Profiles in Liberty: Frederic Bastiat

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By Dave Smith, Senior Contributor, USADC.

“[L]ife, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place. “– Frederic Bastiat (June 30, 1801 – December 24, 1850)

Few people have seemed more philosophically in tune with the Founding Fathers and the principles of liberty on which the United States was founded than a French economist who never lived in America and who was born a quarter-century after its birth.  Likewise, few people in history have added more to the intellectual heft of free market economics, free trade, and liberty – the economic system on which American success is based – than that same French economist:  Claude Frederic Bastiat.

Orphaned as a young boy, Bastiat went to live with his grandparents, later working in the family’s export business.  He saw firsthand the negative impacts of the intrusive French government and the destructiveness of the Napoleonic Wars.  Upon inheriting his grandfather’s estate, he turned his attention to writing about economics and advocating free trade.

Bastiat’s view of government, influenced by the likes of Locke, Jefferson, and Madison, was that its very purpose was based on the individual’s right to life, liberty, and property.  Since each individual possessed those unalienable rights, it logically followed that each individual possessed the right to protect them; a just government was simply “the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense”.  In his view, socialistic transfer programs – whether based on government greed or genuine compassion – were “legalized plunder”; taking the property of one to give to another was not a legitimate government function.  He also warned of the unseen, unintended negative consequences of government action.

In his writing, Bastiat often employed sharp, biting analogies and parables to illustrate the pitfalls of government interference in the free market.  To mock the call by various trades and guilds to be protected from competition, Bastiat wrote ‘The Petition of the Candle Makers”, calling for the government to protect these important workers from their chief competitor… by blotting out the sun.  Bastiat’s response to those who decried technological innovation’s impact on jobs was a playful suggestion that working with one’s right hand should be banned (the resulting inefficiency would create jobs and thus, of course, create wealth and prosperity).  To those who proposed protective tariffs in response to competition that resulted from cheaper transportation costs due to railroads, Bastiat suggested instead building a “negative railroad”, foregoing both the benefits of the railroad and the need for those tariffs that he saw as antithetical to property rights.

The ultimate beauty of Bastiat’s writing was that it was simple and witty while conveying sophisticated ideas of liberty and self-determination.  The protectionist, anti-liberty, pro-government arguments he combatted in his day are still widely used in contemporary economics – and his pro-freedom, pro-market, pro-consumer rebuttals are still equally superior.

Born in the same county as Davy Crockett in East Tennessee, Dave found his way to Texas where he works in the petrochemical industry. He’s written and spoken about politics on various media outlets including Fox, ABC, and Townhall. He is a graduate of Tennessee Tech with a degree in chemical engineering. Dave writes a popular feature at USDR called “Dave Smith Said That”. Follow Dave on Twitter: @semperlibertas.

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