Selected Essays on Political Economy
By Frédéric Bastiat
Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, statesman, and author. He led the free-trade movement in France from its inception in 1840 until his untimely death in 1850. The first 45 years of his life were spent in preparation for five tremendously productive years writing in favor of freedom. Bastiat was the founder of the weekly newspaper,
Le Libre Échange, a contributor to numerous periodicals, and the author of sundry pamphlets and speeches dealing with the pressing issues of his day. Most of his writing was done in the years directly before and after the Revolution of 1848—a time when France was rapidly embracing socialism. As a deputy in the Legislative Assembly, Bastiat fought valiantly for the private property order, but unfortunately the majority of his colleagues chose to ignore him. Frederic Bastiat remains one of the great champions of freedom whose writings retain their relevance as we continue to confront the old adversary.
Seymour Cain, trans. / George B. de Huszar, ed.
First Pub. Date
Irvington-on-Hudson, NY: The Foundation for Economic Education, Inc.
Includes Preface by George B. de Huszar, introduction by Friedrich A. Hayek
The text of this edition is under copyright
- About the Author
- Preface to the English-Language Edition, by George B. de Huszar
- Introduction, by F. A. Hayek
- Chapter 1, What Is Seen and What Is Not Seen
- Chapter 2, The Law
- Chapter 3, Property and Law
- Chapter 4, Justice and Fraternity
- Chapter 5, The State
- Chapter 6, Property and Plunder
- Chapter 7, Protectionism and Communism
- Chapter 8, Plunder and Law
- Chapter 9, Academic Degrees and Socialism
- Chapter 10, Declaration of War against the Professors of Political Economy
- Chapter 11, Speech on the Suppression of Industrial Combinations
- Chapter 12, Reflections on the Amendment of M. Mortimer-Ternaux
- Chapter 13, The Balance of Trade
Justice and Fraternity
The economist school is opposed, on many points, to the numerous socialist schools, which call themselves more
advanced, and which are, I readily agree, more active and more popular. We have as adversaries (I do not want to say, detractors) the Communists,
*56 the Fourierists, the Owenists, Cabet, Louis Blanc, Proudhon, Pierre Leroux
*57 and many others.
What is peculiar is that these schools differ among themselves at least as much as they differ with us. Hence, they must, in the first place, accept one principle in common that we do not accept; next, this principle must lend itself to the infinite diversity that we see among them.
I believe that what separates us radically from them is this:
Political economy is resolved to ask
of the law nothing but universal justice.
Socialism, in its various forms and applications, the number of which is naturally indefinite, demands
of the law, in addition, the realization of the principle of fraternity.
Now, what is the result? The socialists presuppose, with Rousseau, that the law is the foundation of the entire social order. As we know, Rousseau makes society rest on a contract. Louis Blanc, on the very first page of his book on the Revolution, says:
The principle of fraternity is that which, regarding the members of the great family of man as jointly and separately answerable for one another, looks forward to the day when society,
the work of man, is organized on the model of the human body, the work of God.
Starting from this premise, that society is
the work of man, the work of the law, the socialists cannot fail to conclude that nothing exists in society that was not ordained and arranged in advance by the legislator.
Hence, seeing that political economy confines itself to demanding of the law justice everywhere and for all, i.e., universal justice, they thought that it did not admit fraternity in social relations.
Their reasoning is strictly logical. “Since the social order is based entirely on the law,” they said, “and since you demand only justice from the law, you exclude fraternity from the law and, consequently, from society.”
Hence the accusations of rigidity, of coldness, of hardness, of dryness, that have been heaped on economic science and on those who teach it or accept its teachings.
But is the major premise admissible? Is it true that the social order is based entirely on the law? It is immediately apparent that if this is not so, all these accusations are left without any support.
We say that positive law, which always acts with authority, by way of compulsion, supported by coercive power, its penalties enforced by the bayonet and the jail, decrees neither affection nor friendship nor love nor self-denial nor devotion nor sacrifice. Hence, it cannot, by the same token, decree that which sums them all up, namely, fraternity. Is to say this, then, to annihilate or deny these noble attributes of our nature? Certainly not; it is only to say that society is larger than the law; that a great number of acts are performed, that a great many feelings are stirred, beyond and above the law.
For my part, I protest, in the name of science, with all my power against this wretched interpretation, according to which, because we recognize that the law has a limit, we are accused of denying everything that lies beyond that limit. We too, believe us, are filled with fervent emotion when we hear the word
fraternity, handed down eighteen centuries ago from the top of the holy mountain and inscribed forever on our republican flag. We too desire to see individuals, families, nations associate with one another, aid one another, relieve one another in the painful journey of mortal life. We too feel our hearts stir and our tears welling up at the recital of noble deeds, whether they add lustre to the lives of simple citizens, join different classes together in close union, or accelerate the onward movement of nations chosen by destiny to occupy the advanced outposts of progress and civilization.
Are we to be reduced to speaking of ourselves? In that case, let our actions be subjected to close scrutiny. Certainly we should like very much to grant that the numerous political theorists who in our day wish to stifle even the feeling of self-interest in men’s hearts, who appear so pitiless toward what they call individualism, who incessantly repeat the words “devotion,” “sacrifice,” “fraternity,” are themselves actuated exclusively by those sublime motives that they recommend to others, that they practice what they preach, that they have been careful to put their own conduct into harmony with their doctrines. We should indeed like to take them at their word and believe that they are full of disinterestedness and charity; but, in the last analysis, we may venture to say that we do not fear comparison in this regard.
