Economic Harmonies

Frédéric Bastiat
Bastiat, Frédéric
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George B. de Huszar, trans. and W. Hayden Boyers, ed.
First Pub. Date
Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Pub. Date
Introduction by Dean Russell
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If man were perfect, if he were infallible, society would present a very different kind of harmony from that which we may actually expect it to offer us. Our idea of harmony is not Fourier's. It does not exclude the existence of evil; it leaves room for discord; and yet we shall recognize that harmony nonetheless exists, provided that discord serves to prepare the way and to lead us back to harmony.


This is our starting point: man is fallible, and God has given him free will and, with his ability to choose, also the ability to err, to mistake the false for the true, to sacrifice the future for the present, to yield to the unreasonable desires of his own heart, etc.


Man makes mistakes. But every act and habit has its consequences.


In virtue of the law of responsibility, as we have seen, these consequences fall upon the doer of the act; a natural concatenation of rewards or punishments therefore leads him toward what is good and away from what is bad.


If man had been designed by Nature for a solitary way of life and for solitary labor, responsibility would be his only law.


But he is by Nature's design a social creature. Contrary to what Rousseau said, man is not naturally a complete and self-sufficient entity, who has had to be transformed by the lawgiver's will into a component part of a greater whole. The family, the community, the nation, the human race, are collective units with which man has necessary relations. It follows that the acts and habits of the individual bring about, in addition to the consequences that fall directly upon him, others, good or bad, that extend to his fellow men. This is what is called the law of solidarity, which is a kind of collective responsibility.


This idea of Rousseau that the lawgiver invented society—which is false in itself—has been disastrous in that it has led to the belief that solidarity is a mere creature of legislation; and we shall soon see that modern lawgivers use this doctrine as a basis for imposing upon society an artificial solidarity, which directly contravenes the action of natural solidarity. In all things the guiding principle of these great manipulators of the human race is to put their own creation in the place of God's creation, which they misunderstand.


Let us establish, first of all, the fact that the law of solidarity does exist in Nature.


In the eighteenth century people did not believe this; they refused to go beyond the doctrine of personal responsibility for one's faults. This age, which was engaged above all in reacting against Catholicism, apparently feared that, by admitting the principle of solidarity, it would open the door to the doctrine of original sin. Whenever Voltaire noted in the Bible a case of one man's bearing another's burdens, he would say ironically, "This is horrible, but God's justice is not man's."


This is not the place to discuss the question of original sin. But what Voltaire was deriding is, nevertheless, a fact, as incontestable as it is mysterious. The law of solidarity manifests itself in so many striking ways both in the individual and in the mass, both separately and collectively, in specific incidents and in general cases, that to fail to recognize it, one must possess all the blindness of sectarian bias or a burning zeal for bitter controversy.


The first rule of human justice is to concentrate the full punishment of an act upon its author, in accordance with the principle that misdeeds are personal. But this law, sacred as regards individuals, is not God's law, nor even society's.


Why is this man rich? Because his father was active, honest, industrious, and thrifty. The father practiced virtue; the son has reaped the reward.


Why is this other man always ailing, sickly, feeble, fearful, and wretched? Because his father, endowed with a strong constitution, abused it by debauchery and excess. The guilty man enjoyed the pleasurable consequences of his misdeeds; the innocent son has suffered their disastrous consequences.


There is not a man on earth whose lot has not been determined by billions of facts over which he himself had no control; that which I complain of today is perhaps due to some whim of my great grandfather's, etc.


Solidarity manifests itself on a still larger scale and at an even more incalculable range when we consider the interrelations among different peoples or different generations of the same people.


Is it not strange that the eighteenth century concerned itself so greatly with the intellectual or material labors whose fruits we enjoy today? Is it not amazing that we ourselves go to such pains to cover the country with railroads on which not one of us, perhaps, will ever travel? Who can fail to realize the profound influence that our old revolutions have on what is happening today? Who can foresee the heritage of peace or discord that our present debates will pass on to our children?


