on January 18, 1999
I read this book in 1980; at the time I was chairman of the democratic party in my county. I really began to do some serious soul searching. I finally concluded I was going to leave my party, as It no longer represented it's founder Mr Thomas Jefferson. This small simple easy to read book totally changed my life That same year I met Jim Hansen, he was making his first run for congress from the state of Utah, I made a deal with him, I would vote for him if he would read The Law by Bastiat. He promised, and I did. I received a nice letter from Jim after he was elected. " Never read a book that has so impressed me". P.S. "Find Yourself another copy, Im keeping Yours". Jim.
Best three dollars ever spent. Ron Steele Moab, Utah
What book is is important enough that I read it once a year? The Law by Frederic Bastiat. Written in 1848 as a response to socialism in France, this book essay is just as relevant today as it was then.
"What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.
Each of us has a natural right-from God-to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two. For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality? And what is property but an extension of our faculties?
If every person has the right to defend - even by force - his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the principle of collective right - its reason for existing, its lawfulness - is based on individual right. And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty, or property of another individual, then the common force - for the same reason - cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or groups.
Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?
If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this: The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces. And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all."
My copy of The Law is filled with highlighted yellow phrases. Among them:
"But, unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions, it has not done so merely in some inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful defense.
How has this perversion of the law been accomplished? And what have been the results?
The law has been perverted by the influence of two entirely different causes: stupid greed and false philanthropy. Let us speak of the first.
Every legislator should be forced to read Bastiat's The Law once a month for their entire term and write a synopsis of how they have upheld the ideas contained within it. The tome should be taught in our school systems. It should be drilled into every citizen's head from birth until death."
When he was alive, Bastiat called the United States the one nation in the world that came close to applying law in a just manner. If he could visit us today, he would puke all over the steps of Congress. He would barf in the halls of the White House. He would upchuck in lobbyists offices all over Washington, D.C. When he was done throwing up, I do believe Bastiat would start a revolution.
He would definitely take on our current system of governance because we're turning into Socialism Lite 'Less Filling, More Taxes.'
"Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations. This is so true that, if by chance, the socialists have any doubts about the success of these combinations, they will demand that a small portion of mankind be set aside to experiment upon. The popular idea of trying all systems is well known. And one socialist leader has been known seriously to demand that the Constituent Assembly give him a small district with all its inhabitants, to try his experiments upon.
In the same manner, an inventor makes a model before he constructs the full-sized machine; the chemist wastes some chemicals - the farmer wastes some seeds and land - to try out an idea.
But what a difference there is between the gardener and his trees, between the inventor and his machine, between the chemist and his elements, between the farmer and his seeds! And in all sincerity, the socialist thinks that there is the same difference between him and mankind!
It is no wonder that the writers of the nineteenth century look upon society as an artificial creation of the legislator's genius. This idea - the fruit of classical education - has taken possession of all the intellectuals and famous writers of our country. To these intellectuals and writers, the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter.
Moreover, even where they have consented to recognize a principle of action in the heart of man - and a principle of discernment in man's intellect - they have considered these gifts from God to be fatal gifts. They have thought that persons, under the impulse of these two gifts, would fatally tend to ruin themselves. They assume that if the legislators left persons free to follow their own inclinations, they would arrive at atheism instead of religion, ignorance instead of knowledge, poverty instead of production and exchange."
Read The Law. It will change all your assumptions about what the role of government should be in your life in only 76 pages. When you're done, make your friends read The Law. If they won't, stop being friends with them. Send a copy to your Representatives and Congressmen and ask them what the hell they think they're doing with this country of ours.
on July 15, 2009
The translation (the original was in French), from Seven Treasures Publications, doesn't ring as true as the translation by Dean Russell, of the Foundation for Economic Education.
Compare these two translations:
(from the Feb 6, 2009 edition from Seven Treasures Publications):
"Existence, faculties, assimilation - in other words, personality, liberty, property - this is man. It is of these three things that it may be said, apart from all the demagogue subtlety, that they are anterior and superior to all human legislation."
(from the Dean Russell translation):
"Life, faculties, production - in other words, individuality, liberty, property - this is man. And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it."
As stated in the 15th printing of the Foundation for Economic Education edition, "A nineteenth century translation of The Law, made in 1853 in England by an unidentified contemporary of Mr. Bastiat, was of much value as a check against this translation. In addition, Dean Russell had his work reviewed by Bertrand de Jouvenel, the noted French economist, historian, and author who is thoroughly familiar with the English language."
