Frédéric Bastiat’s Nation of Plunderers

Frédéric Bastiat

That’s what we’ve permitted ourselves to become, isn’t it?  Rationalize it in every conceivable way though we may, when we get beyond all of the petty justifications we spout in order to sound less monstrous, we have become a nation of plunderers.  There are exceptions, as with any generalization, but it cannot now be said that a majority of Americans have clean hands in the matter.  To some degree, greater or lesser, the blood of this fact taints most of us.  Some of you will know what I mean, but others may be less familiar with the concept.  I believe in informed consent, which means that to give one’s consent to an action, one must have full knowledge of the consequences, risks, and tribulations that may attend that action.  What I do not believe is that by ignoring the full facts, but still giving one’s consent in willful ignorance, one can somehow hope to evade moral responsibility for the results.  In his great text, The Law, Frédéric Bastiat, the great French economist, statesman, and author offered all of the reasons a nation must avoid transformation into a den of thieves and villains, though the robbery be legalized.  It is important to note that as the United States has been on a long and progressive march to precisely the sort of nation Bastiat lamented, most of our citizenry have accepted this devolution.

Our founders, imperfect though they may have been, understood clearly what Bastiat would tell us only a half-century later.  Though they were no longer alive to appreciate his works, appreciate them they would have because in them may be found some of their own ideas.  What the founders understood, but Bastiat made explicit, is that the only thing a government offers to its people is force.  By force, I mean the legal monopoly on power to coerce, compel, and even kill.  Strip all of the other dressings from the function of government, and this is all that remains.   Bastiat asked the question: In which purposes may that force be turned?  His answer was simply: “Justice.”  At this point, many become confused, because the term justice has been likewise demolished and diluted and demeaned to have virtually any and all possible meanings at once.  In Bastiat’s conception, justice was merely the protection of the rights of life, liberty and property, as well as the enforcement of compensations and punishment for the violation of same.  In short, Bastiat argued that government exists to create an objective guarantor of these simple human rights.   For students of American history, familiar with our founding document, the Declaration of Independence, this idea should be very familiar indeed:

“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights,[74] that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, Governments are instituted among Men, deriving their just powers from the consent of the governed.”

How familiar would Bastiat’s words on the subject have seemed to our founders, and the framers of our Constitution?  Let us consider his thoughts on government’s purpose as laid forth in The Law:

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 groups.

What Bastiat understood too well, as his own nation began its collapse into socialism, is that there can be no law that does not respect the rights of life, liberty and property without destroying the entire purpose of law.  Limited to these ends, but nothing more, the law serves all people equally, showing favor to none, but merely confirming the natural rights of all people.  His enduring argument is that a nation based on such an objective standard of law could flourish, and that its people would have none to blame but themselves for their particular predicaments or standing.  Of a “Just and enduring Government,” Bastiat wrote:

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 increased responsibilities.

This is a monumentally important concept Americans must finally reconsider:  So long as government extends into all parts of every American’s life, no American is safe from the predations of other Americans.  So long as it is accepted that government’s duty is merely to guarantee the rights of individuals, the government is correctly limited, and it does no harm to any citizen.  Each citizen is then safe from predation, or as Bastiat calls it, “plunder,” because protecting people from plunderers, or punishing plunderers is the government’s only just purpose.  As Bastiat explains, man can live by only two basic methods: by his own ceaseless labor in creation of property(material wealth,) or by seizing the property(and wealth) of others.   That’s really all there is, and no exceptions exist in all the world.  What Bastiat noticed is that since people have a tendency to exert themselves to the least necessary extent, they will easily be convinced to engage in plunder by their own rationalizations, or the justifications provided by others.  This is the siren song of socialism, or indeed any form of statism, and Bastiat knew it well.  In explaining how plunder is to be prohibited by the law, he wrote:

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.

Bastiat also understood what would happen when the law is turned to the purposes of legalized plunder.  When the proper purpose of law is to prevent or punish plunder, turned to the purpose of managing the plunder instead, the law becomes a great and vast evil from which no man is safe.  This is the reason our framers gave to us a Constitution that protected against plunder, even if the understanding of that Constitution has been perverted precisely to permit the very practice it had been instituted to prevent.  On the Results of Legal Plunder, Bastiat wrote:

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.

