the Old World—should be the only

issue which can, and perhaps will, lead to the ruin of the Union.

It is indeed impossible to imagine, at the very heart of a society,

a more astounding fact than this: The law has come to be an

instrument of injustice. And if this fact brings terrible consequences

to the United States—where the proper purpose of the

law has been perverted only in the instances of slavery and tariffs—

what must be the consequences in Europe, where the perversion

of the law is a principle; a system?

Two Kinds of Plunder

Mr. de Montalembert [politician and writer] adopting the

thought contained in a famous proclamation by Mr. Carlier, has

said: “We must make war against socialism.” According to the

definition of socialism advanced by Mr. Charles Dupin, he

meant: “We must make war against plunder.”

But of what plunder was he speaking? For there are two

kinds of plunder: legal and illegal.

I do not think that illegal plunder, such as theft or swindling—

which the penal code defines, anticipates, and punishes—

can be called socialism. It is not this kind of plunder that

systematically threatens the foundations of society. Anyway, the

war against this kind of plunder has not waited for the command

of these gentlemen. The war against illegal plunder has been

fought since the beginning of the world. Long before the Revolution

of February 1848—long before the appearance even of

socialism itself—France had provided police, judges, gendarmes,

prisons, dungeons, and scaffolds for the purpose of

fighting illegal plunder. The law itself conducts this war, and it is

my wish and opinion that the law should always maintain this

attitude toward plunder.

The Law Defends Plunder

But it does not always do this. Sometimes the law defends

plunder and participates in it. Thus the beneficiaries are spared

the shame, danger, and scruple which their acts would otherwise

involve. Sometimes the law places the whole apparatus of

judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at the service of the plunderers,

and treats the victim—when he defends himself—as a

criminal. In short, there is a legal plunder, and it is of this, no

doubt, that Mr. de Montalembert speaks.

This legal plunder may be only an isolated stain among the

legislative measures of the people. If so, it is best to wipe it out

with a minimum of speeches and denunciations—and in spite of

the uproar of the vested interests.

How to Identify Legal Plunder

But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply.

See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them,

and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if

the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing

what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime.

Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil

itself, but also it is a fertile source for further evils because it

invites reprisals. If such a law—which may be an isolated case—

is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and

develop into a system.

The person who profits from this law will complain bitterly,

defending his acquired rights. He will claim that the state is

obligated to protect and encourage his particular industry; that

this procedure enriches the state because the protected industry

is thus able to spend more and to pay higher wages to the poor


Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The

acceptance of these arguments will build legal plunder into a

whole system. In fact, this has already occurred. The presentday

delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of

everyone else; to make plunder universal under the pretense of

organizing it.

Legal Plunder Has Many Names

Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number

of ways. Thus we have an infinite number of plans for organizing

it: tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive

taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed

profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of

labor, free credit, and so on, and so on. All these plans as a

whole—with their common aim of legal plunder—constitute


Now, since under this definition socialism is a body of doctrine,

what attack can be made against it other than a war of doctrine?

If you find this socialistic doctrine to be false, absurd, and

evil, then refute it. And the more false, the more absurd, and the

more evil it is, the easier it will be to refute. Above all, if you wish

to be strong, begin by rooting out every particle of socialism that

may have crept into your legislation. This will be no light task.

Socialism Is Legal Plunder

Mr. de Montalembert has been accused of desiring to fight

socialism by the use of brute force. He ought to be exonerated

from this accusation, for he has plainly said: “The war that we

must fight against socialism must be in harmony with law, honor,

and justice.”

But why does not Mr. de Montalembert see that he has

placed himself in a vicious circle? You would use the law to

oppose socialism? But it is upon the law that socialism itself

relies. Socialists desire to practice legal plunder, not illegal plunder.

Socialists, like all other monopolists, desire to make the law

their own weapon. And when once the law is on the side of

socialism, how can it be used against socialism? For when plunder

is abetted by the law, it does not fear your courts, your gendarmes,

and your prisons. Rather, it may call upon them for


To prevent this, you would exclude socialism from entering

into the making of laws? You would prevent socialists from

entering the Legislative Palace? You shall not succeed, I predict,

so long as legal plunder continues to be the main business of the

legislature. It is illogical—in fact, absurd—to assume otherwise.

The Choice Before Us

This question of legal plunder must be settled once and for

all, and there are only three ways to settle it:

1. The few plunder the many.

2. Everybody plunders everybody.

3. Nobody plunders anybody.

We must make our choice among limited plunder, universal

plunder, and no plunder. The law can follow only one of these


Limited legal plunder: This system prevailed when the right

to vote was restricted. One would turn back to this system to

prevent the invasion of socialism.

Universal legal plunder:We have been threatened with this

system since the franchise was made universal. The newly

enfranchised majority has decided to formulate law on the same

principle of legal plunder that was used by their predecessors

when the vote was limited.

No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace,

order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I

shall proclaim this principle with all the force of my lungs (which

alas! is all too inadequate).*

The Proper Function of the Law

And, in all sincerity, can anything more than the absence of

plunder be required of the law? Can the law—which necessarily

requires the use of force—rationally be used for anything except

protecting the rights of everyone? I defy anyone to extend it

beyond this purpose without perverting it and, consequently,

turning might against right. This is the most fatal and most illogical

social perversion that can possibly be imagined. It must be

admitted that the true solution—so long searched for in the area

of social relationships—is contained in these simple words: Law

is organized justice.

*Translator’s note: At the time this was written, Mr. Bastiat knew that he

was dying of tuberculosis. Within a year, he was dead.

Now this must be said: When justice is organized by law—

that is, by force—this excludes the idea of using law (force) to

organize any human activity whatever, whether it be labor, charity,

agriculture, commerce, industry, education, art, or religion.

The organizing by law of any one of these would inevitably

destroy the essential organization—justice. For truly, how can

we imagine force being used against the liberty of citizens without

it also being used against justice, and thus acting against its

proper purpose?

The Seductive Lure of Socialism

Here I encounter the most popular fallacy of our times. It

is not considered sufficient that the law should be just; it must be

philanthropic. Nor is it sufficient that the law should guarantee

to every citizen the free and inoffensive use of his faculties for

physical, intellectual, and moral self-improvement. Instead, it is

demanded that the law should directly extend welfare, education,

and morality throughout the nation.

This is the seductive lure of socialism. And I repeat again:

These two uses of the law are in direct contradiction to each

other. We must choose between them. A citizen cannot at the

same time be free and not free.

Enforced Fraternity Destroys Liberty

Mr. de Lamartine once wrote to me thusly: “Your doctrine

is only the half of my program. You have stopped at liberty; I go

on to fraternity.” I answered him: “The second half of your program

will destroy the first.”

In fact, it is impossible for me to separate the word fraternity

from the word voluntary. I cannot possibly understand how

fraternity can be legally enforced without liberty being legally

destroyed, and thus justice being legally trampled underfoot.

Legal plunder has two roots: One of them, as I have said

before, is in human greed; the other is in false philanthropy.

At this point, I think that I should explain exactly what I

mean by the word plunder.*

Plunder Violates Ownership

I do not, as is often done, use the word in any vague, uncertain,

approximate, or metaphorical sense. I use it in its scientific

acceptance—as expressing the idea opposite to that of property

[wages, land, money, or whatever]. When a portion of wealth is

transferred from the person who owns it—without his consent

and without compensation, and whether by force or by fraud—

to anyone who does not own it, then I say that property is violated;

that an act of plunder is committed.

I say that this act is exactly what the law is supposed to suppress,

always and everywhere. When the law itself commits this

act that it is supposed to suppress, I say that plunder is still com-

*Translator’s note: The French word used by Mr. Bastiat is spoliation.

mitted, and I add that from the point of view of society and welfare,

this aggression against rights is even worse. In this case of

legal plunder, however, the person who receives the benefits is

not responsible for the act of plundering. The responsibility for

this legal plunder rests with the law, the legislator, and society

itself. Therein lies the political danger.

It is to be regretted that the word plunder is offensive. I

have tried in vain to find an inoffensive word, for I would not at

any time—especially now—wish to add an irritating word to our

dissentions. Thus, whether I am believed or not, I declare that I

do not mean to attack the intentions or the morality of anyone.

Rather, I am attacking an idea which I believe to be false; a system

which appears to me to be unjust; an injustice so independent

of personal intentions that each of us profits from it without

wishing to do so, and suffers from it without knowing the cause

of the suffering.

Three Systems of Plunder

The sincerity of those who advocate protectionism, socialism,

and communism is not here questioned. Any writer who

would do that must be influenced by a political spirit or a political

fear. It is to be pointed out, however, that protectionism,

socialism, and communism are basically the same plant in three

different stages of its growth. All that can be said is that legal

plunder is more visible in communism because it is complete

plunder; and in protectionism because the plunder is limited to

specific groups and industries.* Thus it follows that, of the three

systems, socialism is the vaguest, the most indecisive, and, consequently,

the most sincere stage of development.

