Bastiat’s “The Law” – Condensed

Freedom Juice – A glass a day keeps tyranny at bay

Edited by Freedom Juice

We hold from God the gift which, as far as we are concerned, contains all others, Life—physical, intellectual, and moral life.

But life cannot support itself. We have been entrusted with the care of supporting it, of developing it, and of perfecting it. To that end, we have been provided with a wonderful collection of faculties, and plunged into the midst of a variety of elements. It is by the application of our faculties to these elements, that we acquire property.

Personality, liberty, property—this is man.

It is of these three things that it may be said, that they are anterior and superior to all human legislation.

It is not because men have made laws, that personality, liberty, and property exist. It is because personality, liberty, and property exist beforehand, that men have made laws. What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

Every man has the right of defending his person, his liberty, and his property, since these are the three constituent or preserving elements of life; elements, each of which is rendered complete by the others, and cannot be understood without them. For what are our faculties, but the extension of our personality? and what is property, but an extension of our faculties?

If every man has the right of defending, even by force, his person, his liberty, and his property, a number of men have the right to combine together, to extend, to organize a common force, to provide regularly for this defense.

Collective right, then, has its principle, its reason for existing, its lawfulness, in individual right. Thus, as the force of an individual cannot lawfully touch the person, the liberty, or the property of another individual—for the same reason, the common force cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, the liberty, or the property of individuals or classes. For this perversion would be in contradiction to our premises. Who will dare say that force has been given to us, not to defend our rights, but to annihilate the equal rights of our brethren?

Man can only derive life and enjoyment from perpetual application of his faculties to objects, or from labor. This is the origin of property.

But yet he may live and enjoy, by seizing and appropriating the productions of the faculties of his fellow men. This is the origin of plunder.

Now, labor being in itself a pain, and man being naturally inclined to avoid pain, it follows, and history proves it, that wherever plunder is less burdensome than labor, it prevails; and neither religion nor morality can, in this case, prevent it from prevailing. When does plunder cease, then? When it becomes less burdensome and more dangerous than labor. It is very evident that the proper aim of law is to oppose the powerful obstacle of collective force to this fatal tendency; that all its measures should be in favor of property, and against plunder.

It would be impossible, therefore, to introduce a greater change and a greater evil than this—the conversion of the law into an instrument of plunder.

It would efface from everybody’s conscience the distinction between justice and injustice. No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree, but the safest way to make them respected is to make them respectable. When law and morality are in contradiction to each other, the citizen finds himself faced with the cruel alternative of either losing his moral sense, or of losing respect for the law—two evils of equal magnitude, between which it would be difficult to choose.

It is so much in the nature of law to support justice, that in the minds of the masses they are one and the same. If the fatal principle should come to be introduced, under pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law may take from one party in order to give to another, help itself to the wealth acquired by all the classes that it may increase that of one class, whether that of the agriculturists, the manufacturers, the ship owners, or artists and comedians; then certainly, in this case, there is no class which may not pretend, and with reason, to place its hand upon the law, which would not demand with fury its right of election and eligibility, and which would overturn society rather than not obtain it.

This plunder may be only an exceptional blemish in the legislation of a people, and in this case, the best thing that can be done is, without so many speeches and lamentations, to do away with it as soon as possible, notwithstanding the clamors of interested parties. But how is it to be distinguished? Very easily. See whether the law takes from some persons that which belongs to them, to give to others what does not belong to them. See whether the law performs, for the profit of one citizen, and, to the injury of others, and act which this citizen cannot perform without committing a crime. Abolish this law without delay; it is not merely an iniquity—it is a fertile source of iniquities, for it invites reprisals; and if you do not take care, the exceptional case will extend, multiply, and become systematic. No doubt the party benefited will exclaim loudly; he will assert his acquired rights. He will say that the State is bound to protect and encourage his industry; he will plead that it is a good thing for the State to be enriched, that it may spend the more, and thus shower down salaries upon the poor workmen. Take care not to listen to this sophistry, for it is just by the systematizing of these arguments that legal plunder becomes systematized.

