The Law – Frederic Bastiat (A Commentary Part I)

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I’m back – we’ll see how long it lasts this time.

I am going to cheat again today by mostly quoting from Frederic Bastiat’s The Law (1850).
Needs to be said. Can’t say it better myself.
I would highly encourage all to read the entire essay. Much is said that I, by necessity of length, left out.
As well, I was forced to break this into two commentaries.
However, although it was written over 160 years ago, it is becoming significant to understand in today’s society. A society headed directly down the path he argues against.
All hiliting and italics are mine. Comments in brackets [] are also mine.

To begin with, a few definitions quite relevant and very important in the current state of politics and society.

“Man can only derive life and enjoyment from a perpetual search and appropriation; that is, from a perpetual application of his faculties to objects, or from labor. This is the origin of property.
“But also he may live and enjoy, by seizing and appropriating the productions of the faculties of his fellow men. This is the origin of plunder.”

“Now, labor being in itself a pain, and man being naturally inclined to avoid pain, it follows, and history proves it, that wherever plunder is less burdensome than labor, it prevails; and neither religion nor morality can, in this case, prevent it from prevailing. ‘It is in the nature of men to rise against the injustice of which they are the victims [even when, in much of the case today, it is perceived injustice and victimhood vice actual]. When, therefore, plunder is organized by law, for the profit of those who perpetrate it, all the plundered classes tend, either by peaceful or revolutionary means, to enter in some way into the manufacturing of laws. These classes, according to the degree of enlightenment at which they have arrived, may propose to themselves two very different ends, when they thus attempt the attainment of their political rights; either they may wish to put an end to lawful plunder, or they may desire to take part in it.
Woe to the nation where this latter thought prevails amongst the masses, at the moment when they, in their turn, seize upon the legislative power!’”

Should this take place – as it has in the past and we may be very close to it again – …
“It would be impossible, therefore, to introduce into society a greater change and a greater evil than this—the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.
“In the first place, it would efface from everybody’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice. No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree, but the safest way to make them respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality are in contradiction to each other, the citizen finds himself in the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense, or of losing his respect for the law—two evils of equal magnitude, between which it would be difficult to choose.
“It is so much in the nature of law to support justice that in the minds of the masses they are one and the same [unfortunately of late, that nature is going by the wayside]. There is in all of us a strong disposition to regard what is lawful as legitimate, so much so that many falsely derive all justice from law [hmmmmm, the current state of affairs given the proclivity in our society to shun religion (or any moral thought)]. It is sufficient, then, for the law to order and sanction plunder, that it may appear to many consciences just and sacred.”
“Is there any need to prove that this odious perversion of law is a perpetual source of hatred and discord, that it even tends to social disorganization? Look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within its proper domain—which is, to secure to everyone his liberty and his property. Therefore, there is no country in the world where social order appears to rest upon a more solid basis. Nevertheless, even in the United States, there are two questions, and only two, that from the beginning have endangered political order. And what are these two questions? That of slavery and that of tariffs; that is, precisely the only two questions in which, contrary to the general spirit of this republic, law has taken the character of a plunderer.”
Keep in mind this was from 1850 – are we not destroying this virtual utopia (his concept, not mine) in exactly the way he suggests it can be? We did rid ourselves of overt slavery. And tariffs can be debated. But the slip into plunder is increasing in speed and expanse. While I confess one political party is significantly worse than the other – regardless of party, few in Congress now can see past this idea of plunder for one pet project or another (mostly unconstitutional). One term we use today for plunder is “entitlement”.
“Mr. Montalembert, adopting the thought of a famous proclamation of Mr. Carlier, said, ‘We must make war against socialism.’ And by socialism, according to the definition of Mr. Charles Dupin, he meant plunder. But what plunder did he mean? For there are two sorts: extralegal and legal plunder. As to extralegal plunder, such as theft, or swindling, which is defined, foreseen, and punished by the penal code, I do not think it can be adorned by the name of socialism.”
Not so of legal plunder…
“But how is it to be distinguished [from legitimate function of government or the law]? Very easily. See whether the law takes from some persons that which belongs to them, to give to others what does not belong to them. See whether the law performs, for the profit of one citizen, and, to the injury of others, an act that this citizen cannot perform without committing a crime.”
Wow! Not sure you could get more specific than that. That (legal plunder) which, since this essay was written, and the US was esteemed, we have definitely committed. What government takes from us and gives to others would definitely land an individual in jail should he attempt on his own. Remember Robin Hood. May have had charity in his heart. But was still breaking the law. Yet our government gets away with it every day.
I have no doubt it would be to Bastiat’s utter dismay. Not to mention mine. And I hope yours.

So… How do we solve this travesty of “legal plunder”?
My wife told me recently that I was like Tim Allen (I presume she meant his recent character on TV) – that I come up with solutions (nobody listens of course, but I can sleep at night knowing I solved the problem). In this case, I don’t have to. Mr. Bastiat did it for me. Although it is a solution I’ve recommended several times regarding several issues. I’m certainly not as smart as he was – this was just another one of those not so obvious, obvious ones.
Mr. Bastiat’s answer?
Abolish this law without delay [or, in this case, the thousands of them at both our Federal and State levels]; it is not merely an iniquity [immorality]— it is a fertile source of iniquities, for it invites reprisals; and if you do not take care, the exceptional case will extend, multiply, and become systematic. No doubt the party benefited will exclaim loudly; he will assert his acquired rights [Rights? I think he is using this term very loosely]. He will say that the State is bound to protect and encourage his industry [personal and in general]; he will plead that it is a good thing for the State to be enriched, that it may spend the more, and thus shower down salaries upon the poor workmen. Take care not to listen to this sophistry [sham philosophy – per Plato himself – out for money and willing to say anything to win an argument. Sound familiar?], for it is just by the systematizing of these arguments that legal plunder becomes systematized.”
Will we take his advice? I believe not. We are like alcoholics or drug addicts. We must reach rock bottom first. Unfortunately, like Venezuela, this may not take as long as I was expecting.

