Excerpts from The Law

Frederic Bastiat, 1801-1850

Reprinted with permission from The Foundation for Economic Education, Irvington-on-Hudson, NY, 10533  (800) 960-4333


The law perverted!  And the police powers of the state perverted along with it!  The law, I say, not only turned from its proper purpose but made to follow an entirely contrary purpose!  The law become the weapon of every kind of greed!  Instead of checking crime, the law itself guilty of the evils it is supposed to punish!

If this is true, it is a serious fact, and moral duty requires me to call the attention of my fellow-citizens to it.

Life is a Gift from God

We hold from God the gift which includes all others.  This gift is life – physical, intellectual, and moral life.

But life cannot maintain itself alone.  The Creator of life has entrusted us with the responsibility of preserving, developing, and perfecting it.  In order that we may accomplish this, He has provided us with a collection of marvelous faculties.  And He has put us in the midst of a variety of natural resources.  By the application of our faculties to these natural resources we convert them into products, and use them.  The process is necessary in order that life may run its appointed course.

Life, faculties, production – in other words, individuality, liberty, property – this is man.  And in spite of the cunning of artful political leaders, these three gifts from God precede all human legislation, and are superior to it.

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 make laws in the first place.

What Is Law?

What, then, is law?  It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.

Each of us has a natural right – from God – to defend his person, his liberty, and his property.  These are the three basic requirements of life, and the preservation of any one of them is completely dependent upon the preservation of the other two.  For what are our faculties but the extension of our individuality?  And what is property but an extension of our faculties?

If every person has the right to defend – even by force – his person, his liberty, and his property, then it follows that a group of men have the right to organize and support a common force to protect these rights constantly.  Thus the principle of collective right – its reason for existing, its lawfulness – is based on individual right.  And the common force that protects this collective right cannot logically have any other purpose or any other mission than that for which it acts as a substitute.  Thus, since an individual cannot lawfully use force against the person, liberty or property of another individual, then the common force – for the same reason – cannot lawfully be used to destroy the person, liberty or property of individuals or groups.

Such a perversion of force would be, in both cases, contrary to our premise.  Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights.  Who will dare to say that force has been given to us to destroy the equal rights of our brothers?  Since no individual acting separately can lawfully use force to destroy the rights of others, does it not logically follow that the same principle also applies to the common force that is nothing more than the organized combination of the individual forces?

If this is true, then nothing can be more evident than this:  The law is the organization of the natural right of lawful defense.  It is the substitution of a common force for individual forces.  And this common force is to do only what the individual forces have a natural and lawful right to do: to protect persons, liberties and properties; to main the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.

Justice Means Equal Rights

Law is justice.  And it would indeed be strange if law could properly be anything else!  Is not justice right?  Are not rights equal?  By what right does the law force me to conform to the social plans of Mr. Mimerel, Mr. de Melum, Mr. Thiers, or Mr. Louis Blanc?  If the law has a moral right to do this, why does it not, then, force these gentlemen to submit to my plans?  Is it logical to suppose that nature has not given me sufficient imagination to dream up utopia also?  Should the law choose one fantasy among many, and put the organized force of government at its service only?

Law is justice.  And let it not be said – as it continually is said – that under this concept, the law would be atheistic, individualistic, and heartless; that it would make mankind in its own image.  This is an absurd conclusion, worthy only of those worshipers of government who believe that law is mankind.

Nonsense!  Do these worshipers of government believe that free persons cease to act?  Does it follow that if we receive no energy from the law, we shall receive no energy at all?   Does it follow that if the law is restricted to the function of protecting the free use of our faculties, we will be unable to use our faculties?   Suppose that the law does not force us to follow certain forms of religion, or systems of association, or methods of education, or regulations of labor, or regulations of trade, or plans for charity; does it then follow that we shall eagerly plunge into atheism, hermitary, ignorance, misery and greed?  If we are free, does it follow that we shall no longer recognize the power and goodness of God?   Does it follow that we shall then cease to associate with each other, to help each other, to love and succor our unfortunate brothers, to study the secrets of nature, and to strive to improve ourselves to the best of our abilities?