Every would-be Decius
*58 among them has a plan designed to make mankind happy, and they all have the air of saying that if we oppose them, it is because we fear either for our property or for other social advantages. No; we oppose them because we consider their ideas to be false, because we believe their proposals to be as naive as they are disastrous. If we could be shown that happiness could be brought forever down to earth by an artificial social organization, or by decreeing fraternity, there are some among us, even though we are economists, who would gladly sign that decree with the last drop of their blood.
But we have not been shown that fraternity can be imposed. If, indeed, wherever it appears, it excites our sympathy so keenly, that is because it acts outside of all legal constraint. Either fraternity is spontaneous, or it does not exist. To decree it is to annihilate it.
The law can indeed
force men to remain just; in vain would it try to
force them to be self-sacrificing.
It is not I, moreover, who have invented this distinction. As I have just said, eighteen centuries ago these words were uttered by the divine Founder of our religion:
The law says unto you: Do not do unto others what you would not have done unto you.
And I say unto you: Do unto others what you would have others do unto you.
I believe that these words fix the limit that separates justice from fraternity. I believe that they trace, besides, a line of demarcation, I will not say absolute and unbridgeable, but theoretical and rational, between the domain circumscribed by the law and the limitless region of human spontaneity.
When a great number of families, all of whom, whether in isolation or in association, need to work in order to live, to prosper, and to better themselves, pool some of their forces, what can they demand of this common force save the protection of all persons, all products of labor, all property, all rights, all interests? Is this anything else than universal justice? Evidently, the right of each is limited by the absolutely similar right of all the others. The law, then, can do no more than recognize this limit and see that it is respected. If it were to permit a few to infringe this limit, this would be to the detriment of others. The law would be unjust. It would be still more so if, instead of tolerating this encroachment, it ordered it.
Suppose property is involved, for example. The principle is that what each has produced by his labor belongs to him, the more so as this labor has been comparatively more or less skillful, continuous, successful, and, consequently, more or less productive. What if two workers wish to unite their forces, to share the common product according to mutually agreed-upon terms, or to exchange their products between them, or if one should make a loan or a gift to the other? What has this to do with the law? Nothing, it seems to me, if the law has only to require the fulfillment of contracts and to prevent or punish misrepresentation, violence, and fraud.
Does this mean that it forbids acts of self-sacrifice and generosity? Who could have such an idea? But will it go so far as to order them? This is precisely the point that divides economists from socialists.
If the socialists mean that under extraordinary circumstances, for urgent cases, the state should set aside some resources to assist certain unfortunate people, to help them adjust to changing conditions, we will, of course, agree. This is done now; we desire that it be done better. There is, however, a point on this road that must not be passed; it is the point where governmental foresight would step in to replace individual foresight and thus destroy it. It is quite evident that organized charity would, in this case, do much more permanent harm than temporary good.
But we are not concerned here with exceptional measures. What we are inquiring into is this: Is it the function of the law, considered from a general and theoretical point of view, to declare the limits of
pre-existing reciprocal rights and to see that they are respected, or, instead, to make men happy directly by compelling acts of charity, self-abnegation, and mutual sacrifice?
What strikes me most forcibly in this latter system (and it is for this reason that I often return to it in this hastily written essay), is the uncertainty in which it leaves all human activity and its results, the unknown factor with which it confronts society, an unknown that has the power to paralyze all its forces.
One knows what justice is, and where it is. It is a fixed, immutable point. If the law takes justice as its guide, everyone knows what to hold fast to and acts accordingly.
But at what definite point is fraternity to be situated? What is its limit? What is its form? Evidently, it is infinite. Fraternity, by definition, consists in making a sacrifice for others, in
working for the sake of others. When it is free, spontaneous, voluntary, I understand it, and I applaud it. I admire sacrifice all the more when it is wholehearted. But when the principle is proclaimed that fraternity will be imposed by law, that is, in plain language, that the distribution of the fruits of labor will be made by legislation, without regard for the rights of labor itself; who can say to what extent this principle will be applied, what form a legislator’s caprice may assume, what institutions may be decreed from one day to the next? Now, I question whether any society can exist under such conditions.
Note that sacrifice, by its very nature, is not, like justice, something that has a limit. It can extend from the gift of a centime thrown into the bowl of a beggar to the gift of life itself,
usque ad mortem, mortem autem crucis.*59 The Gospel, which taught men fraternity, has explained it in the counsels of perfection: “But whosoever shall smite thee on thy right cheek, turn to him the other also. And if any man take away thy coat, let him have thy cloak also.” It has done more than explain fraternity to us; it has given us the most perfect, the most touching, and the most sublime example at the summit of Golgotha.
Will it, then, be said that legislation and administrative measures should push the realization of the principle of fraternity that far? Or will it, rather, stop somewhere along the way? But at what point will it stop, and according to what rule? This will depend today on one ballot, tomorrow on another.
