Selected Essays on Political Economy

Frédéric Bastiat
Bastiat, Frédéric
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Seymour Cain, trans.
First Pub. Date
Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Pub. Date
Includes Preface by George B. de Huszar, introduction by Friedrich A. Hayek
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Plunder and Law**58

To the Protectionists of the General Council of Manufacturers:


Sirs: Let us have a little talk in a spirit of moderation and friendliness.


You do not want political economists to believe in and to teach free trade.


It is as if you were to say: "We do not want political economists to be concerned with society, trade, value, morality, law, justice, or property. We recognize only two principles: oppression and plunder."


Is it possible for you to conceive of political economy without society, of society without exchange, of exchange without some relation between the two objects or the two services exchanged in regard to the value placed upon them? Is it possible for you to conceive of this relation, called value, otherwise than as the result of the free consent of those who are parties to the exchange? Is it possible for you to conceive how one product can be worth another if one of the parties to the transaction is not free? Is it possible for you to conceive of the free consent of the two parties in the absence of freedom? Is it possible for you to conceive of one of the parties as deprived of freedom without being oppressed by the other? Is it possible for you to conceive of exchange between oppressor and oppressed without the equivalence of services being impaired, and hence without violating law, justice, and property rights?


But what do you want? Speak frankly.


You do not want exchange to be free!


Then you want it not to be free?


So you want it to take place under the influence of oppression? For if it does not take place under the influence of oppression, it will take place in freedom, and that is what you do not want.


Admit that what embarrasses you is equity, i.e., justice; what embarrasses you is property—not yours, of course, but that of others. You are unwilling to allow others to dispose freely of their property (which is the only way of being a property owner); but you want to dispose of yours—and of theirs.


And then you require the economists to arrange this mass of absurdities and monstrosities into a systematic doctrine; to construct, for your use, the theory of plunder.


But that is what they will never do; for in their eyes plunder is a source of hatred and disorder, and an especially odious form of it is the legal form.**59


Here, M. Benoît d'Azy,*81 I must take you to task. You are a moderate, impartial, generous man. You are not preoccupied with your own interests or your own fortune; that is what you incessantly proclaim. Recently, at the General Council, you said: "If all that were needed to make the people rich were for the rich to give up their possessions, we should all be ready to do so." (Yes, yes! It's true!) And yesterday, in the National Assembly, you said: "If I thought it depended only on me to give all the workers the jobs that they need, I should give all I possess to accomplish this; .... unfortunately, it's impossible."


Although the futility of the sacrifice gives you the great pain of not making it and of saying, like Basile, "Money! Money! I despise it—but I hold on to it,"*82 certainly no one could doubt a generosity so resounding, although so sterile. This is a virtue that likes to cover itself with a veil of modesty, especially when it is purely latent and negative. You do not, for your part, lose any opportunity to display it before the whole of France on the rostrum, at the Luxembourg, and at the Legislative Palace. This shows that you cannot restrain your generous impulses, although you do regretfully repress their practical application.


But, after all, nobody asks you to give up your fortune, and I agree that it would not solve the social question.


You would like to be generous and you cannot be so effectively; what I venture to ask of you is that you be just. Keep your fortune, but let me keep mine. Respect my property as I respect yours. Is this too bold a request on my part?


Suppose that we were in a country where freedom of exchange prevailed, where everyone could freely dispose of his labor and his property. Your hair stands on end? Don't worry; it's only a hypothetical case.


We are, then, each of us equally free. There is, indeed, one law in the legislative code, but that law, fully impartial and just, far from impairing your freedom, guarantees it. It goes into effect only when we try to practice oppression, you against me or I against you. There is a body of public officials empowered to use force—magistrates and policemen—but they only execute the law.


This being the case, let us assume that you are an ironmaster and I am a hatter. I need iron for my personal use or for my shop. Naturally, I ask myself this question: "How can I procure the iron that I need with the least possible amount of work?" In considering my situation and the available data, I discover that it is best for me to make my hats and sell them to a Belgian, who will give me iron in return.


But you are an ironmaster, and you say to yourself: "I can certainly force that rascal [it's of me you're speaking] to come to my shop."


Consequently, you fill your belt with sabers and pistols, you arm your numerous servants, you appear on the border, and there, at the moment when I am about to make my exchange, you cry out to me: "Stop, or I'll blow your brains out!"


"But, sir, I need iron."


