Frederic Bastiat Ep. 006: Flashes of Liberty Series14 min read
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Frederic Bastiat was a man known for “triggering” his philosophical rivals. In a debate, his opponent declared, “Your intelligence is asleep, or rather it has never been awake…You are a man for whom logic does not exist … Your ability to reason, like your ability to pay attention and make comparisons is zero…Scientifically, Mr. Bastiat, you are a dead man.” And yet, his supporters praise his economic philosophy and genius method of argumentation.
Frederic was born in Bayonne Aquitaine in the Southwest region of France, on June 30, 1801. His parents died in his childhood leaving him to be raised by his grandfather and aunt. His family were successful businessmen and bankers. Frederic, however, was drawn to other fields of study like philosophy, history, politics, and economics. His formal education was delayed until he was 24 following the death of his grandfather.
After the French Revolution of 1830, Frederic became politically active having been persuaded of a “let it be done” free-economy ideology. His convictions were confirmed after reading about Richard Cobden and the Anti-Corn Law League in the United Kingdom. He met and befriended Cobden and wrote a book called Cobden & the League. Cobden’s work inspired Frederic to become a journalist; using his writing to challenge the French public to rethink their paradigms in economics. 22 of Frederic’s articles were collected into another book called Economic Sophisms. And in 1846 Frederic became the editor of his own paper called, The Free Exchange.
Frederic’s professional career was brief, lasting from 1844 to his death from tuberculosis in 1850. With his final breath, he murmured the words, “the truth, the truth.” But what was it about Bastiat’s argumentation method that left his opponents so incensed, and his supporters awestruck?
Frederic used his wit with a form of argumentation used by the ancient sophists. Sophistry is considered today to be intellectually manipulative, but this isn’t actually how the Sophists argued. Their contribution to philosophy was not in the creation of original ideas, but in destroying bad ones. They did this by taking bad ideas through to their logical conclusion. If the conclusion proved absurd, it disproved their idea. Having an idea destroyed in this manner would be infuriating, because it left the Sophist’s opponent with the choice of accepting defeat or accepting an absurdity.
Frederic was elected to the French National Assembly after the 1848 Revolution, alongside Pierre-Joseph Proudhon. Proudhon, a fellow Revolutionary, shared Frederic’s opposition to the French monarchy and feudal system, but vehemently disagreed with him on economics.
Two ideas were presented as a means of dismantling French feudalism which had robbed the people of their wealth; French socialists wanted to redistribute the wealth of elite, while Bastiat and his supporters wanted to eliminate unjust economic privilege by entirely de-regulating the economy.
Here is an abridged excerpt from Bastiat’s Economics Sophisms, on the Physiology of Plunder. Bastiat takes the idea of wealth redistribution through to its logical conclusion.
“There are only two ways of obtaining the means essential to the …. improvement of life: production and plunder. Some people say: Plunder is… a purely local and transient evil, condemned [and] punished by law … Yet … [we are] compelled to recognize that plunder is practiced in this world on too vast a scale … to be able to ignore it.
… What keeps the [society] from improving … is the constant endeavor of its members to live and to prosper at one another’s expense. … When plunder has become a way of life for a group of men living together in society, they create for themselves in the course of time a legal system that authorizes it and a moral code that glorifies it.
[Here are the] more obvious forms of plunder[that show] the position it holds in human affairs.
The first is war… Next is slavery… Then comes theocracy… Finally, monopoly… Its distinguishing characteristic … is to introduce force into the negotiations, and, consequently, to upset the just balance between service received and service rendered. ”
Bastiat showed that forced redistribution made the socialists no better than the feudal lords they so loathed. He agreed that the feudal system was a form of theft on the people, but he showed socialism was also theft and thus an absurd solution as it only perpetuated the impoverishment of the people. Instead he argued the best solution for avoiding plunder, was to encourage production by simply giving people the freedom to produce … by “let it be,” or in French, Laissez-Faire.
But without the state, won’t we fall into lawless chaos? In this episode, I discuss the concept of polycentric legal order with legal scholar, Gary Chartier
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