by Frederick Bastiat
When a reviewer wishes to give special recognition to a book, he
predicts that it will still be read "a hundred years from now."
The Law, first published as a pamphlet in June, 1850, is already more than
a hundred years old. And because its truths are eternal, it will still be
read when another century has passed.
Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) was a French economist, statesman, and
author. He did most of his writing during the years just before - and
immediately following -- the Revolution of February 1848. This was the
period when France was rapidly turning to complete socialism. As a Deputy
to the Legislative Assembly, Mr. Bastiat was studying and explaining each
socialist fallacy as it appeared. And he explained how socialism must
inevitably degenerate into communism. But most of his countrymen chose to
ignore his logic.
The Law is here presented again because the same situation exists in
America today as in the France of 1848. The same socialist-communist ideas
and plans that were then adopted in France are now sweeping America. The
explanations and arguments then advanced against socialism by Mr. Bastiat
are -- word for word -- equally valid today. His ideas deserve a serious
Translated by The
Foundation for Economic Education Permission to reprint granted
without special request.
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. This
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
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 maintain
the right of each, and to cause justice to reign over us all.
A Just and Enduring Government
If a nation were founded on this basis, it seems to me that order would
prevail among the people, in thought as well as in deed. It seems to me
that such a nation would have the most simple, easy to accept, economical,
limited, nonoppressive, just, and enduring government imaginable --
whatever its political form might be.
Under such an administration, everyone would understand that he
possessed all the privileges as well as all the responsibilities of his
existence. No one would have any argument with government, provided that
his person was respected, his labor was free, and the fruits of his labor
were protected against all unjust attack. When successful, we would not
have to thank the state for our success. And, conversely, when
unsuccessful, we would no more think of blaming the state for our
misfortune than would the farmers blame the state because of hail or
frost. The state would be felt only by the invaluable blessings of safety
provided by this concept of government.
It can be further stated that, thanks to the non- intervention of the
state in private affairs, our wants and their satisfactions would develop
themselves in a logical manner. We would not see poor families seeking
literary instruction before they have bread. We would not see cities
populated at the expense of rural districts, nor rural districts at the
expense of cities. We would not see the great displacements of capital,
labor, and population that are caused by legislative decisions.
The sources of our existence are made uncertain and precarious by these
state-created displacements. And, furthermore, these acts burden the
government with increased responsibilities.
The Complete Perversion of the Law
But, unfortunately, law by no means confines itself to its proper
functions. And when it has exceeded its proper functions, it has not done
so merely in some inconsequential and debatable matters. The law has gone
further than this; it has acted in direct opposition to its own purpose.
The law has been used to destroy its own objective: It has been applied to
annihilating the justice that it was supposed to maintain; to limiting and
destroying rights which its real purpose was to respect. The law has
placed the collective force at the disposal of the unscrupulous who wish,
without risk, to exploit the person, liberty, and property of others. It
has converted plunder into a right, in order to protect plunder. And it
has converted lawful defense into a crime, in order to punish lawful
How has this perversion of the law been accomplished? And what have
been the results?
The law has been perverted by the influence of two entirely different
causes: stupid greed and false philanthropy. Let us speak of the first.
A Fatal Tendency of Mankind
Self-preservation and self-development are common aspirations among all
people. And if everyone enjoyed the unrestricted use of his faculties and
the free disposition of the fruits of his labor, social progress would be
ceaseless, uninterrupted, and unfailing.
But there is also another tendency that is common among people. When
they can, they wish to live and prosper at the expense of others. This is
no rash accusation. Nor does it come from a gloomy and uncharitable
spirit. The annals of history bear witness to the truth of it: the
incessant wars, mass migrations, religious persecutions, universal
slavery, dishonesty in commerce, and monopolies. This fatal desire has its
origin in the very nature of man -- in that primitive, universal, and
insuppressible instinct that impels him to satisfy his desires with the
least possible pain.
