Of all the figures who comprise the libertarian pantheon, I have a special affection for Frédéric Bastiat, and so I greeted the announcement that Liberty Fund was publishing his collected works with great enthusiasm, tempered only by the fact that the publication of the six volumes will be spread out over a considerable time. No matter, I will be saved from the sin of gluttony by having to wait, and we have already got to number two, which I am currently reading. The first volume contains, amongst other things, his correspondence, and allowed the reader to gain an insight to this man’s life, which was sadly cut short when he was at the height of his powers. A man of great humanity is revealed in those letters.
The second volume contains some of his most famous pamphlets, such as ‘The Law’ and ‘The State’. Although written in the 1840s mainly, I am constantly struck by its relevance to today. As a species, it seems we have not progressed very far. Of the many times I’ve stopped to make a mental note of a particular passage, this one is from pages 250-251, in an article named “Protectionism and Communism“, in which he chides the Right for their horror of the latter, by showing them that it is merely the consistent application of the former, which they support:
Without pretending to philosophize here on the origin and extent of the rights of governments, a vast subject quite frightening to my weak brain, permit me to submit an idea for your consideration. It seems to me that the rights of the state can be nothing but the regularizing of pre-existent personal rights. For my part, I cannot conceive a collective right that does not have its foundation in an individual right or presuppose it. Hence, to know whether the state is legitimately invested with a right, we must ask whether the individual has that right in virtue of his nature and in the absence of all government. It is on this basis that I rejected a few days ago the right to employment. I said: Since Peter does not have the right to require Paul directly to give him employment, he is not authorized to exercise this pretended right through the intermediation of the state; for the state is only the common police force created by Peter and by Paul, at their expense, for a definite end, which could never be to render just what is not just. It is by this touchstone that I also judge between the protection and the equalization of property by the state. Why does the state have the right to protect, even by force, each man’s property? Because that right pre-exists in the individual. One cannot deny to individuals the right to legitimate self-defense, the right to employ force, if necessary, in order to repel aggression directed against their persons, their freedom of labor, or their property. It is understandable that this individual right, since it belongs to all the citizens, may assume a collective form and legitimize the common police force. And why does the state not have the right to equalize property? Because, in order to do so, we must take it away from some and bestow it on others. Now, since none of the thirty million Frenchmen has the right to take property by force under the pretext of equalizing wealth, we do not see how they could invest the common police force with this right.
Recently I have been engaged in the drafting of a constitution for Pro Liberty, and we pondered a long time over a set of principles which would succinctly capture the essentials of the libertarian philosophy. As far as I am concerned, it would be enough to put: “what Bastiat said” and leave it at that.