by Frédéric Bastiat, 1849
I wish some one would offer a prize for a good,
simple, and intelligent definition of the word
What an immense service it would confer on
The Government! what is it? where is it? what
does it do? what ought it to do? All we know is, that
it is a mysterious personage; and, assuredly, it is the
most solicited, the most tormented, the most
overwhelmed, the most admired, the most accused,
the most invoked, and the most provoked of any
personage in the world.
I have not the pleasure of knowing my reader but I
would stake ten to one that for six months he has
been making Utopias, and if so, that he is looking to
Government for the realization of them.
And should the reader happen to be a lady: I have
no doubt that she is sincerely desirous of seeing all
the evils of suffering humanity remedied, and that she
thinks this might easily be done, if Government
would only undertake it.
But, alas! that poor unfortunate personage, like
Figaro, knows not to whom to listen, nor where to
turn. The hundred thousand mouths of the press and
of the platform cry out all at once —
"Organize labor and workmen."
"Repress insolence and the tyranny of capital."
"Make experiments upon manure and eggs."
"Cover the country with railways."
"Irrigate the plains."
"Plant the hills."
"Make model farms."
"Found social workshops."
"Instruct the youth."
"Assist the aged."
"Send the inhabitants of towns into the country."
"Equalize the profits of all trades."
"Lend money without interest to all who wish to borrow."
"Emmancipate oppressed people everywhere."
"Rear and perfect the saddle-horse."
"Encourage the arts, and provide us musicians, painters, and architects."
"Restrict commerce, and at the same time create a merchant navy."
"Discover truth, and put a grain of reason into our heads. The mission of Government is to enlighten, to develop, to extend, to fortify, to spiritualize, and to sanctify the soul of the people."
"Do have a little patience, gentlemen" says
Government, in a beseeching tone. "I will do what I
can to satisfy you, but for this I must have resources.
I have been preparing plans for five or six taxes,
which are quite new, and not at all oppressive. You
will see how willingly people will pay them."
Then comes a great exclamation: — "No! indeed!
where is the merit of doing a thing with resources?
Why, it does not deserve the name of a Government!
So far from loading us with fresh taxes, we would
have you withdraw the old ones. You ought to
"The tobacco tax."
"The tax on liquors."
"The tax on letters."
In the midst of this tumult, and now that the country
has again and again changed the administration, for
not having satisfied all its demands, I wanted to
show that they were contradictory. But, what could I
have been thinking about? Could I not keep this
unfortunate observation to myself!
I have lost my character forever! I am looked upon
as a man without heart and without feeling — a dry
philosopher, an individualist, a plebeian — in a word,
an economist of the practical school. But, pardon
me, sublime writers, who stop at nothing, not even at
contradictions. I am wrong, without a doubt, and I
would willingly retract. I should be glad enough, you
may be sure, if you had really discovered a beneficent
and inexhaustible being, calling itself the
Government, which has bread for all mouths, work
for all hands, capital for all enterprises, credit for all
projects, oil for all wounds, balm for all sufferings,
advice for all perplexities, solutions for all doubts,
truths for all intellects, diversions for all who want
them, milk for infancy, and wine for old age — which
can provide for all our wants, satisfy all our curiosity,
correct all our errors, repair all our faults, and
exempt us henceforth from the necessity for
foresight, prudence, judgment, sagacity, experience,
order, economy, temperance, and activity.
What reason could I have for not desiring to see
such a discovery made? Indeed, the more I reflect
upon it, the more do I see that nothing could be more
convenient than that we should all of us have within
our reach an inexhaustible source of wealth and
enlightenment — a universal physician, an unlimited
treasure, and an infallible counselor, such as you
describe Government to be. Therefore it is that I
want to have it pointed out and defined, and that a
prize should be offered to the first discoverer of the
phoenix. For no one would think of asserting that
this precious discovery has yet been made, since up
to this time everything presenting itself under the
name of the Government has at some time been
overturned by the people, precisely because it does
not fulfill the rather contradictory conditions of the
I will venture to say that I fear we are, in this
respect, the dupes of one of the strangest illusions
which have ever taken possession of the human
Man recoils from trouble — from suffering; and yet
he is condemned by nature to the suffering of
privation, if he does not take the trouble to work. He
has to choose, then, between these two evils. What
means can he adopt to avoid both? There remains
now, and there will remain, only one way, which is, to
enjoy the labor of others. Such a course of conduct
prevents the trouble and the satisfaction from
preserving their natural proportion, and causes all
the trouble to become the lot of one set of persons,
and all the satisfaction that of another. This is the
origin of slavery and of plunder, whatever its form
may be — whether that of wars, imposition, violence,
restrictions, frauds, &c. — monstrous abuses, but
consistent with the thought which has given them
birth. Oppression should be detested and resisted — it
can hardly be called absurd.
