Wisdom from Frederic Bastiat on Just Government

11/13/12

Yesterday I picked up a little book by the 19th century French economist Frederick Bastiat called “The Law.”  Bastiat (1801-1850) lived in France as the nation was turning toward socialism.  He wrote to refute the fallacies and foolishness of socialism, warning that it necessarily leads to communism.  This book is profoundly good and something that America desperately needs to hear as we have begun to move more decisively toward socialism in the last decade.  Here is the first part unabridged:

—–

“The law perverted!  And the police powers of the state perverted along with it!  The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose!  The law become the weapon of every kind of greed!  Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is suppose to punish!  If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me to call the attention of my fellow-citizens to it.

Life Is a Gift from God

“We hold from God the gift which includes all others.  This gift is life – physical, intellectual, and moral life.

“But life cannot maintain itself alone.  The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it.  In order that we may accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties.  And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources.  By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products and use them.  This process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.

“Life, faculties, production – in other words, individuality, liberty, property – this is man.  And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.

“Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws.  On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place.

What is Law?

“What, then, is law?  It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

“Each of us has a natural right – from God – to defend his person, his liberty, and his property.  These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two.  For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality?  And what is property but an extension of our faculties?

“If every person has the right to defend – even by force – his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly.  Thus the principle of collective right – its reason for existing, its lawfulness – is based on individual right.  And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute.  Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force – for the same reason – cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.

“Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise.  Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights.  Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers?  Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?

“If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this: The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense.  It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces.  And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and property; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.

A Just and Enduring Government

“If a nation were founded on this basis, it seems to me that order would prevail among the people, in thought as well as in deed.  It seems to me that such a nation would have the most simple, easy to accept, economical, limited, non-oppressive, just, and enduring government imaginable – whatever its political form might be.

“Under such an administration, everyone would understand that he possessed all the privileges as well as all the responsibilities of his existence.  No one would have any argument with government, provided that his person was respected, his labor was free, and the fruits of his labor were protected against all unjust attack.  When successful, we would not have to thank the state for our success.  And, conversely, when unsuccessful, we should no more think of blaming the state for our misfortune than would the farmers blame the state because of hail or frost.  The state would be felt only by the invaluable blessings of safety provided by this concept of government.

“It can be further stated that, thanks to the non-intervention of the state in private affairs, our wants and their satisfactions would develop themselves in a logical manner.  We would not see poor families seeking literary instruction before they had bread.  We would not see cities populated at the expense of the rural districts, nor rural districts at the expense of cities.  We would not see the great displacement of capital, labor, and population that are caused by legislative decisions.

“The sources of our existence are made uncertain and precarious by these state-created displacements.  And, furthermore, these acts burden the government with increased responsibilities.”

—–

These are the exact principles our Constitution was founded on: protecting life, liberty, property, and the right of each person to pursue whatever life they desire as long as they don’t harm others.  Government’s main purpose is to protect equal rights of all people that come from God, not provide equal things or favor certain groups over others.  In our country equality under the law has become perverted – and therefore so has justice – and our very understanding of what government is for has been twisted to suit the needs of interested parties at the expense of others. This leads to corruption and injustice that harms millions.

Our nation did indeed create a government that was simple, economical, limited, non-oppressive, just, and enduring as Bastiat predicted (even though America was founded before he wrote these words).  These are time-tested and biblical principles whose truth does not change simply because culture rejects them.  Our generation has now indeed rejected sound and just principles of government in favor of the poison of socialism posing as “fairness” and “balance” and “compassion.”

How did this happen?  Slowly, over time the limited role of the US government was expanded to take on ever more and more responsibilities and the courts shredded the Constitution by engaging in judicial activism.  The turning point came during Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s 1941 State of the Union speech where FDR outlined four “freedoms”: 1) Freedom of Speech; 2) Freedom of Religion; 3) Freedom from Want Everywhere in the World; 4) Freedom from Fear.  The first two are enshrined in our Constitution (1st Amendment), but the last two represent a gross misunderstanding and perversion of rights.  FDR confused negative rights (the negative duty not to prevent anyone from engaging in lawful activity, aka liberties) and positive rights (the positive duty to provide for someone and act in a certain way, aka entitlements). [See video here].  Negative rights come from God and are often referred to as natural rights: the right to our life, freedom of choice and liberty as long as we don’t harm others, freedom to keep the fruit of our own labor and engage in productive enterprise, and the right to our property whether that be ourselves or the things we create and own.  Positive rights do not come from God but from man-made laws: the right to have a trial by jury (habeas corpus), the right for police protection, welfare, food, shelter, etc.  If we are truly free by nature, positive rights can only be grounded in consensual arrangements otherwise our positive right would violate someone else’s negative rights.

Since FDR’s speech our culture has grown to demand positive rights (entitlements) as if they were negative rights.  The inverse of the freedom from want is the demand to have: to have food, a job, transportation, housing, healthcare, education, etc.  However, these are not positive rights that others are obliged to provide at their own expense, but negative rights since we should be free to pursue these things without interference from anyone else.  The only way these entitlements can become positive rights is if they are part of a consensual, contractual arrangement.  For example, if I pay rent, I have a right to a house or apartment.  However, if I stop paying I no longer have that right and will be evicted.  The right to shelter is thus based on a contract between myself and my renter.

Bastiat understood these differences and refuted a government that sought to provide entitlements as if they were negative rights.  Such a government – as ours has now become – perverts the rule of law, subverts liberties, violates freedom of choice, engages in theft, shows partiality and favoritism, and presumes that it is the guarantee and maker of our rights.  It is a government of violence – violence against the very people is it suppose to protect!  I grieve that our government has embraced such injustice and perversion and that the majority of Americans do not know this is occurring but ignorantly and mistakenly believe it is good, fair, and just.

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