Property and Plunder
Man can live and satisfy his wants only by ceaseless labor; by the
ceaseless application of his faculties to natural resources. This process
is the origin of property.
But it is also true that a man may live and satisfy his wants by
seizing and consuming the products of the labor of others. This process is
the origin of plunder.
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. And under
these conditions, neither religion nor morality can stop it.
When, then, does plunder stop? It stops when it becomes more painful
and more dangerous than labor.
It is evident, then, that the proper purpose of law is to use the power
of its collective force to stop this fatal tendency to plunder instead of
to work. All the measures of the law should protect property and punish
But, generally, the law is made by one man or one class of men. And
since law cannot operate without the sanction and support of a dominating
force, this force must be entrusted to those who make the laws.
This fact, combined with the fatal tendency that exists in the heart of
man to satisfy his wants with the least possible effort, explains the
almost universal perversion of the law. Thus it is easy to understand how
law, instead of checking injustice, becomes the invincible weapon of
injustice. It is easy to understand why the law is used by the legislator
to destroy in varying degrees among the rest of the people, their personal
independence by slavery, their liberty by oppression, and their property
by plunder. This is done for the benefit of the person who makes the law,
and in proportion to the power that he holds.
Victims of Lawful Plunder
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. According to their degree
of enlightenment, these plundered classes may propose one of two entirely
different purposes when they attempt to attain political power: Either
they may wish to stop lawful plunder, or they may wish to share in it.
Woe to the nation when this latter purpose prevails among the mass
victims of lawful plunder when they, in turn, seize the power to make
Until that happens, the few practice lawful plunder upon the many, a
common practice where the right to participate in the making of law is
limited to a few persons. But then, participation in the making of law
becomes universal. And then, men seek to balance their conflicting
interests by universal plunder. Instead of rooting out the injustices
found in society, they make these injustices general. As soon as the
plundered classes gain political power, they establish a system of
reprisals against other classes. They do not abolish legal plunder. (This
objective would demand more enlightenment than they possess.) Instead,
they emulate their evil predecessors by participating in this legal
plunder, even though it is against their own interests.
It is as if it were necessary, before a reign of justice appears, for
everyone to suffer a cruel retribution -- some for their evilness, and
some for their lack of understanding.
The Results of Legal Plunder
It is impossible to introduce into society a greater change and a
greater evil than this: the conversion of the law into an instrument of
What are the consequences of such a perversion? It would require
volumes to describe them all. Thus we must content ourselves with pointing
out the most striking.
In the first place, it erases from everyone's conscience the
distinction between justice and injustice.
No society can exist unless the laws are respected to a certain degree.
The safest way to make laws respected is to make them respectable. When
law and morality contradict each other, the citizen has the cruel
alternative of either losing his moral sense or losing his respect for the
law. These two evils are of equal consequence, and it would be difficult
for a person to choose between them. The nature of law is to maintain
justice. This is so much the case that, in the minds of the people, law
and justice are one and the same thing. There is in all of us a strong
disposition to believe that anything lawful is also legitimate. This
belief is so widespread that many persons have erroneously held that
things are "just" because law makes them so. Thus, in order to
make plunder appear just and sacred to many consciences, it is only
necessary for the law to decree and sanction it. Slavery, restrictions,
and monopoly find defenders not only among those who profit from them but
also among those who suffer from them.
The Fate of Non-Conformists
If you suggest a doubt as to the morality of these institutions, it is
boldly said that "You are a dangerous innovator, a utopian, a
theorist, a subversive; you would shatter the foundation upon which
If you lecture upon morality or upon political science, there will be
found official organizations petitioning the government in this vein of
thought: "That science no longer be taught exclusively from the point
of view of free trade (of liberty, of property, and of justice) as has
been the case until now, but also, in the future, science is to be
especially taught from the viewpoint of the facts and laws that regulate
French industry (facts and laws which are contrary to liberty, to
property, and to justice). That, in government-endowed teaching positions,
the professor rigorously refrain from endangering in the slightest degree
the respect due to the laws now in force."*
*General Council of Manufacturers, Agriculture, and Commerce, May
Thus, if there exists a law which sanctions slavery or monopoly,
oppression or robbery, in any form whatever, it must not even be
mentioned. For how can it be mentioned without damaging the respect which
it inspires? Still further, morality and political economy must be taught
from the point of view of this law; from the supposition that it must be a
just law merely because it is a law.
