Freedom, Laissez-faire and the State. By Frédéric Bastiat

Introduction by David Hart

(French translation here)

This paper contains two of the articles which Bastiat wrote for his revolutionary magazine Jacques Bonhomme in the week before the June Days shootings in Paris. As with all the articles he and his collaborators wrote in February and June they were designed to appeal to ordinary workers and to warn them of the dangers of socialism. They were short in length and could be read quickly on the street, where they were handed out to passers-by. Some were apparently designed to be printed separately and pasted on the walls of the street as so the curious could read them at any time of the day or night.

Two I have selected are interesting because of their hard-hitting content, the third because it is an early draft of Bastiat’s famous essay on “The State.” One is called “Laissez-faire” and is an appeal to the socialists to accord to economic matters the same freedom they want for voters and elected deputies in a democratic society. The other article is simply called “Freedom” and it lists all the smaller “freedoms” which together make up the classical liberal notion of “liberty”, namely freedom of discussion and conscience, freedom of teaching, freedom of the press, freedom to work, freedom of association, and finally (perhaps Bastiat’s favourite freedom) the freedom to trade.

“Freedom” (Jacques Bonhomme, 11-15 June 1848)

I have lived a long time, seen a great deal, observed much, compared and examined many things, and I have reached the following conclusion:

Our fathers were right to wish to be free, and we should also wish this.

It is not that freedom has no disadvantages, since everything has these. To use these disadvantages in argument against it is to say to a man trapped in the mire: Do not get out, as you cannot do this without some effort.

Thus, it is to be wished that there be just one faith in the world, provided that it is the true one. However, where is the infallible authority which will impose it on us? While waiting for it to manifest itself, let us maintain the freedom of discussion and conscience.

It would be fortunate if the best method of teaching were to be universally adopted. But who has it and on what authority? Let us therefore demand freedom of teaching.

We may be distressed to see writers delight in stirring up all forms of evil passion. However, to hobble the press is also to hobble truth as well as lies. Let us, therefore, take care never to allow the freedom of the press to die.

It is distressing that man should be reduced to earning his bread by the sweat of his brow. It would be better for the state to feed everyone, but this is impossible. Let us at least have the freedom to work.

By associating with one another, men can gain greater advantage from their strength. However, the forms of association are infinite; which is best? Let us not run the risk that the state imposes the worst of these on us; let us seek the right one by trial and error, and demand the freedom of association.

A people has two ways of procuring something. The first is to make it; the second is to make something else and trade it. It is certainly better to have the option than not to have it. Let us therefore demand the freedom to trade.

I am throwing myself into public debate; I am trying to get through to the crowd to preach all the freedoms, the total of which make up liberty.

“Laissez-faire” (Jacques Bonhomme, 11-15 June, 1848)

Laissez-faire! I will begin by saying, in order to avoid any ambiguity, that laissez-faire is used here for honest things, with the state instituted precisely to prevent dishonest things.

This having been said, and with regard to things that are innocent in themselves, such as work, trade, teaching, association, banking, etc., a choice must be made. It is necessary for the state to let things be done or prevent them from being done.

If it lets things be done, we will be free and optimally administered most economically, since nothing costs less than laissez-faire.

If it prevents things from being done, woe to our freedom and our purse. Woe to our freedom, since to prevent things is to tie our hands; woe to our purse, since to prevent things requires agents and to employ agents takes money.

In reply to this, socialists say: “Laissez-faire! What a disaster!” Why, if you please? “Because, when you leave men to act, they do wrong and act against their interests. It is right for the state to direct them.”

This is simply absurd. Do you seriously have such faith in human wisdom that you want universal suffrage and government of all by all and then you proclaim these very men whom you consider fit to govern others unfit to govern themselves?

“The State” (Jacques Bonhomme, 11-15 March 1848)

There are those who say “A financial man, such as Thiers, Fould, Goudchaux or Girardin, will get us out of this.”  I think they are mistaken.

“Who, then, will get us out of this?”

“When?”

“When it has learnt this lesson:  since the State has nothing it has not taken from the people, it cannot distribute largesse to the people.”

“The people know this, since they never cease to demand reductions in taxes.”

“That is true, but at the same time, they never cease to demand handouts of every kind from the State.

They want the State to found crèches, infant schools and free schools for our youth, national workshops for those that are older and retirement pensions for the elderly.

They want the State to go to war in Italy and Poland.

They want the State to found farming colonies.

They want the State to build railways.

They want the State to bring Algeria into cultivation.

They want the State to lend ten billion to land owners.

They want the State to supply capital to workers.

They want the State to replant the forests on mountains.

They want the State to build embankments along the rivers.

They want the State to make payments without receiving any.

They want the State to lay down the law in Europe.

They want the State to support agriculture.

They want the State to give subsidies to industry.

They want the State to protect trade.

They want the State to have a redoubtable army.

They want the State to have an impressive navy.

They want the State to …”

“Have you finished?”

“I could go on for another hour at least.”

“But what is the point you are trying to make?”

“This.  As long as the people want all of this, they will have to pay for it.  There is no financial man alive who can do something with nothing.”

Jacques Bonhomme is sponsoring a prize of fifty thousand francs to be given to anyone who provides a good definition of the word STATE, for he will be the savior of finance, industry, trade and work.

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