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Frédéric Bastiat looks at the entire world

When I edited pamphlets for the Libertarian Alliance, our problem was that we could not expect much in the way of immediate distribution. There was no internet in those days, or not that we knew about or could have used. Nor did we have the resources to print our publications and then to market them, and in the meantime store them. So it was that we relied on (a) the photocopier, and on (b) time. If what we said did not instantaneously find a readership, then it would have to get itself around nevertheless, one pamphlet at a time, by its sheer eloquence.

The time angle meant that we needed a different style of writing, a more timeless style, a style that would not date. We had to write in what I now recognise as a French style – more abstract, more theoretical (but free of any technical jargon), not heavy on detailed evidence (because evidence is liable to date) and heavy instead on generalisations with universal (and therefore timeless) appeal.

We were accused of preaching to the converted, and this was true. We were doing that. But preaching to the converted is an important part of any propaganda enterprise. The eloquent statement of that which is good and true, everywhere and at all times, is something to which supporters can rally and declare their agreement. By saying what we believed, we helped to turn what had merely been a silent army of isolated dissenters into an interconnected network of potential activists and organisers and movementeers. And writers, of course.

In short, we wanted people to write more like this:

Law is justice. And it is under the law of justice – under the reign of right; under the influence of liberty, safety, stability, and responsibility – that every person will attain his real worth and the true dignity of his being. It is only under this law of justice that mankind will achieve – slowly, no doubt, but certainly – God’s design for the orderly and peaceful progress of humanity.

It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for whatever the question under discussion – whether religious, philosophical, political or economic; whether it concerns prsperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labour, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or government – at whatever point on the scientific horizon I begin my researches, I invariably reach this one conclusion: the solution to the problems of human reliationships is to be found in liberty.

“Theoretically right.” That is from Frédéric ‘Bastiat’s ‘The Law’, on page 82-3 of my IEA edition, in the section entitled ‘The path to dignity and progress’.

The trouble with this kind of unsupported pronouncement is that although it may reinforce the convictions of the already convinced, it does little to persuade.

Here is what follows, in the next section of The Law, “Proof of an idea”:

And does not experience prove this? Look at the entire world. Which countries contain the most peaceful, the most moral, and the happiest people? Those people are found in the countries where the law least interferes with private affairs; where government is least felt; where the individual has the greatest scope, and free opinion the greatest influence; where administrative powers are fewest and simplest; where taxes are lightest and most nearly equal, and popular discontent the least excited and the least justifiable; where individuals and groups most actively assume their responsibilities, and, consequently where the morals of admittedly imperfect human beings are constantly improving; where trade, assemblies, and associations are the least restricted; where labour, capital, and populations suffer the fewest forced displacements; where mankind most nearly follows its own natural inclinations; where the inventions of men are most nearly in harmony with the laws of God; in short, the happiest, most moral, and most peaceful people are those who most nearly follow this principle: although mankind is not perfect, still, all hope rests upon the free and voluntary actions of persons within the limits of right; law or force is to be used for nothing except the administration of universal justice.

Now it would be easy to classify that also as just another pronunciamento, only likely to convince the already convinced. But here, it seems to me, we have an actual argument. It is certainly the argument that most convinced me in favour of the freedom principle.

Suppose you want to know whether to have a free market in paper clips, or in western isles of Scotland. Suppose you are wondering whether to allow or to campaign for this or that much disapproved of sexual practise or artistic fad. The reason to decide in each case in favour of liberty, says Bastiat, is not going to be found by looking only at paper clips, or in the islands of Scotland, or at the particular art or sexual practice being argued about. If you look at only the particulars of the particular, you are all too liable to decide that the answer to some particular question is some particular sort of arrangement that you happen to favour, and then to believe that the answer is for the government – what Bastiat calls “The Law” – to impose that preference by force.

And to understand why that is a foolish way to think, you need to step back from the particular, and look at the big picture. To see why a free market in paper clips is wise, look at all the other markets, permitted or suppressed, everywhere in space and in time. To see why sexual or artistic freedom of a particular sort is the right thing to have, look at the story of freedom generally, and unfreedom generally.

So although Bastiat doesn’t go into detail about all the evidence that convinced him about the need for freedom, he does explain very well the nature of that evidence. And the point is: that evidence is everywhere. The evidence is the entire world.

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4 comments to Frédéric Bastiat looks at the entire world

  • As far as the arguments about free markets generally go – we’ve won them. There is almost no one these days arguing that the state should take over production of Mars bars or paper clips.

    It seems to me that where we face resistance our opponents are making very specific arguments. There should be a state health care because otherwise the poor would not get treated. The state should run the railways because the free market cannot afford to build new lines.

    To counter this, it seems to me, we need specific, tailor-made responses. Indeed that is the whole point of Transport Blog and BEdBlog, for that matter.

  • speedwell

    Bastiat, in the English translation, is enormously satisfying to read out loud; have you noticed?

  • It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for whatever the question under discussion – whether religious, philosophical, political or economic; whether it concerns prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labour, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or government – at whatever point on the scientific horizon I begin my researches, I invariably reach this one conclusion: the solution to the problems of human reliationships is to be found in liberty.

    As far as good writing is concerned, I find this sentence particularly jarring.

    A few years ago, Physics World magazine printed an article and a number of follow up letters about how to recognise cranks. Typical rules of thumb include: cranks like to write using only capital letters (although this is not as universal as it once was), or cranks never use calculus (no exceptions to this rule apparently). Some of my better known colleagues showed me some letters they had received from cranks (along the lines of “Newton’s theory of gravity is wrong because …”) and one thing I noticed was that they seemed to be particularly fond of lists.

    Typically, the first paragraph or two would betray some profound misunderstang or ignorance of basic science. Having corrected the mistakes of the establishment scientists, in their excitment, they would go on to list all the areas of science that would have to be revised in the light of their new insight. Thus, for example, their new theory of gravity would require the re-writing of the textbooks on rocket science, civil engineering, ballistics, avionics, climatology, stellar structure, oceanography etc. etc. etc. (the longer the list the better).

    I’m not claiming that Bastiat is therefore a crank, but if I were editing that piece, I think I’d score a red line through that sentence above.

  • Cydonia

    I doubt it is fair to blame Bastiat for the clumsiness of the translation !