by Frédéric Bastiat 
When a reviewer wishes to give special recognition to a
book, he predicts that it will still be read "a hundred
years from now." The Law, first published as a pamphlet in
June, 1850, is already more than a hundred years old. And
because its truths are eternal, it will still be read when
another century has passed.
Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist,
statesman, and author. He did most of his writing during
the years just before—and immediately following—the
Revolution of February 1848. This was the period when
France was rapidly turning to complete socialism. As a
Deputy to the Legislative Assembly, Mr. Bastiat was
studying and explaining each socialist fallacy as it
appeared. And he explained how socialism must inevitably
degenerate into communism. But most of his countrymen
chose to ignore his logic.
The Law is here presented again because the same situation that
existed in the France of 1848, exists in practically every country today.
The same socialist-communist ideas and plans that were then adopted
in France are now sweeping the world. The explanations and
arguments then advanced against socialism by Mr. Bastiat
are—word for word—equally valid today. His ideas
deserve a serious hearing.
THE FOUNDATION FOR ECONOMIC EDUCATION, INC.
IRVINGTON-ON-HUDSON, NEW YORK l950
The Foundation for Economic Education is a non-profit
research and educational institution. It is responsible to
no outside person or group--either in government, business,
labor, or agriculture. Its sole purpose is a search for
truth in economics, political science, and related
subjects. Further information, including a list of
publications, will be sent on request.
The Translation The Law
This translation of The Law was done by Dean Russell of The
Foundation staff. His objective was an accurate rendering
of Mr. Bastiat's words and ideas into twentieth century,
A nineteenth century translation of The Law, made in 1853
in England by an unidentified contemporary of Mr. Bastiat,
was of much value as a check against this translation. In
addition, Dean Russell had his work reviewed by Bertrand de
Jouvenel, the noted French economist, historian, and author
who is also thoroughly familiar with the English language.
While Mr. de Jouvenel offered many valuable corrections and
suggestions, it should be clearly understood that Mr.
Russell bears full responsibility for the translation.
Copyright 1950, by Dean Russell. Printed in U.S.A.
Permission to reprint granted without special request.
Single copy: $1.25.
The law perverted! And the police powers of the state
perverted along with it! The law, I say, not only turned
from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely
contrary purpose! The law become the weapon of every kind
of greed! Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty
of the evils it is supposed to punish!
If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty
requires me to call the attention of my fellow-citizens to
Life Is a Gift from God
We hold from God the gift which includes all others. This
gift is life—physical, intellectual, and moral life.
But life cannot maintain itself alone. The Creator of life
has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving,
developing, and perfecting it. In order that we may
accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of
marvelous faculties. And He has put us in the midst of a
variety of natural resources. By the application of our
faculties to these natural resources we convert them into
products, and use them. This process is necessary in order
that life may run its appointed course.
Life, faculties, production--in other words, individuality,
liberty, property—this is man. And in spite of the
cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from
God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.
Life, 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.
What Is Law?
What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of
the individual right to lawful defense.
Each of us has a natural right—from God—to defend his
person, his liberty, and his property. These are the three
basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one
of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of
the other two. For what are our faculties but the
extension of our individuality? And what is property but an
extension of our faculties?
If every person has the right to defend—even by force—his
person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows
that a group of men have the right to organize and support
a common force to protect these rights constantly. Thus the
principle of collective right—its reason for existing,
its lawfulness—is based on individual right. And the
common force that protects this collective right cannot
logically have any other purpose or any other mission than
that for which it acts as a substitute. Thus, since an
individual cannot lawfully use force against the person,
liberty, or property of another individual, then the common
force—for the same reason—cannot lawfully be used to
destroy the person, liberty, or property of individuals or
Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases,
contrary to our premise. Force has been given to us to
defend our own individual rights. Who will dare to say
that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights
of our brothers? Since no individual acting separately can
lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it
not logically follow that the same principle also applies
to the common force that is nothing more than the organized
combination of the individual forces?
If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than
this: The law is the organization of the natural right of
lawful defense. It is the substitution of a common force
for individual forces. And this common force is to do only
what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right
to do: to protect persons, liberties, and properties; to
maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign
over us all.
A Just and Enduring Government
If a nation were founded on this basis, it seems to me that
order would prevail among the people, in thought as well as
in deed. It seems to me that such a nation would have the
most simple, easy to accept, economical, limited,
nonoppressive, just, and enduring government imaginable—
whatever its political form might be.
Under such an administration, everyone would understand
that he possessed all the privileges as well as all the
responsibilities of his existence. No one would have any
argument with government, provided that his person was
respected, his labor was free, and the fruits of his labor
were protected against all unjust attack. When successful,
we would not have to thank the state for our success. And,
conversely, when unsuccessful, we would no more think of
blaming the state for our misfortune than would the farmers
blame the state because of hail or frost. The state would
be felt only by the invaluable blessings of safety provided
by this concept of government.
It can be further stated that, thanks to the non-
intervention of the state in private affairs, our wants and
their satisfactions would develop themselves in a logical
manner. We would not see poor families seeking literary
instruction before they have bread. We would not see
cities populated at the expense of rural districts, nor
rural districts at the expense of cities. We would not see
the great displacements of capital, labor, and population
that are caused by legislative decisions.
The sources of our existence are made uncertain and
precarious by these state-created displacements. And,
furthermore, these acts burden the government with
The Complete Perversion of the Law
But, unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its
proper functions. And when it has exceeded its proper
functions, it has not done so merely in some
inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone
further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its
own purpose. The law has been used to destroy its own
objective: It has been applied to annihilating the justice
that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and
destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect.
The law has placed the collective force at the disposal of
the unscrupulous who wish, without risk, to exploit the
person, liberty, and property of others. It has converted
plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it
has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to
punish lawful defense.
How has this perversion of the law been accomplished? And
what have been the results?
The law has been perverted by the influence of two entirely
different causes: stupid greed and false philanthropy.
Let us speak of the first.
A Fatal Tendency of Mankind
Self-preservation and self-development are common
aspirations among all people. And if everyone enjoyed the
unrestricted use of his faculties and the free disposition
of the fruits of his labor, social progress would be
ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing.
But there is also another tendency that is common among
people. When they can, they wish to live and prosper at
the expense of others. This is no rash accusation. Nor
does it come from a gloomy and uncharitable spirit. The
annals of history bear witness to the truth of it: the
incessant wars, mass migrations, religious persecutions,
universal slavery, dishonesty in commerce, and monopolies.
This fatal desire has its origin in the very nature of
man—in that primitive, universal, and insuppressible
instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the
least possible pain.
Property and Plunder
Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor;
by the ceaseless application of his faculties to natural
resources. This process is the origin of property.
But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his
wants by seizing and consuming the products of the labor of
others. This process is the origin of plunder.
Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain—and
since labor is pain in itself—it follows that men will
resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work.
History shows this quite clearly. And under these
conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.
When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes
more painful and more dangerous than labor.
It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to
use the power of its collective force to stop this fatal
tendency to plunder instead of to work. All the measures
of the law should protect property and punish plunder.
But, generally, the law is made by one man or one class of
men. And since law cannot operate without the sanction and
support of a dominating force, this force must be entrusted
to those who make the laws.
This fact, combined with the fatal tendency that exists in
the heart of man to satisfy his wants with the least
possible effort, explains the almost universal perversion
of the law. Thus it is easy to understand how law, instead
of checking injustice, becomes the invincible weapon of
injustice. It is easy to understand why the law is used by
the legislator to destroy in varying degrees among the rest
of the people, their personal independence by slavery,
their liberty by oppression, and their property by plunder.
This is done for the benefit of the person who makes the
law, and in proportion to the power that he holds.
Victims of Lawful Plunder
Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are
victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the
profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes
try somehow to enter—by peaceful or revolutionary
means—into the making of laws. According to their degree of
enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of
two entirely different purposes when they attempt to attain
political power: Either they may wish to stop lawful
plunder, or they may wish to share in it.
Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among
the mass victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn,
seize the power to make laws!
Until that happens, the few practice lawful plunder upon
the many, a common practice where the right to participate
in the making of law is limited to a few persons. But
then, participation in the making of law becomes universal.
And then, men seek to balance their conflicting interests
by universal plunder. Instead of rooting out the
injustices found in society, they make these injustices
general. As soon as the plundered classes gain political
power, they establish a system of reprisals against other
classes. They do not abolish legal plunder. (This
objective would demand more enlightenment than they
possess.) Instead, they emulate their evil predecessors by
participating in this legal plunder, even though it is
against their own interests.
It is as if it were necessary, before a reign of justice
appears, for everyone to suffer a cruel retribution—some
for their evilness, and some for their lack of
The Results of Legal Plunder
It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change
and a greater evil than this: the conversion of the law
into an instrument of plunder.
What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would
require volumes to describe them all. Thus we must content
ourselves with pointing out the most striking.
In the first place, it erases from everyone's conscience
the distinction between justice and injustice.
No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a
certain degree. The safest way to make laws respected is
to make them respectable. When law and morality contradict
each other, the citizen has the cruel alternative of
either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the
law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it
would be difficult for a person to choose between them.
The nature of law is to maintain justice. This is so much
the case that, in the minds of the people, law and justice
are one and the same thing. There is in all of us a strong
disposition to believe that anything lawful is also
legitimate. This belief is so widespread that many persons
have erroneously held that things are "just" because law
makes them so. Thus, in order to make plunder appear just
and sacred to many consciences, it is only necessary for
the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions,
and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit
from them but also among those who suffer from them.
The Fate of Non-Conformists
If you suggest a doubt as to the morality of these
institutions, it is boldly said that "You are a dangerous
innovator, a utopian, a theorist, a subversive; you would
shatter the foundation upon which society rests."
If you lecture upon morality or upon political science,
there will be found official organizations petitioning the
government in this vein of thought: "That science no
longer be taught exclusively from the point of view of free
trade (of liberty, of property, and of justice) as has been
the case until now, but also, in the future, science is to
be especially taught from the viewpoint of the facts and
laws that regulate French industry (facts and laws which
are contrary to liberty, to property, and to justice).
