Brad DeLong Labels Bastiat a Modern Liberal
In a recent blog post, Brad Delong welcomes one Jason Kuznicki to the bizzaro world of bradford-delong.com: Grasping Reality with the Invisible Hand... Delong declares that he is very happy to welcome him to this world:
Very happy to have another social-libertarian and pro-freedom voice in the Democratic Party.”
And on the economics... Jason: if you are locked in a cage it doesn't matter much whether you are locked in by force—somebody else has taken the key and locked you in—or by poverty—you don't have enough money to buy a key. In economic matters, the distinction between negative liberty and positive liberty quickly becomes meaningless.
And Jason... The world is rife with externalities and increasing returns. Assigning absolute property rights and letting things rip produces a good society only when goods are rival and excludible, returns-to-scale are constant, and the initial wealth distribution is acceptable. Otherwise, making the market works requires much more than a night-watchman state.
He then recommends that Jason read Frédéric Bastiat's works, providing a link to one of Delong’s previous posts about Bastiat.
I must confess that I do not read Brad Delong’s blog and that someone else brought this matter to my attention. On this basis it would be hard to make broad sweeping judgments about Professor Delong, but I will try.
At issue is a DeLong blog post from April 21, 2004 where DeLong argues with our Bob Murphy’s very reasonable argument that Frederic Bastiat was a liberal and libertarian, not a modern liberal or progressive. Delong finds that Bastiat is a good economist and to be a modern liberal properly understood. In response to Murphy’s point Delong writes to Jason:
“Read the whole thing, and you find passages like”
[O]ften, nearly always if you will, the government official [who receives his salary and] renders an equivalent service to Jacques Bonhomme. In this case there is... only an exchange.... When Jacques Bonhomme gives a hundred sous to a government official for a really useful service, this is exactly the same as when he gives a hundred sous to a shoemaker for a pair of shoes. It's a case of give-and-take, and the score is even...
Professor DeLong seems to be implying that Bastiat believed that coercive government was the same as the market; that coercion is really the same thing as voluntary exchange. To students of Bastiat’s writings this would seem to be an absurd conclusion. How can this be?
Let us take DeLong quotation of Bastiat in its context (from the Bastiat Collection edition):
It is very true that often, perhaps very often, the official performs for John Q. Citizen an equivalent service. In this case there is no loss on either side; there is merely an exchange. Therefore, my arguments do not at all apply to useful functionaries. All I say is—if you wish to create an office, prove its utility. Show that its value to John Q. Citizen, by the services which it performs for him, is equal to what it costs him.
But, apart from this intrinsic utility, do not bring forward as an argument the benefit that it confers upon the official, his family, and his providers; do not assert that it encourages labor.
When John Q. Citizen gives a hundred sous to a Government officer for a really useful service, it is exactly the same as when he gives a hundred sous to a shoemaker for a pair of shoes. But when John Q. Citizen gives a hundred sous to a Government officer, and receives nothing for them unless it be annoyances, he might as well give them to a thief. It is nonsense to say that the Government officer will spend these hundred sous to the great profit of national labor; the thief would do the same; and so would John Q. Citizen, if he had not been stopped on the road by the extra-legal parasite, nor by the lawful sponger.
Let us accustom ourselves, then, to avoid judging of things by what is seen only, but to judge of them by that which is not seen.
So while Bastiat admitted that some functions of government, e.g. street sweepers, might be worth paying taxes, the process of taxation is really akin to theft. The taxpayers pay and often get nothing in return and in some cases only receive “annoyances.”
You can find many cases where Bastiat tries to be reasonable with his arguments and he can be taken out of context in such a way to be misleading about Bastiat’s message. If you think his message is to justify various forms of government intervention then you are being delusional or disingenuous.
So yes, Jason, read the whole thing—for yourself.
Mark Thornton is a Senior Fellow at the Mises Institute and the book review editor of the Quarterly Journal of Austrian Economics. He has authored seven books and is a frequent guest on national radio shows. Contact: email, Facebook, twitter.