Slavery is disappearing, thank heaven! and, on the
other hand, our disposition to defend our property
prevents direct and open plunder from being easy.
One thing, however, remains — it is the original
inclination which exists in all men to divide the lot of
life into two parts, throwing the trouble upon others,
and keeping the satisfaction for themselves. It
remains to be shown under what new form this sad
tendency is manifesting itself.
The oppressor no longer acts directly and with his
own powers upon his victim. No, our conscience has
become too sensitive for that. The tyrant and his
victim are still present, but there is an intermediate
person between them, which is the Government —
that is, the Law itself. What can be better calculated
to silence our scruples, and, which is perhaps better
appreciated, to overcome all resistance? We all
therefore, put in our claim, under some pretext or
other, and apply to Government. We say to it, " I am
dissatisfied at the proportion between my labor and
my enjoyments. I should like, for the sake of
restoring the desired equilibrium, to take a part of the
possessions of others. But this would be dangerous.
Could not you facilitate the thing for me? Could you
not find me a good place? or check the industry of my
competitors? or, perhaps, lend me gratuitously some
capital which, you may take from its possessor?
Could you not bring up my children at the public
expense? or grant me some prizes? or secure me a
competence when I have attained my fiftieth year?
By this mean I shall gain my end with an easy
conscience, for the law will have acted for me, and I
shall have all the advantages of plunder, without its
risk or its disgrace!"
As it is certain, on the one hand, that we are all
making some similar request to the Government; and
as, on the other, it is proved that Government cannot
satisfy one party without adding to the labor of the
others, until I can obtain another definition of the
word Government I feel authorized to give it my own.
Who knows but it may obtain the prize? Here it is:
"Government is the great fiction
through which everybody endeavors to live at the
expense of everybody else."
For now, as formerly, every one is, more or less,
for profiting by the labors of others. No one would
dare to profess such a sentiment; he even hides it
from himself; and then what is done? A medium is
thought of; Government is applied to, and every
class in its turn comes to it, and says, "You, who can
take justifiably and honestly, take from the public,
and we will partake." Alas! Government is only too
much disposed to follow this diabolical advice, for it
is composed of ministers and officials — of men, in
short, who, like all other men, desire in their hearts,
and always seize every opportunity with eagerness,
to increase their wealth and influence. Government is
not slow to perceive the advantages it may derive
from the part which is entrusted to it by the public. It
is glad to be the judge and the master of the destinies
of all; it will take much, for then a large share will
remain for itself; it will multiply the number of its
agents; it will enlarge the circle of its privileges; it will
end by appropriating a ruinous proportion.
But the most remarkable part of it is the astonishing
blindnesss of the public through it all. When
successful soldiers used to reduce the vanquished to
slavery, they were barbarous, but they were not
absurd. Their object, like ours, was to live at other
people's expense, and they did not fail to do so. What
are we to think of a people who never seem to
suspect that reciprocal plunder is no less plunder
because it is reciprocal; that it is no less criminal
because it is executed legally and with order; that it
adds nothing to the public good; that it diminishes it,
just in proportion to the cost of the expensive
medium which we call the Government?
And it is this great chimera which the French
nation, for example, placed in 1848, for the
edification of the people, as a frontispiece to its
Constitution. The following is the beginning of the
preamble to this Constitution: —
"France has constituted itself a republic for the
purpose of raising all the citizens to an ever-increasing
degree of morality, enlightment, and well-being."
Thus it is France, or an abstraction, which is to
raise the French to morality, well-being, &c. Is it not
by yielding to this strange delusion that we are led to
expect everything from an energy not our own? Is it
not giving out that there is, independently of the
French, a virtuous, enlightened, and rich being, who
can and will bestow upon them its benefits? Is not this
supposing, and certainly very gratuitously, that there
are between France and the French — between the
simple, abridged, and abstract denomination of all
the individualities, and these individualities
themselves — relations as of father to son, tutor to his
pupil, professor to his scholar? I know it is often said,
metaphorically, "the country is a tender mother."
But to show the inanity of such a constitutional
proposition, it is only needed to show that it may be
reversed, not only without inconvenience, but even
with advantage. Would it be less exact to say:
"The French have constituted themselves a
Republic to raise France to an ever-increasing degree
of morality, enlightenment, and well being."
Now, where is the value of an axiom where the
subject and the attribute could change places without
inconvenience? Everybody understands what is meant
by this: "The mother will feed the child." But it would
be ridiculous to say, "The child will feed the mother."
The Americans formed another idea of the
relations of the citizens with the Government when
they placed these simple words at the head of their
"We, the people of the United States, for the
purpose of forming a more perfect union, of
establishing justice, of securing interior tranquillity,
of providing for our common defense, of increasing
the general well-being, and of securing the benefits of
liberty to ourselves and to our posterity, decree," &c.