That, in government-endowed teaching positions, the
professor rigorously refrain from endangering in the
slightest degree the respect due to the laws now in
1 General Council of Manufacturers, Agriculture, and
Commerce, May 6, 1850.
Thus, if there exists a law which sanctions slavery or
monopoly, oppression or robbery, in any form whatever, it
must not even be mentioned. For how can it be mentioned
without damaging the respect which it inspires? Still
further, morality and political economy must be taught from
the point of view of this law; from the supposition that it
must be a just law merely because it is a law.
Another effect of this tragic perversion of the law is that
it gives an exaggerated importance to political passions
and conflicts, and to politics in general.
I could prove this assertion in a thousand ways. But, by
way of illustration, I shall limit myself to a subject that
has lately occupied the minds of everyone: universal
Who Shall Judge?
The followers of Rousseau's school of thought—who
consider themselves far advanced, but whom I consider
twenty centuries behind the times—will not agree with me
on this. But universal suffrage—using the word in its
strictest sense—is not one of those sacred dogmas which
it is a crime to examine or doubt. In fact, serious
objections may be made to universal suffrage.
In the first place, the word universal conceals a gross
fallacy. For example, there are 36 million people in
France. Thus, to make the right of suffrage universal,
there should be 36 million voters. But the most extended
system permits only 9 million people to vote. Three
persons out of four are excluded. And more than this, they
are excluded by the fourth. This fourth person advances
the principle of incapacity as his reason for excluding the
Universal suffrage means, then, universal suffrage for
those who are capable. But there remains this question of
fact: Who is capable? Are minors, females, insane persons,
and persons who have committed certain major crimes the
only ones to be determined incapable?
The Reason Why Voting Is Restricted
A closer examination of the subject shows us the motive
which causes the right of suffrage to be based upon the
supposition of incapacity. The motive is that the elector
or voter does not exercise this right for himself alone,
but for everybody.
The most extended elective system and the most restricted
elective system are alike in this respect. They differ
only in respect to what constitutes incapacity. It is not
a difference of principle, but merely a difference of
If, as the republicans of our present-day Greek and Roman
schools of thought pretend, the right of suffrage arrives
with one's birth, it would be an injustice for adults to
prevent women and children from voting. Why are they
prevented? Because they are presumed to be incapable. And
why is incapacity a motive for exclusion? Because it is not
the voter alone who suffers the consequences of his vote;
because each vote touches and affects everyone in the
entire community; because the people in the community have
a right to demand some safeguards concerning the acts upon
which their welfare and existence depend.
The Answer Is to Restrict the Law
I know what might be said in answer to this; what the
objections might be. But this is not the place to exhaust
a controversy of this nature. I wish merely to observe
here that this controversy over universal suffrage (as well
as most other political questions) which agitates, excites,
and overthrows nations, would lose nearly all of its
importance if the law had always been what it ought to be.
In fact, if law were restricted to protecting all persons,
all liberties, and all properties; if law were nothing more
than the organized combination of the individual's right to
self defense; if law were the obstacle, the check, the
punisher of all oppression and plunder—is it likely that
we citizens would then argue much about the extent of the
Under these circumstances, is it likely that the extent of
the right to vote would endanger that supreme good, the
public peace? Is it likely that the excluded classes would
refuse to peaceably await the coming of their right to
vote? Is it likely that those who had the right to vote
would jealously defend their privilege?
If the law were confined to its proper functions,
everyone's interest in the law would be the same. Is it
not clear that, under these circumstances, those who voted
could not inconvenience those who did not vote?
The Fatal Idea of Legal Plunder
But on the other hand, imagine that this fatal principle
has been introduced: Under the pretense of organization,
regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes
property from one person and gives it to another; the law
takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few—whether
farmers, manufacturers, shipowners, artists, or comedians.
Under these circumstances, then certainly every class will
aspire to grasp the law, and logically so.
The excluded classes will furiously demand their right to
vote—and will overthrow society rather than not to
obtain it. Even beggars and vagabonds will then prove to
you that they also have an incontestable title to vote.
They will say to you:
"We cannot buy wine, tobacco, or salt without paying the
tax. And a part of the tax that we pay is given by law—
in privileges and subsidies—to men who are richer than
we are. Others use the law to raise the prices of bread,
meat, iron, or cloth. Thus, since everyone else uses the
law for his own profit, we also would like to use the law
for our own profit. We demand from the law the right to
relief, which is the poor man's plunder. To obtain this
right, we also should be voters and legislators in order
that we may organize Beggary on a grand scale for our own
class, as you have organized Protection on a grand scale
for your class. Now don't tell us beggars that you will
act for us, and then toss us, as Mr. Mimerel proposes,
600,000 francs to keep us quiet, like throwing us a bone to
gnaw. We have other claims. And anyway, we wish to
bargain for ourselves as other classes have bargained for
And what can you say to answer that argument!
Perverted Law Causes Conflict
As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from
its true purpose—that it may violate property instead of
protecting it—then everyone will want to participate in
making the law, either to protect himself against plunder
or to use it for plunder. Political questions will always
be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be
fighting at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the
struggle within will be no less furious. To know this, it
is hardly necessary to examine what transpires in the
French and English legislatures; merely to understand the
issue is to know the answer.
Is there any need to offer proof that this odious
perversion of the law is a perpetual source of hatred and
discord; that it tends to destroy society itself? If such
proof is needed, look at the United States [in 1850].
There is no country in the world where the law is kept more
within its proper domain: the protection of every person's
liberty and property. As a consequence of this, there
appears to be no country in the world where the social
order rests on a firmer foundation. But even in the United
States, there are two issues—and only two—that have
always endangered the public peace.
Slavery and Tariffs Are Plunder
What are these two issues? They are slavery and tariffs.
These are the only two issues where, contrary to the
general spirit of the republic of the United States, law
has assumed the character of plunder.
Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective
tariff is a violation, by law, of property.
Its is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime—a
sorrowful inheritance of the Old World—should be the
only issue which can, and perhaps will, lead to the ruin of
the Union. It is indeed impossible to imagine, at the very
heart of a society, a more astounding fact than this: The
law has come to be an instrument of injustice. And if this
fact brings terrible consequences to the United States—where
only in the instance of slavery and tariffs—what
must be the consequences in Europe, where the perversion of
law is a principle; a system?
Two Kinds of Plunder
Mr. de Montalembert [politician and writer] adopting the
thought contained in a famous proclamation by Mr. Carlier,
has said: "We must make war against socialism." According
to the definition of socialism advanced by Mr. Charles
Dupin, he meant: "We must make war against plunder."
But of what plunder was he speaking? For there are two
kinds of plunder: legal and illegal.
I do not think that illegal plunder, such as theft or
swindling—which the penal code defines, anticipates, and
punishes—can be called socialism. It is not this kind
of plunder that systematically threatens the foundations of
society. Anyway, the war against this kind of plunder has
not waited for the command of these gentlemen. The war
against illegal plunder has been fought since the beginning
of the world. Long before the Revolution of February 1848—long
before the appearance even of socialism itself—France
had provided police, judges, gendarmes, prisons,
dungeons, and scaffolds for the purpose of fighting illegal
plunder. The law itself conducts this war, and it is my
wish and opinion that the law should always maintain this
attitude toward plunder.
The Law Defends Plunder
But it does not always do this. Sometimes the law defends
plunder and participates in it. Thus the beneficiaries are
spared the shame, danger, and scruple which their acts
would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law places the
whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes
at the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim—when
he defends himself—as a criminal. In short, there
is a legal plunder, and it is of this, no doubt, that Mr.
de Montalembert speaks.
This legal plunder may be only an isolated stain among the
legislative measures of the people. If so, it is best to
wipe it out with a minimum of speeches and denunciations—and
in spite of the uproar of the vested interests.
How to Identify Legal Plunder
But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite
simply. 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.
Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an
evil itself, but also it is a fertile source for further
evils because it invites reprisals. If such a law—which
may be an isolated case—is not abolished immediately, it
will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.
The person who profits from this law will complain
bitterly, defending his acquired rights. He will claim
that the state is obligated to protect and encourage his
particular industry; that this procedure enriches the state
because the protected industry is thus able to spend more
and to pay higher wages to the poor workingmen.
Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The
acceptance of these arguments will build legal plunder into
a whole system. In fact, this has already occurred. The
present-day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at
the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal
under the pretense of organizing it.
Legal Plunder Has Many Names
Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number
of ways. Thus we have an infinite number of plans for
organizing it: tariffs, protection, benefits, subsidies,
encouragements, progressive taxation, public schools,
guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a right
to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and
so on, and so on. All these plans as a whole—with their
common aim of legal plunder—constitute socialism.
Now, since under this definition socialism is a body of
doctrine, what attack can be made against it other than a
war of doctrine? If you find this socialistic doctrine to
be false, absurd, and evil, then refute it. And the more
false, the more absurd, and the more evil it is, the easier
it will be to refute. Above all, if you wish to be strong,
begin by rooting out every particle of socialism that may
have crept into your legislation. This will be no light
Socialism Is Legal Plunder
Mr. de Montalembert has been accused of desiring to fight
socialism by the use of brute force. He ought to be
exonerated from this accusation, for he has plainly said:
"The war that we must fight against socialism must be in
harmony with law, honor, and justice."
But why does not Mr. de Montalembert see that he has placed
himself in a vicious circle? You would use the law to
oppose socialism? But it is upon the law that socialism
itself relies. Socialists desire to practice legal
plunder, not illegal plunder. Socialists, like all other
monopolists, desire to make the law their own weapon. And
when once the law is on the side of socialism, how can it
be used against socialism? For when plunder is abetted by
the law, it does not fear your courts, your gendarmes, and
your prisons. Rather, it may call upon them for help.
To prevent this, you would exclude socialism from entering
into the making of laws? You would prevent socialists from
entering the Legislative Palace? You shall not succeed, I
predict, so long as legal plunder continues to be the main
business of the legislature. It is illogical—in fact,
absurd—to assume otherwise.