There is the same uncertainty in regard to its form. It is a matter of imposing sacrifices on a few for the sake of all, or on all for the sake of a few. Who can tell me how the law will go about this? For it cannot be denied that there are an indefinite number of formulas for achieving fraternity. Not a day passes that five or six of them do not come to me in the mail, and all, please observe, completely different. Truly, is it not madness to believe that a nation can enjoy any peace of mind or any material prosperity when it is an accepted principle that, from one day to the next, the legislator can cast the whole country into whichever one of the hundred thousand fraternitarian molds he may momentarily prefer?
Let me compare the most important results of each of the two systems, that recommended by the economists, and that proposed by the socialists.
First, let us imagine a nation that adopts universal justice as the basis of its legislation.
Suppose that the citizens say to the government: “We take upon ourselves the responsibility for our own existence; we shall take care of our own labor, of our own business, of our own education, of our own development, of our own religion; your sole function will be to keep all of us, in all our actions, within the limits of our rights.”
So many things have been tried that I should really like to see my country, or any country whatever, at least make a trial of this. Certainly no one can deny that the mechanism is marvelously simple. Everyone exercises his rights as he pleases, provided that he does not encroach on the rights of others. The test would be all the more interesting, since, in point of fact, the nations that come the closest to this system surpass all the others in security, prosperity, equality, and dignity. Yes, if I had ten more years to live, I should willingly give up nine of them to be present for one year to see such an experiment made in my country. For it seems to me that I would be the happy witness of the following results:
In the first place, everyone would be sure of his future, at least in so far as it could be affected by the law. As I have remarked, exact justice is something so definite that legislation which had only justice in view would be virtually immutable. It could vary only as to the means of approaching ever more closely to this single end: the protection of men’s persons and their rights. Thus, everyone would be able to devote himself to all sorts of honest enterprises without fear and without uncertainty. All careers would be open to all; every man would be able to exercise his faculties freely, as determined by his interests, his inclinations, his aptitudes, or his circumstances; there would be neither privileges nor monopolies nor restrictions of any kind.
Moreover, the forces of government would attain this goal all the better because they would all be applied to preventing and repressing misrepresentation, fraud, delinquency, crime, and acts of violence, instead of being dissipated, as at present, among a host of matters alien to their essential function. Our adversaries themselves will not deny that to prevent and repress injustice is the principle function of the state. Why, then, has this precious art of prevention and repression of injustice made so little progress among us? Because the state neglects it for the thousand other functions with which it has been entrusted. For that reason, security is not the distinctive trait of French society—far from it! It would be complete, however, under the system that I, for the moment, have undertaken to analyze. There would be security in regard to the future, since no utopia could be imposed by borrowing the public police force; there would be security in the present, since that force would be devoted exclusively to combatting and abolishing injustice.
Here I must say a word concerning the consequences that security engenders. In such a situation, property in its diverse forms—landed, personal, industrial, intellectual, manual—is completely safe. It is sheltered from the attacks of malefactors and, what is more, from the attacks of the law. Whatever may be the nature of the services that the workers render to society or to one another, or that they exchange abroad, these services will always retain their
natural value. This value will, to be sure, be affected by the vicissitudes of circumstance, but at least it will never be affected by the caprices of the law, by the exigencies of taxation, or by parliamentary intrigues, demands, and influences. The prices of goods and services will then undergo the minimum possible fluctuation; and, under these conditions, it will be impossible for industry not to develop, for wealth not to increase, for capital not to be accumulated, with prodigious rapidity.
Now, when capital funds are multiplied, there is competition among them; their remuneration diminishes, or, in other words, the rate of interest is lowered. It is less and less of a burden on the price of products. The proportional share of capital in the common product of labor keeps on decreasing. The tools of production become more widely diffused as they come within the reach of a greater number of men. The prices of consumers’ goods are reduced by the full amount of capital’s lesser share; the cost of living falls, and this is a primary prerequisite for the independence of the working classes.
At the same time, and as a result of the same cause (the rapid increase in capital), wages are necessarily raised. Capital, in fact, yields no return at all unless it is put to work. The more the wages fund increases, and the more fully it is employed in the payment of a given number of workers, the higher wages rise.
Thus, the necessary result of this regime of exact justice, and consequently of liberty and security, is to relieve the suffering classes in two ways: first, by reducing the cost of living; second, by raising wage rates.
It is not possible for the condition of the workers to be thus naturally and doubly improved without a corresponding improvement and refinement in their moral condition. We are then on the road to equality. I am not referring only to that equality before the law which the system evidently implies, since it excludes all injustice, but also to actual physical and moral equality, resulting from the fact that the remuneration of labor increases as, and even because, that of capital decreases.
If we glance at the relations of such a nation with other nations, we find that they are all favorable to peace. Protecting itself against any aggression is its only policy. It neither threatens nor is threatened. It has no diplomacy and still less a diplomacy based on positions of strength. In virtue of the principle of universal justice, no citizen being able to prevent another citizen from buying or selling abroad, the commercial relations of this nation will be free and widespread. No one will deny that these relations contribute to the maintenance of peace. They will themselves constitute a veritable and precious system of defense, which will render arsenals, fortified places, navies, and standing armies well-nigh useless. Thus, all the energies of this nation will be applied to productive labor, a new cause of increase of capital, with all the effects deriving from it.