Consider this carefully in examination of our own country, not as it was founded, but as it has come to be over the span of the last century of Progressivism, from both the left and the right.   His enduring prescience was to realize that such a system would of necessity destroy and obscure the differences between actual justice and all the fraudulent forms we’ve been offered in its place.  What else could be the meaning of such contrived notions as “social justice,” “environmental justice,” “economic justice,” “racial justice,” and any other contrivance and dilution of actual justice you can imagine?  Consider only one of these, for instance “economic justice,” by which the speaker intends to say that taking from one person to redistribute to another person or person(s) is a matter of justice.   Is it?  Or is it truly injustice?  If plunder is the determinant, then such notions are all only plunder dressed up behind a facade of some bastardization of actual justice.   As Bastiat notes, justice concerns itself only with the protection of life, liberty, and property.   With what does “economic justice” concern itself?  The answer is clearly: The collective violation of the rights of life, liberty and property.

Many will have noted that when Governor Palin began making use of the term “crony capitalism,” others began to notice the issue.  “Crony capitalism” is merely another form of plunder:  Use the law as an instrument to get from others that which you otherwise would not have gotten.   What it describes is a system in which plunder is not merely legalized, but normalized and institutionalized through the political process.  Two parties, a politician and a corporation, collude to the benefit of both by using the power of the politician to enrich both.  Is there any doubt but that this is the meaning of Solyndra, or any of the other “green energy/jobs” initiatives in which the current administration has invested our precious dollars?

This is ever the purpose of those who extend the meaning of justice from that which it is, to that which it is not.  How many plunderers do you know?  Are you a plunderer yourself?  Before you blanch at the suggestion, consider it carefully:  Do the things you may receive from government, directly or indirectly, spring from the plunder of the property and wealth of others?  In short, are they yours, in fact, or are they really the property of others bent to your purposes, or so-called “needs?”  You need not even have consented to it, at least not knowingly, and yet there you are tied as another perpetrator and victim in this institutionalized plunder.  Examine all the ways you are being plundered, but then examine more carefully all the ways in which you plunder others.

You might claim, as most will, that: “I had no choice, and besides, they plundered me, first.  Mine is just compensation for an earlier plundering of my property(wealth.)”  Let me ask you bluntly then: If your neighbor’s house is robbed, is it thus acceptable for him to rob the houses of his neighbors?  You would decry that suggestion, and tell me that “two wrongs do not a right make.”  I say to you the same, but that some robberies are given cover of legality does not excuse them.   You might say, for instance, that your situation is dire, and having been plundered all these years, you now have no choice but to resort to legalized plunder.  Is this your best offering against justice?  I am in that stage of life in which I am the constant victim of the plunder, but as a child, I was the beneficiary once too:  Did my parents pay directly for my education, or did they rely upon the plunder of their neighbors, many without children, to pay for said primary education?  I could offer that I was a child, but then I must admit that my daughter also received a public education for most of her schooling, and I might note that for one child, the taxes I paid might well have been roughly proportional to the benefit, but nevertheless, I cannot ignore the timber in my own eye on this matter.  Very few of us have unstained hands.

Yet, even if this is so, that we have nearly all participated to some degree, greater or lesser, does it excuse our continuing the practice?  Bastiat thought not.  He completes The Law with a brief suggestion, exhorting readers “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! A way 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.

Whatever else you may say about Bastiat’s work, we must admit he had been thorough, and we must acknowledge the wisdom of his position.  He knew what most of our founders and framers had known with respect to the purpose of the law, and why it must be kept to those vital purposes, but permitted no more.  In subsequent centuries, we have permitted the law to fall into disrepair, beguiled with promises of plunder, as we have been plundered, but there exists now a burgeoning front of Americans who have never lived by any means but plunder, from cradle to grave, and they expect it to grow and magnify.  Politicians, engaged in a different form of legalized plunder, have created this army of plunderers to excuse and offer cover for their own(as detailed by Sarah Palin, Peter Schweizer, and a number of others.)  Unless and until the American people recognize that these interwoven systems of plunder are the root cause of most of our discontents, our miseries and our pain, we will continue to suffer them until revolution begets even greater and more perverse systems of plunder.  None of us should think ourselves absolved, but let us take Bastiat’s words and restore justice in law.  That’s the only way we’ll save our nation.

Note: I would encourage readers to read The Law in its entirety.  I’d also encourage you to read Bastiat’s other works, translated here.

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  • Cindi Straughn

    brilliant…truth…

    • http://www.markamerica.com MarkAmerica

      Thank you Ma'am, but the brilliance was all Bastiat.

  • Mary M.