"I have some to sell."


"But, sir, your price is too high."


"I have my reasons for that."


"But, sir, I also have my reasons to prefer iron at a low price."


"Oh, well, here is what will decide between your reasons and mine. Men, take aim!"


In short, you prevent the Belgian iron from coming in, and, at the same time, you prevent my hats from going out.


On our present hypothesis, that is, under a system of free exchange, you cannot deny that this is on your part a flagrant act of oppression and plunder.


So I hasten to invoke the law, the magistrate, the public police force. They intervene; you are judged, condemned, and justly punished.


But all this suggests to you a brilliant idea.


You say to yourself: "I was indeed a fool to put myself to so much trouble. What! To risk killing or being killed! To have to leave my home, mobilize my servants, incur great expense, give myself the character of a plunderer, deserve to be punished by the courts of the country, and all this to force a wretched hatter to come to my shop to buy iron at my price! Suppose I were to put the law, the magistrate, and the police force on my side! Suppose I were to have them perform that odious act on the frontier which I went to do myself!"


Excited by this seductive prospect, you have yourself named a legislator, and you vote for a law set forth in these terms:


Article 1. A tax shall be levied on everyone, and especially on that damned hatter.


Article 2. The men who guard the frontier in the interest of the ironmasters shall be paid with the revenue from this tax.


Article 3. They shall see to it that no one exchanges hats or other merchandise with the Belgians for iron.


Article 4. The cabinet ministers, state prosecutors, customs officials, tax collectors, and jailers are charged, each in his own capacity, with the execution of the present law.


I acknowledge, sir, that in this form plunder would be infinitely easier, more profitable, and less dangerous than in the form in which you at first thought of it.


I acknowledge that this would be a most agreeable course for you to follow. Certainly you could laugh in triumph, for you would have shifted all the expense onto my shoulders.


But I assert that you would have introduced into society a source of ruination, immorality, disorder, hatred, and perpetual revolutions; that you would have opened the door to experiments of all kinds with socialism and communism.


No doubt you find my hypothesis too bold. All right, turn it against me. I agree to it for the sake of the argument.


Let us assume now that I am a worker; you are still an ironmaster.


It would be advantageous for me to get my tools cheaply, and even for nothing. Now, I know that there are axes and saws in your warehouse. Hence, without further ado, I break into your place and pick up everything I can use.


But you, availing yourself of the right to legitimate self-defense, first use force against force; then, calling to your aid the law, the magistrate, and the police, you have me thrown into jail—and you do rightly.


"Oh," I say to myself, "I have been clumsy in all this. When you want to appropriate other people's property, you must act, not in spite, but in virtue, of the law, if you are not an idiot." Consequently, as you became a protectionist, I become a socialist. As you arrogated to yourself the right to profit, I invoke the right to employment or to the tools of production.


Besides, while in prison I have read my Louis Blanc, and I know this doctrine by heart: "What the proletarians lack in order to emancipate themselves are the tools of production; it is the function of the government to furnish them to the workers." And again:

Once it is admitted that, to be truly free, man must have the power to use and develop his productive capacities, it follows that society owes each of its members both education, without which the human mind cannot develop, and the tools of production, without which industry cannot be carried on. Now, by whose intervention will society give to each of its members suitable instruction and the necessary tools of production, if not by the intervention of the state?**60


Hence, I too, since this requires revolutionary changes in my country, force my way into the legislative chamber. I pervert the law and make it perform, for my profit and at your expense, the same act for which it had punished me up to now.


My decree is modeled on yours.


Article 1. A tax shall be levied on all citizens, and especially on ironmasters.


Article 2. With the revenue from this tax the state shall pay an armed body of men that will take the title of fraternal police.


Article 3. The fraternal police shall enter the warehouses where axes, saws, etc., are stored, appropriate these tools, and distribute them to the workers who want them.


Thanks to this ingenious device, you see, sir, that I shall no longer incur the risks, the expense, the odium, or the guilt of plunder. The state will steal for me as it does for you. Both of us will play that game.


It remains to be seen what would happen to French society if the second of my hypothetical cases were to be made an accomplished fact, or at least what has already happened to it now that the first has been almost completely realized.