It is easy to see that in such a nation, the government is reduced to very limited proportions, and the administrative apparatus to the utmost simplicity. What does it have to do? To give to the public police force the sole function of making justice prevail among the citizens. Now, this can be done with little expense and costs only twenty-six million francs in France today. Hence, this nation will not, so to speak, pay taxes. It is even certain that civilization and progress will tend to make the government more and more simple and economical, for the more that justice becomes an outgrowth of good social customs, the more practicable it will be to reduce the force organized to impose it.
When a nation is burdened with taxes, nothing is more difficult, and I would say, impossible, than to levy them equally. The statisticians and fiscal authorities no longer even try to do so. What is still more difficult, however, is to shift the tax burden onto the shoulders of the rich. The state can have an abundance of money only by taking from everyone and especially from the masses. But in the simple type of regime on behalf of which I have made this futile plea, a regime that demands only a few dozen million francs, nothing is easier than an equitable levy. A single tax, proportional to the amount of property owned, levied on each household and without expense for the existing machinery of the municipal councils, is sufficient for the purpose. No more of that tenacious zeal on behalf of the public treasury, of that devouring bureaucracy, which constitute the parasites and the vermin of the body politic; no more of those indirect contributions, of that money wrested by force and by cunning, of those fiscal traps laid in every avenue of productive labor, of those shackles which do us even more harm on account of the liberties that they take away from us than on account of the resources that they deprive us of.
Do I need to show that order would be the inevitable result of such a regime? From whence could disorder come? Not from poverty; it would probably be, at least in its chronic state, unknown in the country; and if, after all, accidental and transient suffering did occur, no one would dream of blaming it on the state, the government, the law. Today, when it is an accepted principle that the function of the state is to distribute wealth to everybody, it is natural that the state is held accountable for this commitment. To keep it, it multiplies taxes and produces more poverty than it cures. With new demands on the part of the public and new taxes on the part of the state, we cannot but go from one revolution to another. But if it were well understood that the state can take from the workers only what is strictly indispensable to guarantee them against all fraud and all violence, I cannot perceive from what side disorder would come.
Some may think that, under a regime so simple, so easily realizable, society would be very gloomy and sad. What would become of the great affairs of state? What purpose would statesmen serve? Would not the national assembly itself, reduced to making improvements in the Civil Code and the Penal Code, cease to offer to the avid curiosity of the public the spectacle of its passionate debates and dramatic struggles?
These singular qualms stem from the idea that government and society are one and the same thing—as false and harmful an idea as there ever was. If that identity existed, to simplify government would be, in fact, to reduce the role of society.
But would the sole fact that the public police force would be limited to making justice prevail take something away from the initiative of the citizens? Is their action restricted, even today, to the limits fixed by the law? Would it not be permissible for them, provided that they did not exceed the bounds of justice, to form an infinite number of private organizations and associations of every nature, religious, charitable, industrial, agricultural, intellectual, and even phalansterian and Icarian? Is it not certain, on the contrary, that the abundance of capital would favor all these enterprises? But each would associate himself with them voluntarily at his own peril and risk. Those who desire the intervention of the state want to form these associations at the risk and expense of the public.
It will no doubt be said: In this regime, we see clearly justice, economy, freedom, wealth, peace, order, and equality, but not fraternity.
Once again let us ask ourselves: Is there in the heart of man only what the legislator has put there? Did fraternity have to make its appearance on earth by way of the ballot box? Does the law forbid you to practice charity simply because all that it imposes on you is the obligation to practice justice? Are we to believe that women will cease to be self-sacrificing and that pity will no longer find a place in their hearts because self-sacrifice and pity will not be commanded by the law? What, then, is the article of the code, which, wresting a young woman from the arms of her mother, impels her to serve in those gloomy homes for the aged where the ugly scars of the body and the still uglier scars of the mind are displayed? What is the article of the code that determines the vocation of the priest? To what written law, to what governmental intervention, must we ascribe the foundation of Christianity, the zeal of the apostles, the courage of the martyrs, the charity of Fénelon or of Francis de Paul, the self-denial of so many men who in our day have risked their lives a thousand times for the triumph of the people’s cause?
Every time we deem an action to be good and beautiful, we should like, quite naturally, to see it made the general practice. Now, when we see in society a force to which all gives way, our first impulse is to enlist its aid by decreeing the action and imposing it on everyone. But the question is whether one does not thereby degrade both the nature of this force and the nature of the action, rendering legally obligatory what was essentially spontaneous and voluntary. As far as I am concerned, I cannot get it into my head that the law, which is force, can be usefully applied to any purpose other than repressing wrongs and maintaining rights.
I have just described a nation where this would be the case. Let us suppose, now, that among the people of this nation the opinion prevailed that the law should no longer be limited to imposing justice; that it should aspire further to impose fraternity.
What will happen? It will not take me long to tell, for the reader has only to remake the preceding picture in reverse.