But sincere or insincere, the intentions of persons are not

here under question. In fact, I have already said that legal plunder

is based partially on philanthropy, even though it is a false


With this explanation, let us examine the value—the origin

and the tendency—of this popular aspiration which claims to

accomplish the general welfare by general plunder.

Law Is Force

Since the law organizes justice, the socialists ask why the

law should not also organize labor, education, and religion.

Why should not law be used for these purposes? Because it

could not organize labor, education, and religion without

destroying justice. We must remember that law is force, and

that, consequently, the proper functions of the law cannot lawfully

extend beyond the proper functions of force.

* If the special privilege of government protection against competition—

a monopoly—were granted only to one group in France, the iron workers, for

instance, this act would so obviously be legal plunder that it could not last for

long. It is for this reason that we see all the protected trades combined into a

common cause. They even organize themselves in such a manner as to appear

to represent all persons who labor. Instinctively, they feel that legal plunder is

concealed by generalizing it.

When law and force keep a person within the bounds of

justice, they impose nothing but a mere negation. They oblige

him only to abstain from harming others. They violate neither

his personality, his liberty, nor his property. They safeguard all of

these. They are defensive; they defend equally the rights of all.

Law Is a Negative Concept

The harmlessness of the mission performed by law and lawful

defense is self-evident; the usefulness is obvious; and the

legitimacy cannot be disputed.

As a friend of mine once remarked, this negative concept of

law is so true that the statement, the purpose of the law is to

cause justice to reign, is not a rigorously accurate statement. It

ought to be stated that the purpose of the law is to prevent injustice

from reigning. In fact, it is injustice, instead of justice, that

has an existence of its own. Justice is achieved only when injustice

is absent.

But when the law, by means of its necessary agent, force,

imposes upon men a regulation of labor, a method or a subject of

education, a religious faith or creed—then the law is no longer

negative; it acts positively upon people. It substitutes the will of

the legislator for their own wills; the initiative of the legislator

for their own initiatives. When this happens, the people no

longer need to discuss, to compare, to plan ahead; the law does

all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless prop for the

people; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their

liberty, their property.

Try to imagine a regulation of labor imposed by force that is

not a violation of liberty; a transfer of wealth imposed by force

that is not a violation of property. If you cannot reconcile these

contradictions, then you must conclude that the law cannot

organize labor and industry without organizing injustice.

The Political Approach

When a politician views society from the seclusion of his

office, he is struck by the spectacle of the inequality that he sees.

He deplores the deprivations which are the lot of so many of our

brothers, deprivations which appear to be even sadder when

contrasted with luxury and wealth.

Perhaps the politician should ask himself whether this state

of affairs has not been caused by old conquests and lootings, and

by more recent legal plunder. Perhaps he should consider this

proposition: Since all persons seek well-being and perfection,

would not a condition of justice be sufficient to cause the greatest

efforts toward progress, and the greatest possible equality

that is compatible with individual responsibility? Would not this

be in accord with the concept of individual responsibility which

God has willed in order that mankind may have the choice

between vice and virtue, and the resulting punishment and


But the politician never gives this a thought. His mind turns

to organizations, combinations, and arrangements—legal or

apparently legal. He attempts to remedy the evil by increasing

and perpetuating the very thing that caused the evil in the first

place: legal plunder. We have seen that justice is a negative concept.

Is there even one of these positive legal actions that does

not contain the principle of plunder?

The Law and Charity

You say: “There are persons who have no money,” and you

turn to the law. But the law is not a breast that fills itself with

milk. Nor are the lacteal veins of the law supplied with milk from

a source outside the society. Nothing can enter the public treasury

for the benefit of one citizen or one class unless other citizens

and other classes have been forced to send it in. If every

person draws from the treasury the amount that he has put in it,

it is true that the law then plunders nobody. But this procedure

does nothing for the persons who have no money. It does not

promote equality of income. The law can be an instrument of

equalization only as it takes from some persons and gives to

other persons. When the law does this, it is an instrument of


With this in mind, examine the protective tariffs, subsidies,

guaranteed profits, guaranteed jobs, relief and welfare schemes,

public education, progressive taxation, free credit, and public

works. You will find that they are always based on legal plunder,

organized injustice.

The Law and Education

You say: “There are persons who lack education” and you

turn to the law. But the law is not, in itself, a torch of learning

which shines its light abroad. The law extends over a society

where some persons have knowledge and others do not; where

some citizens need to learn, and others can teach. In this matter

of education, the law has only two alternatives: It can permit this

transaction of teaching-and-learning to operate freely and without

the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter by

taking from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are

appointed by government to instruct others, without charge. But

in this second case, the law commits legal plunder by violating

liberty and property.

The Law and Morals

You say: “Here are persons who are lacking in morality or

religion,” and you turn to the law. But law is force. And need I

point out what a violent and futile effort it is to use force in the

matters of morality and religion?

It would seem that socialists, however self-complacent,

could not avoid seeing this monstrous legal plunder that results

from such systems and such efforts. But what do the socialists

do? They cleverly disguise this legal plunder from others—and

even from themselves—under the seductive names of fraternity,

unity, organization, and association. Because we ask so little

from the law—only justice—the socialists thereby assume that

we reject fraternity, unity, organization, and association. The

socialists brand us with the name individualist.

But we assure the socialists that we repudiate only forced

organization, not natural organization. We repudiate the forms

of association that are forced upon us, not free association. We

repudiate forced fraternity, not true fraternity. We repudiate the

artificial unity that does nothing more than deprive persons of

individual responsibility. We do not repudiate the natural unity

of mankind under Providence.

A Confusion of Terms

Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses

the distinction between government and society. As a

result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government,

the socialists conclude that we object to its being done

at all.

We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say

that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion.

Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We

object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are

against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists

were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do

not want the state to raise grain.

The Influence of Socialist Writers

How did politicians ever come to believe this weird idea

that the law could be made to produce what it does not contain—

the wealth, science, and religion that, in a positive sense,

constitute prosperity? Is it due to the influence of our modern

writers on public affairs?

Present-day writers—especially those of the socialist school

of thought—base their various theories upon one common

hypothesis: They divide mankind into two parts. People in general—

with the exception of the writer himself—form the first

group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important

group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion

that ever entered a human brain!

In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing

that people have within themselves no means of discernment;

no motivation to action. The writers assume that people are inert

matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation

indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume

that people are susceptible to being shaped—by the will and

hand of another person—into an infinite variety of forms, more

or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.

Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs

hesitates to imagine that he himself—under the title of organizer,

discoverer, legislator, or founder—is this will and hand,

this universal motivating force, this creative power whose sublime

mission is to mold these scattered materials—persons—

into a society.

These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner

that the gardener views his trees. Just as the gardener capriciously

shapes the trees into pyramids, parasols, cubes, vases,

fans, and other forms, just so does the socialist writer whimsically

shape human beings into groups, series, centers, sub-centers,

honeycombs, labor-corps, and other variations. And just as

the gardener needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and shears to

shape his trees, just so does the socialist writer need the force

that he can find only in law to shape human beings. For this purpose,

he devises tariff laws, tax laws, relief laws, and school laws.

The Socialists Want to Play God

Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed

into social combinations. This is so true that, if by chance, the

socialists have any doubts about the success of these combinations,

they will demand that a small portion of mankind be set

aside to experiment upon. The popular idea of trying all systems

is well known. And one socialist leader has been known seriously

to demand that the Constituent Assembly give him a small district

with all its inhabitants, to try his experiments upon.

In the same manner, an inventor makes a model before he

constructs the full-sized machine; the chemist wastes some

chemicals—the farmer wastes some seeds and land—to try out

an idea.

But what a difference there is between the gardener and

his trees, between the inventor and his machine, between the

chemist and his elements, between the farmer and his seeds!

And in all sincerity, the socialist thinks that there is the same difference

between him and mankind!

It is no wonder that the writers of the nineteenth century

look upon society as an artificial creation of the legislator’s

genius. This idea—the fruit of classical education—has taken

possession of all the intellectuals and famous writers of our

country. To these intellectuals and writers, the relationship

between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the

relationship between the clay and the potter.

Moreover, even where they have consented to recognize a

principle of action in the heart of man—and a principle of discernment

in man’s intellect—they have considered these gifts

from God to be fatal gifts. They have thought that persons,

under the impulse of these two gifts, would fatally tend to ruin

themselves. They assume that if the legislators left persons free

to follow their own inclinations, they would arrive at atheism

instead of religion, ignorance instead of knowledge, poverty

instead of production and exchange.

The Socialists Despise Mankind

According to these writers, it is indeed fortunate that

Heaven has bestowed upon certain men—governors and legislators—

the exact opposite inclinations, not only for their own

sake but also for the sake of the rest of the world! While

mankind tends toward evil, the legislators yearn for good;

while mankind advances toward darkness, the legislators aspire

for enlightenment; while mankind is drawn toward vice, the

legislators are attracted toward virtue. Since they have decided

that this is the true state of affairs, they then demand the use of

force in order to substitute their own inclinations for those of

the human race.

