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Two Systems of Morals

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Tags History of the Austrian School of Economics

10/31/2012Claude Frédéric Bastiat

[The Bastiat Collection (2011); originally from the second series of Economic Sophisms (1848)]

I imagine I hear the reader say, "Well, now, was I wrong in accusing political economists of being dry and cold? What a picture of humanity! Spoliation is a fatal power, almost normal, assuming every form, practiced under every pretext, against law and according to law, abusing the most sacred things, alternately playing upon the feebleness and the credulity of the masses, and ever growing by what it feeds on. Could a more mournful picture of the world be imagined than this?"

The problem is, not to find whether the picture is mournful, but whether it is true. And for that we have the testimony of history.

It is singular that those who decry political economy, because it investigates men and the world as it finds them, are more gloomy than political economy itself, at least as regards the past and the present. Look into their books and their journals. What do you find? Bitterness and hatred of society. They have even come to curse liberty, so little confidence have they in the development of the human race, the result of its natural organization. Liberty, according to them, is something that will bring humanity nearer and nearer to destruction.

It is true that they are optimists as regards the future. For although humanity, in itself incapable, for 6,000 years has gone astray, a revelation has come, which has pointed out to men the way of safety and, if the flock is docile and obedient to the shepherd's call, will lead them to the promised land, where well-being may be attained without effort, where order, security and prosperity are the easy reward of improvidence.

To this end humanity, as Rousseau said, has only to allow these reformers to change the physical and moral constitution of man.

Political economy has not taken upon itself the mission of finding out the probable condition of society had it pleased God to make men different from what they are. It may be unfortunate that Providence, at the beginning, neglected to call to his counsels a few of our modern reformers. And, as the celestial mechanism would have been entirely different had the Creator consulted Alphonso the Wise, society, also, had he not neglected the advice of Fourier, would have been very different from that in which we are compelled to live, and move, and breathe. But, since we are here, our duty is to study and to understand His laws, especially if the amelioration of our condition essentially depends upon such knowledge.

We cannot prevent the existence of unsatisfied desires in the hearts of men.

We cannot satisfy these desires except by labor.

We cannot deny the fact that man has as much repugnance for labor as he has satisfaction with its results.

Since man has such characteristics, we cannot prevent the existence of a constant tendency among men to obtain their part of the enjoyments of life while throwing upon others, by force or by trickery, the burdens of labor. It is not for us to belie universal history, to silence the voice of the past, which attests that this has been the condition of things since the beginning of the world. We cannot deny that war, slavery, superstition, the abuses of government, privileges, frauds of every nature, and monopolies, have been incontestable and terrible manifestations of these two sentiments united in the heart of man: desire for enjoyment; repugnance to labor.

"In the sweat of thy brow shalt thou eat bread!" But everyone wants as much bread and as little sweat as possible. This is the conclusion of history.

Thank heaven, history also teaches that the division of blessings and burdens tends to a more exact equality among men. Unless one is prepared to deny the light of the sun, it must be admitted that, in this respect at least, society has made some progress.

If this be true, there exists in society a natural and providential force, a law that causes iniquity gradually to cease, and makes justice more and more a reality.

We say that this force exists in society, and that God has placed it there. If it did not exist we should be compelled, with the socialists, to search for it in those artificial means, in those arrangements which require a fundamental change in the physical and moral constitution of man, or rather we should consider that search idle and vain, for the reason that we could not comprehend the action of a lever without a place of support.

Let us, then, endeavor to indicate that beneficent force that tends progressively to overcome the maleficent force to which we have given the name spoliation, and the existence of which is only too well explained by reason and proved by experience.

Every maleficent act necessarily has two terms — the point of beginning and the point of ending; the man who performs the act and the man upon whom it is performed; or, in the language of the schools, the active and the passive agent. There are, then, two means by which the maleficent act can be prevented: by the voluntary absence of the active, or by the resistance of the passive agent. Whence two systems of morals arise, not antagonistic but concurrent; religious or philosophical morality, and the morality to which I permit myself to apply the name economical (utilitarian).

Religious morality, to abolish and extirpate the maleficent act, appeals to its author, to man in his capacity of active agent. It says to him: "Reform yourself; purify yourself; cease to do evil; learn to do well; conquer your passions; sacrifice your interests; do not oppress your neighbor, to succor and relieve whom is your duty; be first just, then generous." This morality will always be the most beautiful, the most touching, that which will exhibit the human race in all its majesty; which will the best lend itself to the offices of eloquence, and will most excite the sympathy and admiration of mankind.

Utilitarian morality works to the same end, but especially addresses itself to man in his capacity of passive agent. It points out to him the consequences of human actions, and, by this simple exhibition, stimulates him to struggle against those who injure, and to honor those who are useful to him. It aims to extend among the oppressed masses enough good sense, enlightenment and just defiance, to render oppression both difficult and dangerous.

It may also be remarked that utilitarian morality is not without its influence upon the oppressor. An act of spoliation causes good and evil — evil for him who suffers it, good for him in whose favor it is exercised — else the act would not have been performed. But the good by no means compensates the evil. The evil always, and necessarily, predominates over the good, because the very fact of oppression occasions a loss of force, creates dangers, provokes reprisals, and requires costly precautions. The simple exhibition of these effects is not then limited to retaliation of the oppressed; it places all whose hearts are not perverted, on the side of justice, and alarms the security of the oppressors themselves.