At first a frightful uncertainty, a deadly insecurity, will hover over the whole domain of private activity; for fraternity can express itself in billions of unknown forms and, consequently, billions of unforeseen decrees. Innumerable proposals will each day come to threaten all established relations. In the name of fraternity someone will demand
equality of wage rates, whereupon the working classes will be reduced to the status of Indian castes; neither ability nor courage nor assiduity nor intelligence will be able to raise them up again: a leaden law will weigh them down. This world will be a Dante’s inferno to them:
Abandon all hope, ye who enter. In the name of fraternity another will demand that the working day be reduced to ten, eight, six, four hours; whereupon production will be forthwith brought to a halt. As there will be no more bread to appease hunger, nor cloth to protect men against the cold, a third will propose replacing bread and cloth by legal tender paper money. Do we not buy things with money? To multiply money, he will say, is to multiply bread and cloth; to multiply paper is to multiply money. Q.E.D. A fourth will require that competition be abolished by decree; a fifth, that self-interest be eliminated by law; this one will want the state to provide work; that one, education; and another, pensions for all citizens. Still another would dethrone all the kings on earth, and decree, in the name of fraternity, universal war. I stop here. It is quite evident that, if we take this path, the supply of utopias is inexhaustible. They will be rejected, it will be said. Granted; but it is
possible that they will not be; and this suffices to create
uncertainty, the greatest scourge of labor.
Under this system, capital cannot be formed. It will be rare, dear, and concentrated in a few hands. This means that wages will be reduced, and that inequality will open up a continually widening gulf between the social classes.
It will not be long before the public finances reach a state of complete disorder. How could it be otherwise when the state is responsible for furnishing everything to everybody? The people will be crushed under the burden of taxes; loan after loan will be floated; after having drained the present, the state will devour the future.
Finally, as it will be accepted in principle that the state is responsible for establishing fraternity on behalf of its citizens, we shall see the entire people transformed into petitioners. Landed property, agriculture, industry, commerce, shipping, industrial companies, all will bestir themselves to claim favors from the state. The public treasury will be literally pillaged. Everyone will have good reasons to prove that legal fraternity should be interpreted in this sense: “Let me have the benefits, and let others pay the costs.” Everyone’s effort will be directed toward snatching a scrap of
fraternal privilege from the legislature. The suffering classes, although having the greatest claim, will not always have the greatest success; their multitude will, meanwhile, increase constantly, from which it follows that we can have only one revolution after another.
In a word, we shall see unfolding before us the whole somber spectacle whose prologue some modern societies are already presenting, after having adopted this disastrous idea of
I have no need to say that this whole concept has its origin in generous feelings, in disinterested motives. It is just because of this that it has so rapidly gained the support of the masses, and also that it is sure to open an abyss under our feet if it proves to be false.
I add that I shall be happy, for my part, if it proves not to be false. Good heavens! If universal fraternity can be decreed, and the sanction of the public police force can be efficaciously given to this decree; if the motive of self-interest, as Louis Blanc wishes, can be made to disappear by a mere show of hands; if this article in the program of
peaceful democracy: “No more selfishness!” can be realized by way of legislation; if it can be arranged that the state may give everything to everyone, without receiving anything from anyone; then let it be done by all means. Certainly, I shall vote for the decree and rejoice that humanity is to attain perfection and happiness by so short and easy a road.
But it must be said plainly that such conceptions seem to us chimerical and futile to the point of naïveté. That they should have raised hopes in the class that labors and suffers and does not have time for reflection, is not surprising. But how can they mislead competent political theorists?
These writers believed that the sufferings that overwhelm a great number of our brethren are imputable to
liberty, that is, justice. They started with the idea that the system of liberty, of exact justice, had been put to the test legally, and that it had failed. They concluded from this that the time had come for legislation to take a further step, and that it should finally be imbued with the principle of
fraternity. Hence these Saint-Simonian, Fourierist, Communist, Owenist schools of thought; hence these efforts to mobilize labor; hence these declarations that the state owes subsistence, well-being, and education to all its citizens; that it should be generous, charitable, involved in everything, devoted to everybody; that its mission is to feed the infants, instruct the young, assure employment to the able-bodied, provide pensions for the disabled; in a word, that it should intervene directly to relieve all suffering, satisfy and anticipate all wants, furnish capital to all enterprises, enlightenment to all minds, balm for all wounds, asylums for all the unfortunate, and even aid, to the point of shedding French blood, for all oppressed people on the face of the earth.
Who would not like to see all these benefits flow forth upon the world from the
law as from an inexhaustible source? Who would not be happy to see the state take upon itself every difficulty, every precaution, every responsibility, every duty, all the laborious and heavy tasks that Providence, whose designs are impenetrable, has imposed upon mankind, leaving to the individuals of which it is composed the attractive and easy path—satisfactions, enjoyments, certainty, calm, repose, an always assured present, an always smiling future, wealth without worries, a family without responsibilities, credit without pledges, a life without effort?
Certainly, we would like to have all this,
if it were possible. But is it possible? That is the question. We cannot understand what people mean by the state. We believe that there is in this perpetual personification of the state the strangest and the most humiliating of mystifications. What, then, is this state that takes upon itself all virtues, all duties, all acts of munificence? Whence does it draw those resources that it is urged to dispense by way of benefits to individuals? Is it not from the individuals themselves? How, then, can these resources be increased by passing through the hands of a parasitical and voracious intermediary? Is it not clear, on the contrary, that the whole apparatus of government is of such a nature as to absorb many useful resources and to reduce the share of the workers proportionately? Is it not also evident that the latter will thereby lose a part of their freedom, along with a part of their well-being?
From whatever point of view I consider human law, I cannot see that anything other than justice can be reasonably demanded of it.