And this is what has taken place. The delusion of the day is to enrich all classes at the expense of each other; it is to generalize plunder under pretense of organizing it. Now, legal plunder may be exercised in an infinite multitude of ways. Hence come an infinite multitude of plans for organization: tariffs, protection, perquisites, gratuities, encouragements, progressive taxation, gratuitous instruction, right to labor, right to profit, right to wages, right to assistance, right to instruments of labor, gratuity of credit, etc.

Partial plunder, universal plunder, absence of plunder, amongst these we have to make our choice. The law can only produce one of these results.

Absence of plunder is the principle of peace, order, stability, conciliation, and of good sense. Can anything more be required at the hands of the law? Can the law, whose necessary sanction is force, be reasonably employed upon anything beyond securing to every one his right? I defy anyone to remove it from this circle without perverting it, and consequently turning force against right. And as this is the most fatal, the most illogical social perversion which can possibly be imagined, it must be admitted that the true solution, so much sought after, of the social problem, is contained in these simple words—law is organized justice.

Now it is important to remark, that to organize justice by law, that is to say by force, excludes the idea of organizing by law, or by force any manifestation whatever of human activity—labor, charity, agriculture, commerce, industry, instruction, the fine arts, or religion; for any one of these organizations would inevitably destroy the essential organization. How, in fact, can we imagine force encroaching upon the liberty of citizens without infringing upon justice, and so acting against its proper aim?

Here I am encountering the most popular prejudice of our time. It is not considered enough that law should be just, it must be philanthropic. It is not sufficient that it should guarantee to every citizen the free and inoffensive exercise of his faculties, applied to his physical, intellectual, and moral development; it is required to extend well-being, instruction, and morality, directly over the nation.

These two missions of the law contradict each other. We have to choose between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free. He cannot be legally forced to do something without his liberty being legally destroyed, and justice legally trampled under foot. Legal plunder has two roots: one of them is in human egotism; the other is in false philanthropy.

Law is force, and consequently the domain of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the domain of force.

When law and force keep a man within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing upon him but a mere negation. They only oblige him to abstain from doing harm. They violate neither his personality, his liberty, nor his property. They only guard the personality, the liberty, the property of others. They hold themselves on the defensive; they defend the equal right of all. They fulfill a mission whose harmlessness is evident, who utility is palpable, and whose legitimacy is not to be disputed.

But when the law, through the medium of its necessary agent—force—imposes a form of labor, a method or a subject of instruction, creed, or a worship, it is no longer negative; it acts positively upon men. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own will, the initiative of the legislator for their own initiative. They have no need to consult, to compare, or to foresee; the law does all that for them. The intellect is for them a useless lumber; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their liberty, their property.

Endeavor to imagine a form of labor imposed by force, which is not a violation of liberty; a transmission of wealth imposed by force, which is not a violation of property. If you cannot succeed in reconciling this, you are bound to conclude that the law cannot organize labor and industry without organizing injustice.

What is law? What ought it to be? What is its domain? What are its limits? Where, in fact, does the prerogative of the legislator stop?

Law is common force organized to prevent injustice—in short, law is justice.

It is not true that the legislator has absolute power over our persons and property, since they pre-exist, and his work is only to secure them from injury.

It is not true that the mission of the law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our will, our education, our sentiments, our works, our exchanges, our gifts, our enjoyments. Its mission is to prevent the rights of one from interfering with those of another, in any one of these things.

Law, because it has force for its necessary sanction, can only have as its lawful domain the domain of force, which is justice.

And as every individual has a right to have recourse to force only in cases of lawful defense, so collective force, which is only the union of individual forces, cannot be rationally used to any other end.

The law, then, is solely the organization of individual rights, which existed before legitimate defense.

Law is justice.

And it is under the law of justice, under the reign of right, under the influence of liberty, security, stability, and responsibility, that every man will attain to the measure of his worth, to all the dignity of his being, and that mankind will accomplish, with order and with calmness—slowly, it is true, but with certainty—the progress decreed to it. I believe that my theory is correct; for whatever be the question upon which I am arguing, whether it be religious, philosophical, political, or economical; whether it affects well being, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, property, labor, exchange, capital, wages, taxes, population, credit, or government; at whatever point of the scientific horizon I start from, I invariably come to the same thing—the solution of the social problem is in liberty.

Excerpted from “The Law” by Frédéric Bastiat

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