Another effect of this tragic perversion of the law is that it gives an
exaggerated importance to political passions and conflicts, and to
politics in general.
I could prove this assertion in a thousand ways. But, by way of
illustration, I shall limit myself to a subject that has lately occupied
the minds of everyone: universal suffrage.
Who Shall Judge?
The followers of Rousseau's school of thought -- who consider
themselves far advanced, but whom I consider twenty centuries behind the
times -- will not agree with me on this. But universal suffrage -- using
the word in its strictest sense -- is not one of those sacred dogmas which
it is a crime to examine or doubt. In fact, serious objections may be made
to universal suffrage.
In the first place, the word universal conceals a gross fallacy. For
example, there are 36 million people in France. Thus, to make the right of
suffrage universal, there should be 36 million voters. But the most
extended system permits only 9 million people to vote. Three persons out
of four are excluded. And more than this, they are excluded by the fourth.
This fourth person advances the principle of incapacity as his reason for
excluding the others.
Universal suffrage means, then, universal suffrage for those who are
capable. But there remains this question of fact: Who is capable? Are
minors, females, insane persons, and persons who have committed certain
major crimes the only ones to be determined incapable?
The Reason Why Voting Is Restricted
A closer examination of the subject shows us the motive which causes
the right of suffrage to be based upon the supposition of incapacity. The
motive is that the elector or voter does not exercise this right for
himself alone, but for everybody.
The most extended elective system and the most restricted elective
system are alike in this respect. They differ only in respect to what
constitutes incapacity. It is not a difference of principle, but merely a
difference of degree.
If, as the republicans of our present-day Greek and Roman schools of
thought pretend, the right of suffrage arrives with one's birth, it would
be an injustice for adults to prevent women and children from voting. Why
are they prevented? Because they are presumed to be incapable. And why is
incapacity a motive for exclusion? Because it is not the voter alone who
suffers the consequences of his vote; because each vote touches and
affects everyone in the entire community; because the people in the
community have a right to demand some safeguards concerning the acts upon
which their welfare and existence depend.
The Answer Is to Restrict the Law
I know what might be said in answer to this; what the objections might
be. But this is not the place to exhaust a controversy of this nature. I
wish merely to observe here that this controversy over universal suffrage
(as well as most other political questions) which agitates, excites, and
overthrows nations, would lose nearly all of its importance if the law had
always been what it ought to be.
In fact, if law were restricted to protecting all persons, all
liberties, and all properties; if law were nothing more than the organized
combination of the individual's right to self defense; if law were the
obstacle, the check, the punisher of all oppression and plunder -- is it
likely that we citizens would then argue much about the extent of the
Under these circumstances, is it likely that the extent of the right to
vote would endanger that supreme good, the public peace? Is it likely that
the excluded classes would refuse to peaceably await the coming of their
right to vote? Is it likely that those who had the right to vote would
jealously defend their privilege?
If the law were confined to its proper functions, everyone's interest
in the law would be the same. Is it not clear that, under these
circumstances, those who voted could not inconvenience those who did not
The Fatal Idea of Legal Plunder
But on the other hand, imagine that this fatal principle has been
introduced: Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or
encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to
another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few -- whether
farmers, manufacturers, shipowners, artists, or comedians. Under these
circumstances, then certainly every class will aspire to grasp the law,
and logically so.
