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Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Bastiat in Africa

And you thought that free marketers had a hard time selling their ideas in Canada, try Nigeria. Adedayo Thomas converted to pro-liberty ideas by stumbling across the ideas of Frederic Bastiat, the legendary nineteenth century French economic writer.

If anyone understood daunting odds, it was Bastiat. A prophet rarely honoured in his own land, Bastiat's arguments in favour of free trade, and against government regulations, fell on deaf ears at home. Instead the French gave the world the terms bureaucracy and dirigisme. In the English speaking nations, however, this scion of Bayonne merchants has become something of a cult hero among libertarians, classical liberals and some conservatives. 

Bastiat's success as a propagandist for the cause rests on the clarity of his writing style, and the force of his arguments. He has that remarkable ability, when first encountered, of piercing through so much of the cant of political chatter, whose hypocrisy and irrationality has changed little since his untimely death in 1850. Take this passage from The Law:

You say: "There are persons who have no money," and you turn to the law. But the law is not a breast that fills itself with milk. Nor are the lacteal veins of the law supplied with milk from a source outside the society. Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of one citizen or one class unless other citizens and other classes have been forced to send it in. If every person draws from the treasury the amount that he has put in it, it is true that the law then plunders nobody. But this procedure does nothing for the persons who have no money. It does not promote equality of income. The law can be an instrument of equalization only as it takes from some persons and gives to other persons. When the law does this, it is an instrument of plunder.

With this in mind, examine the protective tariffs, subsidies, guaranteed profits, guaranteed jobs, relief and welfare schemes, public education, progressive taxation, free credit, and public works. You will find that they are always based on legal plunder, organized injustice.

Now imagine someone, like many of you reading this post, who since childhood had been told about the wonders of the Santa Claus State, reading Bastiat's words for the first time. The government will give you free health care, free education, free housing and anything your heart desires. There is no Jolly Elf at the North Pole, we eventually discover, but his spirit inhabits the limp figure of Dalton McGuinty.

Well, not so precise or disappointing an image. The government is not its head. The most ardent statists are often strongly critical of the government of the day. Instead they project a hazy image of a wise paternalistic god. Sure, the Dalt is a horrible disappointment, but that's because he isn't sufficiently statist. More sacrifices and the god government will shower us with peace and prosperity. Witness the frantic insistence of modern Keynesian that the Obama stimulus package isn't big enough. Why? Well, because the economy isn't stimulated. Or put another way, you know you haven't borrowed enough yet, because you're not rich yet.

One of the most insidious tricks advocates of statism deploy, which Bastiat saw through, is the conflating of genuine values with the necessity of state action. Because something is good, therefore the government must subsidize it, regulate it or give it preferential treatment. This leads to the belief that to oppose government action, means you oppose the thing government is acting upon. Don't believe in socialized health care, then you are opposed to "universal health care." Denounce public education and you are classified as a promoter of illiteracy. Attack protectionism and you are driving your neighbours to the unemployment line.

You say: "There are persons who lack education," and you turn to the law. But the law is not, in itself, a torch of learning which shines its light abroad. The law extends over a society where some persons have knowledge and others do not; where some citizens need to learn, and others can teach. In this matter of education, the law has only two alternatives: It can permit this transaction of teaching-and-learning to operate freely and without the use of force, or it can force human wills in this matter by taking from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are appointed by government to instruct others, without charge. But in this second case, the law commits legal plunder by violating liberty and property.

Hazy humanitarianism is replaced, with Bastiat, by simple reasoning. Whatever the excuse, theft is still theft. Your goal is brotherhood? Well, brother, you asked for it:

Mr. de Lamartine once wrote to me thusly: "Your doctrine is only the half of my program. You have stopped at liberty; I go on to fraternity." I answered him: "The second half of your program will destroy the first."

In fact, it is impossible for me to separate the word fraternity from the word voluntary. I cannot possibly understand how fraternity can be legally enforced without liberty being legally destroyed, and thus justice being legally trampled underfoot

Legal plunder has two roots: One of them, as I have said before, is in human greed; the other is in false philanthropy.

As one of Bastiat's contemporaries, Victor Hugo, put it: "this will destroy that." Hugo was referring to the Catholic Church and the printing press. The principle applies equally well with proclamations of human betterment, and the ensnarement of actual human beings in state bureaucracies. What Bastiat does, better than almost anyone, is calling people's bluff. You say you believe in this, but this is what actually happens. It is a message, and a style, as needed in Africa as in Canada.

Posted by Richard Anderson on October 19, 2010 | Permalink


Indeed, Bastiat was legendary. See my intro to his essays here. http://africanliberty.org/node/617

Posted by: Franklin Cudjoe | 2010-10-19 3:19:26 PM

One the best posts in a long time.

Posted by: TM | 2010-10-22 12:16:38 AM

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