Frédéric Bastiat

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Frédéric Bastiat
Personal Details
Birth: June 30, 1801
Death: December 24, 1850(1850-12-24) (aged 49)
Occupation: Economist

Claude-Frédéric Bastiat (30 June 1801 – 24 December 1850) was a French classical liberal author and political economist.



Biography

Bastiat was born in Bayonne, Aquitaine, France. His public career as an economist began only in 1844, and was cut short by his untimely death in 1850. Bastiat had caught tuberculosis, probably during his tours throughout France to promote libertarian ideas, and that illness eventually prevented him from making further speeches (particularly at the legislative assembly to which he was elected in 1848 and 1849) and took his life. Frédéric Bastiat died in Rome, Italy on 24 December 1850. Bastiat declared on his death bed that his friend Gustave de Molinari (publisher of Bastiat's masterpiece The Law in 1849) was his spiritual heir.

Views

Bastiat can be said to be of the Harmonic school of libertarians, who consider utilitarian and natural law arguments as two complementary aspects of a same world. Bastiat did not take part in the anarchist-minarchist debate (he arguably died too early for that); he seems to have considered the State as something inevitable as far as immediate practical matter — something that ought to be taken into account as long as it existed. He also explicitly deplored violent revolution as a way to get rid of governments (a view no doubt influenced by the horrors of the Jacobins and the trials of the French Revolution). However, like all classical liberals, Bastiat maintained a deep distrust of all government, in any form, and worked all his life to demonstrate that government control of private individuals and regulation of private industry is inefficient, economically damaging, and morally wrong.

Because of his stress on the role of consumer demand in initiating economic progress, Bastiat is seen as a forerunner of the Austrian School.

One of Bastiat's most important contributions to the field of economics was his admonition to the effect that good economic decisions can only be made by taking into account the "full picture." That is, economic truths should be arrived at by observing not only the immediate consequences (i.e., benefits or liabilities) of an economic decision, but also by examining the long-term consequences. Additionally, one must examine the decision's effect not only on a single group of people (say candlemakers) or a single industry (say candles), but on all people and all industries in the society as a whole. As Bastiat famously put it: an economist must take into account "both what is seen and what is not seen." Bastiat's "rule" was later expounded by Henry Hazlitt in his work Economics in One Lesson, in which Hazlitt borrowed Bastiat's trenchant Broken Window Fallacy and went on to demonstrate how it applies to a wide variety of economic falsehoods.

Works

Bastiat was the author of many works on economics and political economy, generally characterized by their clear organization, forceful argument and acerbic wit. Among his most well known works is Economic Fallacies, which contains many trenchant attacks on statist (i.e. "progressive") policies. Bastiat wrote it while living in England in an attempt to advise the shapers of the French Republic on pitfalls to avoid.

Contained within Economic Fallacies is the famous satirical episode best known as the Candlemakers' Petition which presents itself as a demand from the candlemakers' guild to the French government, asking the government to block out the Sun to prevent its unfair competition with their products. Much like Jonathan Swift's A Modest Proposal or Benjamin Franklin's anti-slavery works, Bastiat's argument cleverly highlights the basic flaws in state-support of industry by demonstrating its absurdity when carried to a logical extreme.

Bastiat's most famous work, however, is undoubtedly The Law, originally published as a pamphlet in 1850. It deals with the issues underlying the development of a just and free system of laws, and how such laws should be applied in a free society.

Sadly, Bastiat and his works are no longer well known in the anglophone world, and are becoming difficult to find in English translation.

Selected Quotations

  • "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?" — from The Law
  • "When under the pretext of fraternity, the legal code imposes mutual sacrifices on the citizens, human nature is not thereby abrogated. Everyone will then direct his efforts toward contributing little to, and taking much from, the common fund of sacrifices. Now, is it the most unfortunate who gains from this struggle? Certainly not, but rather the most influential and calculating." — from The Law
  • "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." — from The Law
  • "But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime." — from The Law
  • "Government is the great fiction through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else."—from Government
  • "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. 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."—from The Law
  • "It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for whatever the question under discussion — whether religious, philosophical, political, or economic; whether it concerns prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labor, trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or government—at whatever point on the scientific horizon I begin my researches, I invariably reach this one conclusion: The solution to the problems of human relationships is to be found in liberty."—from The Law

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