Frédéric Bastiat – The Law: Summary and Analysis

The Law, a work written by the French political philosopher and economist Frederic Bastiat in 1850, investigates what happens The Law - Bastiatin a society when the law becomes a weapon used by those in power to control and enslave the population.

What is the Purpose of Law?

Laws should be set to prevent certain actions which harm individuals and their property. It should not be used to compel or force people to act in a certain way.

“When law and force keep a person within the bounds of justice, they impose nothing but a mere negation. They oblige him only to abstain from harming others. They violate neither his personality, his liberty, nor his property. They safeguard all these. . . But when the law, by means of its necessary agent ,force, imposes upon men a regulation of labour, a method or a subject of education, a religious faith or creed — then the law is no longer negative; it acts positively upon people.” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

Since individuals are not allowed to force individuals to behave in certain ways, groups of individuals (governments, organizations, corporations) also should not be allowed by law to force individuals to act in certain ways.

“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?” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

“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 maintain the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over all.” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

Legalized Plunder: The Dangers that Occur when those in Power use the Law as a Weapon
of Force

“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!” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

One of the main ways in which those in power use the law as a weapon of force is through ‘legalized plunder’. One of the most accepted and prevalent forms of legalized plunder is taxation.

“When a portion of wealth is transferred from the person who owns it – without his consent and without compensation, and whether by force or by fraud – to anyone who does not own it, then I say that property is violated; that an act of plunder is committed. I say that this act is exactly what the law is supposed to suppress, always and everywhere. When the law itself commits this act that it is supposed to suppress, I say that plunder is still committed. . .” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

“. . .when the plunder is abetted by the law, it does not fear your courts, your gendarmes [police], and your prisons. Rather, it may call upon them for help.” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

The Spread of Legalized Plunder

Legalized plunder has been so prevalent throughout history because often groups who are initially the victim of legalized plunder try to gain power not to put an end to it, but so they can use the law to take the property of others.

“Men naturally rebel against the injustice of which they are victims. Thus, when plunder is organized by law for the profit of those who make the law, all the plundered classes try somehow to enter – by peaceful or revolutionary means – into the making of laws.” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

Greed: Reason #1 Why do those in Power use the Law to take the property of others (perform legalized plunder)

Bastiat believed that many in power use the law to commit “legalized plunder” because of pure greed. It is easier to take wealth from others instead of working to gain wealth.

“Now since man is naturally inclined to avoid pain – and since labor is pain in itself – it follows that men will resort to plunder whenever plunder is easier than work. History shows this quite clearly.” (Bastiat)

False Philanthropy: Reason #2 Why do those in Power use the Law to take the property of others

Some use the law to engage in ‘legalized plunder’ not for selfish reasons but because they believe by taking wealth and property from others they’ll be able to help those in need.

“When a politician views society from the seclusion of his office he is struck by the spectacle of inequality that he sees. He deplores the deprivations, which are the lot of so many of our brothers, deprivations, which appear to be even sadder when contrasted with luxury and wealth. Perhaps the politician should ask himself whether this state of affairs has not been caused by old conquests and lootings, and by more recent legal plunder. . . But the politician never gives this a thought. His mind turns to organizations, combinations, and arrangements – legal or apparently legal. He attempts to remedy the evil by increasing and perpetuating the very thing that caused the evil in the first place: legal plunder.” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

Bastiat believed that philanthropy could be achieved by a society without the use of legalized plunder. In other words, just because he was against legalized plunder to help those in need, did not mean he was against helping those in need.

“Socialism, like the ancient ideas from which it springs, confuses the distinction between government and society. As a result of this, every time we object to a thing being done by government, the socialists conclude that we object to its being done at all.” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

“We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are opposed to any education. We object to a state of religion. Then the socialists say that we want no religion at all. We object to a state-enforced equality. Then they say that we are against equality. And so on, and so on. It is as if the socialists were to accuse us of not wanting persons to eat because we do not want the state to raise grain.” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

Would a society that didn’t engage in legalized plunder (taxation) help others through voluntary means?

Bastiat suggested that the belief that only governments are capable of providing certain services arises from a perverse view of humanity – a view which maintains that free individuals lack the compassion, concern, and capability to help those in need.

“If the natural tendencies of mankind are so bad that it is not safe to permit people to be free, how is it that the tendencies of these organizers are always good?” (The Law, Frederick Bastiat)

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