Open at random any book on philosophy, politics, or history,

and you will probably see how deeply rooted in our country

is this idea—the child of classical studies, the mother of socialism.

In all of them, you will probably find this idea that mankind

is merely inert matter, receiving life, organization, morality, and

prosperity from the power of the state. And even worse, it will be

stated that mankind tends toward degeneration, and is stopped

from this downward course only by the mysterious hand of the

legislator. Conventional classical thought everywhere says that

behind passive society there is a concealed power called law or

legislator (or called by some other terminology that designates

some unnamed person or persons of undisputed influence and

authority) which moves, controls, benefits, and improves


A Defense of Compulsory Labor

Let us first consider a quotation from Bossuet [tutor to the

Dauphin in the Court of Louis XIV]:

One of the things most strongly impressed (by

whom?) upon the minds of the Egyptians was patrio-

tism. . . . No one was permitted to be useless to the

state. The law assigned to each one his work, which was

handed down from father to son. No one was permitted

to have two professions. Nor could a person change

from one job to another. . . . But there was one task to

which all were forced to conform: the study of the laws

and of wisdom. Ignorance of religion and of the political

regulations of the country was not excused under

any circumstances. Moreover each occupation was

assigned (by whom?) to a certain district. . . . Among

the good laws, one of the best was that everyone was

trained (by whom?) to obey them. As a result of this,

Egypt was filled with wonderful inventions, and nothing

was neglected that could make life easy and quiet.

Thus, according to Bossuet, persons derive nothing from

themselves. Patriotism, prosperity, inventions, husbandry, science—

all of these are given to the people by the operation of the

laws, the rulers. All that the people have to do is to bow to leadership.

A Defense of Paternal Government

Bossuet carries this idea of the state as the source of all

progress even so far as to defend the Egyptians against the

charge that they rejected wrestling and music. He said:

How is that possible? These arts were invented by

Trismegistus [who was alleged to have been Chancellor

to the Egyptian god Osiris].

And again among the Persians, Bossuet claims that all

comes from above:

One of the first responsibilities of the prince was

to encourage agriculture. . . . Just as there were offices

established for the regulation of armies, just so were

there offices for the direction of farm work. . . . The

Persian people were inspired with an overwhelming

respect for royal authority.

And according to Bossuet, the Greek people, although

exceedingly intelligent, had no sense of personal responsibility;

like dogs and horses, they themselves could not have invented

the most simple games:

The Greeks, naturally intelligent and courageous,

had been early cultivated by the kings and settlers who

had come from Egypt. From these Egyptian rulers,

the Greek people had learned bodily exercises, foot

races, and horse and chariot races. . . . But the best

thing that the Egyptians had taught the Greeks was to

become docile, and to permit themselves to be formed

by the law for the public good.

The Idea of Passive Mankind

It cannot be disputed that these classical theories

[advanced by these latter-day teachers, writers, legislators, economists,

and philosophers] held that everything came to the people

from a source outside themselves. As another example, take

Fenelon [archbishop, author, and instructor to the Duke of Burgundy].

He was a witness to the power of Louis XIV. This, plus the

fact that he was nurtured in the classical studies and the admiration

of antiquity, naturally caused Fenelon to accept the idea

that mankind should be passive; that the misfortunes and the

prosperity—vices and virtues—of people are caused by the

external influence exercised upon them by the law and the legislators.

Thus, in his Utopia of Salentum, he puts men—with all

their interests, faculties, desires, and possessions—under the

absolute discretion of the legislator. Whatever the issue may be,

persons do not decide it for themselves; the prince decides for

them. The prince is depicted as the soul of this shapeless mass of

people who form the nation. In the prince resides the thought,

the foresight, all progress, and the principle of all organization.

Thus all responsibility rests with him.

The whole of the tenth book of Fenelon’s Telemachus

proves this. I refer the reader to it, and content myself with

quoting at random from this celebrated work to which, in every

other respect, I am the first to pay homage.

Socialists Ignore Reason and Facts

With the amazing credulity which is typical of the classicists,

Fenelon ignores the authority of reason and facts when he

attributes the general happiness of the Egyptians, not to their

own wisdom but to the wisdom of their kings:

We could not turn our eyes to either shore without

seeing rich towns and country estates most agreeably

located; fields, never fallowed, covered with

golden crops every year; meadows full of flocks; workers

bending under the weight of the fruit which the

earth lavished upon its cultivators; shepherds who

made the echoes resound with the soft notes from

their pipes and flutes. “Happy,” said Mentor, “is the

people governed by a wise king. . . .”

Later, Mentor desired that I observe the contentment

and abundance which covered all Egypt, where

twenty-two thousand cities could be counted. He

admired the good police regulations in the cities; the

justice rendered in favor of the poor against the rich;

the sound education of the children in obedience,

labor, sobriety, and the love of the arts and letters; the

exactness with which all religious ceremonies were

performed; the unselfishness, the high regard for

honor, the faithfulness to men, and the fear of the gods

which every father taught his children. He never

stopped admiring the prosperity of the country.

“Happy,” said he, “is the people ruled by a wise king in

such a manner.”

Socialists Want to Regiment People

Fenelon’s idyl on Crete is even more alluring. Mentor is

made to say:

All that you see in this wonderful island results

from the laws of Minos. The education which he

ordained for the children makes their bodies strong

and robust. From the very beginning, one accustoms

the children to a life of frugality and labor, because

one assumes that all pleasures of the senses weaken

both body and mind. Thus one allows them no pleasure

except that of becoming invincible by virtue, and

of acquiring glory. . . . Here one punishes three vices

that go unpunished among other people: ingratitude,

hypocrisy, and greed. There is no need to punish persons

for pomp and dissipation, for they are unknown

in Crete. . . . No costly furniture, no magnificent

clothing, no delicious feasts, no gilded palaces are


Thus does Mentor prepare his student to mold and to

manipulate—doubtless with the best of intentions—the people

of Ithaca. And to convince the student of the wisdom of these

ideas, Mentor recites to him the example of Salentum.

It is from this sort of philosophy that we receive our first

political ideas! We are taught to treat persons much as an

instructor in agriculture teaches farmers to prepare and tend the


A Famous Name and an Evil Idea

Now listen to the great Montesquieu on this same subject:

To maintain the spirit of commerce, it is necessary

that all the laws must favor it. These laws, by proportionately

dividing up the fortunes as they are made

in commerce, should provide every poor citizen with

sufficiently easy circumstances to enable him to work

like the others. These same laws should put every rich

citizen in such lowered circumstances as to force him

to work in order to keep or to gain.

Thus the laws are to dispose of all fortunes!

Although real equality is the soul of the state in a

democracy, yet this is so difficult to establish that an

extreme precision in this matter would not always be

desirable. It is sufficient that here be established a

census to reduce or fix these differences in wealth

within a certain limit. After this is done, it remains for

specific laws to equalize inequality by imposing burdens

upon the rich and granting relief to the poor.

Here again we find the idea of equalizing fortunes by law,

by force.

In Greece, there were two kinds of republics,

One, Sparta, was military; the other, Athens, was commercial.

In the former, it was desired that the citizens

be idle; in the latter, love of labor was encouraged.

Note the marvelous genius of these legislators: By

debasing all established customs—by mixing the usual

concepts of all virtues—they knew in advance that the

world would admire their wisdom.

Lycurgus gave stability to his city of Sparta by

combining petty thievery with the soul of justice; by

combining the most complete bondage with the most

extreme liberty; by combining the most atrocious

beliefs with the greatest moderation. He appeared to

deprive his city of all its resources, arts, commerce,

money, and defenses. In Sparta, ambition went without

the hope of material reward. Natural affection

found no outlet because a man was neither son, husband,

nor father. Even chastity was no longer considered

becoming. By this road, Lycurgus led Sparta on

to greatness and glory.

This boldness which was to be found in the institutions

of Greece has been repeated in the midst of

the degeneracy and corruption of our modern times.

An occasional honest legislator has molded a people in

whom integrity appears as natural as courage in the


Mr. William Penn, for example, is a true Lycurgus.

Even though Mr. Penn had peace as his objective—

while Lycurgus had war as his objective—they

resemble each other in that their moral prestige over

free men allowed them to overcome prejudices, to

subdue passions, and to lead their respective peoples

into new paths.

The country of Paraguay furnishes us with

another example [of a people who, for their own good,

are molded by their legislators].*

Now it is true that if one considers the sheer pleasure

of commanding to be the greatest joy in life, he

contemplates a crime against society; it will, however,

always be a noble ideal to govern men in a manner that

will make them happier.

Those who desire to establish similar institutions

must do as follows: Establish common ownership of

property as in the republic of Plato; revere the gods as

Plato commanded; prevent foreigners from mingling

with the people, in order to preserve the customs; let

*Translator’s note: What was then known as Paraguay was a much larger

area than it is today. It was colonized by the Jesuits who settled the Indians into

villages, and generally saved them from further brutalities by the avid conquerors.

the state, instead of the citizens, establish commerce.

