Frederic Bastiat Quotes

Little gems from Bastiat


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.


… while the French people have been in advance of all other nations in the conquest of their rights, or rather of their political guarantees, they have nonetheless remained the most governed, regimented, administered, imposed upon, shackled, and exploited of all.France is also, and necessarily, the one nation in which revolutions are most likely to occur.

And what remedy is proposed? To enlarge the domain of the law indefinitely, that is, the responsibility of the government.

But if the government undertakes to raise and to regulate wages, and cannot do so; if it undertakes to assist all the unfortunate, and cannot do so; if it undertakes to proivde workers with the tools of production, and cannot do so; if it undertakes to make interest-free credit available to all those clamoring for loans, and cannot do so; if, in words that we regret to note were written by M. de Lamartine, “the state assumes the task of enlightening, developing, increasing, spiritualizing, and sanctifying the soul of the people,” and if it fails,; is it not evident that after each disappointment (alas, only too probable!), there will be no less inevitable revolution?

Once we start from this idea, accepted by all our political theorists, and so energetically expressed by M. Louis Blanc in these words: “The motive force of society is the government”; once men consider themselves as sentient, bu passive, incapable of improving themselves morally or materially by their own intelligence and energy, and reduced to expecting everything from the law; in a word, when they admit that their relation to the state is that of a flock of sheep to the shepherd, it is clear that the responsibility of the government is immense. Good and evil, virtue and vice, equality and inequality, wealth and poverty, all proceed from it. It is entrusted with everything, it undertakes everything; hence, it is responsible for everything. If we are happy, it has every right to claim our gratitude; but if we are wretched, it alone is to blame…

Thus, there is not a single ill afflicting the nation for which the govenrment has not voluntarily made itself responsible. Is it astonishing, then, that each little twinge should be a cause of revolution?


I am a firm believer in the ideas of Malthus when it comes to bureaucrats. For their expansion in numbers and projects is fixed precisely by Malthus’ principle that the size of the population is determined by the amount of available food. If we vote 800 million francs for government services, the bureaucrats will devour 800 million; if we give them two billion, they will immediately expand themselves and their projects up to the full amount.


We recognize the right of every man to perform services for himself or to serve others according to conditions arrived at through free bargaining. Communism denies this right, since it places all services in the hands of an arbitrary, central authority.Our doctrine is based on private property. Communism is based on systematic plunder, since it consists in handing over to one man, without compenstion, the labour of another. If it distributed to each one according to his labour, it would, in fact, recognize private property and would no longer be communism.

Our doctrine is based on liberty. In fact, private property and liberty, in our eyes are one and the same; for one man is made the owner of his own services by his right and his ability to dispose of them as he sees fit. Communism destroys liberty, for it permits no one to dispose freely of his own labour.

Our doctrine is founded on justice; communism, on injustice. This is the necessary conclusion from what we have just said.


An important task for political economy is to write the history of plunder. It is a long history involving, from the very beginning, conquests, migrations of peoples, invasions, and all the disastrous excesses of violence at grips with justice. All this has left an aftermath that still continues to plague us and that renders it more difficult to solve the problems of the present day. We shall not solve them so long as we are unaware of the way, and of the extent to which, injustice, present in our very midst, has gained a foothold in our customs and laws.


The proper domain of law and government is justice


But the individual has no right to use force for any other end. I cannot legitimately force my fellow men to be industrious, sober, thrift, generous, learned, or pious; but I can force them to be just.


For the same reason, the collective force cannot be legitimately employed to foster the love of labour, sobriety, thrift, generosity, learning, religious faith; but it can be legitimately employed to further the rule of justice, to defend every man’s rights.


Within the limits of equity, everything is to be accomplished through the free and perfectible initiative of man; nothing is to be achieved by law or by force save universal justice.


Try to imagine a system of labour imposed by force that is not a violation of liberty; a transfer of wealth imposed by force that is not a violation of property rights. If you cannot do so, then you must agree that the law cannot organize labour and industry without organizing injustice.


Unhappy country, where the sacred forces that were meant to support each man’s rights are perverted to accomplish themselves the violation of these rights!


Shall I speak of the corrupting immorality that seeps into the veins of the whole body politic when, in principle, the law puts itself at the service of every spoliative impulse? Attend a meeting of the National Assembly when bonuses, subsidies, bounties, restrictions are on the agenda. See with what shameless rapacity everyone tries to make sure of his share of the plunder — plunder to which he would blush to stoop as a private individual.