I recommend the Russell translation from the FEE. Hopefully, Amazon will sell it soon.
on May 23, 2001
Fredric Bastiat was a 19th century French law-maker, economist and author. He wrote a number of highly technical works of economic theory, books that are still considered valuable contributions to free-market economic thought. But his least technical work, a pamphlet called The Law, has proven to be perhaps his most enduring from a modern political standpoint.
Written in 1850, just two years after the French Revolution of 1848, the Law is part treatise and part polemic, an appeal to the French people reminding them of the proper sphere of the law and government and begging them to turn away from their descent into socialism. The Law is also a summary of much of what Bastiat considered to be important from his own work; at the time The Law was written he was very sick, and he would be dead within a year of its publication. As a French patriot, Bastiat was deeply moved by the disintegration he saw in French society.
As the last vestiges of the class-society were replaced and the new "democratic" order was being instituted, the State was more and more being used as a means by which groups of citizens (special interests) could plunder one another through taxes, transfer payments, tariffs, etc, committing what Bastiat calls "legal plunder." As he saw it, the law was being perverted into a so-called "creative" entity, through which controlling groups would seek to enforce their particular agendas at the expense and through the pocketbooks of the people in general.
Bastiat argues that the law should be properly viewed as the formal embodiment of Force. That is, human laws should be the organized and formal construction of justice. Just law, he says, is nothing more than the organization of the human right to self-defense. This is a surprisingly narrow definition, perhaps almost too narrow to be truly useful. But I can imagine that Bastiat wouldn't have seen much moral value in the philosophy of pragmatism; he certainly would have made a bad present-day politician, a "flaw" which I find highly admirable.
Bastiat is revered by many modern libertarians as one of the founding fathers of their ideology, and rightly so. But it seems to me that his work is more accurately anarcho-capitalist than libertarian. To say that Bastiat is arguing for "limited" government is a gross understatement. In fact, Bastiat seems instead to be arguing for the abolition of most all of what today we would call The Government. Many libertarians, for example, probably wouldn't argue the abolition of all forms of taxation on moral grounds. Personally I appreciate his definition of plunder as "...tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on, and so on..."
Obviously although Bastiat may not share the views of modern libertarians in every respect, they have much to respect in him. And of course, the average economic and social liberal won't care for him at all, as he makes a special point of going after the vast majority of liberal sacred cows. But more surprisingly, the Religious Right should be wary of taking Bastiat on as too great of an ally. Although Bastiat and his book have been instrumental in forming many right-wing/libertarian ideas about free markets and the proper role of government, Bastiat argues forcefully against the use of the law as a tool for the shaping of moral values. Jerry Falwell and Bastiat are notably out of step with one another. I can imagine that Bastiat would not have much use for the Congressional institution of days of prayer, or for teacher-led prayer in the public schools he so despised, for anti-drug and pro-abstinence programs, or for the ministerial functions that many politicians have sought to usurp.
Conservatives have an unfortunate habit of revering political figures. But as Bastiat says, "There are too many 'great' men in the world--legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it."
Bastiat didn't believe in the inherent value of rulers of men. Many conservatives hope that their sons will grow up to be leaders in a political sense. Bastiat believed that we would be better served if more people sought to be useful, productive, inventive and moral, instead of trying to lead all the rest of society. Society will function much more desirably when we relinquish the desire for power over our fellow men, and instead seek power over our own actions.
Although Bastiat's views on law and government may be too simplistic and dated to be implemented literally in a modern society, I believe that there is still much instruction to be had from this book. I would highly recommend it to anyone interested in developing an understanding of the roots of modern libertarian thought.
on August 11, 1999
When I read F.A. Hayek's "The Road to Serfdom," I thought I had read the most inspired and compelling book ever to discredit socialism and other collective-isms. I was wrong...very wrong. I cannot believe Bastiat wrote "The Law" in the middle of the 19th century since it has so much applicability to the 20th (and soon to be 21st) century. If ever there was a concise and powerful argument for defending Liberty and the Law against every social engineer, this has to be it (only 75 pages!). Bastiat is a master of words and the analogy. Every lover of freedom who wishes to get a nutshell understanding of why Liberty and Law matters ought to read this book. Every enemy of freedom (e.g. liberals, socialists, communists, etc.) ought to fear it.
on December 5, 2011
Bastiat's "The Law" is a tremendous introduction to his thinking and writing. This short book (or more of an essay) is something I re-read every year. Bastiat destroys socialism and fascism with simple logic, over and over. Just one of my favorite quotes from this book:
"The law perverted! And the police powers of the state perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!"
"Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process is the origin of property.
But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is the origin of plunder.
Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain -- and since labor is pain in itself -- it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows this quite clearly. And under these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.
When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful and more dangerous than labor.
It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use the power of its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of to work. All the measures of the law should protect property and punish plunder."
For even more of the outstanding works of Bastiat, check out "The Bastiat Collection."
on July 11, 2000
Frederick Bastiat was a French Farmer in the first half of the 19th century who watched his country's government assume more and more power. That is what I thought made this book unique - In the first paragraph, he states his intent of the book to be an "alert" to his countrymen - which is probably why the book is so emotional as well as succinct.
Bastiat manages to describe the purpose of "law," from a religious standpoint, in the first 3-4 pages. The rest of the book is mostly specific details of how his description of the proper purpose of the law has been thwarted in France in 1850. Many of the same principals apply today.
For three bucks and an hour of your time, this book is guaranteed to engage you and make you think. In my experience, its ability to persuade people is uncanny.
on July 21, 2003
I just read the book today. In French, but taken off the National Library online as this book is not printed in the nowadays Communist France.
Twice today I got tears in my eyes ...
First when I read the book.
Second when I read your Americans reviews.
Thanks God some people still remember who Tocqueville and Bastiat are !!! They're almost considered subversive material in my country now.
A simple, iconoclastic book which seems too basics for left-wing "publicists" but is more refreshing than many elaborate mathematical heavy treaties.
To be put between a "Road to Serfdom" and "1984".
Read on !
on December 20, 1999
The text of Bastiat's most prominent essays is available on-line, so you can make up your mind on your own. Start browsing from bastiat.org, it's well worth the trip. When you've read Bastiat, you'll just want to acquire a paper copy of the book, and you can still use digital copies to share it with other people.
on October 4, 2000
Does the government take care of you by making sure you are left free from interference by others? Or does it give form and substance to your freedom by making sure you are given, by the government, enough Maslowian scaffolding to get you within jumping distance of the last triangle of self-actualization at the top of the pyramid of your desires? That's always the question. I'd be free if only someone would pay off my mortgage, or do my homework, or abort my inconvenient child for me. Here in this book is a very good template to evaluate these alternative viewpoints, especially appropriate for smart high school kids, since it furnishes ammunition to carry them through most of the garbage they will find littered in their books, written on their classroom walls, and mincingly elaborated by their discontented, yet strangely power-hungry liberal law professors, all of whom will basically insist on refuting the truth of what Bastiat identifies as the central fact of state power: That the government is "not a breast that fills itself with milk." High school boys especially like that part. Yet this is what so many people think--and Keynes even monkeyed together some funny looking math to show how dollars taxed away and then re-spent by the government become supercharged, and are better for the economy than un-taxed and un-respent dollars held privately. Here is where he meets our Founding generation--all of whom saw how dangerous it was to cede too much function to any government, which of course would need more and more money to fund these activities. Am I straying from the point? No. Just look at our political contests: craven beg-fests for votes based on what the government can spend on you, or how the internet will bring it all "closer" to you. For your benefit. And if someone wants to take less from people in the first place, that's "spending [by the government] on the richest 1%"--who of course have had much more taken from them to begin with. Bastiat explains, in universal terms not hinged to any particular group of pilgrims, kings, or communists, how the law is enlisted in the plunder of the many by the few who control the law, and how law must be continually twisted into unjust forms to keep up the subsidies, the taxes, the programs, all designed to treat the same population differently. His greatest example, though, is to contrast liberty with the perversion of law, (and here he partakes in some cultural non-relativism) by using the image of a tribe of natives who flatten the noses, pierce the ears and lips, bend-up the feet, and depress the foreheads of their newborns, insisting these are signs of beauty. The same thing is done to our laws and our liberty by the socialist plunderers, according to Bastiat, unforgettably according to Bastiat. Would the next generation of any country be more or less likely to make a world-and-life-view out of sucking up to government employees for their prescription drugs, family planning, education, utility bill assistance, or internet domain monopolies if they read this book in time to become immune to the excuse-making and false moralizing of socialism? So do we put the govenment in charge of our kids, our sick grandparents, and our businesses, so we can finally be more "free?" You read Bastiat and be the judge.