Frederic Bastiat Is Not Just the Pen Name of an Anonymous Commenter in Auburn: He’s a French Free Market Philosopher from the Mid-1800s

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In response to my June 11 post reporting on the June 5 election defeat of the proposed charter in the City of Auburn, California, someone using the nom de plume Frederic Bastiat posted comments. That same name also posted comments against the charter in the Auburn Journal newspaper.

The pseudonymous commenter Bastiat believes the rejected charter was meant to “poke a sharp stick in the eye of the unions” because it allowed the City of Auburn to establish its own policies concerning government-mandated construction wage rates (commonly and deceptively referred to as “prevailing wage” rates). I responded with a facetious comment feigning surprise that M. Bastiat was still alive and noting the inconsistency of Bastiat’s historical writings to his contemporary position of opposing the proposed charter.

Bastiat then responded to me with a philosophical assertion about free market economics:

I am a ardent supporter of free markets. But we don’t have free markets in the US. We have never had free markets in the US. The idea of free markets are an intellectual construction for use by economists and scholars…in the real world of governance and polticial economy they are as real as unicorns…they simply cannot exist where man has created rules for society.

When most conservatives speak of “free markets” what they are really talking about is eliminating market externalities that benefit the working man.

For some reason, most conservatives NEVER discuss eliminating the market externalities that benefit the affluent and the powerful.

Well, these statements could be the opening paragraphs for thousands of entries on a libertarian discussion board, but this web site isn’t that kind of forum. (Labor Issues Solutions, LLC is my business, not a hobby.) But some people have told me they were intrigued by the dialogue, although they didn’t really understand it.

I see the comments from “Frederic Bastiat” as an opportunity to introduce readers to a writer popular among intellectual advocates of free markets and minimalist government.

In 1848, there was a revolution in France that deposed King Louis-Philippe and established the 2nd Republic. (Note: this was NOT the uprising depicted in Les Misérables.) The new government attempted to adopt elements of a new economic system we would today recognize as “socialism.” The most interesting description I’ve read about this government and its futile, misguided policies was written by H.L. Mencken, who in 1934 derisively compared it to President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s New Deal. (See his column “New Deal No. 1” in A Mencken Chrestomathy: His Own Selection of His Choicest Writing” – I own this book and recommend it as an entertaining read.)  

In 1850, Frederic Bastiat, an economist and elected member of the French National Assembly, responded to this program by writing a book called La Loi (The Law), a concise philosophical treatise that asserted the policies of the republic were legalized plunder. Then he died of tuberculosis.

Bastiat writes the following in The Law:

What is law? What ought it to be? What is its domain? What are its limits? Where, in fact, does the prerogative of the legislator stop?

I have no hesitation in answering, Law is common force organized to prevent injustice; — in short, Law is Justice.

It is not true that the legislator has absolute power over our persons and property, since they pre-exist, and his work is only to secure them from injury.

It is not true that the mission of the law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our will, our education, our sentiments, our works, our exchanges, our gifts, our enjoyments. Its mission is to prevent the rights of one from interfering with those of another, in any one of these things.

Law, because it has force for its necessary sanction, can only have as its lawful domain the domain of force, which is justice.

And as every individual has a right to have recourse to force only in cases of lawful defense, so collective force, which is only the union of individual forces, cannot be rationally used for any other end.

The law, then, is solely the organization of individual rights, which existed before legitimate defense.

Law is justice.

So far from being able to oppress the persons of the people, or to plunder their property, even for a philanthropic end, its mission is to protect the former, and to secure to them the possession of the latter.

Obviously the governments of the United States, California, and most local governments in California today do not regard law and justice in this minimalist fashion. They conform more to the “Brain Trust” of the 1848 revolution in France.

I was first introduced to The Law in 2000 when Jon Fleischman, then executive director of the California Republican Party, gave me a copy as an award for answering a tough question during his appearance before the (once thriving, now defunct?) Young Republican Federation of Contra Costa. (Fleischman today is the editor-in-chief of www.FlashReport.org, and the California Republican Party executive director today is Brett Lowder.)

It appears that the Ludwig von Mises Institute is one of the best English-language sources of information on the web for the writings of Frederic Bastiat. It has English translations of The Law available for free on the web here and here.

(Note that writers affiliated with the Southern Poverty Law Center – a group fond of assigning labels – have insinuated that this think tank and its chairman are “Neo-Confederate,” so keep in mind that citing the Mises Institute in a paper written for a class at UC Berkeley might subject you to criticism from your professor. I quickly perused the web site and didn’t see anything like that, but the group is definitely libertarian.)

Read The Law and see if you agree with it.

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