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Mises Daily: Wednesday, January 06, 2010 by

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Bastiat and Paine

No one traveling in hostile country should ever be without reliable protection. When the territory in question is intellectual, it always helps to have the aid of fighters who've been there before. In fact, two of the most seasoned pros are yours for only the cost of the effort required to understand their arguments. Fortunately, these straight-shooting writers have made that cost minimal.

I'm speaking of Thomas Paine (1737–1809) and Frederic Bastiat (1801–1850). Both were skilled polemicists. If they had been contemporaries they might have gotten along as famously as Doc Holliday and Wyatt Earp. Paine's major works were mostly political and religious polemics, while Bastiat was a skilled debunker of economic fallacies and a great economic theorist. Though much could be written about their differences, they shared a strong intellectual similarity. Consider the following:

  • Both men were plain-speaking champions of liberty whose works are timeless. You can download their writing at no charge from Mises.org.[1]

  • Both men rose from obscurity relatively late in life, through the power of their writing. Paine didn't become known to the world until he was 39; Bastiat, until he was in his mid-40s.

  • Both men were mostly self-educated. Neither completed school. Paine left at age 12 to serve a standard seven-year apprenticeship in his father's corset-making trade. Bastiat quit at 17 to work in his uncle's counting house — and because he could no longer stand school. Bastiat was severely critical of French education throughout his life.

  • Both men took considerable physical risks to fight for their ideas. After publishing Common Sense in early 1776 and thereby inducing the Continental Congress to declare American independence, Paine joined Washington's army. As the Americans were fleeing across the New Jersey countryside following their narrow escape from New York City, Paine spent his evenings writing the first and best-known of his American Crisis papers. "These are the times that try men's souls," it began. "Tyranny, like hell, is not easily conquered; yet we have this consolation with us, that the harder the conflict, the more glorious the triumph."

    In the late afternoon of Christmas Day, 1776, in a desperate effort to boost troop morale, Washington instructed his officers to summon the men into squads and read Paine's essay to them. The following morning, after marching his troops through the night in a blizzard, Washington surprised the Hessians at Trenton and staked claim to his first victory in the war.

    In 1848, Bastiat was often the lone defender of freedom in the midst of a bloody revolution in Paris that demanded more intrusive government.

  • Both men saw liberty as the only condition compatible with human nature, lasting prosperity, and peace — though Bastiat was far more consistent than Paine. During his stay in France in the 1790s, Paine found Rousseau's collectivism somewhat appealing. Bastiat dismembered it at every opportunity.

  • Both men identified government as an institution of plunder and enslavement, and fought to change it. Once again, Bastiat's deeper understanding of free markets kept him more consistently on the side of liberty.

  • Both made a sharp distinction between government and society — between the predatory and productive sectors.

  • Both men condemned government paper money, and both championed specie.

  • Both were prodigious writers. Some of Bastiat's writings are still awaiting translation from their original French.

  • Because of their passion for liberty and their ability to breathe fire into their prose, both men are among the most quotable authors ever.

A few excerpts will help illuminate the extent of their intellectual affinity.

On Government

Paine: "Government, even in its best state, is but a necessary evil; in its worst state an intolerable one: for when we suffer, or are exposed to the same miseries by a government, which we might expect in a country without government, our calamity is heightened by reflecting that we furnish the means by which we suffer." Common Sense (1776)

Bastiat: "As it is certain, on the one hand, that we are all making some similar request to the Government; and as, on the other, it is proved that Government cannot satisfy one party without adding to the labor of the others, until I can obtain another definition of the word Government, I feel authorized to give it my own.… Government is that great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else." "Government" (1848)

Legal Plunder

Paine: "The conqueror considered the conquered, not as his prisoner, but as his property. He led him in triumph, rattling in chains, and doomed him, at pleasure, to slavery or death. As time obliterated the history of their beginning, their successors assumed new appearances, to cut off the entail of their disgrace, but their principles and objects remained the same. What at first was plunder, assumed the softer name of revenue; and the power originally usurped, they affected to inherit." Rights of Man, Part 2, Chapter 2 (1792)

Bastiat: "When successful soldiers used to reduce the vanquished to slavery, they were barbarous, but they were not irrational. Their object, like ours, was to live at other people's expense, and they did not fail to do so. What are we to think of a people who never seem to suspect that reciprocal plunder is no less plunder because it is reciprocal." "Government" (1848)

On Limited Government

Paine: "Government on the old system is an assumption of power, for the aggrandizement of itself; on the new, a delegation of power, for the common benefit of society. The former supports itself by keeping up a system of war; the latter promotes a system of peace, as the true means of enriching a nation. The one encourages national prejudices; the other promotes universal society, as the means of universal commerce. The one measures its prosperity, by the quantity of revenue it extorts; the other proves its excellence, by the small quantity of taxes it requires." Rights of Man, Part 2, Chapter 2 (1792)

Bastiat: "Cast your eye over the globe. Which are the happiest, the most moral, and the most peaceable nations? Those where the law interferes the least with private activity; where the Government is the least felt; where individuality has the most scope, and public opinion the most influence." "The Law" (1850)

