Monday, October 24, 2011

Bastiat on democracy

Frederic Bastiat makes fun of the contradiction between the socialists' view of voting rights and their view of individual liberties:
When it is time to vote, apparently the voter is not to be asked for any guarantee of his wisdom. His will and capacity to choose wisely are taken for granted. Can the people be mistaken? Are we not living in an age of enlightenment? What! are the people always to be kept on leashes? Have they not won their rights by great effort and sacrifice? Have they not given ample proof of their intelligence and wisdom? Are they not adults? Are they not capable of judging for themselves? Do they not know what is best for themselves? Is there a class or a man who would be so bold as to set himself above the people, and judge and act for them? No, no, the people are and should be free. They desire to manage their own affairs, and they should do so. But when the legislator is finally elected--ah! then indeed does the tone of his speech undergo a radical change. The people are returned to passiveness, inertness, and unconsciousness; the legislator enters into omnipotence. Now it is for him to initiate, to direct, to propel, and to organize. Mankind has only to submit; the hour of despotism has struck. We now observe this fatal idea: The people who, during the election, where so wise, so moral, and so perfect, now have no tendencies whatever; or if they have any, they are tendencies that lead downward into degradation.
And I can't resist reproducing this passage:
The claims of these organizers of humanity raise another question which I have often asked them and which, so far as I know, they have never answered: If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators and their appointed agents also belong to the human race? Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer clay than the rest of mankind? The organizers maintain that society, when left undirected, rushes headlong to its inevitable destruction because the instincts of the people are so perverse. The legislators claim to stop this suicidal course and to give it a saner direction. Apparently, then, the legislators and the organizers have received from Heaven an intelligence and virtue that place them beyond and above mankind; if so, let them show their titles to this superiority.
I daresay this essay is still one of the best defenses of a free society in existence. Bastiat shows us how a true egalitarian is also a libertarian.


  1. Great passages by Bastiat! Out of curiosity...what do you think would happen if taxpayers were allowed to directly allocate their individuals taxes?

  2. That would certainly create a much-needed check on government power. However, when I contemplate such a move, I am struck by the fact that if all individuals were allowed to do this, then the interests of the rich would be far more represented in government than those of the poor. This would have the opposite of the intended effect, I think. In fact, if the rich allocated their taxes toward *coercive* powers of government, this could be horribly unjust. The much better option is simply to reduce the services provided by the government, reduce taxes in general, and break down barriers to free choice.


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