The excluded classes will furiously demand their right to vote -- and
will overthrow society rather than not to obtain it. Even beggars and
vagabonds will then prove to you that they also have an incontestable
title to vote. They will say to you:
"We cannot buy wine, tobacco, or salt without paying the tax. And
a part of the tax that we pay is given by law -- in privileges and
subsidies -- to men who are richer than we are. Others use the law to
raise the prices of bread, meat, iron, or cloth. Thus, since everyone else
uses the law for his own profit, we also would like to use the law for our
own profit. We demand from the law the right to relief, which is the poor
man's plunder. To obtain this right, we also should be voters and
legislators in order that we may organize Beggary on a grand scale for our
own class, as you have organized Protection on a grand scale for your
class. Now don't tell us beggars that you will act for us, and then toss
us, as Mr. Mimerel proposes, 600,000 francs to keep us quiet, like
throwing us a bone to gnaw. We have other claims. And anyway, we wish to
bargain for ourselves as other classes have bargained for
And what can you say to answer that argument!
Perverted Law Causes Conflict
As long as it is admitted that the law may be diverted from its true
purpose -- that it may violate property instead of protecting it -- then
everyone will want to participate in making the law, either to protect
himself against plunder or to use it for plunder. Political questions will
always be prejudicial, dominant, and all-absorbing. There will be fighting
at the door of the Legislative Palace, and the struggle within will be no
less furious. To know this, it is hardly necessary to examine what
transpires in the French and English legislatures; merely to understand
the issue is to know the answer.
Is there any need to offer proof that this odious perversion of the law
is a perpetual source of hatred and discord; that it tends to destroy
society itself? If such proof is needed, look at the United States [in
1850]. There is no country in the world where the law is kept more within
its proper domain: the protection of every person's liberty and property.
As a consequence of this, there appears to be no country in the world
where the social order rests on a firmer foundation. But even in the
United States, there are two issues -- and only two -- that have always
endangered the public peace.
Slavery and Tariffs Are Plunder
What are these two issues? They are slavery and tariffs. These are the
only two issues where, contrary to the general spirit of the republic of
the United States, law has assumed the character of plunder.
Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a
violation, by law, of property.
Its is a most remarkable fact that this double legal crime - a
sorrowful inheritance of the Old World - should be the only issue which
can, and perhaps will, lead to the ruin of the Union. It is indeed
impossible to imagine, at the very heart of a society, a more astounding
fact than this: The law has come to be an instrument of injustice. And if
this fact brings terrible consequences to the United States - where only
in the instance of slavery and tariffs - what must be the consequences in
Europe, where the perversion of law is a principle; a system?
Two Kinds of Plunder
Mr. de Montalembert [politician and writer] adopting the thought
contained in a famous proclamation by Mr. Carlier, has said: "We must
make war against socialism." According to the definition of socialism
advanced by Mr. Charles Dupin, he meant: "We must make war against
But of what plunder was he speaking? For there are two kinds of
plunder: legal and illegal.
I do not think that illegal plunder, such as theft or swindling --
which the penal code defines, anticipates, and punishes -- can be called
socialism. It is not this kind of plunder that systematically threatens
the foundations of society. Anyway, the war against this kind of plunder
has not waited for the command of these gentlemen. The war against illegal
plunder has been fought since the beginning of the world. Long before the
Revolution of February 1848 -- long before the appearance even of
socialism itself -- France had provided police, judges, gendarmes,
prisons, dungeons, and scaffolds for the purpose of fighting illegal
plunder. The law itself conducts this war, and it is my wish and opinion
that the law should always maintain this attitude toward plunder.
The Law Defends Plunder
But it does not always do this. Sometimes the law defends plunder and
participates in it. Thus the beneficiaries are spared the shame, danger,
and scruple which their acts would otherwise involve. Sometimes the law
places the whole apparatus of judges, police, prisons, and gendarmes at
the service of the plunderers, and treats the victim -- when he defends
himself -- as a criminal. In short, there is a legal plunder, and it is of
this, no doubt, that Mr. de Montalembert speaks.