The Choice Before Us
This question of legal plunder must be settled once and for
all, and there are only three ways to settle it:
- The few plunder the many.
- Everybody plunders everybody.
- Nobody plunders anybody.
We must make our choice among limited plunder, universal
plunder, and no plunder. The law can follow only one of
Limited legal plunder: This system prevailed when the
right to vote was restricted. One would turn back to this
system to prevent the invasion of socialism.
Universal legal plunder: We have been threatened with this
system since the franchise was made universal. The newly
enfranchised majority has decided to formulate law on the
same principle of legal plunder that was used by their
predecessors when the vote was limited.
No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace,
order, stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my
death, I shall proclaim this principle with all the force
of my lungs (which alas! is all too inadequate).2
2 Translator's note: At the time this was written,
Mr. Bastiat knew that he was dying of tuberculosis. Within
a year, he was dead.
The Proper Function of the Law
And, in all sincerity, can anything more than the absence
of plunder be required of the law? Can the law—which
necessarily requires the use of force—rationally be used
for anything except protecting the rights of everyone? I
defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without
perverting it and, consequently, turning might against
right. This is the most fatal and most illogical social
perversion that can possibly be imagined. It must be
admitted that the true solution—so long searched for in
the area of social relationships—is contained in these
simple words: Law is organized justice.
Now this must be said: When justice is organized by law—that
is, by force—this excludes the idea of using law
(force) to organize any human activity whatever, whether it
be labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry,
education, art, or religion. The organizing by law of any
one of these would inevitably destroy the essential
organization—justice. For truly, how can we imagine
force being used against the liberty of citizens without it
also being used against justice, and thus acting against
its proper purpose?
The Seductive Lure of Socialism
Here I encounter the most popular fallacy of our times. It
is not considered sufficient that the law should be just;
it must be philanthropic. Nor is it sufficient that the
law should guarantee to every citizen the free and
inoffensive use of his faculties for physical,
intellectual, and moral self-improvement. Instead, it is
demanded that the law should directly extend welfare,
education, and morality throughout the nation.
This is the seductive lure of socialism. And I repeat
again: These two uses of the law are in direct
contradiction to each other. We must choose between them.
A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free.
Enforced Fraternity Destroys Liberty
Mr. de Lamartine once wrote to me thusly: "Your doctrine
is only the half of my program. You have stopped at
liberty; I go on to fraternity." I answered him: "The
second half of your program will destroy the first."
In fact, it is impossible for me to separate the word
fraternity from the word voluntary. I cannot possibly
understand how fraternity can be legally enforced without
liberty being legally destroyed, and thus justice being
legally trampled underfoot.
Legal plunder has two roots: One of them, as I have said
before, is in human greed; the other is in false
At this point, I think that I should explain exactly what I
mean by the word plunder.3
3 Translator's note: The French word used by Mr.
Bastiat is spoliation.
Plunder Violates Ownership
I do not, as is often done, use the word in any vague,
uncertain, approximate, or metaphorical sense. I use it in
its scientific acceptance—as expressing the idea
opposite to that of property [wages, land, money, or
whatever]. When a portion of wealth is transferred from
the person who owns it—without his consent and without
compensation, and whether by force or by fraud—to anyone
who does not own it, then I say that property is violated;
that an act of plunder is committed.
I say that this act is exactly what the law is supposed to
suppress, always and everywhere. When the law itself
commits this act that it is supposed to suppress, I say
that plunder is still committed, and I add that from the
point of view of society and welfare, this aggression
against rights is even worse. In this case of legal
plunder, however, the person who receives the benefits is
not responsible for the act of plundering. The
responsibility for this legal plunder rests with the law,
the legislator, and society itself. Therein lies the
It is to be regretted that the word plunder is offensive.
I have tried in vain to find an inoffensive word, for I
would not at any time—especially now—wish to add an
irritating word to our dissentions. Thus, whether I am
believed or not, I declare that I do not mean to attack the
intentions or the morality of anyone. Rather, I am
attacking an idea which I believe to be false; a system
which appears to me to be unjust; an injustice so
independent of personal intentions that each of us profits
from it without wishing to do so, and suffers from it
without knowing the cause of the suffering.
Three Systems of Plunder
The sincerity of those who advocate protectionism,
socialism, and communism is not here questioned. Any
writer who would do that must be influenced by a political
spirit or a political fear. It is to be pointed out,
however, that protectionism, socialism, and communism are
basically the same plant in three different stages of its
growth. All that can be said is that legal plunder is more
visible in communism because it is complete plunder; and in
protectionism because the plunder is limited to specific
groups and industries.4 Thus it follows that, of the three
systems, socialism is the vaguest, the most indecisive,
and, consequently, the most sincere stage of development.
4 If the special privilege of government protection
against competition—a monopoly—were granted only to
one group in France, the iron workers, for instance, this
act would so obviously be legal plunder that it could not
last for long. It is for this reason that we see all the
protected trades combined into a common cause. They even
organize themselves in such a manner as to appear to
represent all persons who labor. Instinctively, they feel
that legal plunder is concealed by generalizing it.
But sincere or insincere, the intentions of persons are not
here under question. In fact, I have already said that
legal plunder is based partially on philanthropy, even
though it is a false philanthropy.
With this explanation, let us examine the value—the
origin and the tendency—of this popular aspiration which
claims to accomplish the general welfare by general
Law Is Force
Since the law organizes justice, the socialists ask why the
law should not also organize labor, education, and
Why should not law be used for these purposes? Because it
could not organize labor, education, and religion without
destroying justice. We must remember that law is force,
and that, consequently, the proper functions of the law
cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of
When law and force keep a person within the bounds of
justice, they impose nothing but a mere negation. They
oblige him only to abstain from harming others. They
violate neither his personality, his liberty, nor his
property. They safeguard all of these. They are
defensive; they defend equally the rights of all.
Law Is a Negative Concept
The harmlessness of the mission performed by law and lawful
defense is self-evident; the usefulness is obvious; and the
legitimacy cannot be disputed.
As a friend of mine once remarked, this negative concept of
law is so true that the statement, the purpose of the law
is to cause justice to reign, is not a rigorously accurate
statement. It ought to be stated that the purpose of the
law is to prevent injustice from reigning. In fact, it is
injustice, instead of justice, that has an existence of its
own. Justice is achieved only when injustice is absent.
But when the law, by means of its necessary agent, force,
imposes upon men a regulation of labor, a method or a
subject of education, a religious faith or creed—then
the law is no longer negative; it acts positively upon
people. It substitutes the will of the legislator for
their own wills; the initiative of the legislator for their
own initiatives. When this happens, the people no longer
need to discuss, to compare, to plan ahead; the law does
all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless prop for
the people; they cease to be men; they lose their
personality, their liberty, their property.
Try to imagine a regulation of labor imposed by force that
is not a violation of liberty; a transfer of wealth imposed
by force that is not a violation of property. If you
cannot reconcile these contradictions, then you must
conclude that the law cannot organize labor and industry
without organizing injustice.
The Political Approach
When a politician views society from the seclusion of his
office, he is struck by the spectacle of the inequality
that he sees. He deplores the deprivations which are the
lot of so many of our brothers, deprivations which appear
to be even sadder when contrasted with luxury and wealth.
Perhaps the politician should ask himself whether this
state of affairs has not been caused by old conquests and
lootings, and by more recent legal plunder. Perhaps he
should consider this proposition: Since all persons seek
well-being and perfection, would not a condition of justice
be sufficient to cause the greatest efforts toward
progress, and the greatest possible equality that is
compatible with individual responsibility? Would not this
be in accord with the concept of individual responsibility
which God has willed in order that mankind may have the
choice between vice and virtue, and the resulting
punishment and reward?
But the politician never gives this a thought. His mind
turns to organizations, combinations, and arrangements—legal
or apparently legal. He attempts to remedy the evil
by increasing and perpetuating the very thing that caused
the evil in the first place: legal plunder. We have seen
that justice is a negative concept. Is there even one of
these positive legal actions that does not contain the
principle of plunder?
The Law and Charity
You say: "There are persons who have no money," and you
turn to the law. But the law is not a breast that fills
itself with milk. Nor are the lacteal veins of the law
supplied with milk from a source outside the society.
Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of
one citizen or one class unless other citizens and other
classes have been forced to send it in. If every person
draws from the treasury the amount that he has put in it,
it is true that the law then plunders nobody. But this
procedure does nothing for the persons who have no money.
It does not promote equality of income. The law can be an
instrument of equalization only as it takes from some
persons and gives to other persons. When the law does
this, it is an instrument of plunder.
With this in mind, examine the protective tariffs,
subsidies, guaranteed profits, guaranteed jobs, relief and
welfare schemes, public education, progressive taxation,
free credit, and public works. You will find that they are
always based on legal plunder, organized injustice.
The Law and Education
You say: "There are persons who lack education," and you
turn to the law. But the law is not, in itself, a torch of
learning which shines its light abroad. The law extends
over a society where some persons have knowledge and others
do not; where some citizens need to learn, and others can
teach. In this matter of education, the law has only two
alternatives: It can permit this transaction of teaching—and—learning
to operate freely and without the use of
force, or it can force human wills in this matter by taking
from some of them enough to pay the teachers who are
appointed by government to instruct others, without charge.
But in this second case, the law commits legal plunder by
violating liberty and property.
The Law and Morals
You say: "Here are persons who are lacking in morality or
religion," and you turn to the law. But law is force. And
need I point out what a violent and futile effort it is to
use force in the matters of morality and religion?
It would seem that socialists, however self-complacent,
could not avoid seeing this monstrous legal plunder that
results from such systems and such efforts. But what do
the socialists do? They cleverly disguise this legal
plunder from others—and even from themselves—under
the seductive names of fraternity, unity, organization, and
association. Because we ask so little from the law—only
justice—the socialists thereby assume that we reject
fraternity, unity, organization, and association. The
socialists brand us with the name individualist.