I do not want to treat here the economic aspect of the question. People believe that, when we demand free trade, we are motivated exclusively by the desire to allow labor and capital to take the direction most advantageous to them. Public opinion is mistaken on this point; this is merely a secondary consideration with us. What grieves us, afflicts us, horrifies us in the protectionist system is that it is the negation of law, justice, and property rights; that it turns the law, which should guarantee justice and the right to property, against them; that it both subverts and perverts the conditions under which society exists. And it is to this aspect of the question that I direct your most serious consideration.


What, then, is the law, or at least what should it be? What is its rational and moral function? Is it not precisely to maintain an exact balance among all rights, all freedoms, all forms of property? Is it not to make justice prevail among them all? Is it not to prevent and repress oppression and plunder, from whatever quarter they may come?


And are you not appalled by the immense, radical, and deplorable innovation which will be introduced into the world on the day when the law itself is authorized to commit the very crime that it is its function to punish—on the day when it is turned, in theory and in practice, against liberty and property?


You deplore the symptoms that modern society exhibits; you shudder at the disorder that prevails in institutions and ideas. But is it not your principle that has perverted everything, both ideas and institutions?


The law is no longer the refuge of the oppressed, but the arm of the oppressor! The law is no longer a shield, but a sword! The law no longer holds a balance in its august hands, but false weights and false keys! And you want society to be well ordered!


Your principle has placed these words above the entrance of the legislative chamber: "Whosoever acquires any influence here can obtain his share of legal plunder."


And what has been the result? All classes have flung themselves upon the doors of the chamber, crying: "A share of the plunder for me, for me!"


After the February Revolution, when universal suffrage was proclaimed, I hoped for a moment that its great voice would be heard saying: "No more plunder for anyone. Justice for everyone." For this is the true solution of the social problem. But that is not the way things happened; protectionist propaganda for centuries had too deeply corrupted men's feelings and ideas.


No; invoking your principle, every class came bursting into the National Assembly to make of the law an instrument of plunder. People demanded a progressive income tax, interest-free credit, the right to employment, the right to relief, guaranteed interest, a minimum wage, education free of charge, capital advances to industry, etc., etc. In short, everyone wanted to live and to develop at the expense of others.


And by what authority did they make these demands? On the basis of the precedent you set. What sophisms did they make use of? Those that you have been propagating for centuries. Like you, they spoke of equalizing the conditions of labor. Like you, they protested against anarchistic competition. Like you, they scoffed at laissez faire, that is, at freedom. Like you, they said that the law should not confine itself to being just, but that it should come to the aid of industries on the verge of failure, protect the weak against the strong, assure profits to individuals at the expense of the community, etc., etc. In short, socialism came in and developed, to use the expression of M. Charles Dupin, the theory of plunder. It did what you do, and what you want the professors of political economy to join with you in doing on your behalf.


It is in vain that you protectionists have been so astute, that you have softened your tone, boasted of your latent generosity, and bested your adversaries with emotional appeals; you still will not prevent logic from being logic.


You will not prevent M. Billault from saying to the legislator: "You grant favors to some; you must grant them to all."


You will not prevent M. Crémieux*83 from saying to the legislator: "You enrich the manufacturers; you must enrich the proletariat."


You will not prevent M. Nadaud*84 from saying to the legislator: "You cannot refuse to do for the suffering classes what you have done for the privileged classes."


You cannot even prevent your leader, M. Mimerel, from saying to the legislator: "I demand a 25,000 franc subsidy for the workers' retirement fund," and from defending his motion in these terms:


Is this the first law of this nature that our legislature has passed? Is it your doctrine that the state may encourage everything, defray the expenses of a scientific education, subsidize the fine arts, support the theatre, give to classes already favored by fortune higher education, the most varied forms of recreation, the enjoyment of the arts, security in old age—all this to those who do not know what it means to suffer privation—and make those who have nothing pay their share for the benefits they do not receive, while you refuse them everything, even the necessities of life?