    Mark,
    Ayn Rand called them "legal looters". In any event, it will take a moral and courageous spiritual awakening for this country to do anything about the state of this nation. The loss of morality is, I believe, the precursor to the current condition this country is in. I don't know what can be done about it. Does anyone?

    • http://www.markamerica.com MarkAmerica

      Yes Ma'am, that's the same concept. When one reads Rand, one can see a similarity to Bastiat. I think most people believe, erroneously, that we can slowly back away from the precipice. I'm not so certain.

      Thanks you!

      • Mary M.

        No…it's me who thanks you, Mark, for all of your excellent articles and the courage to write them. Perhaps one day there will be a clarion call, and my tired, old ears will hear it. Living in slavery to government is hideous. I could write reams about this, but won't. Again – thanks go to you, even if only to know that there are others "out there" who can see how things are…so who IS John Galt? and WHERE is he?

      • SeanStLouis

        I would suggest quickly backing away from the precipice. But that ain't gonna happen either.

        It's very encouraging to see people actually discussing and sharing these ideas. But it's not very encouraging to me that most people I know won't take the time to read something like Rand or Bastiat….or even non-fiction in general!

        Mary, I don't know what can be done about it, but simply discussing "new" ideas with friends and neighbors is a good start:

        "…because protecting people from plunderers, or punishing plunderers is the government’s only just purpose. As Bastiat explains, man can live by only two basic methods: by his own ceaseless labor in creation of property(material wealth,) or by seizing the property(and wealth) of others. That’s really all there is, and no exceptions exist in all the world."

        That is a good start. Spread the word.

        • http://www.markamerica.com MarkAmerica

          If I didn't think Bastiat himself would rise from the grave and spit in my face for the suggestion, I'd probably say we should make this required reading for high-schoolers. ;-)

    • Buckeye Boy

      Pray without ceasing and hasten the return of Jesus Christ to take control of the world. Until then…

  • SeanStLouis

    Thank you for sharing this, Mark. I would also encourage readers to get a copy of "The Law" and share it with their family and friends. While at first it may seem like pretty dry reading, Bastiat's essays are very compelling and is delicious mind-candy for political history junkies like me.

    Also, "The Law" is very relevant to our times.

    I became interested in Bastiat's work several years ago after reading one of Ron Paul's books (he had "The Law" listed as recommended reading). Bastiat's philosophical bent certainly lends creedence to many of Rep. Paul's views and his books will certainly help you better understand the relationship between law and government.

    As I'm sure you know Mark, at Huckabee's GOP forum yesterday Ron Paul was asked, "If you could suggest one book for every American to read, what would it be?". His answer was, of course, "The Law".

    • http://www.markamerica.com MarkAmerica

      Sean, Thanks, actually, I didn't see any television yesterday, or for that matter today. It's been raining here, and our satellite reception suffers, but more importantly, I've been engaged in paying work until an hour or so ago.

      What prompted this post was re-reading some notes I had made some years ago during a different sort of debate in a class on economics, and of course, I've read most of Bastiat's works, but I decided to re-read it based on my earlier notes where I had scrawled several questions, answering my own questions with the circled exclamation: "The Law!" The economics notes I was reviewing concerns something known as "autonomous expenditures" (or "autonomous consumption.") I had done some research work at the time on the subject, under the heading: If it's autonomous, why do we subsidize it?"

      Anyway, I'm interested to hear that Paul actually referenced The Law. It's a classic, as are all his works.

  • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=739030764 Dave Pavano

    Mark, I feel a very old spirit coming from your writings. A spirit that was once present in the early history of this nation and I for one salute you sir for your efforts.

    There are many of us that still follow the wisdom of our forefathers but I fear we are decreasing in numbers day after day with the attacks on our belief in one God and the morality the comes from that belief. And yet we continue to allow these attacks which proves to me there is no longer a moral majority as there once was when I was growing up. Instead, over the years I have seen evil slowly but surely take form as a new morality and today is spreading like a wild fire. We have been letting this happen for so long it has corrupted the thoughts and minds of new generations after generations to the point where todays children have no idea of the difference between right and wrong as the government has already taken over every aspect of our lives, even to the point of how we are to raise our children.

    Is it at all possible for we as a nation to do a total about face? Can we save this country from the destruction that evil has put it's foothold into so long ago? That my friend would be like reinstating prohibition, not only with alcohol but with everything that has passed through legislation in the last hundred years especially with the idea and widespread of socialism. It was an idea of a temporary fix during the depression years but unfortunately took it's ever gaining evil roots into our society just as censorship was abolished since the dawn of television and Playboy as these were turning points in our history toward the ends of a moral and just society. There was no single entity that did more damage to our society than Playboy and it's publisher as he was one of the most successful advocates of the liberal communist movement of the sixties, supporting those who would defy morality at every possible turn.