But it is easy to understand that this morality, which is simply a scientific demonstration, and would even lose its efficiency if it changed its character; which addresses itself not to the heart but to the intelligence; which seeks not to persuade but to convince; which gives proofs not counsels; whose mission is not to move but to enlighten, and which obtains over vice no other victory than to deprive it of its spoils — it is easy to understand, I say, how this morality has been accused of being dry and prosaic. The reproach is true without being just. It is equivalent to saying that political economy is not everything, does not comprehend everything, is not the universal solvent. But who has ever made such an exorbitant pretension in its name? The accusation would not be well founded unless political economy presented its processes as final, and denied to philosophy and religion the use of their direct and proper means of elevating humanity. Look at the concurrent action of morality, properly so called, and of political economy — the one inveighing against spoliation by an exposure of its moral ugliness, the other bringing it into discredit in our judgment, by showing its evil consequences. Concede that the triumph of the religious moralist, when realized, is more beautiful, more consoling and more radical; at the same time it is not easy to deny that the triumph of economical science is more facile and more certain.

In a few lines more valuable than many volumes, J.B. Say has already remarked that there are two ways of removing the disorder introduced by hypocrisy into an honorable family; to reform Tartuffe, or sharpen the wits of Orgon. Moliere, that great painter of human life, seems constantly to have had in view the second process as the more efficient.

Such is the case on the world's stage. Tell me what Caesar did, and I will tell you what were the Romans of his day.

Tell me what modern diplomacy has accomplished, and I will describe the moral condition of the nations.

We should not pay such staggering sums of taxes if we did not appoint those who consume them to vote them.

We should not have so much trouble, difficulty and expense with the African question if we were as well convinced that two and two make four in political economy as in arithmetic.

Mr. Guizot would never have had occasion to say: "France is rich enough to pay for her glory," if France had never conceived a false idea of glory.

The same statesman never would have said: "Liberty is too precious for France to traffic in it," if France had well understood that liberty and a large budget are incompatible.

Let religious morality then, if it can, touch the heart of the Tartuffes, the Caesars, the conquerors of Algeria, the sinecurists, the monopolists, etc. The mission of political economy is to enlighten their dupes. Of these two processes, which is the more efficient aid to social progress? I believe it is the second. I believe that humanity cannot escape the necessity of first learning a defensive morality. I have read, observed, and made diligent inquiry, and have been unable to find any abuse, practiced to any considerable extent, that has perished by voluntary renunciation on the part of those who profited by it. On the other hand, I have seen many that have yielded to the manly resistance of those who suffered by them.

To describe the consequences of abuses, is the most efficient way of destroying the abuses themselves. And this is true particularly in regard to abuses that, like the protective system, while inflicting real evil upon the masses, are to those who seem to profit by them only an illusion and a deception.

Well, then, does this species of morality realize all the social perfection that the sympathetic nature of the human heart and its noblest faculties cause us to hope for? This I by no means pretend. Admit the general diffusion of this defensive morality — which, after all, is only a knowledge that the best-understood interests are in accord with general utility and justice. A society, although very well regulated, might not be very attractive, where there were no knaves, only because there were no fools; where vice, always latent, and, so to speak, overcome by famine, would only need available plunder in order to be restored to vigor; where the prudence of the individual would be guarded by the vigilance of the mass and, finally, where reforms, regulating external acts, would not have penetrated to the consciences of men. Such a state of society we sometimes see typified in one of those exact, rigorous and just men who is ever ready to resent the slightest infringement of his rights, and shrewd in avoiding impositions. You esteem him — possibly you admire him. You may make him your deputy, but you would not necessarily choose him for a friend.

Let, then, the two moral systems, instead of blaming each other, act in concert, and attack vice at its opposite poles. While the economists perform their task in uprooting prejudice, stimulating just and necessary opposition, studying and exposing the real nature of actions and things, let the religious moralist, on his part, perform his more attractive, but more difficult, labor; let him attack the very body of iniquity, follow it to its most vital parts, paint the charms of beneficence, self-denial and devotion, open the fountains of virtue where we can only choke the sources of vice — this is his duty. It is noble and beautiful. But why does he dispute the utility of that which belongs to us?

In a society that, though not superlatively virtuous, should nevertheless be regulated by the influences of economical morality (which is the knowledge of the economy of society), would there not be a field for the progress of religious morality?

Habit, it has been said, is a second nature. A country where the individual had become unaccustomed to injustice simply by the force of an enlightened public opinion might, indeed, be pitiable; but it seems to me it would be well prepared to receive an education more elevated and more pure. To be disaccustomed to evil is a great step toward becoming good. Men cannot remain stationary. Turned aside from the paths of vice that would lead only to infamy, they appreciate better the attractions of virtue. Possibly it may be necessary for society to pass through this prosaic state, where men practice virtue by calculation, to be thence elevated to that more poetic region where they will no longer have need of such an exercise.


Claude Frédéric Bastiat

Frédéric Bastiat was the great French proto-Austrolibertarian whose polemics and analytics run circles around every statist cliché. His primary desire as a writer was to reach people in the most practical way with the message of the moral and material urgency of freedom.