But we assure the socialists that we repudiate only forced
organization, not natural organization. We repudiate the
forms of association that are forced upon us, not free
association. We repudiate forced fraternity, not true
fraternity. We repudiate the artificial unity that does
nothing more than deprive persons of individual
responsibility. We do not repudiate the natural unity of
mankind under Providence.
A Confusion of Terms
Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs,
confuses the distinction between government and society.
As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being
done by government, the socialists conclude that we object
to its being done at all.
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say
that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state
religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion
at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they
say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on.
It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting
persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise
The Influence of Socialist Writers
How did politicians ever come to believe this weird idea
that the law could be made to produce what it does not
contain—the wealth, science, and religion that, in a
positive sense, constitute prosperity? Is it due to the
influence of our modern writers on public affairs?
Present-day writers—especially those of the socialist
school of thought—base their various theories upon one
common hypothesis: They divide mankind into two parts.
People in general—with the exception of the writer
himself—from the first group. The writer, all alone,
forms the second and most important group. Surely this is
the weirdest and most conceited notion that ever entered a
In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing
that people have within themselves no means of discernment;
no motivation to action. The writers assume that people
are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at
best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of
existence. They assume that people are susceptible to
being shaped—by the will and hand of another person—into
an infinite variety of forms, more or less
symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.
Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs
hesitates to imagine that he himself—under the title of
organizer, discoverer, legislator, or founder—is this
will and hand, this universal motivating force, this
creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these
scattered materials—persons—into a society.
These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner
that the gardener views his trees. Just as the gardener
capriciously shapes the trees into pyramids, parasols,
cubes, vases, fans, and other forms, just so does the
socialist writer whimsically shape human beings into
groups, series, centers, sub-centers, honeycombs, labor
corps, and other variations. And just as the gardener
needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and shears to shape his
trees, just so does the socialist writer need the force
that he can find only in law to shape human beings. For
this purpose, he devises tariff laws, tax laws, relief
laws, and school laws.
The Socialists Wish to Play God
Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed
into social combinations. This is so true that, if by
chance, the socialists have any doubts about the success of
these combinations, they will demand that a small portion
of mankind be set aside to experiment upon. The popular
idea of trying all systems is well known. And one
socialist leader has been known seriously to demand that
the Constituent Assembly give him a small district with all
its inhabitants, to try his experiments upon.
In the same manner, an inventor makes a model before he
constructs the full-sized machine; the chemist wastes some
chemicals—the farmer wastes some seeds and land—to
try out an idea.
But what a difference there is between the gardener and his
trees, between the inventor and his machine, between the
chemist and his elements, between the farmer and his seeds!
And in all sincerity, the socialist thinks that there is
the same difference between him and mankind!
It is no wonder that the writers of the nineteenth century
look upon society as an artificial creation of the
legislator's genius. This idea—the fruit of classical
education—has taken possession of all the intellectuals
and famous writers of our country. To these intellectuals
and writers, the relationship between persons and the
legislator appears to be the same as the relationship
between the clay and the potter.
Moreover, even where they have consented to recognize a
principle of action in the heart of man—and a principle
of discernment in man's intellect—they have considered
these gifts from God to be fatal gifts. They have thought
that persons, under the impulse of these two gifts, would
fatally tend to ruin themselves. They assume that if the
legislators left persons free to follow their own
inclinations, they would arrive at atheism instead of
religion, ignorance instead of knowledge, poverty instead
of production and exchange.
The Socialists Despise Mankind
According to these writers, it is indeed fortunate that
Heaven has bestowed upon certain men—governors and
legislators—the exact opposite inclinations, not only
for their own sake but also for the sake of the rest of the
world! While mankind tends toward evil, the legislators
yearn for good; while mankind advances toward darkness, the
legislators aspire for enlightenment; while mankind is
drawn toward vice, the legislators are attracted toward
virtue. Since they have decided that this is the true
state of affairs, they then demand the use of force in
order to substitute their own inclinations for those of the
Open at random any book on philosophy, politics, or
history, and you will probably see how deeply rooted in our
country is this idea—the child of classical studies, the
mother of socialism. In all of them, you will probably
find this idea that mankind is merely inert matter,
receiving life, organization, morality, and prosperity from
the power of the state. And even worse, it will be stated
that mankind tends toward degeneration, and is stopped from
this downward course only by the mysterious hand of the
legislator. Conventional classical thought everywhere says
that behind passive society there is a concealed power
called law or legislator (or called by some other
terminology that designates some unnamed person or persons
of undisputed influence and authority) which moves,
controls, benefits, and improves mankind.
A Defense of Compulsory Labor
Let us first consider a quotation from Bossuet [tutor to
the Dauphin in the Court of Louis XIV]:5
"One of the things most strongly impressed (by whom?)
upon the minds of the Egyptians was patriotism.... No
one was permitted to be useless to the state. The law
assigned to each one his work, which was handed down from
father to son. No one was permitted to have two
professions. Nor could a person change from one job to
another.... But there was one task to which all were
forced to conform: the study of the laws and of wisdom.
Ignorance of religion and of the political regulations of
the country was not excused under any circumstances.
Moreover, each occupation was assigned (by whom?) to a
certain district.... Among the good laws, one of the better
was that everyone was trained (by whom?) to obey them. As
a result of this, Egypt was filled with wonderful
inventions, and nothing was neglected that could make life
easy and quiet"
5 Translator's note: The parenthetical expressions
and the italicized words throughout this book were supplied
by Mr. Bastiat. All subheads and bracketed material were
supplied by the translator.
Thus, according to Bossuet, persons derive nothing from
themselves. Patriotism, prosperity, inventions, husbandry,
science—all of these are given to the people by the
operation of the laws, the rulers. All that the people
have to do is to bow to leadership.
A Defense of Paternal Government
Bossuet carries this idea of the state as the source of all
progress even so far as to defend the Egyptians against the
charge that they rejected wrestling and music. He said:
"How is that possible? These arts were invented by
Trismegistus [who was alleged to have been Chancellor to
the Egyptian god Osiris]".
And again among the Persians, Bossuet claims that all comes
"One of the first responsibilities of the prince was
to encourage agriculture.... Just as there were offices
established for the regulation of armies, just so were
there offices for the direction of farm work.... The
Persian people were inspired with an overwhelming respect
for royal authority."
And according to Bossuet, the Greek people, although
exceedingly intelligent, had no sense of personal
responsibility; like dogs and horses, they themselves could
not have invented the most simple games:
"The Greeks, naturally intelligent and courageous,
had been early cultivated by the kings and settlers who had
come from Egypt. From these Egyptian rulers, the Greek
people had learned bodily exercises, foot races, and horse
and chariot races.... But the best thing that the
Egyptians had taught the Greeks was to become docile, and
to permit themselves to be formed by the law for the public
The Idea of Passive Mankind
It cannot be disputed that these classical theories
[advanced by these latter-day teachers, writers,
legislators, economists, and philosophers] held that
everything came to the people from a source outside
themselves. As another example, take Fenelon [archbishop,
author, and instructor to the Duke of Burgundy].
He was a witness to the power of Louis XIV. This, plus the
fact that he was nurtured in the classical studies and the
admiration of antiquity, naturally caused Fenelon to accept
the idea that mankind should be passive; that the
misfortunes and the prosperity—vices and virtues—of
people are caused by the external influence exercised upon
them by the law and the legislators. Thus, in his Utopia
of Salentum, he puts men—with all their interests,
faculties, desires, and possessions—under the absolute
discretion of the legislator. Whatever the issue may be,
persons do not decide it for themselves; the prince decides
for them. The prince is depicted as the soul of this
shapeless mass of people who form the nation. In the
prince resides the thought, the foresight, all progress,
and the principle of all organization. Thus all
responsibility rests with him.
The whole of the tenth book of Fenelon's Telemachus proves
this. I refer the reader to it, and content myself with
quoting at random from this celebrated work to which, in
every other respect, I am the first to pay homage.
Socialists Ignore Reason and Facts
With the amazing credulity which is typical of the
classicists, Fenelon ignores the authority of reason and
facts when he attributes the general happiness of the
Egyptians, not to their own wisdom but to the wisdom of
"We could not turn our eyes to either shore without
seeing rich towns and country estates most agreeably
located; fields, never fallowed, covered with golden crops
every year; meadows full of flocks; workers bending under
the weight of the fruit which the earth lavished upon its
cultivators; shepherds who made the echoes resound with the
soft notes from their pipes and flutes. "Happy," said
Mentor, "is the people governed by a wise king.". . ."
Later, Mentor desired that I observe the contentment and
abundance which covered all Egypt, where twenty-two
thousand cities could be counted. He admired the good
police regulations in the cities; the justice rendered in
favor of the poor against the rich; the sound education of
the children in obedience, labor, sobriety, and the love of
the arts and letters; the exactness with which all
religious ceremonies were performed; the unselfishness, the
high regard for honor, the faithfulness to men, and the
fear of the gods which every father taught his children.
He never stopped admiring the prosperity of the country.
"Happy," said he, "is the people ruled by a wise king in
such a manner."
Socialists Want to Regiment People
Fenelon's idyll on Crete is even more alluring. Mentor is
made to say:
"All that you see in this wonderful island results
from the laws of Minos. The education which he ordained
for the children makes their bodies strong and robust.
From the very beginning, one accustoms the children to a
life of frugality and labor, because one assumes that all
pleasures of the senses weaken both body and mind. Thus
one allows them no pleasure except that of becoming
invincible by virtue, and of acquiring glory.... Here one
punishes three vices that go unpunished among other people:
ingratitude, hypocrisy, and greed. There is no need to
punish persons for pomp and dissipation, for they are
unknown in Crete.... No costly furniture, no magnificent
clothing, no delicious feasts, no gilded palaces are
Thus does Mentor prepare his student to mold and to
manipulate—doubtless with the best of intentions—the
people of Ithaca. And to convince the student of the
wisdom of these ideas, Mentor recites to him the example of
It is from this sort of philosophy that we receive our
first political ideas! We are taught to treat persons much
as an instructor in agriculture teaches farmers to prepare
and tend the soil.
