Sunday, October 23, 2011

Frederic Bastiat on socialist anthropology

Here is an absolute must read: Frederic Bastiat's tract entitled, "The Law." Frederic Bastiat was a French economist who lived in the first half of the nineteenth century, who was bold enough to challenge the followers of the great Rousseau ("who consider themselves far advanced, but whom I consider twenty centuries behind the times," writes Bastiat). He challenged the fundamental assumptions of socialism, and wrote an essay repudiating all forms of government intervention, including "protective tariffs, subsidies, guaranteed profits, guaranteed jobs, relief and welfare schemes, public education, progressive taxation, free credit, and public works," all of which he says "are always based on legal plunder, organized injustice." According to Bastiat, the main purpose of the Law was to banish all plunder from a society, which he defined as that "fatal desire" in mankind "to live and prosper at the expense of others." Instead, he points out, the Law ends up being used for the opposite purpose: either that the few should profit at the expense of the many, or that they many should profit at the expense of the few; or that everyone should profit at the expense of everyone else.

At the heart of his argument is a fundamental objection to the intellectual assumptions of his day concerning the nature of human beings. Consider, first of all, this critique:
"Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.

"We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. [Ironic from today's perspective, isn't it?] We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain."
This confusion between state and society is connected to a view of the human being as "inert," so the the relationship between the intellectual and society is like that "between a potter and clay":
"Present-day writers--especially those of the socialist school of thought--base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: They divide mankind into two parts. People in general--with the exception of the writer himself--from the first group. The writer, all alone, forms the second and most important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!

"In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people have within themselves no means of discernment; no motivation to action. The writers 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."
Bastiat's view was quite different. In his view, human productivity and cooperation were tendencies given to us through Providence, and were not the product of the state. Order was achieved through spontaneous forces, which no government had the power to create or control.

This essay by Bastiat seems as timely as ever. I do not think the intellectual climate in the West has ever moved toward full acceptance of the idea that society and the state are fundamentally distinct categories. Our political discourse is dominated by the assumption that government "manages" society, and it is taken for granted that we must compete with one another for representation in government if we want our slice of the pie. I challenge everyone to rethink these assumptions, and stop pretending that our modern problems are so very different from the problems faced in centuries past!

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