“And this is what has taken place. The delusion of the day is to enrich all classes at the expense of each other; it is to generalize plunder under pretense of organizing it. Now, legal plunder may be exercised in an infinite multitude of ways. Hence come an infinite multitude of plans for organization; tariffs, protection, perquisites, gratuities, encouragements, progressive taxation, free public education, right to work, right to profit, right to wages, right to assistance, right to instruments of labor, gratuity of credit, etc., etc. [Wow! Did he hit it right on the head! Many of these definitely sound familiar in today’s society.] And it is all these plans, taken as a whole, with what they have in common, legal plunder, that takes the name of socialism. Now socialism, thus defined, and forming a doctrinal body, what other war would you make against it than a war of doctrine? You find this doctrine false, absurd, abominable. Refute it. This will be all the easier, the more false, absurd, and abominable it is. Above all, if you wish to be strong, begin by rooting out of your legislation every particle of socialism which may have crept into it—and this will be no light work.”
“And, in all sincerity, can anything more be required at the hands of the law? Can the law, whose necessary sanction is force, be reasonably employed upon anything beyond securing to everyone his right? I defy anyone to remove it from this circle without perverting it, and consequently turning force against right.”

I leave you tonight with what Bastiat states as the purpose of law, and to the reasoning he takes it, government.
“It is not because men have made laws, that personality, liberty, and property exist. On the contrary, it is because personality, liberty, and property exist beforehand, that men make laws. What, then, is law? As I have said elsewhere, it is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense. Nature, or rather God, has bestowed upon every one of us the right to defend his person, his liberty, and his property, since these are the three constituent or preserving elements of life; elements, each of which is rendered complete by the others, and that cannot be understood without them. For what are our faculties, but the extension of our personality? And what is property, but an extension of our faculties? If every man has the right of defending, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property, a number of men have the right to combine together to extend, to organize a common force to provide regularly for this defense.”
That is the sole purpose of law. The sole purpose of government. We have of course bastardized it.
To the profit of some. To the plunder of others.

Next time: Philanthropy and fraternity and the law of plunder
>>> The day is at a close, the night is drawing in and my cigar awaits – ’til next time…

Parable of the Broken Window

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Bastiat’s original parable of the broken window from Ce qu’on voit et ce qu’on ne voit pas [That Which is Seen, and That Which is Not Seen] (1850) – translated by Patrick James Stirling

Have you ever witnessed the anger of the good shopkeeper, James Goodfellow, when his careless son has happened to break a pane of glass? If you have been present at such a scene, you will most assuredly bear witness to the fact that every one of the spectators, were there even thirty of them, by common consent apparently, offered the unfortunate owner this invariable consolation – “It is an ill wind that blows nobody good. Everybody must live, and what would become of the glaziers if panes of glass were never broken?”

Now, this form of condolence contains an entire theory, which it will be well to show up in this simple case, seeing that it is precisely the same as that which, unhappily, regulates the greater part of our economical institutions.

Suppose it cost six francs to repair the damage, and you say that the accident brings six francs to the glazier’s trade – that it encourages that trade to the amount of six francs – I grant it; I have not a word to say against it; you reason justly. The glazier comes, performs his task, receives his six francs, rubs his hands, and, in his heart, blesses the careless child. All this is that which is seen.

But if, on the other hand, you come to the conclusion, as is too often the case, that it is a good thing to break windows, that it causes money to circulate, and that the encouragement of industry in general will be the result of it, you will oblige me to call out, “Stop there! Your theory is confined to that which is seen; it takes no account of that which is not seen.”

It is not seen that as our shopkeeper has spent six francs upon one thing, he cannot spend them upon another. It is not seen that if he had not had a window to replace, he would, perhaps, have replaced his old shoes, or added another book to his library. In short, he would have employed his six francs in some way, which this accident has prevented.

The key here is that each of us only has so much money.  Relative to my post on 31 March 2013 – giving my wife’s money to the Federal Government so they may distribute it at will to whomever they please may sound good on the surface.  All those “poor” people so in “need” of our help. However, this creates problems on two fronts.  One, we have less money to give to charities of OUR choice.  Individuals that would benefit from our contributions must now look elsewhere – the consequence therefrom means there are even MORE people that look to the government for assistance.  This is not to mention the expensive bureaucracy created to redistribute all this wealth.  Bureaucracies without which most charities seem to be able to operate just fine.  Second, we have less to spend on those things WE may need or want.  Lacking things we need creates problems for others (grocers, power company employees, etc.), but even more of a problem for us (food, water, lights, heat, etc. are important to us… go figure).  Lacking those things we want creates problems for others as well.  Just as in the parable above, the six francs that went to the glazier are six francs we cannot give to the carpenter for a new chair or table, or the shopkeeper for a new lamp or television or whatnot.  I don’t care if it is of the yacht builder we speak.  Billionaires that own yachts contribute significantly to the economy.  Yachts are expensive to buy (not to mention to operate).  Consider all those men and women that build and operate yachts and support systems therefore, they have families too!

I could go on and on about this concern.  Suffice it to say, from a total economic picture, money is NOT limited (as some would have you believe).  Yet, on an individual level it is.  The more government takes from its people the less they have to support their fellow citizens.  Allowing us to spend according to our individual need/want creates an economy that will support all.  Taking and creating a dependent underclass only depresses the economy and our country that much further.  It is your choice.  Consider it next time you have a decision to make regarding who will run your country.

>>> The day is at a close, the night is drawing in and my cigar awaits – ’til next time…