Suppose it is asked to concern itself with matters of religion, for example. Certainly, it would be desirable that there should be only one creed, one faith, one form of worship in the world, provided it were the
true faith. But, however desirable unity may be, diversity, that is to say, inquiry and discussion, is even more worth while, until such time as the infallible sign whereby this
true faith is to be recognized shines forth for all men to see. The intervention of the state, even under the pretext of fraternity, would, then, be an act of oppression, an
injustice, if it sought to establish unity; for who can be sure that the state would not, unconsciously perhaps, work to stifle truth to the advantage of error? Unity should result from the universal consent of free convictions and from the natural attraction that truth exercises over men’s minds. All that can be demanded of the law, then, is liberty for all beliefs, no matter what intellectual anarchy would result. For what does this anarchy prove? That unity comes, not at the beginning, but at the end, of intellectual evolution. It is not a point of departure; it is a point of culmination. A law that would impose it would be unjust; and if justice does not necessarily imply fraternity, at least it will be agreed that fraternity excludes injustice.
The same is true of education. Obviously, if people could agree on the best possible kind of education, in regard to both content and method, a uniform system of public instruction would be preferable, since error would, in that case, be necessarily excluded by law. But as long as such a criterion has not been found, as long as the legislator and the Minister of Public Education do not carry on their persons an unquestionable sign of infallibility, the true method has the best chance of being discovered and of displacing the others if room is left for diversity, trial and error, experimentation, and individual efforts guided by a self-regarding
interest in the outcome—in a word, where there is freedom. The chances are worst in a uniform system of education established by decree, for in such a system error is permanent, universal, and irremediable. Therefore, those who, in the name of fraternity, demand that the
law determine what shall be taught and impose this on everyone should realize that they are running the risk of having the law direct and impose the teaching of nothing but error; for legal interdiction can pervert the truth by perverting the minds that believe they have possession of it. Now, is it, I ask, fraternity, in the true sense of the word, that has recourse to force to impose, or at least to run the risk of imposing, error on mankind? Diversity is feared; it is stigmatized as anarchy. But it results necessarily from the very diversity of men’s opinions and convictions, a diversity that tends, besides, to disappear with discussion, study, and experience. In the meanwhile, what claim has one system to prevail over any other by law or force? Here again we find that this pretended fraternity, which invokes the law or legal constraint, is in opposition to justice.
I could make the same observation about the press, and, in fact, I hardly understand why those who demand a uniform system of state education do not demand a uniform state press. For the press is also a kind of education. The press admits discussion, since it lives by it. There too, then, is diversity and anarchy. Why not, accordingly, create a Ministry of Publicity and give over to its charge all the books and all the newspapers in France? Either the state is infallible, and we can do no better than to let it take entire control over men’s minds; or it is not, and in that case it is no more reasonable to turn education over to it than the press.
If I consider our foreign relations, I see no other prudent, sound rule, acceptable to all—such, in short, that it could become a
law—than justice. To submit these relations to the principle of legal, forced fraternity, is to decree perpetual, universal war; for it is to assume the obligation of putting our power, the blood and the wealth of our citizens, at the service of whoever claims them in order to serve a cause that excites the sympathy of the legislator. A strange kind of fraternity, indeed! A long time ago Cervantes personified its ridiculous vanity.
But it is above all in regard to labor that the dogma of fraternity seems to me to be dangerous, when, contrary to the idea that constitutes the very essence of that sacred word, people dream of inserting it into our legal codes, to the accompaniment of the penal provisions that sanction all positive law.
Fraternity always implies devotion and sacrifice; that is why it commands our heartfelt admiration. If one says, as do certain socialists, that acts of fraternal devotion are
profitable to their author, then they do not have to be decreed; men have no need of a law to persuade them to make profits. Besides, this point of view greatly degrades and tarnishes the idea of fraternity.
Let us, then, respect its essential character, which is comprised in these words:
Voluntary sacrifice determined by fraternal feeling.
If you make of fraternity a matter of legal prescription, whose acts are set forth in advance and rendered obligatory by the industrial code, what remains of this definition? Nothing but sacrifice; but involuntary, forced sacrifice, exacted by fear of punishment. And, in all honesty, what is a sacrifice of this nature, imposed upon one man for the profit of another? Is it an example of fraternity? No, it is an act of injustice; one must say the word: it is a form of legal plunder, the worst kind of plunder, since it is systematic, permanent, and unavoidable.
What did Barbès
*60 do, when, at the session of May 15, he decreed a tax of a billion francs on behalf of the suffering classes? He put your principle into practice. This is so true that the proclamation of Sobrier,
*61 which concluded like the speech of Barbès, is preceded by this preamble: “Considering that fraternity must be more than an empty word, that it must be manifested by deeds, be it decreed: the capitalists, known as such, will contribute, etc.”
What right do you who protest have to blame Barbès and Sobrier? What have they done, except to be a little more logical than you and to push your own principle a little further?
I say that whenever this principle is introduced into legislation, even though it may make only a timid appearance at first, it soon paralyzes capital and labor; for there is no guarantee that it will not be extended indefinitely. Are so many arguments necessary, then, to demonstrate that when men are no longer certain of enjoying the fruit of their labor, they do not work at all or work less? Insecurity, as is well known, is the principal agent of paralysis in the case of capital. It drives capital away and prevents it from being formed; and what will then become of the very classes whose sufferings are supposed thereby to be relieved? I sincerely believe that this alone is cause enough to make the most prosperous nation fall in a short time below the level of Turkey.
