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Home | Wire | We Need Bastiat's <em>The Law</em> More than Ever

We Need Bastiat's The Law More than Ever

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Tags World HistoryPhilosophy and Methodology

High school students in the United States are usually required to take a course in government where they learn about the structure of government but rarely discover the appropriate role of government or the justifiable limits for the use of force in our society. If they did, one of their required readings would be Frédéric Bastiat’s essay, The Law, a seminal mid-nineteenth century work that describes eternal truths about life and how we pursue justice. These truths are just as valid today as they were then.

Bastiat states that individuals are born with natural rights of life, liberty, and property. From this notion, the only proper function of the use of force or the law is the collective organization of the natural right to self-defense of these rights:

Every individual has the right to use force for lawful self-defense. It is for this reason that the collective force — which is only the organized combination of the individual forces — may lawfully be used for the same purpose; and it cannot be used legitimately for any other purpose

He then defines any illegitimate use of force or of the law as legal plunder. This is an all-encompassing term which includes any unjustified violation of the life, liberty or property of others. Many examples abound today with regulations on labor (e.g. minimum wage laws), products (e.g. subsidies and tariffs), health care, education, or even the use of marijuana or any other drugs.

Legal plunder has two primary motivations:

  1. The first is stupid greed. For example, you would never think of robbing your neighbor, but are complacent if the government uses legal plunder to rob him on your behalf.
  2. The second is misplaced philanthropy. Many socialists fall into this category. For example, they constantly talk about fraternity, but not fraternity that is voluntary. They support a type of fraternity that is forced on everyone.  

Because legal plunder is so pervasive in society today, we often fail to distinguish the difference between justice and injustice. Just because something is legal, we assume it must be just, which is simply not true.

In the United States, for example, the Democrats will shortly spend billions of U.S. dollars to try to take control of Congress in the 2018 Midterm elections and will spend billions more on the next presidential election in 2020. The Republicans will do the same. But why spend so much time and energy trying to win elections? The answer is simple: each group is trying to protect itself from legal plunder. Or, are actively participating in the plundering.

But, as Bastiat explains, the purpose or law ought to be to protect people from this plunder:

It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person.

When viewed properly, the law should be viewed as a negation; for those who don't violate the life, liberty, or property of others, legal and government institutions should be invisible. In this situation, it would be possible to be somewhat indifferent as to who is elected president.

When the law is properly defined, there is no more sense to blaming the government for one's misfortunes or crediting the government for one's successes.  There would be greater harmony and less reason for political revolts since the government’s jurisprudence would be well defined and limited. We would not see, as in France today, interest groups from different sectors of the economy constantly going on strike, paralyzing the country, and often demanding concessions from the government that are difficult or impossible to meet. Bastiat continues:

if you attempt to make the law religious, fraternal, equalizing, philanthropic, industrial, literary, or artistic — you will then be lost in an uncharted territory, in vagueness and uncertainty, in a forced utopia or, even worse, in a multitude of utopias, each striving to seize the law and impose it upon you. This is true because fraternity and philanthropy, unlike justice, do not have precise limits. Once started, where will you stop? And where will the law stop itself?

More important than left or right is the concept of liberty. The solution to the problem of human relationships is freedom, and it thrives most when the role of government is limited, the use of force is constrained, and the law is confined to the administration of universal justice. Or more precisely, the law is best when exclusively used as a roadblock to injustice.

Today, a person in the U.S. will either watch CNN or Fox News, but will probably never watch both. On Facebook, if a friend disagrees with you, you just unfriend him so that you are left with a group of people who hold similar opinions. We no longer have political discourse at the dinner table because of often opposite viewpoints. Everyone tries to avoid disharmony. This polarization can only ultimately lead to a form of civil war, very different, though, from the one fought over 160 years ago. We must recognize that we have a ticking social time bomb in our midst, and we must begin a serious discussion on the appropriate role of government or the just limits to the use of force by government. A good place to start would be to study Bastiat’s eternal truths found in The Law.

Frank Hollenbeck has held positions at international universities and organizations.

Note: The views expressed on Mises.org are not necessarily those of the Mises Institute.
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