Bastiat's "The Law"

  • 17 December 2014
  • NormanL
Book review Bastiats The Law

In the streets, crowds gather to protest oppression by government authorities. The economy, which recently had shown signs of growth, was stumbling. The government itself is weakened by corruption and in the intellectual salons of the capital, socialism is seen as a likely outcome of the unrest. And many of them welcomed its arrival.

It's not America, circa 2014">2014. It's France in the tumultuous years leading up to the failed revolution of 1848. During those difficult and extremely uncertain times, a French economist, philosopher and politician named Frederic bastiat">Bastiat penned a pamphlet titled simply "The Law," a brief, powerful and endurng defense of individual rights and the threat posed to those rights by a ravenous state.

First published in 1850, "The Law" has served as a fundamental text for all defenders of liberty. Bastiat's main theme in "The Law" is simple: when does a law become unjust -- and when do those who make laws become, themselves, lawbreakers?

Bastiat answers the question just as directly: laws become unjust and destructive -- he frequently refers to them as tools of "plunder" -- when those who make the laws rob citizens of their fundamental rights to life and property.

In Bastiat's view, a just society where the law functions to protect individual rights would not only prosper, it would also be orderly.  But because this system is diffifult, requiring people to work, save, and invest for their own well-being, the lazy, the greedy, and the "do-gooders" will seek to use the law to steal their neighbor's good work.  The result is what Bastiat call "lawful plunder." How do we recognize it? through a simple test:

"See if the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot do without committing a crime...If such a law -- which may be an isolated case -- is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system."

The system begins slowly and quietly -- just a few lawmakers will pass legislation that takes from those who produce and gives to those who don't.  This sets off a chain reaction, as those who have been plundered try to get in on the action, asking for more laws that will help them recoup their losses, and get a little bit extra, too. 

In the end, the law becomes a mockery of justice that sets interest against interest -- with each of them looking to steal from the other.

Bastiat ends "The Law" with a plea:

"And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun: May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works."

It's a call for freedom that is as relevant today, in our nation, as it was in Bastiat's pre-revolutionary France.  For anyone who values liberty, "The Law" is essential reading.

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