The ideological was now being waged against property is neither the most bitter nor the most dangerous that it has had to contend with. Since the beginning of the world there has also been a real war of violence and conspiracy waged against it that gives no sign og abating. War, slavery, imposture, inequitable taxation, monopoly, privilege, unethical practise, colonialism, the right to employment, the right to credit, the right to education, the right too public aid, progressive taxation in direct or inverse ratio to the ability to pay — all are so many battering rams pounding against the tottering column. Could anyone assure me whether there are many men in France, even among those who consider tehmselves conservatives, who do not, in one form or another, lend a hand to this work of destruction.


How could men dream of blaming themselves for their woes when they have been persuaded tat by nature they are inert, that the source of all action, and consequently of all responsibilty, lies outside themselves, in the will of the sovereign and of the lawgiver?


Certain nations seem particularly liable to fall prey to governmental plunder. They are those in whcih men, lacking faith in their own dignity and capability, would feel themselves lost if they were not governed and administered every step of the way. Without having traveled a great deal, I have seen countried in which people think that agriculture can make no progress unless the government supports experimental farms; that soon there will no longer be any horses, if the government does not provide studs; that fathers will not have their children educated, or will have them taught only immorality, if the government does not decide what it is proper to learn.


People are beginning to realize that the apparatus of government is costly. But what they do not know is that the burden falls inevitably on them.


If I had to point out the characteristic trait that differentiates socialism from [a proper view of the political economy], I should find it here. Socialism includes a countless number of sects. Each on has its own utopia, and we may well say that they are so far from agreement that they wage bitter war upon one another. Between M. Blanc’s organized social workshops and M. Proudhon’s anarchy, between Fourier’s association and M. Cabet’scommunism, there is certainly all the difference between night and day. What then, is the comon denominator to which all forms of socialism are reducible, and what is the bond that unites them against natural society, or society as planned by Providence? There is none except this: They do not want natural society. What they want is an artificial society, which has come forth full-grown from the brain of its inventor… They quarrel over who will mould the human clay, but they agree that there is human clay to mould. Mankind is not in their eyes a living and harmonious being endowed by God Himself with the power to progress and to survive, but an inert mass that has been waiting for them to give it feeling and life; human nature is not a subject to be studied, but matter on which to perform experiments.


The demands of the socialists raise another question, which I have often addressed to them, and to which, as far as I know, they have never replied. Since the natural inclinations of mankind are so evil that its liberty must be taken away, how is it that the inclinations of the socialists are good? Are not the legislators and their agents part of the human race? Do they believe themselves moulded from another clay than the rest of mankind? They say that society, left to itself, heads inevitably for destruction because its instincts are perverse. They demand the power to stop mankind from sliding down this fatal declivity and to impose a better direction on it. If, then, they have received from heaven intelligence and virtues that place them beyond and above mankind, let them show their credentials. They want to be shepherds, and they want us to be their sheep. This arrangement presupposes in them a natural superiority, a claim that we have every right to require them to establish before we go any further.


If you start with the already absurd assumption that the government is the morally active force and that the nation is passive, are you not putting morals, doctrines, opinions, wealth, everything that makes up the life of the individual at the mercy of the men who one after another come to power?


Rousseau was convinced that God, nature and man were wrong. I know that this opinion still sways many minds, but mine is not one of them.

1848 article in Journal des economistes


What young man, going out into the world full of ardour and passion, does not say to himself: “The impulses of my heart are the voice of Nature, which is never mistaken. The institutions that stand in my way are man-made and are only arbitrary conventions to which I have never given my consent. In trampling these institutions underfoot, I shall have the double pleasure of satisfying my inclinations and of believing myself a hero”


Start with the idea that society is contrary to Nature; devise contrivances to which humanity can be subjected; lose sight of the fact that humanity has its motive force within itself; consider men as base raw materials; propose to impart to them movement at will, feeling and life, set oneself up apart, immeasurably above the human race — these are the common practices of the social planners. The plans differ; the planners are all alike…Poor human race! What would the disciples of Rousseau do to your dignity?


Do you not know that freedom means competition, and that competition, according to M. Louis Blanc, is a system of extermination for the common people, and a cause of ruin for the businessman? For evidence that the freer nations are, the closer they are to destruction and ruination, should we not look at Switzerland, Holland, England, and the United States? Do you not know that, again according to M. Louis Blanc, competition leads to monopoly, and that, for teh same reason, low costs lead to high prices? That competition tends to exhaust the sources of consumption and pushes production into a destructive activity? That competition forces production to increase and consumption to decrease? Whence it follows that free peopls produce in order not to consume — that liberty means both opppression and madness, and that M. Louis Blanc simply must step in and set matters straight?