A Famous Name and an Evil Idea
Now listen to the great Montesquieu on this same subject:
"To maintain the spirit of commerce, it is necessary
that all the laws must favor it. These laws, by
proportionately dividing up the fortunes as they are made
in commerce, should provide every poor citizen with
sufficiently easy circumstances to enable him to work like
the others. These same laws should put every rich citizen
in such lowered circumstances as to force him to work in
order to keep or to gain."
Thus the laws are to dispose of all fortunes!
Although real equality is the soul of the state in a
democracy, yet this is so difficult to establish that an
extreme precision in this matter would not always be
desirable. It is sufficient that there be established a
census to reduce or fix these differences in wealth within
a certain limit. After this is done, it remains for
specific laws to equalize inequality by imposing burdens
upon the rich and granting relief to the poor.
Here again we find the idea of equalizing fortunes by law,
In Greece, there were two kinds of republics, One, Sparta,
was military; the other, Athens, was commercial. In the
former, it was desired that the citizens be idle; in the
latter, love of labor was encouraged.
Note the marvelous genius of these legislators: By
debasing all established customs—by mixing the usual
concepts of all virtues—they knew in advance that the
world would admire their wisdom.
Lycurgus gave stability to his city of Sparta by combining
petty thievery with the soul of justice; by combining the
most complete bondage with the most extreme liberty; by
combining the most atrocious beliefs with the greatest
moderation. He appeared to deprive his city of all its
resources, arts, commerce, money, and defenses. In Sparta,
ambition went without the hope of material reward. Natural
affection found no outlet because a man was neither son,
husband, nor father. Even chastity was no longer
considered becoming. By this road, Lycurgus led Sparta on
to greatness and glory.
This boldness which was to be found in the institutions of
Greece has been repeated in the midst of the degeneracy and
corruption of our modern times. An occasional honest
legislator has molded a people in whom integrity appears as
natural as courage in the Spartans.
Mr. William Penn, for example, is a true Lycurgus. Even
though Mr. Penn had peace as his objective—while
Lycurgus had war as his objective—they resemble each
other in that their moral prestige over free men allowed
them to overcome prejudices, to subdue passions, and to
lead their respective peoples into new paths.
The country of Paraguay furnishes us with another example
[of a people who, for their own good, are molded by their
6 Translator's note: What was then known as Paraguay
was a much larger area than it is today. It was colonized
by the Jesuits who settled the Indians into villages, and
generally saved them from further brutalities by the avid
Now it is true that if one considers the sheer pleasure of
commanding to be the greatest joy in life, he contemplates
a crime against society; it will, however, always be a
noble ideal to govern men in a manner that will make them
Those who desire to establish similar institutions must do
as follows: Establish common ownership of property as in
the republic of Plato; revere the gods as Plato commanded;
prevent foreigners from mingling with the people, in order
to preserve the customs; let the state, instead of the
citizens, establish commerce. The legislators should
supply arts instead of luxuries; they should satisfy needs
instead of desires.
A Frightful Idea
Those who are subject to vulgar infatuation may exclaim:
"Montesquieu has said this! So it's magnificent! It's
sublime!" As for me, I have the courage of my own opinion.
I say: What! You have the nerve to call that fine? It is
frightful! It is abominable! These random selections from
the writings of Montesquieu show that he considers persons,
liberties, property—mankind itself—to be nothing but
materials for legislators to exercise their wisdom upon.
The Leader of the Democrats
Now let us examine Rousseau on this subject. This writer
on public affairs is the supreme authority of the
democrats. And although he bases the social structure upon
the will of the people, he has, to a greater extent than
anyone else, completely accepted the theory of the total
inertness of mankind in the presence of the legislators:
"If it is true that a great prince is rare, then is
it not true that a great legislator is even more rare? The
prince has only to follow the pattern that the legislator
creates. The legislator is the mechanic who invents the
machine; the prince is merely the workman who sets it in
And what part do persons play in all this? They are
merely the machine that is set in motion. In fact, are
they not merely considered to be the raw material of which
the machine is made?"
Thus the same relationship exists between the legislator
and the prince as exists between the agricultural expert
and the farmer; and the relationship between the prince and
his subjects is the same as that between the farmer and his
land. How high above mankind, then, has this writer on
public affairs been placed? Rousseau rules over legislators
themselves, and teaches them their trade in these imperious
"Would you give stability to the state? Then bring
the extremes as closely together as possible. Tolerate
neither wealthy persons nor beggars.
If the soil is poor or barren, or the country too
small for its inhabitants, then turn to industry and arts,
and trade these products for the foods that you need....
On a fertile soil—if you are short of inhabitants—devote
all your attention to agriculture, because this
multiplies people; banish the arts, because they only serve
to depopulate the nation....
If you have extensive and accessible coast lines,
then cover the sea with merchant ships; you will have a
brilliant but short existence. If your seas wash only
inaccessible cliffs, let the people be barbarous and eat
fish; they will live more quietly—perhaps better—and,
most certainly, they will live more happily.
In short, and in addition to the maxims that are
common to all, every people has its own particular
circumstances. And this fact in itself will cause
legislation appropriate to the circumstances."
This is the reason why the Hebrews formerly—and, more
recently, the Arabs—had religion as their principle
objective. The objective of the Athenians was literature;
of Carthage and Tyre, commerce; of Rhodes, naval affairs;
of Sparta, war; and of Rome, virtue. The author of The
Spirit of Laws has shown by what art the legislator should
direct his institutions toward each of these objectives....
But suppose that the legislator mistakes his proper
objective, and acts on a principle different from that
indicated by the nature of things? Suppose that the
selected principle sometimes creates slavery, and sometimes
liberty; sometimes wealth, and sometimes population;
sometimes peace, and sometimes conquest? This confusion of
objective will slowly enfeeble the law and impair the
constitution. The state will be subjected to ceaseless
agitations until it is destroyed or changed, and invincible
nature regains her empire.
But if nature is sufficiently invincible to regain its
empire, why does not Rousseau admit that it did not need
the legislator to gain it in the first place? Why does he
not see that men, by obeying their own instincts, would
turn to farming on fertile soil, and to commerce on an
extensive and easily accessible coast, without the
interference of a Lycurgus or a Solon or a Rousseau who
might easily be mistaken.
Socialists Want Forced Conformity
Be that as it may, Rousseau invests the creators,
organizers, directors, legislators, and controllers of
society with a terrible responsibility. He is, therefore,
most exacting with them:
"He who would dare to undertake the political
creation of a people ought to believe that he can, in a
manner of speaking, transform human nature; transform each
individual—who, by himself, is a solitary and perfect
whole—into a mere part of a greater whole from which the
individual will henceforth receive his life and being.
Thus the person who would undertake the political creation
of a people should believe in his ability to alter man's
constitution; to strengthen it; to substitute for the
physical and independent existence received from nature, an
existence which is partial and moral.7 In short, the would-be creator of political man must remove man's own forces
and endow him with others that are naturally alien to him."
Poor human nature! What would become of a person's dignity
if it were entrusted to the followers of Rousseau?
7 Translator's note: According to Rousseau, the
existence of social man is partial in the sense that he is
henceforth merely a part of society. Knowing himself as
such—and thinking and feeling from the point of view of
the whole—he thereby becomes moral.
Legislators Desire to Mold Mankind
Now let us examine Raynal on this subject of mankind being
molded by the legislator:
"The legislator must first consider the climate, the
air, and the soil. The resources at his disposal determine
his duties. He must first consider his locality. A
population living on maritime shores must have laws
designed for navigation.... If it is an inland settlement,
the legislator must make his plans according to the nature
and fertility of the soil....
It is especially in the distribution of property that
the genius of the legislator will be found. As a general
rule, when a new colony is established in any country,
sufficient land should be given to each man to support his
On an uncultivated island that you are populating
with children, you need do nothing but let the seeds of
truth germinate along with the development of reason....
But when you resettle a nation with a past into a new
country, the skill of the legislator rests in the policy of
permitting the people to retain no injurious opinions and
customs which can possibly be cured and corrected. If you
desire to prevent these opinions and customs from becoming
permanent, you will secure the second generation by a
general system of public education for the children. A
prince or a legislator should never establish a colony
without first arranging to send wise men along to instruct
In a new colony, ample opportunity is open to the careful
legislator who desires to purify the customs and manners of
the people. If he has virtue and genius, the land and the
people at his disposal will inspire his soul with a plan
for society. A writer can only vaguely trace the plan in
advance because it is necessarily subject to the
instability of all hypotheses; the problem has many forms,
complications, and circumstances that are difficult to
foresee and settle in detail.
Legislators Told How to Manage Men
Raynal's instructions to the legislators on how to manage
people may be compared to a professor of agriculture
lecturing his students: "The climate is the first rule for
the farmer. His resources determine his procedure. He
must first consider his locality. If his soil is clay, he
must do so and so. If his soil is sand, he must act in
another manner. Every facility is open to the farmer who
wishes to clear and improve his soil. If he is skillful
enough, the manure at his disposal will suggest to him a
plan of operation. A professor can only vaguely trace this
plan in advance because it is necessarily subject to the
instability of all hypotheses; the problem has many forms,
complications, and circumstances that are difficult to
foresee and settle in detail."
Oh, sublime writers! Please remember sometimes that this
clay, this sand, and this manure which you so arbitrarily
dispose of, are men! They are your equals! They are
intelligent and free human beings like yourselves! As you
have, they too have received from God the faculty to
observe, to plan ahead, to think, and to judge for
A Temporary Dictatorship
Here is Mably on this subject of the law and the
legislator. In the passages preceding the one here quoted,
Mably has supposed the laws, due to a neglect of security,
to be worn out. He continues to address the reader thusly:
"Under these circumstances, it is obvious that the
springs of government are slack. Give them a new tension,
and the evil will be cured.... Think less of punishing
faults, and more of rewarding that which you need. In this
manner you will restore to your republic the vigor of
youth. Because free people have been ignorant of this
procedure, they have lost their liberty! But if the evil
has made such headway that ordinary governmental procedures
are unable to cure it, then resort to an extraordinary
tribunal with considerable powers for a short time. The
imagination of the citizens needs to be struck a hard
In this manner, Mably continues through twenty volumes.
