“Self-preservation and development is the common aspiration of all men, in such a way that if every one enjoyed the free exercise of his faculties and the free disposition of their fruits, social progress would be incessant, uninterrupted, inevitable.” — Frédéric Bastiat, “The Law”
A friend recently asked me a question about Frédéric Bastiat’s “The Law,” which, of course, prompted me to reread this classic.
If I were to compile a list of books every American should read, near the top would be such great works as Thomas Paine’s “Common Sense” (1776) and the “Rights of Man” (1791). Also, you would find Adam Smith’s “An Inquiry into the Nature and Causes of the Wealth of Nations” (1776); Alexis de Tocqueville’s two-volume set “On Democracy in America” (1835 and 1840); and “The Federalist” (1788) and “The Complete Anti-Federalist” (1981). And, of course, no list of required reading would be complete without “Two Treatises of Government,” published anonymously in 1689 by the father of classical liberalism, John Locke.
However, were I forced to narrow that list down to one book, it would have to be “The Law.” Because this masterpiece was written in 1850, it is available freely online or you can pick up an ebook version for less than a dollar.
Bastiat was a 19th century French economist, but his work describes 21st century America to a T.
It might seem strange to the uninitiated that some of the greatest advocates in the liberty movement are economists, noted men such as Friedrich Hayek, Henry Hazlitt, Ludwig von Mises, Murray Rothbard, and Milton Friedman to name a few. This is because these men had a profound understanding of the human psyche. A knowledge so basic and so easy that it escapes most people.
It is an immutable truth that people will almost always act in their own rational self-interest, or at least what they perceive it to be. Or, as Bastiat called it in the quotation topping this column, their own self-preservation. Ayn Rand referred to it as rational selfishness and individualism.
The obverse of the self-interest rule is that people will also almost always choose the path of least resistance.
Simply put, people will act in their own self-interest. But when it becomes easier to live at the expense of others, they will do that. Hence, the problem with the modern welfare state. Too many believe that government exists solely to redistribute wealth; to make it easier for one class, the takers, to live at the expense of another class, the makers. This is what Bastiat calls misconceived or fake philanthropy.
But redistributing wealth is not the proper role of government in a free society. Not by a long shot.
Every human being is born with the inalienable right to life, liberty and property. And every human being has the right to use force to protect those rights. These rights exist in humans before government was ever formed. That is because rights come from God or nature (depending on your belief system). Rights are not political grants from government. Rights pre-exist government.
Government, then, is nothing but the collective right of individuals. In other words, government has no legitimate power beyond protecting life, liberty and property because government cannot have more rights collectively than the person does individually.
When government engages in misconceived philanthropy, though, it uses force to take from one person to unjustly enrich another. And if the person being plundered tries to exercise his natural right to self-defense, to protect his property, he is likely to lose his liberty.
Thus, the very first sentence of Bastiat’s work is, “The Law perverted!”Government should be a means of justice, but most of the time it is a weapon of injustice.
Unfortunately, too many people, especially those on the left, despise personal liberty. To the average leftist, humans are nothing but resources that government can exploit. Or, as President Bill Clinton used to say, “You can’t trust people with their own money.”
However, these big-government statists can never logically answer one simple question: “If you can’t trust people with freedom, how can you trust them with power?”