.... Gentlemen, our French society, our customs, our laws are so constituted that the intervention of the state, regrettable as we may consider it, is encountered everywhere, so that nothing appears stable, nothing appears permanent, unless the state has a hand in it. It is the state that makes Sèvres porcelains and Gobelin tapestries; it is the state that exhibits periodically and at its expense the products of our artists and our manufacturers; it is the state that compensates those who raise our livestock and those who breed our fish. All this costs a great deal; still another tax that everyone pays—everyone, you understand. And what direct good do the people get from it? What direct good do your porcelains, your tapestries, your exhibitions do them? I can well appreciate your desire to resist, as a matter of principle, what you call a state of overenthusiasm, although only yesterday you voted a subsidy for linen; I can appreciate it, but only if you consult the spirit of the times, and if, above all, you give evidence of your impartiality. If it is true that, by all the means I have just indicated, the state has appeared up to now to favor more directly the needs of the well-to-do classes than of those less well favored, this appearance of favoritism must be brought to an end. Will this be done by our ceasing to manufacture Gobelin tapestries and by prohibiting our expositions? Certainly not, but by giving a direct share to the poor in this distribution of benefits.**61


In this long enumeration of the favors accorded to a few at the expense of all, one notes the extreme discretion displayed by M. Mimerel in glossing over the cases of tariff favoritism, although they are the most evident manifestation of legal plunder. All the orators who supported or opposed him showed the same reserve. This is very astute! Perhaps they hope, by giving a direct share to the poor in this distribution of benefits, to preserve the great iniquity by which they profit, but of which they do not speak.


They delude themselves. Do they think that after they have committed partial plunder by the device of customs barriers, other classes will not try to commit universal plunder by other devices?


I know, indeed, that you always have a sophism ready. You say:


The favors that the law grants us are not for the benefit of the industrialist, but of industry. The commodities which it permits us to withdraw from the general market at the expense of the consumers are only deposits in our hands.


They enrich us, it is true; but our wealth, since it places us in a position to spend ever more, to expand our operations, returns, like a refreshing dew, to the working class.**62


Such is your language; and what I deplore is that your wretched sophistries have so perverted the public mind that they are relied upon today to justify all the processes of legal plunder. The suffering classes also say: "Let us take the possessions of others by way of legislation. We shall have more of the comforts and conveniences of life; we shall buy more wheat, more meat, more cloth, more iron, and what we shall receive by way of taxation will return, like a beneficial rain, to the capitalists and landowners."


But, as I have already said, I am not discussing today the economic consequences of legal plunder. When the protectionists wish it, they will find me ready to examine the sophism of chain reactions,**63 which, besides, can be used to justify all types of thefts and frauds.


Let us confine ourselves to the political and moral effects of exchange deprived of freedom by legal enactment.


I say, the time has come to know definitively what the law is, and what it ought to be.


If you make of the law the palladium of the freedom and the property rights of all citizens, and if it is nothing but the organization of their individual rights to legitimate self-defense, you will establish on a just foundation a rational, simple, economical government, understood by all, loved by all, useful to all, supported by all, entrusted with a perfectly definite and very limited responsibility, and endowed with an unshakable solidity.


If, on the contrary, you make of the law an instrument of plunder for the benefit of particular individuals or classes, first everyone will try to make the law; then everyone will try to make it for his own profit. There will be tumult at the door of the legislative chamber; there will be an implacable struggle within it, intellectual confusion, the end of all morality, violence among the proponents of special interests, fierce electoral struggles, accusations, recriminations, jealousies, and inextinguishable hatreds; the public police force will be put at the service of unjust rapacity instead of restraining it; the distinction between the true and the false will be effaced from all minds, as the distinction between the just and the unjust will be effaced from all consciences; government will be held responsible for everyone's existence and will bend under the weight of such a responsibility; there will be political convulsions, fruitless revolutions, and ruins upon which all the forms of socialism and communism will be tried out. Such are the plagues that the perversion of the law cannot fail to let loose.


Such, consequently, are the calamities to which you protectionists have opened the door in making use of the law to suppress freedom of trade, that is, to suppress the right to property. Do not declaim against socialism; you are helping to build it. Do not declaim against communism; you are helping to build it. And now you ask us economists to make you a theory that will take your side and justify you! No, thank you! Do it yourselves!**64

Notes for this chapter

[On April 27, 1850, following a very curious discussion, published in the Moniteur, the General Council of Manufacturing, Agriculture, and Commerce passed the following resolution:

"That professors paid by the government should teach political economy not only from the theoretical viewpoint of free trade, but also and especially from the viewpoint of the facts and of the laws which regulate French industry."

It is to this resolution that Bastiat replied with the pamphlet, "Plunder and Law" (chap. 8 of this volume), first published in the Journal des économistes, May 15, 1850.—Editor.]