Here there is no chimerical creation, no
abstraction, from which the citizens may demand
everything. They expect nothing except from
themselves and their own energy.
If I may be permitted to criticise the first words of
the French Constitution of 1848, I would remark,
that what I complain of is something more than a
mere metaphysical subtilty, as might seem at first
I contend that this personification of Goverment
has been, in past times, and will be hereafter, a fertile
source of calamities and revolutions.
There is the public on one side, Government on the
other, considered as two distinct beings; the latter
bound to bestow upon the former, and the former
having the right to claim from the latter, all
imaginable human benefits. What will be the
In fact, Government is not maimed, and cannot be
so. It has two hands — one to receive and the other to
give; in other words, it has a rough hand and a
smooth one. The activity of the second necessarily
subordinate to the activity of the frrst. Strictly,
Government may take and not restore. This is
evident, and may be explained by the porous and
absorbing nature of its hands, which always retain a
part, and sometimes the whole, of what they touch.
But the thing that never was seen, and never will be
seen or conceived, is, that Government can restore to
the public more than it has taken from it. It is
therefore ridiculous for us to appear before it in the
humble attitude of beggars. It is radically impossible
for it to confer a particular benefit upon any one of
the individualities which constitute the community,
without inflicting a greater injury upon the
community as a whole.
Our requisitions, therefore, place it in a dilemma.
If it refuses to grant the requests made to it, it is
accused of weakness, ill-will, and incapacity. If it
endeavors to grant them, it is obliged to load the
people with fresh taxes — to do more harm than good,
and to bring upon itself from another quarter the
Thus, the public has two hopes, and Government
makes two promises — many benefits and no taxes.
Hopes and promises, which, being contradictory,
can never be realized.
Now, is not this the cause of all our revolutions?
For, between the Government, which lavishes
promises which it is impossible to perform, and the
public, which has conceived hopes which can never
be realized, two classes of men interpose — the
ambitious and the Utopians. It is circumstances
which give these their cue. It is enough if these
vassals of popularity cry out to the people: "The
authorities are deceiving you; if we were in their
place, we would load you with benefits and exempt
you from taxes."
And the people believe, and the people hope, and
the people make a revolution!
No sooner are their friends at the head of affairs,
than they are called upon to redeem their pledge.
"Give us work, bread, assistance, credit, instruction,
more money," say the people; "and withal deliver us,
as you promised, from the demands of the tax-gatherers."
The new Government is no less embarrassed than
the former one, for it soon finds that it is much more
easy to promise than to perform. It tries to gain time,
for this is necessary for maturing its vast projects. At
first, it makes a few timid attempts. On one hand it
institutes a little elementary instruction; on the other,
it makes a little reduction in some taxes. But the
contradiction is forever starting up before it; if it
would be philanthropic, it must attend to its
exchequer; if it neglects its exchequer, it must
abstain from being philanthropic.
These two promises are for ever clashing with
each other; it cannot be otherwise. To live upon
credit, which is the same as exhausting the future, is
certainly a present means of reconciling them: an
attempt is made to do a little good now, at the
expense of a great deal of harm in future. But such
proceedings call forth the spectre of bancruptcy,
which puts an end to credit. What is to be done then?
Why, then, the new Government takes a bold step; it
unites all its forces in order to maintain itself; it
smothers opinion, has recourse to arbitrary
measures, ridicules its former maxims, declares that
it is impossible to conduct the administration except
at the risk of being unpopular; in short, it proclaims
itself governmental. And it is here that other
candidates for popularity are waiting for it. They
exhibit the same illusion, pass by the same way,
obtain the same success, and are soon swallowed up
in the same gulf.
We had arrived at this point, in France, in February,
1849. At this time the illusion which is the subject of
this article had made more way than at any former
period in the ideas of the French people, in
connection with Socialist doctrines. They expected,
more firmly than ever, that Government, under a
republican form, would open in grand style the
source of benefits and close that of taxation. "We
have often been deceived," said the people; "but we
will see to it ourselves this time, and take care not to
be deceived again?"
What could the Provisional Government do? Alas!
just that which always is done in similar
circumstances — make promises, and gain time.
It did so, of course; and to give its promises more
weight, it announced them publicly thus: "Increase of
prosperity, diminution of labor, assistance, credit,
gratuitous instruction, agricultural colonies, cultivation
of waste land, and, at the same time, reduction of the tax
on salt, liquor, letters, meat; all this shall be granted when
the National Assembly meets."
The National Assembly meets, and, as it is
impossible to realize two contradictory things, its
task, its sad task, is to withdraw, as gently as
possible, one after the other, all the decrees of the
Provisional Government. However, in order
somewhat to mitigate the cruelty of the deception, it
is found necessary to negotiate a little. Certain
engagements are fulfilled, others are, in a measure,
begun, and therefore the new administration is
compelled to contrive some new taxes.