Sacrifice imposed on some on behalf of others, by the operation of the tax laws, evidently loses the character of fraternity. Who, then, deserves credit for it? Is it the legislator? It costs him nothing but the effort of casting his ballot. Is it the tax collector? He obeys out of fear of being removed from office. Is it the taxpayer? He pays reluctantly. Who, then, deserves the credit that self-sacrifice implies? Where is its morality to be found?
Illegal plunder fills everyone with aversion; it turns against itself all the forces of public opinion and puts them on the side of justice. Legal plunder, on the contrary, is perpetrated without troubling the conscience, and this cannot fail to weaken the moral fibre of a nation.
With courage and prudence, a man can protect himself from illegal plunder, but no one can escape from legal plunder. If someone tries, what is the distressing spectacle presented to society? A plunderer armed with the law, a victim resisting the law.
When, under the pretext of fraternity, the legal code imposes mutual sacrifices on the citizens, human nature is not thereby abrogated. Everyone will then direct his efforts toward contributing little to, and taking much from, the common fund of sacrifices. Now, is it the most unfortunate who gain in this struggle? Certainly not, but rather the most influential and calculating.
Are union, concord, and harmony at least the results of fraternity thus understood? Oh, undoubtedly, fraternity is the divine chain whose links will ultimately unite individuals, families, nations, and races; but it will do so only by remaining what it is, that is, the most free, the most spontaneous, the most voluntary, the most meritorious, the most religious of sentiments. It is not its counterfeit that will accomplish this prodigy; legal plunder may borrow the name of fraternity, as well as its appearance, its formulas, and its insignia, but it will never be anything but a principle of discord, confusion, unjust claims, terror, misery, inertia, and animosity.
We are presented with a serious objection. We are told: It is indeed true that freedom, equality before the law, is justice. But strict justice remains neutral between the rich and the poor, the strong and the weak, the wise and the ignorant, the property owner and the proletarian, the fellow countryman and the foreigner. Now,
men’s interests being naturally antagonistic, to allow men their freedom with only just laws intervening between them is to sacrifice the poor, the weak, the ignorant, the proletarian, the gladiator who enters the arena unarmed.
“What could result,” says M. Considérant,
from that industrial liberty on which so much reliance had been placed, from the famous principle of
free competition, which was believed to be so eminently democratic in character? Nothing could come of it save the general enslavement, the collective enfeoffment, of the masses, deprived of capital, of industrial arms, of the tools of production, and, above all, of education, by the class that is industrially supplied and well equipped. We are told: “The lists are open; every individual is free to enter the fray; the conditions are equal for all the combatants.” Very good. Only one thing is forgotten—that on this great battlefield some are trained, disciplined, equipped, armed to the teeth, that they have in their possession a vast store of provisions, matériel, munitions, and engines of war, that they occupy all the strategic positions; and that others, plundered, destitute, ignorant, and hungry, are obliged, in order to live from day to day and keep their wives and children alive, to implore their
adversaries themselves for any kind of work whatever at a meager wage.
What! Industry compared to war! These arms, which are called capital, which consist of provisions of all kinds, and which can never be employed except in the conquest of rebellious Nature, are compared, by virtue of a deplorable sophism, to those blood-stained arms which men turn against one another on the battlefield! Indeed, it is only too easy to derogate the industrial order, when the whole vocabulary of warfare is borrowed in order to decry it.
The profound, irreconcilable disagreement on this point between socialists and economists consists in this: The socialists believe that men’s interests are essentially antagonistic. The economists believe in the natural harmony, or rather in the necessary and progressive harmonization, of men’s interests. This is the whole difference.
Starting from the premise that men’s interests are naturally antagonistic, the socialists are led, by logical necessity, to seek an
artificial organization of these conflicting interests or even to stifle, if they can, the feeling of self-interest in the heart of man. This is what they tried to do at the Luxembourg. But if they are mad enough to try, they are not strong enough to succeed; and it goes without saying that, after having declaimed against individualism in their books, they collect royalties on these books and conduct themselves quite like everyone else in the ordinary affairs of life.
To be sure, if men’s interests are naturally antagonistic, we must trample underfoot justice, liberty, and equality before the law. We must remake the world, or, as they say,
reconstitute society, according to one of the numerous plans that they never stop inventing. For self-interest, a disorganizing principle, there must be substituted legal, imposed, involuntary, forced
self-sacrifice—in a word, organized plunder; and as this new principle can only arouse infinite aversion and resistance, an attempt will be made at first to get it accepted under the deceptive name of fraternity, after which the law, which is force, will be invoked.
But if Providence is not mistaken, if it has arranged things in such a way that men’s interests, under the law of justice, tend to adjust themselves naturally in the most harmonious way; if, in the words of M. de Lamartine, they achieve, under a regime of liberty, a justice that no amount of despotism could produce for them; if equality of rights is the most certain, the most direct means toward actual equality; then, we can ask of the law nothing but justice, liberty, and equality, just as only the removal of obstacles is needed for each of the drops of water that form the ocean to find its own level.
And this is precisely the conclusion at which political economy arrives. It does not set out in search of this conclusion; it comes upon it. But it rejoices at finding it; for is it not ultimately a great satisfaction for the mind to see harmony in liberty, when others are reduced to demanding it by way of arbitrary measures?