[The author had expressed this opinion three years before in the November 28, 1847, issue of the paper Le Libre échange. Replying to the Moniteur industriel, he had said:

"Let the reader pardon us if we assume the role of casuist for a moment. Our adversary compels us to don the learned doctor's cap and gown, and we feel all the more justified in doing so because he often delights in referring to us as 'doctor.'

"An illegal act is always immoral solely because it is disobedience of the law; but it does not follow that it is immoral in itself. When a mason (we beg pardon of our colleague for calling his attention to such a little thing), after a hard day's work, exchanges his pay for a piece of Belgian cloth, he does not commit an intrinsically immoral act. It is not the act in itself that is immoral; it is the violation of the law. And the proof is that if the law happens to be changed, no one will find fault with this exchange. It is in no way immoral in Switzerland. Now, what is in itself immoral is so everywhere and always. Will the Moniteur industriel maintain that the morality of one's acts depends on time and place?

"As there are illegal acts that are not immoral, so there are immoral acts that are not illegal. When our colleague changes our words while trying to find a meaning in them that they do not have; when certain persons, after having declared privately that they are for freedom, write and vote against it; when a master makes his slave work by beating him; the legislative code may not be violated, but the conscience of every good person is revolted. It is in the category of these acts and among the most infamous that we place restrictions on trade. Suppose one Frenchman says to another, his equal or one who should be: 'I forbid you to buy Belgian cloth, because I want you to be forced to come to my shop. This may disturb you, but it suits me; you will lose. four francs, but I shall gain two, and that will suffice for me.' We say that this is an immoral action. Whether he who ventures to do it does so by using force himself or has recourse to the aid of the law changes nothing in the character of the act. It is immoral by nature, in its very essence. It would have been immoral ten thousand years ago; it would be immoral at the antipodes; it would be immoral on the moon; because, whatever the Moniteur industriel may say, the law, which can do so much, cannot make what is evil into something good.

"In fact, we do not hesitate to say that the complicity of the law aggravates the immorality of the deed. If the law were not involved in it; if, for example, the manufacturer hired men to put into effect the restrictions he desired, the immorality would shock the Moniteur industriel itself. But now see what has happened! Because this manufacturer has found a way to spare himself the trouble, and, by putting the public police force at his service, to burden the oppressed with a part of the cost of the oppression, what was immoral has become meritorious!

"It can happen, to be sure, that men thus oppressed imagine that it is for their own good, and that the oppression results from an error common to both oppressors and oppressed. This suffices to justify their intentions and to remove from the act what would otherwise render it odious. In that case, the majority sanctions the law. One must submit to it; we will never say the contrary. But nothing will prevent us from saying to the majority that in our opinion it is mistaken."—Editor.]

[Denis Benoît d'Azy (1796-1880), French politician, Deputy under Louis Philippe, Vice President of the Legislative Assembly of 1849. He was an arch conservative and protectionist. As a financier and railroad administrator he rendered notable services to the nation.—Translator.]
[One of several quotations Bastiat makes from Beaumarchais' The Barber of Seville. In this instance he apparently quoted from memory, for approximately these words are spoken by old Bartolo, the guardian, not by the music master.—Translator.]
Organisation du travail, Introd., pp. 17 and 24.
[Adolphe Isaac Moïse Crémieux (1796-1880), a Deputy from 1842 to 1848. A moderate, he joined the revolutionary governments of 1848 and of 1870-71 as Minister of Justice. One of the most prominent Jews of his time, he secured voting rights for the Algerian Jews and founded the Alliance Israélite Universelle. Under the Second Empire he was imprisoned for a time for his opposition to Napoleon III. He became Senator for life in 1875.—Translator.]
[Martin Nadaud (1815-1898), French politician and a follower of Cabet. Elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1849, he voted with the "Mountain" (cf. p. 149 supra), was exiled by Napoleon in 1853, returned in 1870, and served several terms as Deputy thereafter.—Translator.]
Moniteur of April 28, 1850.
Moniteur of April 28. See the opinion of M. Devinck.
[It is implicitly refuted in chap. 12 of the first series, and chaps. 4 and 13 of the second series, of Economic Sophisms.—Editor.]
[In this reply to the protectionists, which he addressed to them at the time of his departure for the department of Landes, the author, obliged to indicate briefly his views on the rational domain of legislation, felt the need to set them forth at greater length. That is what he did, a few days later, during a short stay at Mugron, by writing "The Law" (chap. 2 of this volume).—Editor.]


End of Notes

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