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Review of Bastiat's "The Law"

Copyright 1995 by David W. Neuendorf



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I would like to introduce you to an old friend: Frederic Bastiat. A French legislator during the middle of the nineteenth century, Mr. Bastiat was the author of several books on economics. In 1850, he produced a pamphlet entitled The Law. This work has since been translated to English and published by the Foundation for Economic Education. I bring it up here because it is the best explanation I've yet seen of how Conservatives approach questions of government power. At only 75 pages, The Law is an excellent short introduction to the thinking of those who love liberty.

Bastiat wrote The Law in an attempt to curb the socialistic excesses into which France was falling at that time. Like many Americans in our century, the French had bought the idea that government is responsible for everything related to the welfare of its citizens. Bastiat's arguments against that idea are as relevant to America today as they were in France in his day.

The Law begins with a definition: "What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to 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."

Bastiat then describes the problem he is attacking in his book: perversion of the law. "The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating 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...The law has been perverted by the influence of two entirely different causes: stupid greed and false philanthropy."

Lawful plunder is a term that Bastiat often uses to describe the perversion of law. He gives us a test whereby we can recognize lawful plunder: "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...If such a law -- which may be an isolated case -- is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system."

Somewhere along the line, the American species of lawful plunder took root and spread like a weed. In this century it has developed into a system larger and more complex than any other in history. We are seeing now the difficulty of rooting it out, even with a Congress dominated by those who recognize they were elected to do so. That job would be much easier if more Americans understood the principles set forth by Bastiat in The Law. Readers who would like to give Mr. Bastiat a try should be able to find The Law, and perhaps his other books, in the library. If you want your own copy, I know where to order them for $4 apiece.

Mr. Bastiat's concluding words could serve as the rallying cry for those of us who want to restore Constitutional government in our nation today: "And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works."