Under the influence of teaching like this—which stems
from classical education—there came a time when everyone
wished to place himself above mankind in order to arrange,
organize, and regulate it in his own way.
Socialists Want Equality of Wealth
Next let us examine Condillac on this subject of the
legislators and mankind:
"My Lord, assume the character of Lycurgus or of
Solon. And before you finish reading this essay, amuse
yourself by giving laws to some savages in America or
Africa. Confine these nomads to fixed dwellings; teach
them to tend flocks.... Attempt to develop the social
consciousness that nature has planted in them.... Force
them to begin to practice the duties of humanity.... Use
punishment to cause sensual pleasures to become distasteful
to them. Then you will see that every point of your
legislation will cause these savages to lose a vice and
gain a virtue.
All people have had laws. But few people have been
happy. Why is this so? Because the legislators themselves
have almost always been ignorant of the purpose of society,
which is the uniting of families by a common interest.
Impartiality in law consists of two things: the
establishing of equality in wealth and equality in dignity
among the citizens.... As the laws establish greater
equality, they become proportionately more precious to
every citizen.... When all men are equal in wealth and
dignity—and when the laws leave no hope of disturbing
this equality—how can men then be agitated by greed,
ambition, dissipation, idleness, sloth, envy, hatred, or
What you have learned about the republic of Sparta
should enlighten you on this question. No other state has
ever had laws more in accord with the order of nature; of
The Error of the Socialist Writers
Actually, it is not strange that during the seventeenth and
eighteenth centuries the human race was regarded as inert
matter, ready to receive everything—form, face, energy,
movement, life—from a great prince or a great legislator
or a great genius. These centuries were nourished on the
study of antiquity. And antiquity presents everywhere—in
Egypt, Persia, Greece, Rome—the spectacle of a few
men molding mankind according to their whims, thanks to the
prestige of force and of fraud. But this does not prove
that this situation is desirable. It proves only that
since men and society are capable of improvement, it is
naturally to be expected that error, ignorance, despotism,
slavery, and superstition should be greatest towards the
origins of history. The writers quoted above were not in
error when they found ancient institutions to be such, but
they were in error when they offered them for the
admiration and imitation of future generations. Uncritical
and childish conformists, they took for granted the
grandeur, dignity, morality, and happiness of the
artificial societies of the ancient world. They did not
understand that knowledge appears and grows with the
passage of time; and that in proportion to this growth of
knowledge, might takes the side of right, and society
regains possession of itself.
What Is Liberty?
Actually, what is the political struggle that we witness?
It is the instinctive struggle of all people toward
liberty. And what is this liberty, whose very name makes
the heart beat faster and shakes the world? Is it not the
union of all liberties—liberty of conscience, of
education, of association, of the press, of travel, of
labor, of trade? In short, is not liberty the freedom of
every person to make full use of his faculties, so long as
he does not harm other persons while doing so? Is not
liberty the destruction of all despotism—including, of
course, legal despotism? Finally, is not liberty the
restricting of the law only to its rational sphere of
organizing the right of the individual to lawful self-
defense; of punishing injustice?
It must be admitted that the tendency of the human race
toward liberty is largely thwarted, especially in France.
This is greatly due to a fatal desire—learned from the
teachings of antiquity—that our writers on public
affairs have in common: They desire to set themselves
above mankind in order to arrange, organize, and regulate
it according to their fancy.
While society is struggling toward liberty, these famous
men who put themselves at its head are filled with the
spirit of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. They
think only of subjecting mankind to the philanthropic
tyranny of their own social inventions. Like Rousseau,
they desire to force mankind docilely to bear this yoke of
the public welfare that they have dreamed up in their own
This was especially true in 1789. No sooner was the old
regime destroyed than society was subjected to still other
artificial arrangements, always starting from the same
point: the omnipotence of the law.
Listen to the ideas of a few of the writers and politicians
during that period:
SAINT-JUST: "The legislator commands the future. It
is for him to will the good of mankind. It is for him to
make men what he wills them to be."
ROBESPIERRE: "The function of government is to
direct the physical and moral powers of the nation toward
the end for which the commonwealth has come into being."
BILLAUD-VARENNES: "A people who are to be returned
to liberty must be formed anew. A strong force and
vigorous action are necessary to destroy old prejudices, to
change old customs, to correct depraved affections, to
restrict superfluous wants, and to destroy ingrained
vices.... Citizens, the inexible austerity of Lycurgus
created the firm foundation of the Spartan republic. The
weak and trusting character of Solon plunged Athens into
slavery. This parallel embraces the whole science of
LE PELLETIER: "Considering the extent of human
degradation, I am convinced that it is necessary to effect
a total regeneration and, if I may so express myself, of
creating a new people."
The Socialists Want Dictatorship
Again, it is claimed that persons are nothing but raw
material. It is not for them to will their own
improvement; they are incapable of it. According to Saint-Just,
only the legislator is capable of doing this.
Persons are merely to be what the legislator wills them to
be. According to Robespierre, who copies Rousseau
literally, the legislator begins by decreeing the end for
which the commonwealth has come into being. Once this is
determined, the government has only to direct the physical
and moral forces of the nation toward that end. Meanwhile,
the inhabitants of the nation are to remain completely
passive. And according to the teachings of Billaud-
Varennes, the people should have no prejudices, no
affections, and no desires except those authorized by the
legislator. He even goes so far as to say that the
inflexible austerity of one man is the foundation of a
In cases where the alleged evil is so great that ordinary
governmental procedures cannot cure it, Mably recommends a
dictatorship to promote virtue: "Resort," he says, "to an
extraordinary tribunal with considerable powers for a short
time. The imagination of the citizens needs to be struck a
hard blow." This doctrine has not been forgotten. Listen
"The principle of the republican government is
virtue, and the means required to establish virtue is
terror. In our country we desire to substitute morality
for selfishness, honesty for honor, principles for customs,
duties for manners, the empire of reason for the tyranny of
fashion, contempt of vice for contempt of poverty, pride
for insolence, greatness of soul for vanity, love of glory
for love of money, good people for good companions, merit
for intrigue, genius for wit, truth for glitter, the charm
of happiness for the boredom of pleasure, the greatness of
man for the littleness of the great, a generous, strong,
happy people for a good-natured, frivolous, degraded
people; in short, we desire to substitute all the virtues
and miracles of a republic for all the vices and
absurdities of a monarchy."
At what a tremendous height above the rest of mankind does
Robespierre here place himself! And note the arrogance with
which he speaks. He is not content to pray for a great
reawakening of the human spirit. Nor does he expect such a
result from a well-ordered government. No, he himself will
remake mankind, and by means of terror.
This mass of rotten and contradictory statements is
extracted from a discourse by Robespierre in which he aims
to explain the principles of morality which ought to guide
a revolutionary government. Note that Robespierre's
request for dictatorship is not made merely for the purpose
of repelling a foreign invasion or putting down the
opposing groups. Rather he wants a dictatorship in order
that he may use terror to force upon the country his own
principles of morality. He says that this act is only to
be a temporary measure preceding a new constitution. But
in reality, he desires nothing short of using terror to
extinguish from France selfishness, honor, customs,
manners, fashion, vanity, love of money, good
companionship, intrigue, wit, sensuousness, and poverty.
Not until he, Robespierre, shall have accomplished these
miracles, as he so rightly calls them, will he permit the
law to reign again.8
8 At this point in the original French text, Mr.
Bastiat pauses and speaks thusly to all do-gooders and
would-be rulers of mankind: "Ah, you miserable creatures!
You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity
to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why
don't you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient
The Indirect Approach to Despotism
Usually, however, these gentlemen—the reformers, the
legislators, and the writers on public affairs—do not
desire to impose direct despotism upon mankind. Oh no,
they are too moderate and philanthropic for such direct
action. Instead, they turn to the law for this despotism,
this absolutism, this omnipotence. They desire only to
make the laws.
To show the prevalence of this queer idea in France, I
would need to copy not only the entire works of Mably,
Raynal, Rousseau, and Fenelon—plus long extracts from
Bossuet and Montesquieu—but also the entire proceedings
of the Convention. I shall do no such thing; I merely
refer the reader to them.
Napoleon Wanted Passive Mankind
It is, of course, not at all surprising that this same idea
should have greatly appealed to Napoleon. He embraced it
ardently and used it with vigor. Like a chemist, Napoleon
considered all Europe to be material for his experiments.
But, in due course, this material reacted against him.
At St. Helena, Napoleon—greatly disillusioned—seemed
to recognize some initiative in mankind. Recognizing this,
he became less hostile to liberty. Nevertheless, this did
not prevent him from leaving this lesson to his son in his
will: "To govern is to increase and spread morality,
education, and happiness."
After all this, it is hardly necessary to quote the same
opinions from Morelly, Babeuf, Owen, Saint-Simon, and
Fourier. Here are, however, a few extracts from Louis
Blanc's book on the organization of labor: "In our plan,
society receives its momentum from power."
Now consider this: The impulse behind this momentum is to
be supplied by the plan of Louis Blanc; his plan is to be
forced upon society; the society referred to is the human
race. Thus the human race is to receive its momentum from
Now it will be said that the people are free to accept or
to reject this plan. Admittedly, people are free to accept
or to reject advice from whomever they wish. But this is
not the way in which Mr. Louis Blanc understands the
matter. He expects that his plan will be legalized, and
thus forcibly imposed upon the people by the power of the
"In our plan, the state has only to pass labor laws
(nothing else?) by means of which industrial progress can
and must proceed in complete liberty. The state merely
places society on an incline (that is all?). Then society
will slide down this incline by the mere force of things,
and by the natural workings of the established mechanism."