The legislators should supply arts instead of luxuries;

they should satisfy needs instead of desires.

A Frightful Idea

Those who are subject to vulgar infatuation may exclaim:

“Montesquieu has said this! So it’s magnificent! It’s sublime!” As

for me, I have the courage of my own opinion. I say: What! You

have the nerve to call that fine? It is frightful! It is abominable!

These random selections from the writings of Montesquieu

show that he considers persons, liberties, property—mankind

itself—to be nothing but materials for legislators to exercise

their wisdom upon.

The Leader of the Democrats

Now let us examine Rousseau on this subject. This writer

on public affairs is the supreme authority of the democrats. And

although he bases the social structure upon the will of the people,

he has, to a greater extent than anyone else, completely

accepted the theory of the total inertness of mankind in the

presence of the legislators:

If it is true that a great prince is rare, then is it not

true that a great legislator is even more rare? The

prince has only to follow the pattern that the legislator

creates. The legislator is the mechanic who invents the

machine; the prince is merely the workman who sets it

in motion.

And what part do persons play in all this? They are merely

the machine that is set in motion. In fact, are they not merely

considered to be the raw material of which the machine is


Thus the same relationship exists between the legislator

and the prince as exists between the agricultural expert and the

farmer; and the relationship between the prince and his subjects

is the same as that between the farmer and his land. How high

above mankind, then, has this writer on public affairs been

placed? Rousseau rules over legislators themselves, and teaches

them their trade in these imperious terms:

Would you give stability to the state? Then bring

the extremes as closely together as possible. Tolerate

neither wealthy persons nor beggars.

If the soil is poor or barren, or the country too

small for its inhabitants, then turn to industry and arts,

and trade these products for the foods that you need.

. . . On a fertile soil—if you are short of inhabitants—

devote all your attention to agriculture, because this

multiplies people; banish the arts, because they only

serve to depopulate the nation. . . .

If you have extensive and accessible coast lines,

then cover the sea with merchant ships; you will have a

brilliant but short existence. If your seas wash only

inaccessible cliffs, let the people be barbarous and eat

fish; they will live more quietly—perhaps better—and,

most certainly, they will live more happily.

In short, and in addition to the maxims that are

common to all, every people has its own particular circumstances.

And this fact in itself will cause legislation

appropriate to the circumstances.

This is the reason why the Hebrews formerly—

and, more recently, the Arabs—had religion as their

principle objective. The objective of the Athenians

was literature; of Carthage and Tyre, commerce; of

Rhodes, naval affairs; of Sparta, war; and of Rome,

virtue. The author of The Spirit of Laws has shown by

what art the legislator should direct his institutions

toward each of these objectives. . . . But suppose that

the legislator mistakes his proper objective, and acts

on a principle different from that indicated by the

nature of things? Suppose that the selected principle

sometimes creates slavery, and sometimes liberty;

sometimes wealth, and sometimes population; sometimes

peace, and sometimes conquest? This confusion

of objective will slowly enfeeble the law and impair the

constitution. The state will be subjected to ceaseless

agitations until it is destroyed or changed, and invincible

nature regains her empire.

But if nature is sufficiently invincible to regain its empire,

why does not Rousseau admit that it did not need the legislator

to gain it in the first place? Why does he not see that men, by

obeying their own instincts, would turn to farming on fertile soil,

and to commerce on an extensive and easily accessible coast,

without the interference of a Lycurgus or a Solon or a Rousseau

who might easily be mistaken.

Socialists Want Forced Conformity

Be that as it may, Rousseau invests the creators, organizers,

directors, legislators, and controllers of society with a terrible

responsibility. He is, therefore, most exacting with them:

He who would dare to undertake the political

creation of a people ought to believe that he can, in a

manner of speaking, transform human nature; transform

each individual—who, by himself, is a solitary

and perfect whole—into a mere part of a greater

whole from which the individual will henceforth

receive his life and being. Thus the person who would

undertake the political creation of a people should

believe in his ability to alter man’s constitution; to

strengthen it; to substitute for the physical and independent

existence received from nature, an existence

which is partial and moral.* In short, the would-be

*Translator’s note: According to Rousseau, the existence of social man is

partial in the sense that he is henceforth merely a part of society. Knowing himself

as such—-and thinking and feeling from the point of view of the whole—

he thereby becomes moral.

creator of political man must remove man’s own forces

and endow him with others that are naturally alien to


Poor human nature! What would become of a person’s dignity

if it were entrusted to the followers of Rousseau?

Legislators Desire to Mold Mankind

Now let us examine Raynal on this subject of mankind

being molded by the legislator:

The legislator must first consider the climate, the

air, and the soil. The resources at his disposal determine

his duties. He must first consider his locality. A

population living on maritime shores must have laws

designed for navigation. . . . If it is an inland settlement,

the legislator must make his plans according to

the nature and fertility of the soil. . . .

It is especially in the distribution of property that

the genius of the legislator will be found. As a general

rule, when a new colony is established in any country,

sufficient land should be given to each man to support

his family. . . .

On an uncultivated island that you are populating

with children, you need do nothing but let the seeds of

truth germinate along with the development of reason.

. . . But when you resettle a nation with a past into a

new country, the skill of the legislator rests in the policy

of permitting the people to retain no injurious opinions

and customs which can possibly be cured and corrected.

If you desire to prevent these opinions and

customs from becoming permanent, you will secure

the second generation by a general system of public

education for the children. A prince or a legislator

should never establish a colony without first arranging

to send wise men along to instruct the youth. . . .

In a new colony, ample opportunity is open to the

careful legislator who desires to purify the customs

and manners of the people. If he has virtue and genius,

the land and the people at his disposal will inspire his

soul with a plan for society. A writer can only vaguely

trace the plan in advance because it is necessarily subject

to the instability of all hypotheses; the problem

has many forms, complications, and circumstances

that are difficult to foresee and settle in detail.

Legislators Told How to Manage Men

Raynal’s instructions to the legislators on how to manage

people may be compared to a professor of agriculture lecturing

his students: “The climate is the first rule for the farmer. His

resources determine his procedure. He must first consider his

locality. If his soil is clay, he must do so and so. If his soil is sand,

he must act in another manner. Every facility is open to the

farmer who wishes to clear and improve his soil. If he is skillful

enough, the manure at his disposal will suggest to him a plan of

operation. A professor can only vaguely trace this plan in

advance because it is necessarily subject to the instability of all

hypotheses; the problem has many forms, complications, and

circumstances that are difficult to foresee and settle in detail.”

Oh, sublime writers! Please remember sometimes that this

clay, this sand, and this manure which you so arbitrarily dispose

of, are men! They are your equals! They are intelligent and free

human beings like yourselves! As you have, they too have

received from God the faculty to observe, to plan ahead, to

think, and to judge for themselves!

A Temporary Dictatorship

Here is Mably on this subject of the law and the legislator.

In the passages preceding the one here quoted, Mably has supposed

the laws, due to a neglect of security, to be worn out. He

continues to address the reader thusly:

Under these circumstances, it is obvious that the

springs of government are slack. Give them a new tension,

and the evil will be cured. . . . Think less of punishing

faults, and more of rewarding that which you

need. In this manner you will restore to your republic

the vigor of youth. Because free people have been

ignorant of this procedure, they have lost their liberty!

But if the evil has made such headway that ordinary

governmental procedures are unable to cure it, then

resort to an extraordinary tribunal with considerable

powers for a short time. The imagination of the citizens

needs to be struck a hard blow.

In this manner, Mably continues through twenty volumes.

Under the influence of teaching like this—which stems

from classical education—there came a time when everyone

wished to place himself above mankind in order to arrange,

organize, and regulate it in his own way.

Socialists Want Equality of Wealth

Next let us examine Condillac on this subject of the legislators

and mankind:

My Lord, assume the character of Lycurgus or of

Solon. And before you finish reading this essay, amuse

yourself by giving laws to some savages in America or

Africa. Confine these nomads to fixed dwellings; teach

them to tend flocks. . . . Attempt to develop the social

consciousness that nature has planted in them. . . .

Force them to begin to practice the duties of humanity.

. . . Use punishment to cause sensual pleasures to

become distasteful to them. Then you will see that

every point of your legislation will cause these savages

to lose a vice and gain a virtue.

All people have had laws. But few people have

been happy. Why is this so? Because the legislators

themselves have almost always been ignorant of the

purpose of society, which is the uniting of families by a

common interest.

Impartiality in law consists of two things: the

establishing of equality in wealth and equality in dignity

among the citizens. . . . As the laws establish

greater equality, they become proportionately more

precarious to every citizen. . . . When all men are equal

in wealth and dignity—and when the laws leave no

hope of disturbing this equality—how can men then

be agitated by greed, ambition, dissipation, idleness,

sloth, envy, hatred, or jealously?

What you have learned about the republic of

Sparta should enlighten you on this question. No other

state has ever had laws more in accord with the order

of nature; of equality.

