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 Bastiat and “Organized Plunder” 

March 10, 2005 
The other night a local talk-radio host, usually a polite conservative, was discussing whether American corporations should be allowed to “outsource” jobs. Read Joe's columns the day he writes them.But his good manners deserted him when a caller said, “As the nineteenth-century economist Frédéric Bastiat said, —”

The host cut him off right there: “I don’t want to hear some eighteenth-century [sic] economic theory.” He immediately went on to the next caller.

I was shocked. A conservative who’d never heard of Bastiat? Didn’t even know what century he’d lived in?

When I was a kid, there were a few books every young conservative read. These were little books by Barry Goldwater, Ayn Rand, Bill Buckley, Henry Hazlitt, and a handful of others. This small library nearly always included The Law, by Frédéric Bastiat.

I’ve told this story often, but there are golden moments an old man loves to recall. As LaRochefoucauld says, “How is it that we can remember the smallest details of our experiences, but not how many times we have recounted them to others?”

On a beautiful June day in 1965, when I was 19, I was sitting in my ancient Ford at a gas station in Michigan, across the street from my old high school. While my tank was filling, I was reading The Law.

I came upon a simple point that stunned me. Bastiat wrote, “Look at the law, and see whether it does for one citizen at the expense of another what it would be a crime for the first to do to the other himself.” If so, the law itself is criminal.

[Breaker quote: The simple truth we all ignore]At that very time, Lyndon Johnson was enacting Great Society programs that did just that. All his redistribution schemes, many of which are still with us, amounted to what Bastiat’s little book — a long pamphlet, really — called “organized plunder.” In Bastiat’s view, government was (or was fast becoming) a morbid system whereby “everybody seeks to live at the expense of everybody else.”

If Bastiat had written nothing else, The Law would have been enough. Generations of liberty-loving readers have cherished it; yet most people today have never heard of it, or of Bastiat.

Bastiat (1801–1850) was a devout, reflective man who served briefly, and probably with mounting horror, in the French Assembly. In an age of corrupt democracy, he was a scrupulous old-fashioned liberal who believed that the state should be confined to very few functions, beyond which it became tyrannical. He lived just long enough to enunciate a few principles he had distilled, dying before age fifty.

Bastiat can hardly be said to have an “economic theory.” He merely applied the Golden Rule to politics. He insisted that there is no separate morality for the government. What is wrong for the rest of us is wrong for the state, however the state may try to disguise its criminality as benevolence. And if you allow the state to rob your neighbors on your behalf, don’t kid yourself: you’re criminal too.

One might think a truth so simple and unavoidable would be compelling in every age. But various ideologies — monarchic, Marxist, Machiavellian, democratic — ingeniously evade it. Men persuade themselves that the state is exempt from ordinary moral norms and has a special right to coerce, even to make war.

But the same principle applies. If you have no right to take others’ wealth, neither you nor a majority like you may delegate such a power to the government. If you have no right to kill foreigners who have done you no harm, you can’t delegate the power to do so to the government either. You can’t “delegate” a right that doesn’t exist in the first place.

Numbers can’t overrule principles, and complications don’t change axioms. No human authority can make right what is wrong in its essence. But the state tries to make us all accomplices in its crimes, and many people accept the invitation with gusto, believing they can profit by the system of “organized plunder” the way gamblers are confident that they can beat the house.

Some ideas take the world by storm. Bastiat’s ideas haven’t — not because they are too complex, but because they are too obvious. Unable to contradict them, the world goes on ignoring them.

Joseph Sobran

Copyright © 2005 by the Griffin Internet Syndicate,
a division of Griffin Communications
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