24 April 2016

Review: "The Law" by Frédéric Bastiat

Arguing about Frédéric Bastiat's 'The Law' is synonymous with arguing about Classical Liberalism itself. In 1850, when 'The Law' was written, Bastiat already was gravely ill. For those who know of his writings and of the revolutionary era he lived in, it can thus be seen as a culmination of a life dedicated to liberty. Some might even know him from the so-called "Parable of the broken window", in which he argued that destruction, and money spent to recover from destruction, are not beneficial to society. 'The Law', as the title suggests, is his manifesto on the nature of law, what it ought and ought not to be, and stands as a bold defence against the ascending Socialist movement of his time. It really is a pamphlet more than a book and it is written as such with grand vigour.

According to Bastiat, man is Personality, Liberty, and Property. He argues these properties to be god-given. Infringe upon them and man ceases to be. So far so good, forgoing the double fallacy he commits at this point, in light of how this idea is laid out with reason further in the text.
It is in his definition of law, where we get to the meat of matter: "Law is the collective organisation of the individual right to lawful defence." Bingo! Contrary to the Socialist argument that law makes man, Bastiat argues, that in defence of Personhood, Liberty, and Property, man makes the law. And if every individual has the right to defend these properties, they also have a right to band together to provide for defence regularly (i.e. government). The elegant simplicity of his argument comes full circle, when you consider that this collective right, by its nature, cannot have any other end, than the defence of the individual. Its sole reason for existence lies within the individual right for defence. It may never 'destroy the person', as Bastiat puts it, just like the individual force may not.

"Within justice, law and force impose upon a man nothing more than a negation. Keeping him from harming others."

There are people who then argue, that nobody has a 'right' to anything. That rights are a man-made construct. These people are enemies of civilisation. I am a Darwinist through and through, but I don't want society to be darwinistic. Humans have a potential to go beyond their primal urges, and if we are to advance the human condition peacefully, everyone has to have the right to pursue in their own enterprise. And but how are we to do so, if government wills over us by means of coercion? Application of force can by definition never be peaceful. Liberty therefore is not a question of entitlement, it is the basis for human prosperity and aspiration. People have to be on their own agenda. And Bastiat saw the people of France giving away these inherent liberties willingly. Socialism ultimately became the law. And with it being the law, it was nigh impossible to combat it.

According to him, Socialism really divides mankind into two categories: people and politicians. The all-knowing legislator stands above the plebs, whom he forms and moulds for a perceived greater good. But if people are so bad--Bastiat asks--that they need to be reigned-in by the power of the legislator, how can it be that his intentions are always good? Is he not himself just a man?

The last part of the book is filled with quotes from the 'classics' of his age. Quotes about Ancient Societies and how their prime movers saw their citizens as nothing more than kettle, who tend towards degradation and can only be saved by the hidden power of the legislator. I found these last pages, as he goes on and on quoting from older sources, to be rather dull.

I consider myself a Classical Liberal, so I am predisposed to liking this seminal piece of writing. However, I wasn't always and my Progressive younger self would probably be at awe with which reverence I speak of Bastiat's pamphlet. Now that I am older, I can see through the inherent pessimism in Socialist dogma, that people are not to be trusted and that they have to be engineered into conformity. In learning of the Enlightenment and its proponents, the marketplace of ideas, and the opposition to tyranny in its many forms, I came to reject this pessimistic world-view. And when I have the chance, I always choose peace through individual liberty, as far as I am still free to do so.

I highly recommend this book not only to Classical Liberals or Libertarians, but to all those who purport to live according to enlightenment era principles. It is a rough ride and not always logically consistent, but the core of the argument is powerful and Frédéric Bastiat communicates it with contagious passion.

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