On Paper Money

Paine: "One of the evils of paper money is that it turns the whole country into stock jobbers. The precariousness of its value and the uncertainty of its fate continually operate, night and day, to produce this destructive effect. Having no real value in itself it depends for support upon accident, caprice, and party; and as it is the interest of some to depreciate and of others to raise its value, there is a continual invention going on that destroys the morals of the country." Dissertations on Government (1786)

Bastiat: "Do you believe that if it were merely needful to print bank-notes in order to satisfy all our wants, our tastes, and desires, that mankind would have been contented to go on till now without having recourse to this plan? I agree with you that the discovery is tempting. It would immediately banish from the world, not only plunder, in its diversified and deplorable forms, but even labor itself, except in the National Printing Bureau." "What is Money?" (1849)

On Religion and War

Paine: "Some Christians pretend that Christianity was not established by the sword; but of what period of time do they speak? It was impossible that twelve men could begin with the sword; they had not the power; but no sooner were the professors of Christianity sufficiently powerful to employ the sword than they did so, and the stake and fagot, too." The Age of Reason, Part 2 (1795)

Bastiat: "Is there a more potent moral influence than religion? Has there ever been a religion more favorable to peace or more universally received than Christianity? And yet what has been witnessed during eighteen centuries? Men have gone out to battle, not merely in spite of religion, but in the very name of religion." "Natural History of Spoliation," Economic Sophisms (1848)

On the Persecution of Liberty

Paine: "This new world hath been the asylum for the persecuted lovers of civil and religious liberty from every Part of Europe. Hither have they fled, not from the tender embraces of the mother, but from the cruelty of the monster; and it is so far true of England, that the same tyranny which drove the first emigrants from home pursues their descendants still." Common Sense (1776)

Bastiat: "O Liberty! we have seen thee hunted from country to country, crushed by conquest, groaning under slavery, insulted in courts, banished from schools, laughed at in saloons, misunderstood in workshops, denounced in churches. It seems thou shouldst find in thought an inviolable refuge. But if thou art to surrender in this thy last asylum, what becomes of the hopes of ages, and the boasted courage of the human race?" Economic Harmonies, Book I (1850)

On Education and Beliefs

Paine: "Why has the Revolution of France been stained with crimes, which the Revolution of the United States of America was not? Men are physically the same in all countries; it is education that makes them different. Accustom a people to believe that priests or any other class of men can forgive sins, and you will have sins in abundance." "Worship and Church Bells: A Letter to Camille Jordan" (1797)

Bastiat: "As soon as we are seven or eight years old, what does the State do? It puts a blindfold over our eyes, takes us gently from the midst of the social circle that surrounds us, to plunge us, with our susceptible faculties, our impressible hearts, into the midst of Roman society. It keeps us there for ten years at least, long enough to make an indelible impression on the brain.

Now observe, that Roman society is directly opposed to what our society ought to be. There they lived upon war; here we ought to hate war; there they hated labor; here we ought to live upon labor. There the means of subsistence were founded upon slavery and plunder; here they should be drawn from free industry.… The very words liberty, order, justice, people, honor, influence, etc., could not have the same signification at Rome as they have, or ought to have, at Paris.… How can you expect [our youth] to take the slightest interest in the mechanism of our social order?" "What is Money?" (1849)

Paine's Inconsistency

During his stay in France during the 1790s, Paine unfortunately developed a limited fondness for collectivist thinking. Thus, in the Rights of Man, for example, Paine details how government should "pay to every such person of the age of fifty years, and until he shall arrive at the age of sixty, the sum of six pounds per annum out of the surplus taxes; and ten pounds per annum during life, after the age of sixty." This is the same author who in footnote 23 of Rights of Man observed that "It is scarcely possible to touch on any subject, that will not suggest an allusion to some corruption in governments."

For Bastiat, on the other hand, the principle of voluntary association was always the starting point for discussing any social proposal. In writing about socialist visionaries, he says,

I am not contesting their right to invent social orders, to disseminate their proposals, to advise their adoption, and to experiment with them on themselves, at their own expense and risk; but I do indeed contest their right to impose them on us by law, that is, by the use of the police force and public funds. [2]

Paine was no doubt sincere in his support for state-provided welfare, yet at the end of his life it was not welfarism for which he wanted to be remembered, but his contribution to American liberty. In his will, he states that the place where he is to be buried should have "a headstone with my name and age engraved upon it, author of 'Common Sense.'"

As champions of liberty, Paine and Bastiat threw the covers off the fallacies and institutions that stood in the way of its realization. Both writers bequeathed to us arsenals of intellectual ammunition that will always be deadly to statism.

Notes

[1] See The Complete Works of Thomas Paine, Volume 1Download PDF and Volume 2,Download PDF and the Bastiat Collection, Volume 1Download PDF and Volume 2.Download PDF

[2] Frederic Bastiat: A Man Alone, George Charles Roche III, p. 249.Download PDF