At the prompting of a friend I have read Frederic Bastiat’s book titled “The Law”. This book was originally published in 1848 during the revolutions and upheavals that followed the fall of Napoleon, Louis XVIII and Louis Napoleon. At this time the only democratic models were ancient Greece, England, and the United States, which are referenced in passing but are generally ignored. The focus of this book is on socialism and communism and how these defeat the very intent of law and justice.
In general this book should be viewed as the very foundation of the Libertarian Movement. The basic premise is that the law exists solely to prevent injustice and to protect the life and property from others – especially the government in the form of legislators, a group of people whom he holds accountable for the perversion of government into a group of legal plunderers. However, the unspoken assumption throughout is that these legislators act in their own interest and not in the interest of those who elected them. In fact the idea that legislators are elected and that the government is not a democracy but a republic is largely ignored, although there are some off handed references to England and the United States, there is no recognition of the fact that the infringing laws he so abhors were the result of elected officials who can be turned out of office. There seems to be an assumption that the legislators are a separate class who act independently, which appears to be a residual recognition of the class-ism that continues to afflict Europe today. Nevertheless, this is a good book that makes some very compelling points regarding Socialism and Communism.
The primary focus of the book is on the individual and the right of the individual to enjoy the fruits of his labor unimpeded by the government or legislators who wish to redistribute his earnings to those who have less. Clearly this whole idea of wealth redistribution is wrong and just as clearly this is what the concept of proportional taxation is all about as well as the manifold social programs governments – including our own – seems bent on implementing. But the arguments against this plundering of the wealth of a few for the benefit of special interests fall short because they ignore some of the basic facts of human nature.
The underlying assumption in Bastiat’s position is that if people are left alone they will pursue productive employment, be prudent with their earnings, and live happily with their neighbors. However, this is the same underlying assumption that was made by Karl Marx. He assumed that people would pursue work for the sake of society as a whole. The difference between these two extremes is that the first retains private ownership and individual rights while the second rejects both of these. While it seems that these are diametrically opposed philosophies they both rely on unrealistic expectations regarding human nature. The fact is that some people are lazy, some are incapable of work, some have limited abilities, some are jealous or envious, and in general people are competitive and will act in what they think is their best interest, not the best interest of society as a whole. This was demonstrated by the total failure of Marxism in the communist countries and described in vivid detail in George Orwell’s book “Animal Farm.”
However, in spite of these flaws Bastiat makes a compelling case for individualism and limited government. The role of government should not be intrusive or intended to increase the power of the governors over the governed. Unfortunately the American society has tended since its inception to become more and more intrusive. In some cases this can be explained or at least justified as in the example of conscription during the Civil War. The same is true of the introduction of the (temporary) income tax to pay for WW I. But the reality is that the Federal Government has continued to increase its power over the governed to the point where the people are being taxed at a very high rate to pay for things desired by the government but not desired by the people. For example if a referendum were held today it is very unlikely the American people would vote to send money to the UN, or the PLO, or virtually every tin pot dictator around the world. But this is only the beginning of how the Federal Government has intruded on our lives. We are treated almost daily to examples of the government curtailing our free speech by establishing “hate crimes”, which are demonstrated by using words that are deemed politically incorrect and examples of “hate.” We are told that our children can celebrate Kwanzaa and Hanukah at school but not Christmas. We see the government curtailing property rights in order to protect some obscure bug. The government has created a Gestapo type organization—complete with police powers – in the form of the Environmental Protection Agency, which acts to protect things other than the citizens who support it. It is very unlikely that put to the vote that the American People would support or retain the EPA.
Bastiat calls all of these governmental ills – socialism – which to me is a misnomer but his point is valid. Government should be limited and without restraint the government becomes oppressive. It is probably time that the Constitution returns to our class rooms.