In the history of classical liberalism Claude Frédéric Bastiat is a unique figure. He was only productive in liberal causes for a period of a few years. But he was the preeminent advocate of liberal thinking in France during a crucial stage of history. His efforts for free trade are directly linked to major legislative changes in France, which took place after his untimely death. Within a few decades Bastiat sank into obscurity only to have his works and ideas resurrected a century later.
Frédéric Bastiat was born in Bayonne, a tiny French town on the Bay of Biscay. The exact date of his birth is in dispute but it is known that he was born in June of 1801. After the death of his mother in 1808, Frédéric moved, with his father, to Mugron, a small town near the Spanish border. His father too, as was common in those days, died while Bastiat was just a boy, in 1810. Again various biographies dispute what happened next. Some argue that Bastiat became a ward of his grandparents, while others say he was left under the guardianship of an Aunt.
While no one doubted Frédéric's intelligence he didn't seem particularly interested in his academic work. He enrolled at the Benedictine College of Soreze but never finished his degree. His father had once lamented that he had "a lazy streak that is without equal."
Frédéric went to work with an uncle in Bayonne and the family trading business peaked an interest in Bastiat to study political economy and philosophy. He read the works of Jean-Baptist Say, Adam Smith, Destutt de Tracy, Charles Dunoyer, Charles Comte and other liberal thinkers. He seriously considered returning to academia to finish his schooling, but his grandfather's death in 1825 changed that. Frédéric was now the heir to a large estate and his interest in modern technological methods of farming inspired him. But efforts on his part to persuade others that new technology could help French farmers fell on deaf ears, a trend in France that has not changed much in the last 150 years.
One unexpected result was that Felix Coudroy, the owner of a nearby estate, and Bastiat struck up a life-long friendship. Coudroy was a socialist and the two of them would engage in periods of intense debate and study on the differences between liberalism and socialism. Dean Russell, in Frédéric Bastiat: Ideas and Influence wrote: "Coudroy and Bastiat worked their way through a tremendous number of books on philosophy, history, politics, religion, travel, poetry, political economy, biography and so on.... It was in these conversations that the ideas of Bastiat developed and his thoughts matured." Thomas de Lorenzo says: "Coudroy was initially a follower of Rousseau and, like most of Rousseau's admirers, then as now, was a socialist. But Bastiat, who always said he preferred a one-on-one conversation to giving a speech to thousands of people, converted Coudroy to classical liberalism."
In 1831 Bastiat married briefly, but he and his new bride were immediately estranged from one another, for reasons lost to history. Details of the relationship, like much of Bastiat's life, remain clouded. Bastiat was never as close to another person as he was to Felix Coudroy, with the two often spending hours per day in each others company. They remained in almost daily contact until Bastiat's death in 1850.
In 1844 Bastiat had his first article published. A group of merchants had petitioned the government to remove tariffs on agricultural products but wanted tariffs retained on manufactured goods. Bastiat noted the hypocrisy and stated the basic premise that he would defend until his death: "You demand privilege for a few, I demand liberty for all." It took another ten years before Bastiat’s words again saw print. He submitted an article to the prestigious Journal des Economistes entitled "The Influence of English and French Tariffs" which was published in October of that year. Suddenly, as de Lorenzo notes "articles began to pour out of Bastiat." In a short time his first book Economic Sophism, which became a best seller, was published to be followed by Economic Harmonies. His essays and articles were published all over France.
In 1846 he was elected to the French Academy of Science. His work was translated into all the major European languages. Bastiat was the founder of the French Free Trade Association. He became close friends with British free trade advocate and Liberal parliamentarian Richard Cobden in 1845. He was also founder of the weekly newspaper Le Libre Echange. Europe in the late 1840s was perilously close to moving toward communism and Bastiat sought to fight this trend. He was elected a member of the Legislative Assembly after the French Revolution of 1848 and became a champion of classical liberalism, sitting on the Left of the Assembly.