    But the issue was not so much about nudity since it has been an accepted art form for millennia. So of course it became considered somewhat acceptable until Hustler came along and fought against pornographic censorship all the way up to the U.S. Supreme Court and won. From then on every sort of evil as we knew it became accepted and is getting worse every day I live and breathe. And while all this acceptance was going on, becoming more opiates for the masses, it distracted many from the influx of communism, marxism, as well as the industrial media complex and the revolution that was and still is taking place today under that old guise called liberalism, just as we saw it raise Hitler to power as well as Mussolini, and the rise of communism.

    I had very high hopes in Sarah Palin and can only hope that Newt Gingrich has the qualities, fortitude, and ideals as Sarah and the Tea Party to reverse our course from this path of destruction we are on. However that remains to be seen with all the corruption even in the Republican part itself. I fear that it has already been decided in 2008 when Romney stepped down from the primaries that it would be his turn in the 2012 campaigns through the old boys club…

    Today, I can only have hope in one thing. My faith in the belief that Our Lord Jesus Christ WILL return soon as our society today, as it has been prophesied, IS likened to the days of Noah. How much worse can things become? The acceptance and legalization of NAMBLA?

    I am beginning to believe society has been poisoned to the point of no return. However sometime through people like you, I see a ray of hope. But to what end? What will happen if we do turn our society around? Liberalism will only rear it's ugly head once again. Why?

    Simply because people do not know their history and ARE domed to repeat it.

    Thank you again.

    • http://twitter.com/BDWatcher bdwatcher (@BDWatche

      Tonight I talked to my gf, my best friend in my life. Like you, I wonder if things can be turned around, for enough to have their eyes and minds opened to this oppressive society, system and future dictator we have before us. I told her I am tired, I talk to everyone I know, read all I can, online several hours many days, but alas, one of a hundred open their eyes and I see the fear of reality, the confusion and bewilderment.

      Our nation has become a nation of entitlement with hands out with the smiles of MINE. Little do they know they are being led down the path to slavery, whether physically or economically, but surely morally. The new generation know not what is responsibility, what is taught, learned even in school, news, lawyers socially, nothing is their fault, nothing. It surely must be another for their situation. Blame is thrown like rice at a wedding.

      We have been asleep for years, lulled and hypnotized by TV, give our futures to the politicians, voting by advertisements. It is our fault, our path we have walked to this point and allowed it to be. Dave, I pray, I watch, still learn, still talk, still worry and still fear of the future of our nation, our children our lives. I am older, fewer years left in front of me, yet, I wish to leave a world better than what I found, I only HOPE I can. I only HOPE WE can.

      My gf consoled me, smiled at me with her eyes. Looking at me, she says, "This is America, this can not happen here", but, we know.

      • http://www.facebook.com/profile.php?id=739030764 Dave Pavano

        BD,
        Let not your heart be troubled. Even though our governments are out of control, know that God has it all under control. All we can do is our best to inform this lost and dying world even though we struggle against so many odds, today we have the power of the internet to work through to continue to send our message to everyone world wide. The Bible points out that everyone will know. Years ago I wondered how that would be possible. And here we are with yet another prophesy fulfilled.
        Believe! :)

  • Don Purser

    An excellent post Mark. It brings to clarity something I have realized for a long time was wrong with our country and with our legal system. I know we are a nation of laws but when those laws cease to provide justice for all, something is wrong.

  • http://twitter.com/BDWatcher bdwatcher (@BDWatche

    Mark, this is one of the best writings I have read of yours. You put in to words what are jumbled images in my mind.

  • CharlaStar

    Bastiat said, “Government is the great fiction, through which everybody endeavors to live at the expense of everybody else.” The welfare state promotes this fiction. We can see the social democracies of the EU going down from too much debt. However, I suspect that the bankers of the NWO have engineered this. They are calling for EU countries to relinquish more of their autonomy and submit to more bureaucracy from a centralized government.

    Franklin D. Roosevelt who pushed socialism down the throats of the United States at a crucial and vulnerable time when the FED had taken our economy down noted, “In politics there are no accidents. If it happens you can bet it was planned that way.”

    Those who support the Constitution are today thought of as weird, antiquated and unelectable.

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