We can hardly exert direct action on the energy and frugality of our fellow men, except through public opinion, through an intelligent expression of our likes and our dislikes. But we can do a great deal for the creation of security, without which capital, far from expanding, goes into hiding, takes flight, or is destroyed; and consequently we see how almost suicidal is the ardour for disturbing the public peace that the working classes sometimes display. They must learn that capital has from the beginning of time worked to free men from the yoke of ignorance, want and tyranny. To frighten away capital is to rivet a triple chain around the arms of the human race.


We must cease believing in anything in this world, in facts, in justice, in universal consent, in human language; or else we must admit that these two words, “property” and “plunder”, express opposite, irreconcilable ideas that can no more be identified than yes and no, light and dark, good and evil, harmony and sicord. taken literally, the famous formula, property is theft, is therefore absurdity raised to the nth degree. It would be no less outlandish to say that theft is property; that what is legal is illegal; that what is, in not, etc.


Property is prior to law; the sole function of the law is to safeguard the right to property wherever it exists, wherever it is formed, in whatever manner the worker produces it, whether individually or in association, provided that he respects the rights of others.


…on what basis will the distribution be made? Communism answers: On the basis of equality. What! Equality without reference to any difference in the pains taken? We shall all have an equal share, whether we have worked six hours or twelve, mechanically or intellectually! But of all possible types of inequality this is the most shocking; and furthermore, it means the destruction of all initiative, liberty, dignity, and prudence. You propose to kill competition, but take care; you are on redirecting it. Under present conditions we compete to see who works most and best. Under your regime we shall compete to see who works worst and least.


Capital and labour wil be frightened; they will no longer be able to count on the future. capital, under the impact of such a doctrine, will hide, flee, be destroyed. And what will become, then, of the workers, those workers for whom you profess an affection so deep and sincere, but so enlightened? Will they be better fed when agricutltural production is stopped? Will they be better dressed when no one dares to build a factory? Will they have more mployment when capital will have disappeared?


And is not this the point that we have now reached? What is the cry going up everywhere, from all ranks and classes? All for one! When we say the word one we think of ourselves, and what we demand is to receive an unearned share in the fruits of the labour of all. In other words, we are creating an organized system of plunder. Unquestionably, simple out-and-out plunder is so clearly unjust as to be repugnant to us; but thanks to the motto, all for one, we can allay our qualms of conscience. We impose on others the duty of working for us. then, we arrogate to ourselves the right to enjoy the fruits of other men’s labour. We call upon the state, the law, to enforce our so-called duty, to protect our so-called right, and we end in the fantastic situation of robbing one another in the name of brotherhood. We live at other men’s expense, and then call ourselves heroically self-sacrificing for so doing. Oh, the unaccountable folly of the human mind! Oh, the deviousness of greed! It is not enough that each of us tries to increase our share at the expense of other; it is not enough that we want to profit from labour that we have not performed. we even convince ourselves that in the process we are sublime examples of self-sacrifice; we almost go so far as to call our unselfishness Christlike. We have become so blind that we do not see that the sacrifices that cause us to weep with admiration as we contemplate ourselves are not made by us at all, but are exacted by us of others.


…the citizens have lost their capacity for initiative. At the very instant that they are about to regain the liberty that they have so ardently pursued, they become frightened; they reject it. DO you offer them the freedom to provide their own education? They fear that all learning will be lost. Do you offer them freedom of worship? They fear that atheism will make inroads everywhere. They have been told so many times that all religion, all wisdom, all knowledge, all enlightenment, all morality reside in the state or are derived from the state!


To tamper with man’s freedom is not only to injure him, to degrade him; it is to change his nature, to render him, in so far as such oppression is exercised, incapable of improvement; it is to strip him of his resemblance to the Creator, to stifle within him the noble breath of life with which he was endowed at his creation.


Distance contirbutes not a little to give to ancient figures a quality of grandeur. If someone speaks to us of the Roman citizen, we ordinarily do not picture to ourselves a brigand occupied with acquiring booty and slaves, at the expense of peaceful peoples; we do not see him half-naked, shockingly dirty, going about muddy streets; we do not surprise him in the act of flogging a slave until the blood flows or putting him to death if he shows a bit of energy and spirit. We prefer to picture to ourselves a beautfiul head crowning an impressive and majestic body draped like an ancient statue. We like to think of him as meditating on the high destinies of his country. He seems to us to be seeing his family gathering around the hearth, which is honoured by the presence of the gods; the wife preparing the simple repast of the warrior and glancing with confidence and admiration at her husband’s face; the young children attentive to the discourse of an old man who whiles away the hours by recounting the exploits and the virtues of their father….Oh what illusions would be dissipated if we could evoke the past, walk down the streets of Rome, and see close up the men whom, from afar, we admire so naively!