Turmoil in France was increasing and the people had forced the king from power. The Assembly stumbled about looking for the proper social organization to replace monarchy. And, while Bastiat sat on the Left, he found himself caught in the middle. Despite failing health he valiantly opposed various socialist and protectionist schemes while fighting, at the same time, efforts by monarchists and militarists.
Bastiat knew he had only a short time to live. Tuberculosis was already ravaging his body. In spite of his ill health, perhaps because of it, Bastiat threw himself into the cause of individual freedom. His last work, The Law, also became his best known and has sold hundreds of thousands copies in the last few decades. Bastiat died in Rome on Christmas Eve in 1850. The Catholic Church claimed a death-bed conversion to the church, but no evidence has been offered and Bastiat’s own works reference a deity much the way a Deist, not a Christian, would be known to do.
Bastiat's popularity was due to his razor sharp wit and his use of satire to ridicule his socialist opponents. Sheldon Richman, editor of Ideas on Liberty, noted: "Bastiat marshaled logic, clarity and exuberant wit in the cause of understanding society, prosperity, and liberty." His opponents and his admirers all had compliments, though his opponents' compliments were of the backhanded variety. Karl Marx said that Bastiat was "the shallowest and therefore the most successful representative of the apologists of vulgar economics." While Joseph Schumpeter said that Bastiat "was no theorist" in economics he did recognize him as "the most brilliant economic journalist who ever lived." Bob McTeer, president of the Dallas Federal Reserve Bank, specifically disagrees with Schumpeter's claim that Bastiat was not a real economists: "Being the all-time world-champion economic educator makes him a first-rate economist by any standard."
Schumpeter's remark about Bastiat's writing skill is due to the clarity of thought and persuasiveness of Bastiat's arguments. F.A. Hayek recognized that Bastiat "had an insight into what was significant and a gift for going to the heart of the matter would have provided him with ample material for real contributions to science." Perhaps if Bastiat's life had not been cut short he would have made those contributions. Henry Hazlitt, author of the best-selling Economics in One Lesson, acknowledged that much of his book was based on the observations of Bastiat. He said Bastiat's cutting satire on socialist schemes made him a "master of reductio ad absurdum." Hazlitt wrote: "What he was, beyond all other men, was an economic Pamphleteer, the greatest exposer of economic fallacies, the most powerful champion of free trade on the European Continent.... Anyone who has ever read and understood Bastiat must be immune to the protectionist disease, or the illusions of the Welfare State, except in a very attenuated form. Bastiat killed protectionism and socialism with ridicule."
Bastiat was light years ahead of his contemporaries. As we shall see his ideas foreshadowed those of some of the most important contributions to classical liberal and libertarian thinking.
Bastiat and Socialism
A century and a half ago the French parliamentarian Frédéric Bastiat wrote: "It is evident that the socialists set out in quest of an artificial social order only because they deemed the natural order to be either bad or inadequate; and they deemed it bad or inadequate only because they felt that men's interests are fundamentally antagonistic, for otherwise they would not have recourse to coercion. It is not necessary to force into harmony things that are inherently harmonious."
Nobel Laureate F. A. Hayek made a very similar point: "Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective co-ordination of human activities without deliberate organization by commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each individual."
Bastiat spoke of a "natural harmony" between men, a "natural and wise order that operates without our knowledge." Again this is similar to Hayek's observation that social order is the result of "human action but not of human design." And while Hayek praised Bastiat's writing ability he paid scant attention to him as a theorist. Professor Norman Barry says this was because Bastiat's theory of spontaneous order is "rather different from others in the tradition that Hayek admires." The main difference was: "...Bastiat was a rationalist; he deduced his theory of limited government and economic harmony directly from an abstract theory of natural law and natural rights. When he was indefatigable in his demonstrations of the beneficial consequences that inevitably flow from freedom and exposure of the dis-coordinating actions of government, his ultimate justification for liberty lay in an essentialist concept of man abstracted from time and place."