Now, I transport myself, in thought, to a period a
few months hence, and ask myself, with sorrowful
forebodings, what will come to pass when agents of
the new Government go into the country to collect
new taxes upon legacies, revenues, and the profits of
agricultural traffic? It is to be hoped that my
presentiments may not be verified, but I foresee a
difficult part for the candidates for popularity to play.
Read the last manifesto of one of the political
parties — which they issued on the occasion of the
election of the President. It is rather long, but at
length it concludes with these words: "Government
ought to give a great deal to the people, and take little
from them." It is always the same tactics, or, rather,
the same mistake.
"Government is bound to give gratuitous
instruction and education to all the citizens."
It is bound to give "A general and appropriate
professional education, as much as possible adapted
to the wants, the callings, and the capacities of each
It is bound "To teach every citizen his duty to God,
to man, and to himself; to develop his sentiments, his
tendencies, and his faculties; to teach him, in short,
the scientific part of his labor; to make him
understand his own interests, and to give him a
knowledge of his rights."
It is bound "To place within the reach of all
literature and the arts, the patrimony of thought, the
treasures of the mind, and all those intellectual
enjoyments which elevate and strengthen the soul."
It is bound "To give compensation for every
accident, from fire, inundation &c., experienced by a
citizen." (The etcetera means more than it says.)
It is bound "To attend to the relations of capital
with labor, and to become the regulator of credit."
It is bound "To afford important encouragement
and efficient protection to agriculture."
It is bound "To purchase railroads, canals, and
mines; and, doubtless, to transact affairs with that
industrial capacity which characterizes it."
It is bound "To encourage useful experiments, to
promote and assist them by every means likely to
make them successful. As a regulator of credit, it will
exercise such extensive influence over industrial and
agricultural associations as shall insure them
Government is bound to do all this, in addition to
the services to which it is already pledged; and
further, it is always to maintain a menacing attitude
toward foreigners; for, according to those who sign
the programme, "Bound together by this holy union,
and by the precedents of the French Republic, we
carry our wishes and hopes beyond the boundaries
which despotism has placed between nations. The
rights which we desire for ourselves, we desire for all
those who are oppressed by the yoke of tyranny; we
desire that our glorious arms should still, if
necessary, be the army of liberty."
You see that the gentle hand of Government — that
good hand which gives and distributes, will be very
busy under the government of the reformers. You
think, perhaps, that it will be the same with the rough
hand — that hand which dives into our pockets. Do not
deceive yourselves. The aspirants after popularity
would not know their trade, if they had not the art,
when they show the gentle hand, to conceal the
rough one. Their reign will assuredly be the jubilee of
"It is superfluities, not necessaries," they say,
"which ought to be taxed."
Truly, it will be a good time when the exchequer,
for the sake of loading us with benefits, will content
itself with curtailing our superfluities!
This is not all. The reformers intend that "taxation
shall lose its oppressive character, and be only an act
of fraternity." Good heavens! I know it is the
fashion to thrust fraternity in everywhere, but I did
not imagine it would ever be put into the hands of the
To come to the details:— Those who sign the
programme say, "We desire the immediate abolition
of those taxes which affect the absolute necessaries
of life, as salt, liquors, &c., &c."
"The reform of the tax on landed property,
customs, and patents."
"Gratuitous justice — that is, the simplification of its
forms, and reduction of its expenses." (This, no
doubt, has reference to stamps.)
Thus, the tax on landed property, customs, patents,
stamps, salt, liquors, postage, all are included. These
gentlemen have found out the secret of giving an
excessive activity to the gentle hand of Government,
while they entirely paralyze its rough hand.
Well, I ask the impartial reader, is it not
childishness, and more than that, dangerous
childishness? Is it not inevitable that we shall have
revolution after revolution, if there is a determination
never to stop till this contradiction is realized: — "To
give nothing to government and to receive much
If the reformers were to come to power, would
they not become the victims of the means which they
employed to take possession of it?
Citizens! In all times, two political systems have
been in existence, and each may be maintained by
good reasons. According to one of them,
Government ought to do much, but then it ought to
take much. According to the other, this two-fold
activity ought to be little felt. We have to choose
between these two systems. But as regards the third
system, which partakes of both the others, and which
consists in exacting everything from Government,
without giving it anything, it is chimerical, absurd,
childish, contradictory, and dangerous. Those who
parade it, for the sake of the pleasure of accusing all
governments of weakness, and thus exposing them
to your attacks, are only flattering and deceiving you,
while they are deceiving themselves.
For ourselves, we consider that Government is and
ought to be nothing whatever but the united power of
the people, organized, not to be an instrument of
oppression and mutual plunder among citizens; but,
on the the contrary, to secure to every one his own,
and to cause justice and security to reign.