This legal plunder may be only an isolated stain among the legislative
measures of the people. If so, it is best to wipe it out with a minimum of
speeches and denunciations -- and in spite of the uproar of the vested
How to Identify Legal Plunder
But how is this legal plunder to be identified? Quite simply. See if
the law takes from some persons what belongs to them, and gives it to
other persons to whom it does not belong. See if the law benefits one
citizen at the expense of another by doing what the citizen himself cannot
do without committing a crime.
Then abolish this law without delay, for it is not only an evil itself,
but also it is a fertile source for further evils because it invites
reprisals. If such a law -- which may be an isolated case -- is not
abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a
The person who profits from this law will complain bitterly, defending
his acquired rights. He will claim that the state is obligated to protect
and encourage his particular industry; that this procedure enriches the
state because the protected industry is thus able to spend more and to pay
higher wages to the poor workingmen.
Do not listen to this sophistry by vested interests. The acceptance of
these arguments will build legal plunder into a whole system. In fact,
this has already occurred. The present-day delusion is an attempt to
enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else; to make plunder universal
under the pretense of organizing it.
Legal Plunder Has Many Names
Now, legal plunder can be committed in an infinite number of ways. Thus
we have an infinite number of plans for organizing it: tariffs,
protection, benefits, subsidies, encouragements, progressive taxation,
public schools, guaranteed jobs, guaranteed profits, minimum wages, a
right to relief, a right to the tools of labor, free credit, and so on,
and so on. All these plans as a whole --with their common aim of legal
plunder -- constitute socialism.
Now, since under this definition socialism is a body of doctrine, what
attack can be made against it other than a war of doctrine? If you find
this socialistic doctrine to be false, absurd, and evil, then refute it.
And the more false, the more absurd, and the more evil it is, the easier
it will be to refute. Above all, if you wish to be strong, begin by
rooting out every particle of socialism that may have crept into your
legislation. This will be no light task.
Socialism Is Legal Plunder
Mr. de Montalembert has been accused of desiring to fight socialism by
the use of brute force. He ought to be exonerated from this accusation,
for he has plainly said: "The war that we must fight against
socialism must be in harmony with law, honor, and justice."
But why does not Mr. de Montalembert see that he has placed himself in
a vicious circle? You would use the law to oppose socialism? But it is
upon the law that socialism itself relies. Socialists desire to practice
legal plunder, not illegal plunder. Socialists, like all other
monopolists, desire to make the law their own weapon. And when once the
law is on the side of socialism, how can it be used against socialism? For
when plunder is abetted by the law, it does not fear your courts, your
gendarmes, and your prisons. Rather, it may call upon them for help.
To prevent this, you would exclude socialism from entering into the
making of laws? You would prevent socialists from entering the Legislative
Palace? You shall not succeed, I predict, so long as legal plunder
continues to be the main business of the legislature. It is illogical --
in fact, absurd -- to assume otherwise.
The Choice Before Us
This question of legal plunder must be settled once and for all, and
there are only three ways to settle it:
1. The few plunder the many.
2. Everybody plunders everybody.
3. Nobody plunders anybody.
We must make our choice among limited plunder, universal plunder, and
no plunder. The law can follow only one of these three.
Limited legal plunder: This system prevailed when the right to vote was
restricted. One would turn back to this system to prevent the invasion of
Universal legal plunder: We have been threatened with this system since
the franchise was made universal. The newly enfranchised majority has
decided to formulate law on the same principle of legal plunder that was
used by their predecessors when the vote was limited.
No legal plunder: This is the principle of justice, peace, order,
stability, harmony, and logic. Until the day of my death, I shall proclaim
this principle with all the force of my lungs (which alas! is all too
*Translator's note: At the time this was written, Mr. Bastiat
knew that he was dying of tuberculosis. Within a year, he was dead.