You contend that I am wrong to practice Catholicism; and I contend that you are wrong to practice Lutheranism. Let us leave it to God to judge. Why should I strike at you, or why should you strike at me? If it is not good that one of us should strike the other, how can it be good that we should delegate to a third party, who controls the public police force, the authority to strike at one of us in order to please the other?You contend that I am wrong to teach my son science and philosophy; I believe you are wrong to teach yours Greek and Latin. Let us both follow the dictate of our conscience. Let us allow the law of responsibility to operate for our families. It will punish the one who is wrong. Let us not call in human law; it could well punish the one who is not wrong.


Political economy has not been given the mission of finding out what society would be like if it had pleased God to make man different from what he is. It may be regrettable that Providence, at the beginning, neglected to seek teh advice of some of our modern reformers… if He had not disregarded the advice of Fourier, the social order would have borne no resemblance to the one in which we are obliged to live, breathe, and move about. But, since we are in it, since we fo live, move, and have our being in it, our only recourse is to stufy it and to understand its laws, especially if the improvement of our condition essentially depends upon such knowledge.


Each of us certainly gets from Nature, from God, the right to defend his person, his liberty, and his property, since they are the three elements constituting or sustaining life, elements which are mutually complementary and which cannot be understood without one another. For what are our faculties, if not an extension of our personality, and what is property, if not an extension of our faculties?If each man has the right to defend, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property, several men have the right to get together, come to an understanding, and organize a collective force to provide regularly for this defense.

Collective right, then, has its principle, its raison d’etre, its legitimate basis, in individual right; and the collective force can rationally have no other end, no other function, than that of the individual forces for which it substitutes.


Hence, if anything is self-evident, it is this: law is the organization of the natural right to legitimate self-defense, it is the substitution of collective force for individual forces, to act in the sphere in which they have the right to act, to do what they have the right to do: to guarantee security of person, liberty, and property rights, to cause justice to reign over all.And if there existed a nation constituted on this basis, it seems tome that order would prevail there in fact as well as in theory. It seems to me that this nation would have the simplest, most economical, least burdensome, least disturbing, least officious, most just, and consequently most stable government that can be imagined, whatever its political form might be.


If man were perfect, if he were infallible, society would present a very different kind of harmony from that which we may actually expect it to offer us. Our idea of harmony is not Fourier’s. It does not exclude the existence of evil; it leaves room for discord; and yet we shall recognize that harmony nonetheless exists, provided that discord serves to prepare the way and to lead us back to harmony.This is our starting point: man is fallible, and God has given him free will and, with his ability to choose, also the ability to err, to mistake the false for the true, to sacrifice the future for the present, to yield to the unreasonable desires of his own heart.

Man makes mistakes. But every act and habit has its consequences.


He should perhaps ask himself whether the cause of such social conditions is not ancient acts of plunder, effected by way of conquest, and more recent acts of plunder, effected by the intervention of the law. He should ask himself whetherm granted the aspiration of all men towards well-being and self-fulfillment, the reign of justice would not be enough to set the forces of progress into rapid motion and to realize the greatest amount of equality compatible with that individual respnsibility which God has ordained as the just retribution for virtue and vice.


…competition in modern society is far from playing its natural role. Our laws inhibit it at least as much as they encourage it; and to answer the question whether inequality is due to the presence or the absence of competition, we need only observe who the men are who occupy the limelight and dazzle us with their scandalous fortunes, to assure ourselve that inequality, in so far as it is artificial and unjust, is based on conquest, monopolies, restrictions, priviledged positions, high government posts and influence, administrative deals, lons from the public funds — with all of which competition has no connection.


Once an abuse exists, everything is arranged on the assumption that it will last indefinitely; and, as more and more people come to depend upon it for their livelihood, and still others depend upon them, a superstructure is erected that soon comprises a formidable edifice.The moment you try to tear it down, everybody protests; and the point to which I wish to call particular attention here is that those who protest always appear at first glance to be in the right, because it is easier to show the disorder that must accompany reform than the order that should follow it.


Is there any need to prove that this odious perversion of the law is a perpetual cause of hatred, discord, and even social disorder? Look at the United States. There is no country in the world where the law confines itself more rigourously to its proper role, which is to guarantee everyone’s liberty and property. Accordingly, there is no country in which the social order seems to rest on a more stable foundation. Nevertheless, even in the United States there are two questions, and only two, which since it was founded, have several times put the political order in danger. And what are these two questions? The question of slavery and that of tariffs, that is, precisely the only two questions concerning which, contrary to the general spirit of this republic, the law has assumed a spoilative character. Slavery is a violation, sanctioned by law, of the rights of the person. Protective tariffs are a violation, perpetrated by the law, of the right to property; and certainly it is remarkable that in the midst of so many other disputes this twofold legal scourge, a sad heritage from the Old World, should be the only one that can and perhaps will lead to the dissolution of the Union. It is, in fact, impossible to imagine any graver situation in a society than one in which the law becomes an instrument of injustice. And if this fact gives rise to such dreadful consequences in the United States, where it is only exceptional, what must be its consequences in Europe where it is a principle and a system?


