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,
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
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
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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
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
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
The state is that great fiction by which everyone
tries to live at the expense of everyone else.
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
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?
Blanc, Louis, 57–58, 61, 65, 70, 72
Bossuet, Jacques-Benigne, 33–35, 38
Charity, 27, 69
Choice, freedom of, 64
Communism, 23, 70
Condillac, Etienne Bonnot de, 49, 50
Democracy and/or democrats, 42,
Despotism, 51, 56, 61
Dictatorship, 49, 53, 54, 55
Economics, 51, 59, 61, 62, 66, 67–68
Education, 18, 24, 27, 28, 29, 32, 34,
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