Consider the public debt. We make war on one another; we obey barbarous passions; in the process we destroy precious resources; and we find the means of shunting the burden of this destruction upon our children, who perhaps will hold war in abomination and will not be able to understand our passionate hatreds.


Cast your eyes upon Europe. Consider the events that keep France, Germany, Italy, and Poland in turmoil, and tell me whether the law of solidarity is a figment of the imagination.


It is unnecessary to carry this enumeration further. Besides, it takes the action of only one man, one nation, one generation, exerting some influence upon another man, another nation, another generation, to establish the law. The whole of society is simply a network of various interconnected manifestations of solidarity. This results from the communicable nature of our intelligence. The force of example, speech, literature, inventions, science, morals, etc.—all the unnoticed spiritual currents that unite men, all the apparently unconnected efforts that in the aggregate nevertheless impel mankind toward stability, toward a constantly rising standard of living, all that vast store of resources and knowledge upon which each of us can draw without lessening its supply, to which each of us adds without knowing it, all that exchange of ideas, of goods, of services, of labor, of evils and benefits, of virtues and vices, which makes the human family one great whole, and gives all these billions of brief existences a single common, universal, and continuous life—all this is solidarity.


There is, then, in the nature of things a certain incontestable measure of solidarity among men. In other words, responsibility is not entirely personal; it is shared with others. The action starts with the individual; the consequences extend to the community.


Now, we must realize that it is natural for every man to desire to be happy and prosperous. People may say, if they will, that I am praising selfishness. I am not praising anything; I am merely calling attention to a fact, the fact that this innate, universal impulse exists and cannot fail to exist—self-interest, the desire for well-being, the aversion to pain.


For this reason the individual is disposed to see to it that the good consequences of his acts redound to his own benefit and that the bad ones fall upon others; as much as possible he tries to distribute them over a large number of men so that they may be less noticeable and provoke less of a reaction.


But public opinion, the queen of the world and the daughter of solidarity, brings together all these scattered grievances, unites all these injured interests, into a formidable, solid core of resistance. When a man's habits are injurious to those about him, a hostile reaction is clearly evidenced. Such habits are judged severely, they are criticized, they are sternly reprobated; he who yields to them becomes an object of suspicion, contempt, and abhorrence. Whatever advantages he once found in such conduct are soon more than offset by the pains heaped upon him by public disapproval; to the unpleasant consequences that a bad habit always brings about, by virtue of the law of responsibility, there are added, by virtue of the law of solidarity, other consequences even more vexatious.


Contempt for the man soon extends to the habit or vice; and since the need for others' good opinion is one of our strongest motives, it is evident that the law of solidarity tends, by the reaction that it inspires against vicious acts, to restrain and to eliminate them.


Solidarity is, therefore, like responsibility, a progressive force; and we see that, as far as the doer of the act is concerned, it resolves itself into a kind of refracted responsibility, if I may so express myself. It is another system of reciprocal penalties and rewards admirably calculated to curtail what is bad, to encourage what is good, and to carry mankind forward along the road to progress.


But for solidarity to have this effect—for those who gain or lose by an act that they have not committed to influence the doer by their approval or disapproval, their gratitude or opposition, their esteem, affection, praise or scorn, hatred, and vengeance—one condition is indispensable: the connection between an act and all its effects must be known and understood.


When the public is in error on this subject, the law fails in its aim.


An act is harmful to the masses; but the masses are convinced that it is advantageous to them. Then what happens? Instead of reacting against it, condemning it, and thus suppressing it, the public extols it, honors it, and does it all the more.


Nothing happens more frequently, and here is the reason:


An act does not produce on the masses only one effect, but a series of effects. Now, it often happens that the first effect, which is beneficial, is quite local and completely visible, whereas the more remote effects spread through the body politic an evil that it is difficult to discern or to trace back to its cause.


