This is the shortest audiobook in my Audible library (it was originally published as a pamphlet in 1850), but it packs quite a punch, with me saving 23 bookmarks during the 126 minutes of audio. I listened to this immediately after Plato’s Republic, and it more than made up for the disappointment I felt from that work. So, how can The Law (Audible, Amazon) help us unite people?
Frederic Bastiat falls squarely in the classical liberalism camp. Building on John Locke‘s “life, liberty, and property”, Bastiat defined early in the book that law is “the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense” of that life, liberty, and property. If we agree each person has those rights, then it follows that government, which by definition has coercive power to enforce the law, would not be able to do anything an individual could not, excepting for terms of scale.
In that respect, any action by the government violating the life, liberty, and property of individuals (who have not infringed on the life, liberty, or property of others) is a perversion of the law. For clarity, let’s take a look at a partial list of government functions under Bastiat’s version of the law. These are not all mentioned in the book, but are drawn from its principles.
Some things government CAN do:
- Protect its citizens from physical harm done by other individuals
- Create and run a judicial branch
- Punish those found guilty of harming its citizens
- Protect its citizens from involuntary servitude
- Protect the right to free speech
- Protect freedom of choice as long as it does not infringe on the rights of others
- Punish those found violating the liberty of an individual or group
- Protect the country from invasion
- Protect individual property from seizure
- Punish theft
- Adjudicate contract disputes
- Collect funding for the above functions
Some things government CANNOT do:
- Order killing for territorial gain or preemptive reasons
- Compel citizens to fight (and potentially die) via the draft
- Censor ideas in any form
- Force one individual to help another
- Deny an individual the ability to buy/sell a product
- Force a redistribution of wealth
- Seize property for the “public good” (even if compensating the owner)
- Own property not necessary to carry out the functions from the first list
- Use taxpayer money or deficit spending to support a failing business
- Mandate a certification or license to practice a profession
Right now, the libertarians among you are nodding in agreement, while the rest are unhappy to a varying degree. My goal, as always, is to show how certain ideas can help unite us, but only if they are the best options for you and those you love. Libertarians generally do a good job of explaining all the parts of government that need to go, but a very poor job of saying what the (in the United States) 22 million public sector employees and 52 million people receiving government assistance are going to do that will end up making their lives better, not worse. Yeah yeah, the free market will provide, but that is a very amorphous concept compared to actual money currently going in their pockets.
As a side note, Bastiat makes an interesting point about the right to vote. When he was writing, in mid-19th century France, black men had regained the right to vote, but women of all races were almost a century away from winning that right. His point, however, is that the right to vote is incomparably more important when government violates his definition of the law than when it remains within the definition. People want the right to vote so that they can elect people to pass policies that will benefit them (often at the expense of others). Try to imagine a government that acted solely as a defender of the life, liberty, and property of its citizens. The vote in that case is just a check on government power so it does not move beyond those specified limits. There is no incentive to vote for a candidate who promises to take money from others and give it to you, slap tariffs on your competitors, pass subsidies for your industry, or outlaw people who you don’t like, because none of those things are functions of this government. That said, I hope we agree that universal suffrage for non-imprisoned adults is a good thing, because it allows people to have a say in something that affects them. Moving on…
A major point Bastiat covers is the rise of legal plunder. Whereas the law originated as protection from illegal plunder (attack, enslavement, theft, etc.), that same coercive power of the government can be turned into a means for legalized plunder once the law steps outside Bastiat’s boundaries. It is an interesting use of words, as one realizes that taxation to cover the essential functions of government is necessary, but taxation to support government beyond those functions is legalized plunder. Citizens are required under threat of force to pay a percentage of their legal property for programs they may not wish to support. I’ll give some examples from across the political spectrum in hopes that all of you are annoyed by at least some of these uses of money forcibly taken from you:
- 98% of Americans paying for farm subsidies so the 2% who are farmers can have an advantage against international farmers, keep prices of your food higher, and hurt competition within the country.
- Subsidies to various fossil fuel companies, making them more competitive than they would otherwise be versus renewable energy sources and giving workers in those industries an incentive to stay put instead of finding a job in an expanding industry.
- 1% of Americans paying half of annual income taxes while 45% of Americans pay no income tax.
- Military spending is 54% of federal discretionary spending and about 16% of the annual federal budget, meaning that each American (including children) “pays” about $1,900 per year to support the military.
- About 39% of the federal budget ($1.5 trillion) pays for social security and medicare, with fewer and fewer workers having to pay for more and more recipients (Though note, in fairness, the pay structure for social security means that the current recipients paid for the benefits they are now receiving, but those paying now are not guaranteed benefits in the future).
One could point out how, perhaps not every program aligns with your views, but it is a give and take. Furthermore, since our elected representatives created these programs, we in some way agreed to this “legalized plunder”. An even better point is, for those of us living in a democracy, if enough of us vote for representatives who will do away with these programs, it will happen, no matter how entrenched the old way is. Those of you who protest, “But the DNC rigged the primaries!” or “Russian fake news convinced some people to vote for Trump!” or “Obama only won because he promised people free stuff!” all miss the point that, to reference a Dan Carlin analogy, entrenched powers putting their thumb on the scale only matters in close elections. Democracy is not dead, and your vote, when pooled with enough votes from others, matters as much as ever.
Enforcing fraternity will destroy liberty. Can one even call it fraternity when it is being forced? Surely, charity is no longer charity when it is done under the threat of force. People who believe in limiting the law to protection of life, liberty, and property are not anti-association or anti-society. They are only in opposition to forced association. Bastiat wrote that justice is an innate condition. It is injustice that is active. “The purpose of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning.” If we can protect and punish unjust acts, what remains is justice.
There is a large portion of The Law dedicated to refuting the (then infant) ideas of socialism. I am going to save most of that discussion for a dedicated socialism post, but it is interesting to note how we the people are seen as nothing but clay for an omniscient socialist government to mold. We are supposedly right, wise, and powerful, yet must then relinquish all decision making, because we may not choose “correctly”. We must be protected from ourselves by patriarcal legislators who decide what is in our “best interests” or for “the common good”. Once the coercive power of government infringes of the rights of individuals, we tread on a slippery slope toward, “the inertness of mankind, the omnipotence of the law, and the infallibility of the legislator.”
My philosophy is “us versus them” does not exist, because there is no “them”. People talk about “the government” as if it were separate from “the people”, when in reality, government IS the people. It is an extension of our needs and desires. The government’s job is to protect our rights to life, liberty, and property. The more things we make government responsible for, the more things we will blame on government as it strains to perform functions it was never designed to do. Do farmers blame the government if it doesn’t rain enough? Do you blame your neighbor if the price of gas goes up? Do I call the power company when I run low on food? No, because none of those entities is responsible for what happened or how to fix it!
The expansion of government power pits people against each other. It creates the illusion of “us versus them”. As people jockey for the benefits of legal plunder, petition the coercive power of government to impede their competitors, and try to exclude people who don’t think like them, we become fragmented. True fraternity comes when we work together, because it benefits each of us to do so, not because we are compelled to: People engaging in voluntary interactions, with individuals giving and receiving at an agreed upon price. For people to voluntarily unite, they must retain their individual rights, working within the society because it benefits them best, while remaining free to leave at any time. The simplicity of the concept belies the complexity of its execution, but it remains a worthy goal.