Economic Harmonies: Chapter One Review – Hegemony and Spontaneity

By Scott Albright

Today, our political leaders believe that the excesses of self-interest lead to gross inequalities and that liberty must be restricted due to the inherent inequalities resulting from self-interest, unfettered market forces, and the nature of economic progress. These inequality hucksters seem to mostly believe that man’s self-interest is inherently antagonistic with the general interests of society.

The wrongheaded nature of this attempt to facilitate a kind of equality of outcomes, in which man’s self-interest will be restricted so that there is justice or equality, is a belief that man is like clay, to be molded by his impartial benevolent political leaders for the betterment of society.

Excerpts that Bastiat quotes from the Social Contract shows the gross inconsistency in Rousseau’s reasoning.

“We should have gods to give laws to men….. He who dares to institute a society must feel himself capable, so to speak, of changing human nature itself…. of altering man’s essential constitution, so that he may strengthen it. …. The lawgiver is, in every respect, an extraordinary man in the state.”

Bastiat soon follows up with his classic witty rebuttal, “And what, then, is mankind in all this? The mere raw material out of which the machine is constructed.” [1]

Rousseau was double-minded to think that since men are like beasts, they need to be tamed by a superior, selfless and impartial lawgiver while simultaneously believing that these lawgivers were worlds above the sentience, trust and intellectual development of the laymen. Some things never change!

“…We must nonetheless recognize that the social order is composed of elements that are endowed with intelligence, morality, free will, and perfectibility. If you deprive them of liberty, you have nothing left but a crude and sorry piece of machinery. … Yet, for myself, I say: Whoever rejects liberty has no faith in mankind.” [2]

Bastiat’s description of the cabinet maker in chapter one shows how he is able to obtain the satisfactions he has because of a plethora of talents and skills other than what he himself possesses. Everything from his bread and clothing to the officers of the law who protect him-all of these trades and skills that he utilizes of others in society come at costly sums of schooling/training. The division of labor that Bastiat so eloquently describes shows how society’s needs are harmoniously satisfied when we serve each other much more productively through social cooperation and voluntary exchange so that we don’t have to produce all that we consume.

Upcoming chapter summaries will show that Bastiat was one of the classical economists who started to embrace subjective value theory, along with his cogent description of the harmony in capital: that as it accumulates in society, it’s share in returns to employees, both in their capacity as workers and consumers, “tends to increase both in total amount and percentage wise. The share going to the owners of the capital tends to increase in total amount but to decrease percentage wise.” [3]Also, the notions of income and wealth inequality are lopsided and are exposed throughout the rest of the book.

[1] Bastiat, Frederic. Economic Harmonies, p. 14, The Foundation for Economic Education, 1996

[2] Ibid, p. 18

[3] Ibid, p.xii

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