War is an example. In the early stages of society not all the consequences of war are perceived. And indeed, in a civilization where the fruits of past labor are less exposed to destruction, where science and money have not been so much sacrificed to the war machine, etc., these consequences are less disastrous than in later stages. People see only the first campaign, the booty that follows triumph, the intoxication of victory; then war and the warrior are very popular. Later they will see the enemy, victorious in his turn, burning crops and harvests, imposing taxes and laws. With the changing tides of victory and defeat, they will see generations wiped out, agriculture destroyed, the two peoples impoverished. They will see the most vital part of the nation despising the arts of peace, turning their arms against the peaceful institutions of the country, serving as the instrument of despotism, expending their restless energy in sedition and civil discord, bringing barbarism and desolation to their own land even as they have already brought them to their neighbors'. Will people then say that war is banditry on a larger scale? No. They will see its effects without wishing to understand its cause; and as this nation in its decadence will in its turn have been invaded by a swarm of conquerors, many centuries after the catastrophe sober historians will write: This nation fell because during times of peace it became enervated, because it forgot the art of war and the fierce virtues of its ancestors.


I could point to the same false notions about slavery.....


This is likewise true of religious errors.....


In our day the protectionist system gives rise to the same mistake.....


By the dissemination of knowledge, by enlightened discussion of cause and effect, to bring public opinion back to the intelligent attitude that condemns bad tendencies and resists the adoption of harmful measures, is to render a great service to one's country. When misguided public opinion honors what is despicable and despises what is honorable, punishes virtue and rewards vice, encourages what is harmful and discourages what is useful, applauds falsehood and smothers truth under indifference or insult, a nation turns its back on progress and can be restored only by the terrible lessons of catastrophe.


We have indicated elsewhere the gross abuse of the word "solidarity" of which certain socialist schools have been guilty.


Let us now consider in what spirit man-made law should be conceived.


It seems to me that there can be no doubt on this subject. Man-made law should be in accord with the natural law: it should hasten and assure just retribution for men's acts; in other words, limit the area of solidarity and bring home to the author of the act his own responsibility. The law can have no other objective than to restrain vicious acts and to encourage virtuous acts, and to this end it must facilitate the just distribution of rewards and punishments, so that the bad consequences of an act fall as much as possible upon the person who commits it.....


Acting in this manner, the law conforms to the nature of things: solidarity initiates a reaction against the vicious act; the law merely regularizes this reaction.


Thus, the law contributes to progress; the more rapidly it brings home to the doer the bad effect of an act, the more surely it restrains the act itself.


Let us take an example. Violence has disastrous consequences. Among savage peoples its suppression is left to the natural course of events. What happens? It provokes a terrible reaction. When a man has committed an act of violence against another man, an inextinguishable thirst for vengeance is kindled in the victim's family and is passed on from generation to generation. The law intervenes. What should it do? Will it be content merely to stifle, suppress, punish the spirit of vengeance? It is evident that this would encourage violence by protecting it from all reprisals. This is not, therefore, what the law should do. It should take the role, so to speak, of the spirit of vengeance by organizing in its place the reaction against violence. It should say to the family that has been wronged: I assume responsibility for the suppression of the act of which you complain. Then the entire tribe shares with the family the feeling of being wronged and threatened. It investigates the charge, it interrogates the guilty man, it makes sure that there has been no error as to the fact or the person, and thus represses surely and with due regularity an act that otherwise would have been punished in an irregular way.....**87

Notes for this chapter

[These rough notes come to an abrupt end at this point; the economic aspect of the law of solidarity is not indicated. We refer the reader to chapters 10 and 11, "Competition," and "Producer and Consumer."

And, after all, what is, at bottom, the whole operation of the laws of social harmony, what are the consonance of men's interests and the great maxims: The prosperity of each is the prosperity of all; the prosperity of all is the prosperity of each, etc.; what is the congruity between private property and common wealth, the services of capital, the increase of gratuitous utility, etc.; except the development from the utilitarian viewpoint of the very title of this chapter: Solidarity?—Editor.]


End of Notes

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