But what is this incline that is indicated by Mr. Louis
Blanc? Does it not lead to an abyss? (No, it leads to
happiness.) If this is true, then why does not society go
there of its own choice? (Because society does not know
what it wants; it must be propelled.) What is to propel it?
(Power.) And who is to supply the impulse for this power?
(Why, the inventor of the machine—in this instance, Mr.
The Vicious Circle of Socialism
We shall never escape from this circle: the idea of
passive mankind, and the power of the law being used by a
great man to propel the people.
Once on this incline, will society enjoy some liberty?
(Certainly.) And what is liberty, Mr. Louis Blanc?
Once and for all, liberty is not only a mere granted right;
it is also the power granted to a person to use and to
develop his faculties under a reign of justice and under
the protection of the law.
And this is no pointless distinction; its meaning is deep
and its consequences are difficult to estimate. For once
it is agreed that a person, to be truly free, must have the
power to use and develop his faculties, then it follows
that every person has a claim on society for such education
as will permit him to develop himself. It also follows
that every person has a claim on society for tools of
production, without which human activity cannot be fully
effective. Now by what action can society give to every
person the necessary education and the necessary tools of
production, if not by the action of the state?
Thus, again, liberty is power. Of what does this power
consist? (Of being educated and of being given the tools of
production.) Who is to give the education and the tools of
production? (Society, which owes them to everyone.) By what
action is society to give tools of production to those who
do not own them? (Why, by the action of the state.) And
from whom will the state take them?
Let the reader answer that question. Let him also notice
the direction in which this is taking us.
The Doctrine of the Democrats
The strange phenomenon of our times—one which will
probably astound our descendants—is the doctrine based
on this triple hypothesis: the total inertness of mankind,
the omnipotence of the law, and the infallibility of the
legislator. These three ideas form the sacred symbol of
those who proclaim themselves totally democratic.
The advocates of this doctrine also profess to be social.
So far as they are democratic, they place unlimited faith
in mankind. But so far as they are social, they regard
mankind as little better than mud. Let us examine this
contrast in greater detail.
What is the attitude of the democrat when political rights
are under discussion? How does he regard the people when a
legislator is to be chosen? Ah, then it is claimed that the
people have an instinctive wisdom; they are gifted with the
finest perception; their will is always right; the general
will cannot err; voting cannot be too universal.
When it is time to vote, apparently the voter is not to be
asked for any guarantee of his wisdom. His will and
capacity to choose wisely are taken for granted. Can the
people be mistaken? Are we not living in an age of
enlightenment? What! are the people always to be kept on
leashes? Have they not won their rights by great effort and
sacrifice? Have they not given ample proof of their
intelligence and wisdom? Are they not adults? Are they not
capable of judging for themselves? Do they not know what is
best for themselves? Is there a class or a man who would be
so bold as to set himself above the people, and judge and
act for them? No, no, the people are and should be free.
They desire to manage their own affairs, and they shall do
But when the legislator is finally elected—ah! then
indeed does the tone of his speech undergo a radical
change. The people are returned to passiveness, inertness,
and unconsciousness; the legislator enters into
omnipotence. Now it is for him to initiate, to direct, to
propel, and to organize. Mankind has only to submit; the
hour of despotism has struck. We now observe this fatal
idea: The people who, during the election, were so wise,
so moral, and so perfect, now have no tendencies whatever;
or if they have any, they are tendencies that lead downward
The Socialist Concept of Liberty
But ought not the people be given a little liberty?
But Mr. Considerant has assured us that liberty leads
inevitably to monopoly!
We understand that liberty means competition. But
according to Mr. Louis Blanc, competition is a system that
ruins the businessmen and exterminates the people. It is
for this reason that free people are ruined and
exterminated in proportion to their degree of freedom.
(Possibly Mr. Louis Blanc should observe the results of
competition in, for example, Switzerland, Holland, England,
and the United States.)
Mr. Louis Blanc also tells us that competition leads to
monopoly. And by the same reasoning, he thus informs us
that low prices lead to high prices; that competition
drives production to destructive activity; that competition
drains away the sources of purchasing power; that
competition forces an increase in production while, at the
same time, it forces a decrease in consumption. From this,
it follows that free people produce for the sake of not
consuming; that liberty means oppression and madness among
the people; and that Mr. Louis Blanc absolutely must attend
Socialists Fear All Liberties
Well, what liberty should the legislators permit people to
have? Liberty of conscience? (But if this were permitted,
we would see the people taking this opportunity to become
Then liberty of education? (But parents would pay
professors to teach their children immorality and
falsehoods; besides, according to Mr. Thiers, if education
were left to national liberty, it would cease to be
national, and we would be teaching our children the ideas
of the Turks or Hindus; whereas, thanks to this legal
despotism over education, our children now have the good
fortune to be taught the noble ideas of the Romans.)
Then liberty of labor? (But that would mean competition
which, in turn, leaves production unconsumed, ruins
businessmen, and exterminates the people.)
Perhaps liberty of trade? (But everyone knows—and the
advocates of protective tariffs have proved over and over
again—that freedom of trade ruins every person who
engages in it, and that it is necessary to suppress freedom
of trade in order to prosper.)
Possibly then, liberty of association? (But, according to
socialist doctrine, true liberty and voluntary association
are in contradiction to each other, and the purpose of the
socialists is to suppress liberty of association precisely
in order to force people to associate together in true
Clearly then, the conscience of the social democrats cannot
permit persons to have any liberty because they believe
that the nature of mankind tends always toward every kind
of degradation and disaster. Thus, of course, the
legislators must make plans for the people in order to save
them from themselves.
This line of reasoning brings us to a challenging question:
If people are as incapable, as immoral, and as ignorant as
the politicians indicate, then why is the right of these
same people to vote defended with such passionate
The Superman Idea
The claims of these organizers of humanity raise another
question which I have often asked them and which, so far as
I know, they have never answered: If the natural
tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to
permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of
these organizers are always good? Do not the legislators
and their appointed agents also belong to the human race?
Or do they believe that they themselves are made of a finer
clay than the rest of mankind? The organizers maintain that
society, when left undirected, rushes headlong to its
inevitable destruction because the instincts of the people
are so perverse. The legislators claim to stop this
suicidal course and to give it a saner direction.
Apparently, then, the legislators and the organizers have
received from Heaven an intelligence and virtue that place
them beyond and above mankind; if so, let them show their
titles to this superiority.
They would be the shepherds over us, their sheep.
Certainly such an arrangement presupposes that they are
naturally superior to the rest of us. And certainly we are
fully justified in demanding from the legislators and
organizers proof of this natural superiority.
The Socialists Reject Free Choice
Please understand that I do not dispute their right to
invent social combinations, to advertise them, to advocate
them, and to try them upon themselves, at their own expense
and risk. But I do dispute their right to impose these
plans upon us by law—by force—and to compel us to pay
for them with our taxes.
I do not insist that the supporters of these various social
schools of thought--the Proudhonists, the Cabetists, the
Fourierists, the Universitarists, and the Protectionists—renounce
their various ideas. I insist only that they
renounce this one idea that they have in common: They need
only to give up the idea of forcing us to acquiesce to
their groups and series, their socialized projects, their
free-credit banks, their Graeco-Roman concept of morality,
and their commercial regulations. I ask only that we be
permitted to decide upon these plans for ourselves; that we
not be forced to accept them, directly or indirectly, if we
find them to be contrary to our best interests or repugnant
to our consciences.
But these organizers desire access to the tax funds and to
the power of the law in order to carry out their plans. In
addition to being oppressive and unjust, this desire also
implies the fatal supposition that the organizer is
infallible and mankind is incompetent. But, again, if
persons are incompetent to judge for themselves, then why
all this talk about universal suffrage?
The Cause of French Revolutions
This contradiction in ideas is, unfortunately but
logically, reflected in events in France. For example,
Frenchmen have led all other Europeans in obtaining their
rights—or, more accurately, their political demands.
Yet this fact has in no respect prevented us from becoming
the most governed, the most regulated, the most imposed
upon, the most harnessed, and the most exploited people in
Europe. France also leads all other nations as the one
where revolutions are constantly to be anticipated. And
under the circumstances, it is quite natural that this
should be the case.
And this will remain the case so long as our politicians
continue to accept this idea that has been so well
expressed by Mr. Louis Blanc: "Society receives its
momentum from power." This will remain the case so long as
human beings with feelings continue to remain passive; so
long as they consider themselves incapable of bettering
their prosperity and happiness by their own intelligence
and their own energy; so long as they expect everything
from the law; in short, so long as they imagine that their
relationship to the state is the same as that of the sheep
to the shepherd.
The Enormous Power of Government
As long as these ideas prevail, it is clear that the
responsibility of government is enormous. Good fortune and
bad fortune, wealth and destitution, equality and
inequality, virtue and vice—all then depend upon
political administration. It is burdened with everything,
it undertakes everything, it does everything; therefore it
is responsible for everything.
If we are fortunate, then government has a claim to our
gratitude; but if we are unfortunate, then government must
bear the blame. For are not our persons and property now
at the disposal of government? Is not the law omnipotent?
In creating a monopoly of education, the government must
answer to the hopes of the fathers of families who have
thus been deprived of their liberty; and if these hopes are
shattered, whose fault is it?
In regulating industry, the government has contracted to
make it prosper; otherwise it is absurd to deprive industry
of its liberty. And if industry now suffers, whose fault
In meddling with the balance of trade by playing with
tariffs, the government thereby contracts to make trade
prosper; and if this results in destruction instead of
prosperity, whose fault is it?
In giving protection instead of liberty to the industries
for defense, the government has contracted to make them
profitable; and if they become a burden to the taxpayers,
whose fault is it?
Thus there is not a grievance in the nation for which the
government does not voluntarily make itself responsible.
Is it surprising, then, that every failure increases the
threat of another revolution in France?
And what remedy is proposed for this? To extend
indefinitely the domain of the law; that is, the
responsibility of government.
