Bastiat: Big Thoughts On Small Government


(pictured:  Frederic Bastiat)

Sometimes, when I hear some modern, narrow-minded windbag shore up his simplistic point of view by citing a quotation from some dead authority upon the topic at hand, I grow curious to know just how out of context the particular quotation was taken.  My thought process runs something like this:  surely this person you have quoted could never have been intelligent enough to have become an authority in his field if he actually held the crude, naive point of view which you ascribe to him and which also happens to be your own particular brand of idiocy.

So I look the dude up.

In this instance, I was led to Frederic Bastiat, a legal and economic theorist who lived from 1801 to 1850.  He is quoted not irregularly by conservatives with pretensions to scholarship– often the same people who quote von Mises; basically those guys who find quoting Rand or Friedman a bit too ahh-vious, dahling.   These are not cultural conservatives, I’, speaking of, but conservatives of the economic and governmental variety— in my unhumble opinion, a far worthier lot.

I took, I suppose, about the easiest entryway into Bastiat’s thought, reading a thin book called simply, The Law.  This was an intriguing read, not so much for its content, which grew boring and redundant even in this slender volume, but for the window it opens up on a certain alleyway of conservative thought.   There are catchphrases I hear spit out today with regularity that are probably the great-grandchildren of Bastiat’s prose.

If The Law is a valid indication of Bastiat’s thought, it appears that the particular Great White Whale that gets Bastiat’s monomaniacal hackles up is any form of income redistribution.  Not so interesting that, perhaps, but I did enjoy following his line of thought upon the matter. 

[Aside on Lines Of Thought… I think Lines Of Thought mostly go backward, not forwards.  What I mean is, I think most of us –and I would include myself here, though with some shame— know already what we wish to believe, and then we go out searching for the data and arguments and quotations to back us up and to confirm us in our prejudgment (which is just another way of saying, prejudice)…] 

I don’t know if Bastiat started by thinking that government should serve very limited purposes, and then came up with theories to support this feeling, or if he bucked tradition and began with first principles.  But I will say this… I found myself impressed and not a little surprised to discover that the beginnings of Bastiat’s Line Of Thought make for a pretty firm and sensible foundation for ELG (Extremely Limited Government).  Here’s how he starts off…

Well, hold on.  Actually, he starts off with “natural rights” that are “from God,” which I’m sorta meh about.  But then, it’s as if he backsteps and begins again, this time on firmer ground:  he looks for the most fundamental needs of Life; not food, clothing, and shelter— but a step even farther back– the things which we must possess in order to obtain our basic physical needs.  These fundamental prerequisites to Life are also what Bastiat means when he speaks of “natural rights” (in addition to the whole gift of God version).

Bastiat says there are three Natural Rights:  1) Self-Defense,  2) Liberty, and  3) Property.

This makes some sense.  If we can’t perform acts of Self-Defense, then we may have our lives taken from us.  If we do not have Liberty of action, then we may not be able to take the steps necessary to procure our nourishment and shelter.  And if we don’t have a right to Property, then all the food, shelter, and supplies that we work for is put at high risk.

Bastiat says the Three Natural Rights “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.”

He doesn’t explain this point further, but to me, this is most sublime possibility offered in all his work, this idea of a holy trinity of rights at the heart of whatever web of laws we then logically spin out from them, a Cartesian first step for a solid philosophy of Society.  And I think I can see how this Iron Triangle could lock together:

Without Self-Defense, we can’t protect our Liberty and Property.  Without Liberty, we can’t perform the tasks necessary for securing Self-Defense and our Property.  Without Property, we won’t have the weapons, shelters, silos, water-wells, et cetera to sustain health and life enough to provide for our Self-Defense and to take advantage of our Liberty.

For Bastiat, the First Natural Right, that of Self Defense, grants both (a) the right to Life, itself, and  (b) the right to defend the other two Fundamental Natural Rights.  I’m not sure he says this outright, but this slightly expansive view of Self-Defense must be assumed in order to arrive at the next point in his argument…

Says Bastiat:  “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.”

And for Bastiat, this unsleeping, organized, common force protecting the Three Natural Rights is Government.  And it is all Government is.  No less, and certainly no more.  We allow Government to provide the muscle behind the Rights by granting it a monopoly on violence — but it is a justifiable monopoly on violence as long as it remains strictly within the bounds of defending the Three Natural Rights.

According to Bastiat, any law is to be considered a BAD law if it violates one of the Three Natural Rights that Government is organized to protect.  It does not matter how well-intentioned the aim of the law, if even one of the Three Natural Rights are compromised, the law is a “bad” one.

He cites a few examples, such as:  Slavery is Bad Law because it violates Natural Right #2, namely Liberty.  The Protective Tariff is Bad Law because it violates Natural Right #3, Property.

Ahh…  and here we arrive at the place where logic grows murky and complex, and political opinions diverge, and the horse races of politics begin.  For, imagine how easy it is for the naturally conniving human mind to twist any proposed law so that it can be argued to impinge –or not to impinge—on  either the Life, Liberty, or Property of one group or another:

Does the right to own a gun protect Life—or harm it?  Does legalized abortion protect the mother’s Liberty—or harm the child’s Life?  Does a unemployment/welfare program enlarge Property rights by securing society from revolution in the street—or does it impinge Property by taking from the rich to give to the poor?

Aye, there’s the rub.  Many of us can agree on First Principles; it’s the links later down the logical chain that kink and unbind us.


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