The reproachful words that the socialists often address to us are very strange indeed! If, unfortunately, we have fallen into error, should they not deplore it? What do we say? We say: After mature consideration, it must be recognized that what God has done He has done well, so that the best chance of progress lies in justice and liberty.
The socialists believe us to be in error; that is their right. But they should at least be distressed by it; for our error, if it be demonstrated, implies the urgency of substituting the artificial for the natural, despotism for liberty, a contingent and human invention for the eternal and divine conception.
Suppose that a professor of chemistry were to say: “The world is threatened by a great catastrophe; God has not taken proper precautions. I have analyzed the air that comes from human lungs, and I have come to the conclusion that it is not fit to breathe; so that, by calculating the volume of the atmosphere, I can predict the day when it will be entirely polluted, and when mankind will die of consumption, unless it adopts an artificial mode of respiration of my invention.”
Another professor steps forward and says: “No, mankind will not perish thus. It is true that the air that has already served to sustain animal life is vitiated for that purpose; but it is fit for plant life, and what plants exhale is favorable to human respiration. An incomplete study has induced some to think that God made a mistake; a more exact inquiry shows a harmonious design in His handiwork. Men can continue to breathe as Nature willed it.”
What should we say if the first professor overwhelmed the second with abuse, saying: “You are a chemist with a cold, hard, dried-up heart; you preach the horrible doctrine of
laissez faire; you do not love mankind, since you demonstrate the uselessness of my respiratory apparatus.”
This is the sum and substance of our quarrel with the socialists. Both they and we desire harmony. They seek it in the innumerable schemes that they want the law to impose on men; we find it in the nature of men and things.
This would be the place to demonstrate that men’s interests tend toward harmony, for that is the whole question; but this would require a course in political economy, and the reader will have to excuse me for the moment from undertaking such a task.
**27 I shall say just this: If political economy attains to the insight that men’s interests are harmonious, it does so because it does not stop, as socialism does, at the immediate consequences of phenomena, but goes on to their eventual and ultimate effects. This is the whole secret. The two schools differ exactly as the two chemists of whom I have just spoken: one sees the part, and the other the whole. For example, when the socialists are willing to take pains to follow the results of competition to the end, that is, to the consumer, instead of stopping at the producer, they will see that it is the most powerful agent for equality and progress, whether at home or abroad. And it is because political economy finds harmony in this ultimate effect that it says: In my domain,
there is much to learn, and little to do. Much to learn, because the concatenation of effects can be followed only with great application; little to do, since the harmony of the whole phenomenon is derived from the ultimate effect.
I happened to discuss this question with the eminent gentleman whom the Revolution lifted to such great heights. I said to him: “Only justice can be demanded from the law, which acts by means of coercion.”
He thought that people can, in addition, expect fraternity from the law. Last August he wrote me: “If ever, in a time of crisis, I find myself placed at the helm, your idea will be half of my creed.”
And I reply to him here: “The second half of your creed will stifle the first, for you cannot legislate fraternity without legislating injustice.”
In closing, I will say to the socialists: If you believe that political economy rejects association, organization, and fraternity, you are in error.
Association! Do you not know that this is society itself, ceaselessly perfecting itself?
Organization! Do you not know that this is what makes all the difference there is between a congeries of heterogeneous elements and the masterpieces of Nature?
Fraternity! Do you not know that this is to justice what the warm impulses of the heart are to the cold calculations of the mind?
We are in agreement with you. We applaud your effort to disseminate among mankind a seed that will bear fruit in the future.
But we are opposed to you from the moment that you have law and taxation, that is, coercion and plunder, intervene; for besides the fact that this resort to force shows that you have more faith in yourselves than in the genius of mankind, it is enough for us to see that you propose to tamper with Nature herself and to impair the very essence of that fraternity which you seek to realize.
Journal des économistes.—Editor.]
Economic Harmonies, chap. 7.—Editor.]
Well, I have observed this priest, and I can avow that, when he made a bargain, he was as vigilant as any honest Paris merchant. He defended his own interest in the matter of weight, measure, quality, and price, and considered himself in no wise bound to mix charity and fraternity in a business transaction.
Let us take away, then, from this word
fraternity all the false, puerile, declamatory additions that have been made to it in recent times. [Unpublished draft of the author, written towards the end of 1847.—Editor.]
La Commune de Paris, journal du citoyen Sobrier, moniteur des clubs, des corporations, d’ouvriers et de l’armée, a daily newspaper that began publication in May, 1848, and ceased at the end of September, 1849.—Translator.]
final note. See also, in Vol. II (of the French edition), the reply to a letter of M. Considérant.—Editor.]
Economic Harmonies had already been published then in the
Journal des économistes, and the author was obliged to continue this work without delay.—Editor.]
“Governments perform only actions having force as their sanction. Now, it is permitted to force someone to be just, but not to force him to be charitable. Law, when it would do by force what ethics does by persuasion, far from rising to the region of charity, falls into the domain of plunder.
“The proper domain of law and governments is justice.”
[This thought of the author was written in his hand in an album of autographs that the Society of Men of Letters sent in 1850 to the Exposition in London. We reproduce it here because it seems to us to sum up the doctrine expounded in the preceding pamphlet.—Editor.]
NOTES TO CHAPTER 5