The Proper Function of the Law
And, in all sincerity, can anything more than the absence of plunder be
required of the law? Can the law -- which necessarily requires the use of
force -- rationally be used for anything except protecting the rights of
everyone? I defy anyone to extend it beyond this purpose without
perverting it and, consequently, turning might against right. This is the
most fatal and most illogical social perversion that can possibly be
imagined. It must be admitted that the true solution -- so long searched
for in the area of social relationships -- is contained in these simple
words: Law is organized justice.
Now this must be said: When justice is organized by law -- that is, by
force -- this excludes the idea of using law (force) to organize any human
activity whatever, whether it be labor, charity, agriculture, commerce,
industry, education, art, or religion. The organizing by law of any one of
these would inevitably destroy the essential organization -- justice. For
truly, how can we imagine force being used against the liberty of citizens
without it also being used against justice, and thus acting against its
The Seductive Lure of Socialism
Here I encounter the most popular fallacy of our times. It is not
considered sufficient that the law should be just; it must be
philanthropic. Nor is it sufficient that the law should guarantee to every
citizen the free and inoffensive use of his faculties for physical,
intellectual, and moral self-improvement. Instead, it is demanded that the
law should directly extend welfare, education, and morality throughout the
This is the seductive lure of socialism. And I repeat again: These two
uses of the law are in direct contradiction to each other. We must choose
between them. A citizen cannot at the same time be free and not free.
Enforced Fraternity Destroys Liberty
Mr. de Lamartine once wrote to me thusly: "Your doctrine is only
the half of my program. You have stopped at liberty; I go on to
fraternity." I answered him: "The second half of your program
will destroy the first."
In fact, it is impossible for me to separate the word fraternity from
the word voluntary. I cannot possibly understand how fraternity can be
legally enforced without liberty being legally destroyed, and thus justice
being legally trampled underfoot.
Legal plunder has two roots: One of them, as I have said before, is in
human greed; the other is in false philanthropy.
At this point, I think that I should explain exactly what I mean by the
*Translator's note: The French word used by Mr. Bastiat is
Plunder Violates Ownership
I do not, as is often done, use the word in any vague, uncertain,
approximate, or metaphorical sense. I use it in its scientific acceptance
-- as expressing the idea opposite to that of property [wages, land,
money, or whatever]. 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, and I add
that from the point of view of society and welfare, this aggression
against rights is even worse. In this case of legal plunder, however, the
person who receives the benefits is not responsible for the act of
plundering. The responsibility for this legal plunder rests with the law,
the legislator, and society itself. Therein lies the political danger.
It is to be regretted that the word plunder is offensive. I have tried
in vain to find an inoffensive word, for I would not at any time --
especially now -- wish to add an irritating word to our dissentions. Thus,
whether I am believed or not, I declare that I do not mean to attack the
intentions or the morality of anyone. Rather, I am attacking an idea which
I believe to be false; a system which appears to me to be unjust; an
injustice so independent of personal intentions that each of us profits
from it without wishing to do so, and suffers from it without knowing the
cause of the suffering.
Three Systems of Plunder
The sincerity of those who advocate protectionism, socialism, and
communism is not here questioned. Any writer who would do that must be
influenced by a political spirit or a political fear. It is to be pointed
out, however, that protectionism, socialism, and communism are basically
the same plant in three different stages of its growth. All that can be
said is that legal plunder is more visible in communism because it is
complete plunder; and in protectionism because the plunder is limited to
specific groups and industries.* Thus it follows that, of the three
systems, socialism is the vaguest, the most indecisive, and, consequently,
the most sincere stage of development.
*If the special privilege of government protection against
competition -- a monopoly -- were granted only to one group in France, the
iron workers, for instance, this act would so obviously be legal plunder
that it could not last for long. It is for this reason that we see all the
protected trades combined into a common cause. They even organize
themselves in such a manner as to appear to represent all persons who
labor. Instinctively, they feel that legal plunder is concealed by
But sincere or insincere, the intentions of persons are not here under
question. In fact, I have already said that legal plunder is based
partially on philanthropy, even though it is a false philanthropy.