But if the government undertakes to control and to raise
wages, and cannot do it; if the government undertakes to
care for all who may be in want, and cannot do it; if the
government undertakes to support all unemployed workers,
and cannot do it; if the government undertakes to lend
interest-free money to all borrowers, and cannot do it;
if, in these words that we regret to say escaped from the
pen of Mr. de Lamartine, "The state considers that its
purpose is to enlighten, to develop, to enlarge, to
strengthen, to spiritualize, and to sanctify the soul of
the people"—and if the government cannot do all of these
things, what then? Is it not certain that after every
government failure—which, alas! is more than probable—there
will be an equally inevitable revolution?
Politics and Economics
[Now let us return to a subject that was briefly
discussed in the opening pages of this thesis: the
relationship of economics and of politics—political
9 Translator's note: Mr. Bastiat has devoted three
other books and several articles to the development of the
ideas contained in the three sentences of the following
A science of economics must be developed before a science
of politics can be logically formulated. Essentially,
economics is the science of determining whether the
interests of human beings are harmonious or antagonistic.
This must be known before a science of politics can be
formulated to determine the proper functions of government.
Immediately following the development of a science of
economics, and at the very beginning of the formulation of
a science of politics, this all-important question must be
answered: What is law? What ought it to be? What is its
scope; its limits? Logically, at what point do the just
powers of the legislator stop?
I do not hesitate to answer: Law is the common force
organized to act as an obstacle to injustice. In short,
law is justice.
Proper Legislative Functions
It is not true that the legislator has absolute power over
our persons and property. The existence of persons and
property preceded the existence of the legislator, and his
function is only to guarantee their safety.
It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our
consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our
opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our
pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free
exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from
interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by
any other person.
Since law necessarily requires the support of force, its
lawful domain is only in the areas where the use of force
is necessary. This is justice.
Every individual has the right to use force for lawful
self-defense. It is for this reason that the collective
force—which is only the organized combination of the
individual forces—may lawfully be used for the same
purpose; and it cannot be used legitimately for any other
Law is solely the organization of the individual right of
self-defense which existed before law was formalized. Law
Law and Charity Are Not the Same
The mission of the law is not to oppress persons and
plunder them of their property, even though the law may be
acting in a philanthropic spirit. Its mission is to
protect persons and property.
Furthermore, it must not be said that the law may be
philanthropic if, in the process, it refrains from
oppressing persons and plundering them of their property;
this would be a contradiction. The law cannot avoid having
an effect upon persons and property; and if the law acts in
any manner except to protect them, its actions then
necessarily violate the liberty of persons and their right
to own property.
The law is justice—simple and clear, precise and
bounded. Every eye can see it, and every mind can grasp
it; for justice is measurable, immutable, and unchangeable.
Justice is neither more than this nor less than this.
If you exceed this proper limit—if you attempt to make
the law religious, fraternal, equalizing, philanthropic,
industrial, literary, or artistic—you will then be lost
in an uncharted territory, in vagueness and uncertainty, in
a forced utopia or, even worse, in a multitude of utopias,
each striving to seize the law and impose it upon you.
This is true because fraternity and philanthropy, unlike
justice, do not have precise limits. Once started, where
will you stop? And where will the law stop itself?
The High Road to Communism
Mr. de Saint-Cricq would extend his philanthropy only to
some of the industrial groups; he would demand that the law
control the consumers to benefit the producers.
Mr. Considerant would sponsor the cause of the labor
groups; he would use the law to secure for them a
guaranteed minimum of clothing, housing, food, and all
other necessities of life.
Mr. Louis Blanc would say—and with reason—that these
minimum guarantees are merely the beginning of complete
fraternity; he would say that the law should give tools of
production and free education to all working people.
Another person would observe that this arrangement would
still leave room for inequality; he would claim that the
law should give to everyone—even in the most
inaccessible hamlet--luxury, literature, and art.
All of these proposals are the high road to communism;
legislation will then be—in fact, it already is—the
battlefield for the fantasies and greed of everyone.
The Basis for Stable Government
Law is justice. In this proposition a simple and enduring
government can be conceived. And I defy anyone to say how
even the thought of revolution, of insurrection, of the
slightest uprising could arise against a government whose
organized force was confined only to suppressing injustice.
Under such a regime, there would be the most prosperity—and
it would be the most equally distributed. As for the
sufferings that are inseparable from humanity, no one would
even think of accusing the government for them. This is
true because, if the force of government were limited to
suppressing injustice, then government would be as innocent
of these sufferings as it is now innocent of changes in the
As proof of this statement, consider this question: Have
the people ever been known to rise against the Court of
Appeals, or mob a Justice of the Peace, in order to get
higher wages, free credit, tools of production, favorable
tariffs, or government-created jobs? Everyone knows
perfectly well that such matters are not within the
jurisdiction of the Court of Appeals or a Justice of the
Peace. And if government were limited to its proper
functions, everyone would soon learn that these matters are
not within the jurisdiction of the law itself.
But make the laws upon the principle of fraternity—proclaim
that all good, and all bad, stem from the law;
that the law is responsible for all individual misfortunes
and all social inequalities—then the door is open to an
endless succession of complaints, irritations, troubles,
Justice Means Equal Rights
Law is justice. And it would indeed be strange if law
could properly be anything else! Is not justice right? Are
not rights equal? By what right does the law force me to
conform to the social plans of Mr. Mimerel, Mr. de Melun,
Mr. Thiers, or Mr. Louis Blanc? If the law has a moral
right to do this, why does it not, then, force these
gentlemen to submit to my plans? Is it logical to suppose
that nature has not given me sufficient imagination to
dream up a utopia also? Should the law choose one fantasy
among many, and put the organized force of government at
its service only?
Law is justice. And let it not be said—as it
continually is said—that under this concept, the law
would be atheistic, individualistic, and heartless; that it
would make mankind in its own image. This is an absurd
conclusion, worthy only of those worshippers of government
who believe that the law is mankind.
Nonsense! Do those worshippers of government believe that
free persons will cease to act? Does it follow that if we
receive no energy from the law, we shall receive no energy
at all? Does it follow that if the law is restricted to the
function of protecting the free use of our faculties, we
will be unable to use our faculties? Suppose that the law
does not force us to follow certain forms of religion, or
systems of association, or methods of education, or
regulations of labor, or regulations of trade, or plans for
charity; does it then follow that we shall eagerly plunge
into atheism, hermitary, ignorance, misery, and greed? If
we are free, does it follow that we shall no longer
recognize the power and goodness of God? Does it follow
that we shall then cease to associate with each other, to
help each other, to love and succor our unfortunate
brothers, to study the secrets of nature, and to strive to
improve ourselves to the best of our abilities?
The Path to Dignity and Progress
Law is justice. And it is under the law of justice—under
the reign of right; under the influence of liberty,
safety, stability, and responsibility—that every person
will attain his real worth and the true dignity of his
being. It is only under this law of justice that mankind
will achieve—slowly, no doubt, but certainly—God's
design for the orderly and peaceful progress of humanity.
It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for
whatever the question under discussion—whether
religious, philosophical, political, or economic; whether
it concerns prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice,
progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labor,
trade, capital, wages, taxes, population, finance, or
government—at whatever point on the scientific horizon I
begin my researches, I invariably reach this one
conclusion: The solution to the problems of human
relationships is to be found in liberty.
Proof of an Idea
And does not experience prove this? Look at the entire
world. Which countries contain the most peaceful, the most
moral, and the happiest people? Those people are found in
the countries where the law least interferes with private
affairs; where government is least felt; where the
individual has the greatest scope, and free opinion the
greatest influence; where administrative powers are fewest
and simplest; where taxes are lightest and most nearly
equal, and popular discontent the least excited and the
least justifiable; where individuals and groups most
actively assume their responsibilities, and, consequently,
where the morals of admittedly imperfect human beings are
constantly improving; where trade, assemblies, and
associations are the least restricted; where labor,
capital, and populations suffer the fewest forced
displacements; where mankind most nearly follows its own
natural inclinations; where the inventions of men are most
nearly in harmony with the laws of God; in short, the
happiest, most moral, and most peaceful people are those
who most nearly follow this principle: Although mankind is
not perfect, still, all hope rests upon the free and
voluntary actions of persons within the limits of right;
law or force is to be used for nothing except the
administration of universal justice.
The Desire to Rule over Others
This must be said: There are too many "great" men in the
world—legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of
the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on. Too
many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a
career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it.
Now someone will say: "You yourself are doing this very
True. But it must be admitted that I act in an entirely
different sense; if I have joined the ranks of the
reformers, it is solely for the purpose of persuading them
to leave people alone. I do not look upon people as
Vancauson looked upon his automaton. Rather, just as the
physiologist accepts the human body as it is, so do I
accept people as they are. I desire only to study and
My attitude toward all other persons is well illustrated by
this story from a celebrated traveler: He arrived one day
in the midst of a tribe of savages, where a child had just
been born. A crowd of soothsayers, magicians, and quacks—armed
with rings, hooks, and cords—surrounded it. One
said: "This child will never smell the perfume of a peace-pipe
unless I stretch his nostrils." Another said: "He
will never be able to hear unless I draw his ear-lobes down
to his shoulders." A third said: "He will never see the
sunshine unless I slant his eyes." Another said: "He will
never stand upright unless I bend his legs." A fifth said:
"He will never learn to think unless I flatten his skull."
"Stop," cried the traveler. "What God does is well done.
Do not claim to know more than He. God has given organs to
this frail creature; let them develop and grow strong by
exercise, use, experience, and liberty."
Let Us Now Try Liberty
God has given to men all that is necessary for them to
accomplish their destinies. He has provided a social form
as well as a human form. And these social organs of
persons are so constituted that they will develop
themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty. Away,
then, with quacks and organizers! Away with their rings,
chains, hooks, and pincers! Away with their artificial
systems! Away with the whims of governmental
administrators, their socialized projects, their
centralization, their tariffs, their government schools,
their state religions, their free credit, their bank
monopolies, their regulations, their restrictions, their
equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!
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.
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