The Error of the Socialist Writers

Actually, it is not strange that during the seventeenth and

eighteenth centuries the human race was regarded as inert matter,

ready to receive everything—form, face, energy, movement,

life—from a great prince or great legislator or a great genius.

These centuries were nourished on the study of antiquity. And

antiquity presents everywhere—in Egypt, Persia, Greece,

Rome—the spectacle of a few men molding mankind according

to their whims, thanks to the prestige of force and fraud. But this

does not prove that this situation is desirable. It proves only that

since men and society are capable of improvement, it is naturally

to be expected that error, ignorance, despotism, slavery, and

superstition should be greatest towards the origins of history.

The writers quoted above were not in error when they found

ancient institutions to be such, but they were in error when they

offered them for the admiration and imitation of future generations.

Uncritical and childish conformists, they took for granted

the grandeur, dignity, morality, and happiness of the artificial

societies of the ancient world. They did not understand that

knowledge appears and grows with the passage of time; and that

in proportion to this growth of knowledge, might takes the side

of right, and society regains possession of itself

What Is Liberty?

Actually, what is the political struggle that we witness? It is

the instinctive struggle of all people toward liberty. And what is

this liberty, whose very name makes the heart beat faster and

shakes the world? Is it not the union of all liberties—liberty of

conscience, of education, of association, of the press, of travel, of

labor, of trade? In short, is not liberty the freedom of every person

to make full use of his faculties, so long as he does not harm

other persons while doing so? Is not liberty the destruction of all

despotism—including, of course, legal despotism? Finally, is not

liberty the restricting of the law only to its rational sphere of

organizing the right of the individual to lawful self-defense; of

punishing injustice?

It must be admitted that the tendency of the human race

toward liberty is largely thwarted, especially in France. This is

greatly due to a fatal desire—learned from the teachings of

antiquity—that our writers on public affairs have in common:

They desire to set themselves above mankind in order to

arrange, organize, and regulate it according to their fancy.

Philanthropic Tyranny

While society is struggling toward liberty, these famous

men who put themselves at its head are filled with the spirit of

the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They think only of

subjecting mankind to the philanthropic tyranny of their own

social inventions. Like Rousseau, they desire to force mankind

docilely to bear this yoke of the public welfare that they have

dreamed up in their own imaginations.

This was especially true in 1789. No sooner was the old

regime destroyed than society was subjected to still other artificial

arrangements, always starting from the same point: the

omnipotence of the law.

Listen to the ideas of a few of the writers and politicians

during that period:

SAINT-JUST: The legislator commands the future.

It is for him to will the good of mankind. It is for him

to make men what he wills them to be.

ROBESPIERRE: The function of government is to

direct the physical and moral powers of the nation

toward the end for which the commonwealth has

come into being.

BILLAUD-VARENNES: A people who are to be

returned to liberty must be formed anew. A strong

force and vigorous action are necessary to destroy old

prejudices, to change old customs, to correct depraved

affections, to restrict superfluous wants, and to destroy

ingrained vices. . . . Citizens, the inflexible austerity of

Lycurgus created the firm foundation of the Spartan

republic. The weak and trusting character of Solon

plunged Athens into slavery. This parallel embraces

the whole science of government.

LE PELLETIER: Considering the extent of human

degradation, I am convinced that it is necessary to

effect a total regeneration and, if I may so express

myself, of creating a new people.

The Socialists Want Dictatorship

Again, it is claimed that persons are nothing but raw material.

It is not for them to will their own improvement; they are

incapable of it. According to Saint-Just, only the legislator is

capable of doing this. Persons are merely to be what the legislator

wills them to be. According to Robespierre, who copies

Rousseau literally, the legislator begins by decreeing the end for

which the commonwealth has come into being. Once this is

determined, the government has only to direct the physical and

moral forces of the nation toward that end. Meanwhile, the

inhabitants of the nation are to remain completely passive. And

according to the teachings of Billaud-Varennes, the people

should have no prejudices, no affections, and no desires except

those authorized by the legislator. He even goes so far as to say

that the inflexible austerity of one man is the foundation of a


In cases where the alleged evil is so great that ordinary governmental

procedures cannot cure it, Mably recommends a dictatorship

to promote virtue: “Resort,” he says, “to an extraordinary

tribunal with considerable powers for a short time. The

imagination of the citizens needs to be struck a hard blow.” This

doctrine has not been forgotten. Listen to Robespierre:

The principle of the republican government is

virtue, and the means required to establish virtue is

terror. In our country we desire to substitute morality

for selfishness, honesty for honor, principles for customs,

duties for manners, the empire of reason for

the tyranny of fashion, contempt of vice for contempt

of poverty, pride for insolence, greatness of soul for

vanity, love of glory for love of money, good people

for good companions, merit for intrigue, genius for

wit, truth for glitter, the charm of happiness for the

boredom of pleasure, the greatness of man for the littleness

of the great, a generous, strong, happy people

for a good-natured, frivolous, degraded people; in

short, we desire to substitute all the virtues and miracles

of a republic for all the vices and absurdities of

a monarchy.

Dictatorial Arrogance

At what a tremendous height above the rest of mankind

does Robespierre here place himself! And note the arrogance

with which he speaks. He is not content to pray for a great

reawakening of the human spirit. Nor does he expect such a

result from a well-ordered government. No, he himself will

remake mankind, and by means of terror.

This mass of rotten and contradictory statements is

extracted from a discourse by Robespierre in which he aims to

explain the principles of morality which ought to guide a revolutionary

government. Note that Robespierre’s request for dictatorship

is not made merely for the purpose of repelling a foreign

invasion or putting down the opposing groups. Rather he wants

a dictatorship in order that he may use terror to force upon the

country his own principles of morality. He says that this act is

only to be a temporary measure preceding a new constitution.

But in reality, he desires nothing short of using terror to extinguish

from France selfishness, honor, customs, manners, fashion,

vanity, love of money, good companionship, intrigue, wit, sensu-

ousness, and poverty. Not until he, Robespierre, shall have

accomplished these miracles, as he so rightly calls them, will he

permit the law to reign again.*

The Indirect Approach to Despotism

Usually, however, these gentlemen—the reformers, the

legislators, and the writers on public affairs do not desire to

impose direct despotism upon mankind. Oh no, they are too

moderate and philanthropic for such direct action. Instead, they

turn to the law for this despotism, this absolutism, this omnipotence.

They desire only to make the laws.

To show the prevalence of this queer idea in France, I

would need to copy not only the entire works of Mably, Raynal,

Rousseau, and Fenelon—plus long extracts from Bossuet and

Montesquieu—but also the entire proceedings of the Convention.

I shall do no such thing; I merely refer the reader to them.

Napoleon Wanted Passive Mankind

It is, of course, not at all surprising that this same idea

should have greatly appealed to Napoleon. He embraced it

*At this point in the original French text, Mr. Bastiat pauses and speaks

thusly to all do- gooders and would-be rulers of mankind: “Ah, you miserable

creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be

so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves?

That task would be sufficient enough.”

ardently and used it with vigor. Like a chemist, Napoleon considered

all Europe to be material for his experiments. But, in

due course, this material reacted against him.

At St. Helena, Napoleon—greatly disillusioned—seemed

to recognize some initiative in mankind. Recognizing this, he

became less hostile to liberty. Nevertheless, this did not prevent

him from leaving this lesson to his son in his will: “To govern is

to increase and spread morality, education, and happiness.”

After all this, it is hardly necessary to quote the same opinions

from Morelly, Babeuf, Owen, Saint-Simon, and Fourier.

Here are, however, a few extracts from Louis Blanc’s book on

the organization of labor: “In our plan, society receives its

momentum from power.”

Now consider this: The impulse behind this momentum is

to be supplied by the plan of Louis Blanc; his plan is to be forced

upon society; the Society referred to is the human race. Thus the

human race is to receive its momentum from Louis Blanc.

Now it will be said that the people are free to accept or to

reject this plan. Admittedly, people are free to accept or to reject

advice from whomever they wish. But this is not the way in

which Mr. Louis Blanc understands the matter. He expects that

his plan will be legalized, and thus forcibly imposed upon the

people by the power of the law:

In our plan, the state has only to pass labor laws

(nothing else?) by means of which industrial progress

can and must proceed in complete liberty. The state

merely places society on an incline (that is all?). Then

society will slide down this incline by the mere force of

things, and by the natural workings of the established


But what is this incline that is indicated by Mr. Louis

Blanc? Does it not lead to an abyss? (No, it leads to happiness.)

If this is true, then why does not society go there of its own

choice? (Because society does not know what it wants; it must be

propelled.) What is to propel it? (Power.) And who is to supply

the impulse for this power? (Why, the inventor of the machine—

in this instance, Mr. Louis Blanc.)

The Vicious Circle of Socialism

We shall never escape from this circle: the idea of passive

mankind, and the power of the law being used by a great man to

propel the people.

Once on this incline, will society enjoy some liberty? (Certainly.)

And what is liberty, Mr. Louis Blanc?

Once and for all, liberty is not only a mere

granted right; it is also the power granted to a person

to use and to develop his faculties under a reign of justice

and under the protection of the law.