For Hayek, man's knowledge is so limited that he cannot easily encapsulate the ideas of human social structure. Barry wrote: "the evolutionary approach suggests that the ideal working of a social system is too complex to be captured in a simple formula, that no abstract system of rules can be rationally devised which can accommodate all future unknown cases."
For Bastiat, the fundamentals of social order are knowable. "For if there are general laws that act independently of written laws, and whose action needs merely to be regularized by the latter, we must study these general laws; they can be the object of scientific investigation, and therefore there is such a thing as the science of political economy."
Bastiat argued that his views were based on reality and not on some ideological view of how man ought to be. The major difference between economists—by which he meant liberal market economists—and socialists was: "The economists observe man, the laws of his nature and the social relations that derive from these laws. The socialists conjure up a society out of their imagination and then conceive of a human heart to fit this society."
The ability to imagine a perfect world inspires the Left. During the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy a poster showed him walking along a beach and quoted a speech of his: "Some people see things as they are and ask 'why?'; I dream of things that never were and ask 'why not?'" Yet the quote, now commonly attributed to Kennedy, was borrowed from the British Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw.
This "dream making" helps explain the phenomenon of the Left: while advocating love and peace they end up promoting hatred and war. Bastiat said: "And this explains how it happens that, although they have a kind of sentimental love for humanity in their hearts, hate flows from their lips. Each of them reserves all his love for the society that he has dreamed up; but the natural society in which it is our lot to live cannot be destroyed soon enough to suit them, so that from its ruins may rise the New Jerusalem." Aldous Huxley made the same point when he pointed out that "faith in the bigger and better future is one of the most potent enemies to present liberty: for rulers feel themselves justified in imposing the most monstrous tyranny on their subjects for the sake of the wholly imaginary fruits which these tyrannies are expected to bear some time in the distant future."
Considering that Bastiat, unlike Huxley, was in the grave before either Hitler, Mao or Stalin were born, his comment is extraordinarily perceptive. Many on the Left could not even recognize this truth long after the bodies had already been piled high. The New Jerusalem required revolutionary destruction and genocide to mould man into the image that the social engineers had envisioned.
This conflict between Bastiat and the Left is readily apparent. For him man was born in a world with specific needs. Nature endowed him with certain faculties and only by the application of such faculties is man able to sustain himself. Nature had determined what man is and what his faculties are, and what he must do to survive. For the Left man is merely, as Steven Pinker puts it, a "Blank Slate" which can be manipulated to achieve the New Jerusalem. Pinker says that Marx and Engels "were adamant that human nature has no enduring properties. It consists only in the interactions of groups of people with their material environments in a historical period, and constantly changes as people change their environment and are simultaneously changed by it. The mind therefore has no innate structure but emerges from the dialectical process of history and social interaction."
Mao wrote: "A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it." Maxim Gorky said that the working classes, to Lenin, are "what minerals are to the metallurgist." Bastiat, in his last work The Law, wrote: "Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations." Pinker wrote: "Nazism and Marxism shared a desire to reshape humanity. 'The alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary,' wrote Marx; 'the will to create mankind anew' is the core of National Socialism, wrote Hitler." Shaw took the typical Left view: "There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough."
This desire to recreate the world according one's own wishes and dreams has been at the root of Left-wing thinking right from the start. Rousseau, seen by many as the founding father of the Left, admitted that this tendency existed inside himself. "I withdrew more and more from human society and created, for myself, a society in my imagination, a society that charmed me all the more in that I could cultivate it without peril or effort... I peopled nature with beings according to my heart.... I created for myself a golden age to suit my fancy." But it is one thing to dream of a new world where you people it with beings according to your own heart and quite another to actually start doing so. Bastiat was quite correct in noting that such a tendency reveals a hatred of man as he actually is.
Leon Trotsky argued that under communism "man will become incomparably stronger, wiser, finer. His body more harmonious, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more musical... The human average will rise to the level of an Aristotle, a Goethe, a Marx. Above these other heights new peaks will arise."
