The Law – Revisited
It just wouldn’t do to pretend to have enough credibility as a political participant or observer to update the great work penned by French statesman and economist Frederic Bastiat. Monsieur Bastiat’s best-known work, The Law, was published in 1850, written during and after the French Revolution of 1848. French society was turning to socialism, and M. Bastiat crafted an essay designed to halt the conversion.
His inspired effort failed, but almost every idea he highlights has been validated throughout history.
The book was required reading in a high school Problems of Democracy class, and again in a political science course at the University of Maryland. In an ironic twist, the professor who taught the poli-sci course two years before I enrolled was none other Parris Glendenning, who was then several years away from his two terms as Maryland’s governor.
Monsieur Bastiat’s basic premise is stunningly simple. Liberty’s greatest threat comes not from commerce, greed or wealth; it comes from the government itself and those who govern.
In spite of an increasing sense of disillusion with the national Republican Party, and an absolute sense of disgust over their rivals-in-chief in the Democratic Party, the concepts first illustrated in M. Bastiat’s seminal work continue to inform my view of a government best positioned to serve the people it purports to represent.
M. Bastiat theorizes that the fundamental problem is that people who run for and hold office see themselves in a role as a provider for the common good, as opposed to the more accurate role of minimalist caretaker.
The question has to be asked: Do you believe you are better prepared to make decisions for yourself and your family, or would you prefer those decisions are made for you by your government?
Context is important. There are a number of people who not only want the government to play a larger role in their general welfare, they need it. People who suffer from obstacles that preclude a fully developed ability to be responsible deserve a government compassionate enough to care for them. That humanity is what separates us from lesser forms of life, and reflects our Judeo-Christian founding and moral tradition.
It wasn’t those people that motivated Bastiat’s writing, nor are they my motivation.
In fact, it wasn’t really any of the desires of the population of a society that gave rise to Bastiat’s theories. It was, and is today, the idea that someone who runs for and holds office, referred to throughout The Law as legislators, would perceive themselves as omnipotent arbiters of what is fair and equitable for all that prompted Frederic Bastiat’s primal fear of being governed.
A direct quote from The Law: “Life, liberty, and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it was the fact that life, liberty, and property existed beforehand that caused men to makes laws in the first place.”
In M. Bastiat’s view, the government’s need to tax its citizen’s wealth to provide funding for programs to sustain the poor amounts to “plunder”. To him, a socialist is a pirate, and the taxation system is tantamount to thievery. He suggested that if the system were set up so that everything citizens contributed could be withdrawn over time to support those individuals’ needs, then it would be a fair and equitable form of paying for the services the population demands.
The current system reflects exactly what M. Bastiat feared most. The wealthiest and most successful would be expected to provide for the needs of the rest. Instead of celebrating achievement, the system of wealth redistribution would penalize success and award a lack of accomplishment.
When M. Bastiat lived and wrote, he saw a trend towards organized socialism. Today, the very principles he described are on full display, both in the platform of national political parties and in the halls of our state and federal governments.
The Law defines politicians and legislators as being prone to experiment, especially with the lives of those over which these politicians rule. M. Bastiat talks about the vile nature of this experimentation, fueled by the ego and narcissism of those in elected office.
It’s not just the Democrats, either. Republicans have been guilty of the behaviors M. Bastiat vilified. President George W. Bush redesigned public education in America through the “No Child Left Behind” act, a sweeping reform of education representing the most significant intrusion into local education system decision-making since the federal government first got involved. He also created the Medicare Part D prescription drug expansion, the largest increase in federal social spending in four decades.
One could even argue that some level of the Bush Doctrine, the foreign policy to commit U.S. armed forces against non-governmental enemies on foreign soil violates Bastiat’s theory that the law should protect only our basic safety to pursue our individual freedoms, and little or nothing else.
If George W. Bush’s policies represented a departure from the minimal governance model, then President Barack Obama’s first year in office constitutes the most significant departure in recorded history.
When he ran for office, President Obama laid out his vision. He saw himself as the embodiment of the common-good provider. A challenging economy afforded him the chance to describe income redistribution in terms that appeal to those in need while playing on the guilt of those who have.
The complexity of health care delivery and financing, multiplied many times over by restrictive government regulation, afforded then-candidate Obama the chance to vilify insurance companies for problems primarily created by bureaucrats and government regulation. Tell a person who either can’t afford it or has chosen not to purchase it that the government will “give” them a health plan, and you’ve converted them into a motivated voter.
Same thing with Wall Street, housing, the auto industry, and energy. The government and the legislators have created a century’s worth of restrictive regulation, each one designed to fix a specific problem or appeal to a certain special interest.
It’s quite possible that the arguments that led to the adoption of these individual laws had a pure intent and positive motivation. When the Congress wanted to help poor Americans purchase their own homes, it seemed like a noble undertaking. Freeing taxpayer-backed, quasi-federal lending agencies to make risky loans was less a concern than the prospective homeowners interests.
Laws that restricted the construction of electric power generation facilities, whether fossil fueled or nuclear, were motivated by legislators concerned for not-in-my-back-yard constituents and a passionate desire to maintain view sheds and vistas.
Fears of working in unsafe and unsanitary conditions for low pay drove the creation of the modern labor movement. Legislators who represented large populations of factory workers wanted a regulatory system that protected workers rights (and fueled organized labor political contributions).
So now it costs so much to buy an American-made auto that we have to artificially prop these companies up with billions of taxpayer investment. We don’t have nearly enough electric power to meet the demands of a technology-fueled society, and it would take years to navigate the regulatory maze to get power plants built. We all saw what happened when Fannie Mae and Freddie Mac failed, the consequence of legislators using their power to give something to those who could not otherwise afford it.
Frederic Bastiat had it right in 1848. Everything that is happening in America in 2010 validates the findings of his theory. We could be the embodiment of everything he holds dear. We could be a nation where law interferes least in people’s lives; where the free expression of opinion has the greatest influence; where individuals accept and practice personal responsibility; and where the law, in Frederic Bastiat’s own words, is “to be used for nothing except the administration of universal justice.”
It’s time to revisit The Law, if it’s not too late.