And this is no pointless distinction; its meaning is

deep and its consequences are difficult to estimate.

For once it is agreed that a person, to be truly free,

must have the power to use and develop his faculties,

then it follows that every person has a claim on society

for such education as will permit him to develop himself.

It also follows that every person has a claim on

society for tools of production, without which human

activity cannot be fully effective. Now by what action

can society give to every person the necessary education

and the necessary tools of production, if not by

the action of the state?

Thus, again, liberty is power. Of what does this

power consist? (Of being educated and of being given

the tools of production.) Who is to give the education

and the tools of production? (Society, which owes

them to everyone.) By what action is society to give

tools of production to those who do not own them?

(Why, by the action of the state.) And from whom will

the state take them?

Let the reader answer that question. Let him also notice

the direction in which this is taking us.

The Doctrine of the Democrats

The strange phenomenon of our times—one which will

probably astound our descendants—is the doctrine based on

this triple hypothesis: the total inertness of mankind, the

omnipotence of the law, and the infallibility of the legislator.

These three ideas form the sacred symbol of those who proclaim

themselves totally democratic.

The advocates of this doctrine also profess to be social. So

far as they are democratic, they place unlimited faith in

mankind. But so far as they are social, they regard mankind as

little better than mud. Let us examine this contrast in greater


What is the attitude of the democrat when political rights

are under discussion? How does he regard the people when a

legislator is to be chosen? Ah, then it is claimed that the people

have an instinctive wisdom; they are gifted with the finest perception;

their will is always right; the general will cannot err;

voting cannot be too universal.

When it is time to vote, apparently the voter is not to be

asked for any guarantee of his wisdom. His will and capacity to

choose wisely are taken for granted. Can the people be mistaken?

Are we not living in an age of enlightenment? What! are

the people always to be kept on leashes? Have they not won

their rights by great effort and sacrifice? Have they not given

ample proof of their intelligence and wisdom? Are they not

adults? Are they not capable of judging for themselves? Do they

not know what is best for themselves? Is there a class or a man

who would be so bold as to set himself above the people, and

judge and act for them? No, no, the people are and should be

free. They desire to manage their own affairs, and they shall do


But when the legislator is finally elected—ah! then indeed

does the tone of his speech undergo a radical change. The people

are returned to passiveness, inertness, and unconsciousness;

the legislator enters into omnipotence. Now it is for him to initiate,

to direct, to propel, and to organize. Mankind has only to

submit; the hour of despotism has struck. We now observe this

fatal idea: The people who, during the election, were so wise, so

moral, and so perfect, now have no tendencies whatever; or if

they have any, they are tendencies that lead downward into


The Socialist Concept of Liberty

But ought not the people be given a little liberty?

But Mr. Considerant has assured us that liberty leads

inevitably to monopoly!

We understand that liberty means competition. But according

to Mr. Louis Blanc, competition is a system that ruins the

businessmen and exterminates the people. It is for this reason

that free people are ruined and exterminated in proportion to

their degree of freedom. (Possibly Mr. Louis Blanc should

observe the results of competition in, for example, Switzerland,

Holland, England, and the United States.)

Mr. Louis Blanc also tells us that competition leads to

monopoly. And by the same reasoning, he thus informs us that

low prices lead to high prices; that competition drives production

to destructive activity; that competition drains away the

sources of purchasing power; that competition forces an increase

in production while, at the same time, it forces a decrease in consumption.

From this, it follows that free people produce for the

sake of not consuming; that liberty means oppression and madness

among the people; and that Mr. Louis Blanc absolutely

must attend to it.

Socialists Fear All Liberties

Well, what liberty should the legislators permit people to

have? Liberty of conscience? (But if this were permitted, we

would see the people taking this opportunity to become atheists.)

Then liberty of education? (But parents would pay professors

to teach their children immorality and falsehoods; besides,

according to Mr. Thiers, if education were left to national liberty,

it would cease to be national, and we would be teaching our children

the ideas of the Turks or Hindus; whereas, thanks to this

legal despotism over education, our children now have the good

fortune to be taught the noble ideas of the Romans.)

Then liberty of labor? (But that would mean competition

which, in turn, leaves production unconsumed, ruins businessmen,

and exterminates the people.)

Perhaps liberty of trade? (But everyone knows—and the

advocates of protective tariffs have proved over and over again—

that freedom of trade ruins every person who engages in it, and

that it is necessary to suppress freedom of trade in order to prosper.)

Possibly then, liberty of association? (But, according to

socialist doctrine, true liberty and voluntary association are in

contradiction to each other, and the purpose of the socialists is to

suppress liberty of association precisely in order to force people

to associate together in true liberty.)

Clearly then, the conscience of the social democrats cannot

permit persons to have any liberty because they believe that the

nature of mankind tends always toward every kind of degradation

and disaster. Thus, of course, the legislators must make

plans for the people in order to save them from themselves.

This line of reasoning brings us to a challenging question: If

people are as incapable, as immoral, and as ignorant as the

politicians indicate, then why is the right of these same people to

vote defended with such passionate insistence?

The Superman Idea

The claims of these organizers of humanity raise another

question which I have often asked them and which, so far as I

know, they have never answered: If the natural tendencies of

mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free,

how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good?

Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to

the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are

made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind? The organizers

maintain that society, when left undirected, rushes headlong to

its inevitable destruction because the instincts of the people are

so perverse. The legislators claim to stop this suicidal course and

to give it a saner direction. Apparently, then, the legislators and

the organizers have received from Heaven an intelligence and

virtue that place them beyond and above mankind; if so, let

them show their titles to this superiority.

They would be the shepherds over us, their sheep. Certainly

such an arrangement presupposes that they are naturally

superior to the rest of us. And certainly we are fully justified in

demanding from the legislators and organizers proof of this natural


The Socialists Reject Free Choice

Please understand that I do not dispute their right to invent

social combinations, to advertise them, to advocate them, and to

try them upon themselves, at their own expense and risk. But I

do dispute their right to impose these plans upon us by law—by

force—and to compel us to pay for them with our taxes.

I do not insist that the supporters of these various social

schools of thought—the Proudhonists, the Cabetists, the Fourierists,

the Universitarists, and the Protectionists—renounce

their various ideas. I insist only that they renounce this one idea

that they have in common: They need only to give up the idea of

forcing us to acquiesce to their groups and series, their socialized

projects, their free-credit banks, their Graeco-Roman concept

of morality, and their commercial regulations. I ask only

that we be permitted to decide upon these plans for ourselves;

that we not be forced to accept them, directly or indirectly, if we

find them to be contrary to our best interests or repugnant to

our consciences.

But these organizers desire access to the tax funds and to

the power of the law in order to carry out their plans. In addition

to being oppressive and unjust, this desire also implies the fatal

supposition that the organizer is infallible and mankind is

incompetent. But, again, if persons are incompetent to judge for

themselves, then why all this talk about universal suffrage?

The Cause of French Revolutions

This contradiction in ideas is, unfortunately but logically,

reflected in events in France. For example, Frenchmen have led

all other Europeans in obtaining their rights—or, more accurately,

their political demands. Yet this fact has in no respect prevented

us from becoming the most governed, the most regulated,

the most imposed upon, the most harnessed, and the most

exploited people in Europe. France also leads all other nations

as the one where revolutions are constantly to be anticipated.

And under the circumstances, it is quite natural that this should

be the case.

And this will remain the case so long as our politicians continue

to accept this idea that has been so well expressed by Mr.

Louis Blanc: “Society receives its momentum from power.” This

will remain the case so long as human beings with feelings continue

to remain passive; so long as they consider themselves incapable

of bettering their prosperity and happiness by their own

intelligence and heir own energy; so long as they expect everything

from the law; in short, so long as they imagine that their relationship

to the state is the same as that of the sheep to the shepherd.

The Enormous Power of Government

As long as these ideas prevail, it is clear that the responsibility

of government is enormous. Good fortune and bad fortune,

wealth and destitution, equality and inequality, virtue and

vice—all then depend upon political administration. It is burdened

with everything, it undertakes everything, it does everything;

therefore it is responsible for everything.

If we are fortunate, then government has a claim to our

gratitude; but if we are unfortunate, then government must bear

the blame. For are not our persons and property now at the disposal

of government? Is not the law omnipotent?

In creating a monopoly of education, the government must

answer to the hopes of the fathers of families who have thus

been deprived of their liberty; and if these hopes are shattered,

whose fault is it?

In regulating industry, the government has contracted to

make it prosper; otherwise it is absurd to deprive industry of its

liberty. And if industry now suffers, whose fault is it?

In meddling with the balance of trade by playing with tariffs,

the government thereby contracts to make trade prosper;

and if this results in destruction instead of prosperity, whose

fault is it?

In giving the maritime industries protection in exchange for

their liberty, the government undertakes to make them profitable;

and if they become a burden to the taxpayers, whose fault

is it?

Thus there is not a grievance in the nation for which the

government does not voluntarily make itself responsible. Is it

surprising, then, that every failure increases the threat of

another revolution in France?