Robert Owen, the man many attribute with inventing the term "socialism", was clearly an advocate of remaking humanity to create Utopia. "Any general character, from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of the proper means; which means are, to a great extent, at the command and under the control of those who have influence in the affairs of men." This Utopia, said Owen, "could be attained only the scientific arrangement of the people."
Owen believed in the Blank Slate. For him no human "is responsible for his will and his own actions." Instead "his whole character-physical, mental and moral-is formed independently of himself." According to Joshua Muravchik this lead Owen to conclude "it is futile to call individuals to account for their behavior. Instead, society should recognize its power to shape each of its members into a person of high character." If Owen were allowed to "scientifically" arrange people he felt, "There will be no cruelty in man's nature, the animal creation will also become different in character." The result would be a "terrestrial paradise... in which harmony will pervade all that will exist upon earth."
Like many of the utopian dreamers, Owen spent many hours planning how he could manipulate humans into becoming a super race. He used his vast fortune to build a community along socialist lines. He promised that once his social engineering was put into place the result would be "men and women of a new race, physically, intellectually and morally; beings far superior to any yet known to have lived upon the earth." Of course, Owen's experiment in socialism failed as dismally. Men and women of ability avoided his community, which instead was plagued by those seeking a handout. His community, New Harmony, revealed little harmony and a great deal of conflict and eventually collapsed after Owen could no longer subsidize it with his own wealth. In spite of socialism's record of failure true believers have still dreamed of making man anew.
Hard-core Marxists simply dismissed nature. In the Soviet Union the study of genetics was banned as a fascist enterprise. Instead science, interpreted through Marxist-Leninist lenses was imposed. "Marxism claims, above all, to be a 'scientific' philosophy, one which applies the principles of science to politics and science." More importantly Marxists believed their ideas were the one true "science" and the core science at that. Any other science would then be interpreted in accordance with political ideology. Trofim Lysenko, the Marxist who determined Soviet science for decades "rejected the 'fascist' theories that plants and animals inherited characteristics which selective breeding can develop. Lysenkoists believed that, on the contrary, environmental factors determine the characteristics of plants and animals. Just as Communists thought that people could be changed by altering their surroundings, so Lysenko held that plants acquired new characteristics when their environment is changed..."
In Heaven on Earth Muravchik noted that the belief that nature, manipulated according to socialist political theory, could create a new paradise was widespread. "These musings about transforming wildlife were fanciful, not to mention ecologically unsound, but they were not unique to Owen. In fact, Charles Fourier went further, predicting the domestication of the lions and whales whose strength would free humans from most work."
Many have assumed that Marxists and socialists have treated humans the way farmers treat cattle. This is not strictly true. Instead, they treated animals and plants the way they treated people. They adopted their view of how to manipulate mankind long before they applied that theory to the non-human world. "[T]he idea of a new man, dimly foreseen by Babeuf but sketched sharply by Owen, became the enduring centerpiece of the socialist vision. Socialism promised a surfeit of material goods and brotherly harmony among people, but its ultimate reward would be the transformation of humans, if not into gods, then into supermen able to transcend the pains and limits of life as it had been known."
Reality to be commanded must be obeyed. For the Marxist reality was what one dreamed, not what actually existed. The entire world was theirs to remake, in their own image, according to their own whims. This truth has become obvious to us today. But had the world listened to Bastiat a century and a half ago, much human misery and genocide could have been avoided. Bastiat knew the mind of the socialist. He said that socialists "assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shaped-by the will and hand of another person‹into an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected."
"These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees. Just as the gardener capriciously shapes the trees into pyramids, parasols, cubes, vases, fans, and other forms, just so does the socialist writer whimsically shape human beings into groups, series, centers, sub-centers, honeycombs, labor corps, and other variations. And just as the gardener needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and shears to shape his trees, just so does the socialist writer need the force that he can find only in law to shape human beings."