The Path to Dignity and Progress

Law is Justice.  And it is under the law of justice – under the reign of right; under the influence of liberty, safety, stability, and responsibility – that every person will attain his real worth and the true dignity of his being.   It is only under this law of justice that mankind will achieve slowly, no doubt, but certainly – God’s design for the orderly and peaceful progress of humanity.

It seems to me that this is theoretically right, for whatever the question under discussion – whether religious, philosophical, political or economic; whether it concerns prosperity, morality, equality, right, justice, progress, responsibility, cooperation, property, labor, trade, capital wages, taxes, population, finance or government – at whatever point on the scientific horizon I begin my researches, I invariably reach this one conclusion:  The solution to the problems in human relationships is to be found in liberty.

Proof of an Idea

And does not experience prove this?   Look at the entire world.  Which countries contain the most peaceful, the most moral, and the happiest people?  Those people are found in the countries where the law least interferes with private affairs; where government is least felt; where the individual has the greatest scope, and free opinion the greatest influence; where administrative powers are fewest and simplest; where taxes are lightest and most nearly equal, and popular discontent the least excited and the least justifiable;  where individuals and groups most actively assume their responsibilities, and consequently, where the morals of admittedly imperfect human beings are constantly improving; where trade, assemblies and associations are the least restricted; where labor, capital, and populations suffer the fewest forced displacements; where mankind most nearly follows its own natural inclinations; where the inventions of men are most nearly in harmony with the laws of God;  in short, the happiest, most moral, and most peaceful people are those who most nearly follow this principle:  Although mankind is not perfect, still, all hope rests upon the free and voluntary actions of persons within the limits of right; law or force is to be used for nothing except the administration of universal justice.

The Desire to Rule over Others

The must be said:  There are too many “great” men in the world – legislators, organizers, do-gooders, leaders of the people, fathers of nations, and so on, and so on.  Too many persons place themselves above mankind; they make a career of organizing it, patronizing it, and ruling it.

Now someone will say:  “You yourself are doing this very thing.”

True.  But it must be admitted that I act in an entirely different sense; if I have joined the ranks of the reformers, it is solely for the purpose of persuading them to leave people alone.  I do not look upon the people as Vancauson looked upon his automaton.  Rather just as the physiologist accepts the human body as it is, so do I accept people as they are.  I desire only to study and admire.

My attitude toward all other persons is well illustrated by this story from a celebrated traveler; He arrived one day in the midst of a tribe of savages, where a child had just been born.  A crowd of soothsayers, magicians and quacks – armed with rings, hooks and cords – surrounded it.   One said: “This child will never smell the perfume of a peace-pipe unless I stretch his nostrils.”  Another said: “He will never be able to hear unless I draw his ear-lobes down to his shoulders.”  A third said:  “He will never see the sunshine unless I slant his eyes.”  Another said:  “He will never stand upright unless I bend his legs.”  A fifth said:   “He will never learn to think unless I flatten his skull.”

“Stop,” cried the traveler.  “What God does is well done.  Do not claim to know more than He.  God has given organs to this frail creature; let them develop and grow strong by exercise, use, experience and liberty.”

Let Us Now Try Liberty

God has given to men all that is necessary for them to accomplish their destinies.  He has provided a social form as well as a human form.  And these social organs of persons are so constituted that they will develop themselves harmoniously in the clean air of liberty.  Away then, with quacks and organizers!  Away with their rings, chains, hooks and pincers!  Away with their artificial systems!  Away with the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their restrictions, their equalization by taxation, and their pious moralizations!

And now that the legislators and do-gooders have so futilely inflicted so many systems upon society, may they finally end where they should have begun:  May they reject all systems, and try liberty; for liberty is an acknowledgment of faith in God and His works.

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