And what remedy is proposed for this? To extend indefinitely

the domain of the law; that is, the responsibility of government.

But if the government undertakes to control and to raise

wages, and cannot do it; if the government undertakes to care

for all who may be in want, and cannot do it; if the government

undertakes to support all unemployed workers, and cannot do it;

if the government undertakes to lend interest-free money to all

borrowers, and cannot do it; if, in these words that we regret to

say escaped from the pen of Mr. de Lamartine, “The state considers

that its purpose is to enlighten, to develop, to enlarge, to

strengthen, to spiritualize, and to sanctify the soul of the people”—

and if the government cannot do all of these things, what

then? Is it not certain that after every government failure—

which, alas! is more than probable—there will be an equally

inevitable revolution?

Politics and Economics

[Now let us return to a subject that was briefly discussed in

the opening pages of this thesis: the relationship of economics

and of politics—political economy.*]

*Translator’s note: Mr. Bastiat has devoted three other books and several

articles to the development of the ideas contained in the three sentences of the

following paragraph.

A science of economics must be developed before a science

of politics can be logically formulated. Essentially, economics is

the science of determining whether the interests of human

beings are harmonious or antagonistic. This must be known

before a science of politics can be formulated to determine the

proper functions of government.

Immediately following the development of a science of

economics, and at the very beginning of the formulation of a science

of politics, this all-important question must be answered:

What is law? What ought it to be? What is its scope; its limits?

Logically, at what point do the just powers of the legislator stop?

I do not hesitate to answer: Law is the common force organized

to act as an obstacle to injustice. In short, law is justice.

Proper Legislative Functions

It is not true that the legislator has absolute power over our

persons and property. The existence of persons and property

preceded the existence of the legislator, and his function is only

to guarantee their safety.

It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences,

our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our

work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures. The function of

law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent

any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same

rights by any other person.

Since law necessarily requires the support of force, its law-

ful domain is only in the areas where the use of force is necessary.

This is justice.

Every individual has the right to use force for lawful selfdefense.

It is for this reason that the collective force—which is

only the organized combination of the individual forces—may

lawfully be used for the same purpose; and it cannot be used

legitimately for any other purpose.

Law is solely the organization of the individual right of selfdefense

which existed before law was formalized. Law is justice.

Law and Charity Are Not the Same

The mission of the law is not to oppress persons and plunder

them of their property, even though the law may be acting in

a philanthropic spirit. Its mission is to protect persons and property.

Furthermore, it must not be said that the law may be philanthropic

if, in the process, it refrains from oppressing persons

and plundering them of their property; this would be a contradiction.

The law cannot avoid having an effect upon persons and

property; and if the law acts in any manner except to protect

them, its actions then necessarily violate the liberty of persons

and their right to own property.

The law is justice—simple and clear, precise and bounded.

Every eye can see it, and every mind can grasp it; for justice is

measurable, immutable, and unchangeable. Justice is neither

more than this nor less than this.

If you exceed this proper limit—if you attempt to make the

law religious, fraternal, equalizing, philanthropic, industrial, literary,

or artistic—you will then be lost in an uncharted territory,

in vagueness and uncertainty, in a forced utopia or, even worse,

in a multitude of utopias, each striving to seize the law and

impose it upon you. This is true because fraternity and philanthropy,

unlike justice, do not have precise limits. Once started,

where will you stop? And where will the law stop itself?

The High Road to Communism

Mr. de Saint-Cricq would extend his philanthropy only to

some of the industrial groups; he would demand that the law

control the consumers to benefit the producers.

Mr. Considerant would sponsor the cause of the labor

groups; he would use the law to secure for them a guaranteed

minimum of clothing, housing, food, and all other necessities of


Mr. Louis Blanc would say—and with reason—that these

minimum guarantees are merely the beginning of complete fraternity;

he would say that the law should give tools of production

and free education to all working people.

Another person would observe that this arrangement would

still leave room for inequality; he would claim that the law

should give to everyone—even in the most inaccessible hamlet—

luxury, literature, and art.

All of these proposals are the high road to communism; leg-

islation will then be—in fact, it already is—the battlefield for the

fantasies and greed of everyone.

The Basis for Stable Government

Law is justice. In this proposition a simple and enduring

government can be conceived. And I defy anyone to say how

even the thought of revolution, of insurrection, of the slightest

uprising could arise against a government whose organized force

was confined only to suppressing injustice.

Under such a regime, there would be the most prosperity—

and it would be the most equally distributed. As for the sufferings

that are inseparable from humanity, none would even

think of blaming the government for them. This is true because,

if the force of government were limited to suppressing injustice,

then government would be as innocent of these sufferings as it is

now innocent of changes in the temperature.

As proof of this statement, consider this question: Have the

people ever been known to rise against the Court of Appeals, or

mob a Justice of the Peace, in order to get higher wages, free

credit, tools of production, favorable tariffs, or government-created

jobs? Everyone knows perfectly well that such matters are

not within the jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals or a Justice of

the Peace. And if government were limited to its proper functions,

everyone would soon learn that these matters are not

within the jurisdiction of the law itself.

But make the laws upon the principle of fraternity—pro-

claim that all good, and all bad, stem from the law; that the law

is responsible for all individual misfortunes and all social

inequalities—then the door is open to an endless succession of

complaints, irritations, troubles, and revolutions.

Justice Means Equal Rights

Law is justice. And it would indeed be strange if law could

properly be anything else! Is not justice right? Are not rights

equal? By what right does the law force me to conform to the

social plans of Mr. Mimerel, Mr. de Melun, Mr. Thiers, or Mr.

Louis Blanc? If the law has a moral right to do this, why does it

not, then, force these gentlemen to submit to my plans? Is it logical

to suppose that nature has not given me sufficient imagination

to dream up a utopia also? Should the law choose one fantasy

among many, and put the organized force of government at

its service only?

Law is justice. And let it not be said—as it continually is

said—that under this concept, the law would be atheistic, individualistic,

and heartless; that it would make mankind in its own

image. This is an absurd conclusion, worthy only of those worshippers

of government who believe that the law is mankind.

Nonsense! Do those worshippers of government believe

that free persons will cease to act? Does it follow that if we

receive no energy from the law, we shall receive no energy at

all? Does it follow that if the law is restricted to the function of

protecting the free use of our faculties, we will be unable to use

our faculties? Suppose that the law does not force us to follow

certain forms of religion, or systems of association, or methods

of education, or regulations of labor, or regulations of trade, or

plans for charity; does it then follow that we shall eagerly

plunge into atheism, hermitary, ignorance, misery, and greed?

If we are free, does it follow that we shall no longer recognize

the power and goodness of God? Does it follow that we shall

then cease to associate with each other, to help each other, to

love and succor our unfortunate brothers, to study the secrets

of nature, and to strive to improve ourselves to the best of our


The Path to Dignity and Progress

Law is Justice. And it is under the law of justice—under the

reign of right; under the influence of liberty, safety, stability, and

responsibility—that every person will attain his real worth and

the true dignity of his being. It is only under this law of justice

that mankind will achieve slowly, no doubt, but certainly—God’s

design for the orderly and peaceful progress of humanity.

It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for whatever

the question under discussion—whether religious, philosophical,

political, or economic; whether it concerns prosperity,

morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation,

property, labor, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population,

finance, or government—at whatever point on the scientific

horizon I begin my researches, I invariably reach this one conclusion:

The solution to the problems of human relationships is

to be found in liberty.

Proof of an Idea

And does not experience prove this? Look at the entire

world. Which countries contain the most peaceful, the most

moral, and the happiest people? Those people are found in the

countries where the law least interferes with private affairs;

where government is least felt; where the individual has the

greatest scope, and free opinion the greatest influence; where

administrative powers are fewest and simplest; where taxes are

lightest and most nearly equal, and popular discontent the least

excited and the least justifiable; where individuals and groups

most actively assume their responsibilities, and, consequently,

where the morals of admittedly imperfect human beings are constantly

improving; where trade, assemblies, and associations are

the least restricted; where labor, capital, and populations suffer

the fewest forced displacements; where mankind most nearly follows

its own natural inclinations; where the inventions of men are

most nearly in harmony with the laws of God; in short, the happiest,

most moral, and most peaceful people are those who most

nearly follow this principle: Although mankind is not perfect,

still, all hope rests upon the free and voluntary actions of persons

within the limits of right; law or force is to be used for nothing

except the administration of universal justice.

The Desire to Rule over Others

This must be said: There are too many “great” men in the

world—legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the peo-

ple, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too many persons

place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing

it, patronizing it, and ruling it.

Now someone will say: “You yourself are doing this very


True. But it must be admitted that I act in an entirely different

sense; if I have joined the ranks of the reformers, it is

solely for the purpose of persuading them to leave people alone.

I do not look upon people as Vancauson looked upon his

automaton. Rather, just as the physiologist accepts the human

body as it is, so do I accept people as they are. I desire only to

study and admire.