From earliest childhood to extreme old age, life is a long apprenticeship. We learn to walk by repeated falls; we learn by hard and repeated experiences to avoid heat, cold, hunger, thirst, excesses. We complain that experience is a hard teacher; but if it were not, we should never learn anything.The same is true of the moral order. The awful consequences of cruelty, injustice, terror, violence, fraud, and idleness, are what teach us to be kind, just, brave, temperate, honest, and industrious. Experience takes a long time; it will, indeed, always be at work but it is effective.

Since such is man’s nature, it is impossible not to recognize in responsibility the mainspring of social progress. It is the crucible of experience.


We see, then, that in almost all of the important actions of life we must respect men’s free will, defer to their own good judgement, to that inner light that God has given them to use, and beyond this to let the law of responsibility take its course.


If you wish to prosper, let your customer prosper. This is a lesson it has taken you a very long time to learn.When people have learned this lesson, everyone will seek his individual welfare in teh general welfare. Then jealousies between man and man, city and city, province and province, nation and nation, will no longer trouble the world.


…are we to believe that the people are better fed under the laws that prevail at present, because there is less bread, meat, and sugar in the country? Are they better clad, because there is less linen and woolen cloth? Are their houses better heated, because there is less coal? is their labour made easier, because there is less iron and copper, or because there are fewer tools and machines?restrictive laws always present us with the same dilemma.

Either we admit that they produce scarcity, or we do not admit it.

If we do admit it, we thereby confess that they inflict upon the people all the harm that they can do. If we do not admit it, then we deny that they limit the supply of goods and raise their prices, and consequently we deny that they favour the producer.

Such laws are either injurious or ineffective. They cannot be useful.


The questions for the worker to ask himself are not: Does my labour bring me a great deal? Does it bring me very little? Does it bring me as much as it brings another? Does it bring me what I should like?Rather, he should ask: Does my labour bring me less because I have put it at the service of the capitalist? Would it bring me more if I performed it on my own, or if I joined my labour with that of others as destitute as I am? My situation is bad. Would I be better off if there were no capital on earth? If the share that I receive as a result of my arrangement with capital is larger than my share would be without it, what grounds do I have for complaint? And then, if transactions are free and voluntary, what are the laws determining whether there is to be a rise or a fall in the amount of out respective shares? If the nature of these transactions is such that, as the total to be distributed increases, my share in the increase becomes steadily larger, then, instead of vowing eternal hatred against the capitalist, ought I not to look upon him as a good brother> if it is well established that the presence of capital is advantageous to me, and that its absence would mean my death, am I very wise or prudent in abusing it, intimidating it, requiring it to be frittered away or forcing it into hiding?


But, by an inference as false as it is unjust, when we oppose subsidies, we are charged with opposing the very thing that it was proposed to subsidize and of being the enemies of all kinds of activity, because we want these activities to be voluntary and to seek their proper reward in themselves. Thus, if we ask that the state not intervene, by taxation, in religious matters, we are atheists. If we ask that the state not intervene, by taxation, in education, then we hate enlightenment. If we say that the state should not give, by taxation, an artificial value to land or to some branch of industry, then we are the enemies of property and of labour. If we think that the state should not subsidize artists, we are barbarians who judge the arts useless.I protest with all my power against these inferences. Far from entertaining the absurd thought of abolishing religion, education, property, labour, and the arts when we ask the state to protect the free development of all these types of human activity without keeping them on the payroll at one another’s expense, we believe, on the contrary, that all these vital forces of society should develop harmoniously under the influence of liberty and that none of them should become, as we see has happened today, a source of trouble, abuses, tyranny, and disorder.

Our adversaries believe that an activity that is neither subsidized nor regulated is abolished. We believe the contrary. Their faith is in the legislator, not in mankind. Ours is in mankind, not in the legislator.


And why do the political parties aspire to take over the direction of education? Because they know the saying of Leibnitz: “Make me the master of Education by governmental power, and I will undertake to change the world”. Education by governmetnal power, then, is education by a political party, by a sect momentarily triumphant; it is education on behalf of one idea, of one system, to the exclusion of all others.