Frederic Bastiat

Frederic Bastiat is perhaps the clearest and most entertaining economist the profession has ever known. Bastiat lived in France from 1801-1850, though the vast majority of his work was produced in the last six years of his life. Bastiat was embroiled in the debates on political economy that were current in his time. He made grassroots efforts to raise awareness of these issues among the populace. It is perhaps because of his distinctly non-academic stance that Bastiat has been shunned and ignored by most of economists.

Bastiat is often described as a “French journalist-economist of the nineteenth century”. Unfortunately the term journalist when joined to economist with a hyphen suggests “pop-economist” to most readers. While I believe Bastiat’s clarity is a distinct asset, and newspapers were the appropriate forum for the discourse he was engaged in, I do not believe this detracts from the relevance or importance of Bastiat’s work in any way, shape or form. If Bastiat was a “journalist”, then O. Henry, Dorothy Parker, Saki and Oscar Wilde (all of whom wrote some of their finest work for newspapers and periodicals) were “journalists” as well. Perhaps the texture of newspapers has changed over the past few decades; in any case, I would like to affirm Bastiat’s credentials as an economist of the first order.

If one wished to classify Bastiat, I would be tempted to call him an economist, a pamphleteer and a satirist (in alphabetical order). I think these three terms capture the flavour of Bastiat’s work. He was an economist by virtue of the profound understanding of economic choice that is apparent in his writing. He is a pamphleteer because pamphlets were the vehicle for some of his most potent arguments, and we can gather that he was engaged in something more than academic debates. Finally, he is a satirist because he is a master of the art.

For most readers today Bastiat’s work might not read like that of an economist. The issues he deals with are broad and the arguments he uses are tempered by a variety of disciplines. Bastiat’s is not the narrow, insular economics we have perhaps become accustomed to. readders will also find Bastiat refreshingly devoid of “technical economics”. Bastiat came before attempts to turn economics into a “science” and consequently he is more apt to apply logic rather than mathematical wizardy to his problems. Bastiat might also not find favour with many economists today due to his liberal bent (in the old sense of the term). Claude Frederic Bastiat believed in the freedom of markets with a fervour, this belief would not permit him to entertain thoughts of fine-tuning economies (if he were to admit the existence of such a thing as an “economy” that is).

Bastiat’s economics does not operate in a void, it is aware of the institutional atmosphere within which it functions. Bastiat well understood the effects regulation (what he calls “law”) had on the decisions of individuals. Similarly he was able to appreciate the “harmony of interests” that the marketplace induced. In this Bastiat was echoing economists who came before him (Adam Smith and the “invisible hand”) and prefiguring economists who wrote later (F. A. Hayek and “plan co-ordination”). Bastiat’s understanding of economics would not permit him to work in a moral void, one of his most common arguments was an appeal to justice and he never lost sight of the position of the consumer and the morality of institutions, laws and ideologies.

Lorenza Garreau writes in the foreword to Bastiat and the ABC of Free Trade

Every day he crushed a fallacy — killed it by ridicule and by turning on it the bright light of logic.

Perhaps what sets Bastiat apart from all other economists is his stance and tone. Bastiat remains a writer who entertains while enlightening, a satirist of the calibre of Swift and Voltaire.

Resources at this site

E-Texts of Bastiat’s books and other resources