My attitude toward all other persons is well illustrated by

this story from a celebrated traveler: He arrived one day in the

midst of a tribe of savages, where a child had just been born. A

crowd of soothsayers, magicians, and quacks—armed with rings,

hooks, and cords—surrounded it. One said: “This child will

never smell the perfume of a peace-pipe unless I stretch his nostrils.”

Another said: “He will never be able to hear unless I draw

his ear-lobes down to his shoulders.” A third said: “He will never

see the sunshine unless I slant his eyes.” Another said: “He will

never stand upright unless I bend his legs.” A fifth said: “He will

never learn to think unless I flatten his skull.”

“Stop,” cried the traveler. “What God does is well done. Do

not claim to know more than He. God has given organs to this

frail creature; let them develop and grow strong by exercise, use,

experience, and liberty.”

Let Us Now Try Liberty

God has given to men all that is necessary for them to

accomplish their destinies. He has provided a social form as well

as a human form. And these social organs of persons are so constituted

that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the

clean air of liberty. Away, then, with quacks and organizers!

Away with their rings, chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with

their artificial systems! Away with the whims of governmental

administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization,

their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their

free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, their

restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely

inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end

where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and

try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and

His works.


Sheldon Richman

The state is that great fiction by which everyone

tries to live at the expense of everyone else.

—Frederic Bastiat

Frederic Bastiat holds a special place in the hearts and

minds of the friends of liberty. There is no mystery here to be

solved. The key to Bastiat’s appeal is the integrity and elegance of

his message. His writing exhibits a purity and a reasoned passion

that are rare in the modern world. He always wrote to be understood,

to persuade, not to impress or to obfuscate.

Through the device of the fable, Bastiat deftly shattered the

misconceptions about economics for his French contemporaries.

When today, in modern America, we continue to be told,

by intellectuals as well as by politicians, that the free entry of

foreign-made products impoverishes us or that destructive

earthquakes and hurricanes create prosperity by creating

demand for rebuilding, we are seeing the results of a culture

ignorant of Frederic Bastiat.

But to think of Bastiat as just an economist is to insufficiently

appreciate him. Bastiat was a legal philosopher of the

first rank. What made him so is The Law. Writing as France was

being seduced by the false promises of socialism, Bastiat was

Sheldon Richman is editor of The Freeman: Ideas on Liberty.

concerned with law in the classical sense; he directs his reason to

the discovery of the principles of social organization best suited

to human beings.

He begins by recognizing that individuals must act to maintain

their lives. They do so by applying their faculties to the natural

world and transforming its components into useful products.

“Life, faculties, production—in other words, individuality,

liberty, property—this is man,” Bastiat writes. And since they are

at the very core of human nature, they “precede all human legislation,

and are superior to it.” Too few people understand that

point. Legal positivism, the notion that there is no right and

wrong prior to the enactment of legislation, sadly afflicts even

some advocates of individual liberty (the utilitarian descendants

of Bentham, for example). But, Bastiat reminds us, “Life, liberty,

and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the

contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed

beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.”

For Bastiat, law is a negative. He agreed with a friend who

pointed out that it is imprecise to say that law should create justice.

In truth, the law should prevent injustice. “Justice is

achieved only when injustice is absent.” That may strike some

readers as dubious. But on reflection, one can see that a free and

just society is what results when forcible intervention against

individuals does not occur; when they are left alone.

The purpose of law is the defense of life, liberty, and property.

It is, says Bastiat, “the collective organization of the individual

right of lawful defense.” Each individual has the right to

defend his life, liberty, and property. A group of individuals,

therefore, may be said to have “collective right” to pool their

resources to defend themselves. “Thus the principle of collective

right—its reason for existing, its lawfulness—is based on individual

right. And this 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.” If the very purpose

of law is the protection of individual rights, then law may not

be used—without contradiction—to accomplish what individuals

have no right to do. “Such a perversion of force would be . . . contrary

to our premise.” The result would be unlawful law.

A society based on a proper conception of law would be

orderly and prosperous. But unfortunately, some will choose

plunder over production if the former requires less effort than

the latter. A grave danger arises when the class of people who

make the law (legislation) turns to plunder. The result, Bastiat

writes, is “lawful plunder.” At first, only the small group of lawmakers

practices legal plunder. But that may set in motion a

process in which the plundered classes, rather than seeking to

abolish the perversion of law, instead strive to get in on it. “It is

as if it were necessary, before a reign of justice appears, for

everyone to suffer a cruel retribution—some for their evilness,

and some for their lack of understanding.”

The result of generalized legal plunder is moral chaos precisely

because law and morality have been set at odds. “When

law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel

alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect

for the law.” Bastiat points out that for many people, what is legal

is legitimate. So they are plunged into confusion. And conflict.

As long as it is admitted that the law may be

diverted from its true purpose—that it may violate

property instead of protecting it—then everyone will

want to participate in making the law, either to protect

himself against plunder or to use it for plunder. Political

questions will always be prejudicial, dominant, and

all-absorbing. There will be fighting at the door of the

Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no

less furious.

Sound familiar?

Bastiat finds another motive—besides the desire for booty—

behind legal plunder: “false philanthropy.” Again, he sees a contradiction.

If philanthropy is not voluntary, it destroys liberty and

justice. The law can give nothing that has not first been taken

from its owner. He applies that analysis to all forms of government

intervention, from tariffs to so-called public education.

Bastiat’s words are as fresh as if they were written today. He

explains that one can identify legal plunder by looking for laws

that authorize that one person’s property be given to someone

else. Such laws should be abolished “without delay.” But, he

warns, “the person who profits from such law will complain bitterly,

defending his acquired rights,” his entitlements. Bastiat’s

advice is direct: “Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests.

The acceptance of these arguments will build legal plunder

into a whole system. In fact, this has already occurred. The present-

day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the

expense of everyone else.”

The world view that underlies the distortion of law, Bastiat

writes, holds man as a passive entity, lacking a motor of his own

and awaiting the hand and plan of the wise legislator. He quotes

Rousseau: “The legislator is the mechanic who invents the

machine.” Saint-Just: “The legislator commands the future. It is

for him to will the good of mankind. It is for him to make men

what he wills them to be.” And the razor-sharp Robespierre:

“The function of government is to direct the physical and moral

powers of the nation toward the end for which the commonwealth

has come into being.”

Bastiat echoes Adam Smith’s condemnation of the “man of

system,” who sees people as mere pieces to be moved about a

chessboard. To accomplish his objectives, the legislator must

stamp out human differences, for they impede the plan. Forced

conformity (is there any other kind?) is the order of the day. Bastiat

quotes several writers in this vein, then replies:

Oh, sublime writers! Please remember sometimes

that this clay, this sand, and this manure which

you so arbitrarily dispose of, are men! They are your

equals! They are intelligent and free human beings

like yourselves! As you have, they too have received

from God the faculty to observe, to plan ahead, to

think, and to judge for themselves!

After quoting several of those writers who are so willing to

devote themselves to reinventing people, Bastiat can no longer

control his outrage: “Ah, you miserable creatures! You think you

are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who

wish to reform everything! Why don’t you reform yourselves?

That would be sufficient enough.”

Nor does Bastiat allow unrestrained democracy to escape

his grasp. With his usual elegance, he goes right to the core of

the issue. The democrat hails the people’s wisdom. In what does

that wisdom consist? The ability to pick all-powerful legislators—

and that is all. “The people who, during the election, were

so wise, so moral, so perfect, now have no tendencies whatever;

or if they have any, they are tendencies that lead downward to

degradation. . . . If people are as incapable, as immoral, and as

ignorant as the politicians indicate, then why is the right of these

same people to vote defended with such passionate insistence?”

And “if the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is

not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies

of these organizers are always good?”

Bastiat closes his volume with a clarion call for freedom and

a rejection of all proposals to impose unnatural social arrangements

on people. He implores all “legislators and do-gooders

[to] reject all systems, and try liberty.”

In the years since The Law was first published, little has

been written in the classical liberal tradition that can approach

its purity, its power, its nearly poetic quality. Alas, the world is far

from having learned the lessons of The Law. Bastiat would be

saddened by what America has become. He warned us. He identified

the principles indispensable for proper human society and

made them accessible to all. In the struggle to end the legalized

plunder of statism and to defend individual liberty, how much

more could be asked of one man?

Athens, 40

Blanc, Louis, 57–58, 61, 65, 70, 72

Bossuet, Jacques-Benigne, 33–35, 38

Capital, 4

Charity, 27, 69

Choice, freedom of, 64

Communism, 23, 70

Competition, 61

Condillac, Etienne Bonnot de, 49, 50

Conformity, 45

Democracy and/or democrats, 42,

59–60, 63

Despotism, 51, 56, 61

Dictatorship, 49, 53, 54, 55

Dignity, 73

Economics, 51, 59, 61, 62, 66, 67–68

Education, 18, 24, 27, 28, 29, 32, 34,

62, 67

Egyptians, 33–

G. Edward Griffin on the Federal Reserve