With this explanation, let us examine the value -- the origin and the
tendency -- of this popular aspiration which claims to accomplish the
general welfare by general plunder.
Law Is Force
Since the law organizes justice, the socialists ask why the law should
not also organize labor, education, and religion.
Why should not law be used for these purposes? Because it could not
organize labor, education, and religion without destroying justice. We
must remember that law is force, and that, consequently, the proper
functions of the law cannot lawfully extend beyond the proper functions of
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 of these. They are defensive; they defend
equally the rights of all.
Law Is a Negative Concept
The harmlessness of the mission performed by law and lawful defense is
self-evident; the usefulness is obvious; and the legitimacy cannot be
As a friend of mine once remarked, this negative concept of law is so
true that the statement, the purpose of the law is to cause justice to
reign, is not a rigorously accurate statement. It ought to be stated that
the purpose of the law is to prevent injustice from reigning. In fact, it
is injustice, instead of justice, that has an existence of its own.
Justice is achieved only when injustice is absent.
But when the law, by means of its necessary agent, force, imposes upon
men a regulation of labor, a method or a subject of education, a religious
faith or creed -- then the law is no longer negative; it acts positively
upon people. It substitutes the will of the legislator for their own
wills; the initiative of the legislator for their own initiatives. When
this happens, the people no longer need to discuss, to compare, to plan
ahead; the law does all this for them. Intelligence becomes a useless prop
for the people; they cease to be men; they lose their personality, their
liberty, their property.
Try to imagine a regulation of labor imposed by force that is not a
violation of liberty; a transfer of wealth imposed by force that is not a
violation of property. If you cannot reconcile these contradictions, then
you must conclude that the law cannot organize labor and industry without
The Political Approach
When a politician views society from the seclusion of his office, he is
struck by the spectacle of the 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. Perhaps he should consider this proposition: Since all
persons seek well-being and perfection, would not a condition of justice
be sufficient to cause the greatest efforts toward progress, and the
greatest possible equality that is compatible with individual
responsibility? Would not this be in accord with the concept of individual
responsibility which God has willed in order that mankind may have the
choice between vice and virtue, and the resulting punishment and reward?
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. We have
seen that justice is a negative concept. Is there even one of these
positive legal actions that does not contain the principle of plunder?
The Law and Charity
You say: "There are persons who have no money," and you turn
to the law. But the law is not a breast that fills itself with milk. Nor
are the lacteal veins of the law supplied with milk from a source outside
the society. Nothing can enter the public treasury for the benefit of one
citizen or one class unless other citizens and other classes have been
forced to send it in. If every person draws from the treasury the amount
that he has put in it, it is true that the law then plunders nobody. But
this procedure does nothing for the persons who have no money. It does not
promote equality of income. The law can be an instrument of equalization
only as it takes from some persons and gives to other persons. When the
law does this, it is an instrument of plunder.
With this in mind, examine the protective tariffs, subsidies,
guaranteed profits, guaranteed jobs, relief and welfare schemes, public
education, progressive taxation, free credit, and public works. You will
find that they are always based on legal plunder, organized injustice.
The Law and Education
You say: "There are persons who lack education," and you turn
to the law. But the law is not, in itself, a torch of learning which
shines its light abroad. The law extends over a society where some persons
have knowledge and others do not; where some citizens need to learn, and
others can teach. In this matter of education, the law has only two
alternatives: It can permit this transaction of teaching - and - learning
to operate freely and without the use of force, or it can force human
wills in this matter by taking from some of them enough to pay the
teachers who are appointed by government to instruct others, without
charge. But in this second case, the law commits legal plunder by
violating liberty and property.
The Law and Morals
You say: "Here are persons who are lacking in morality or
religion," and you turn to the law. But law is force. And need I
point out what a violent and futile effort it is to use force in the
matters of morality and religion?
It would seem that socialists, however self-complacent, could not avoid
seeing this monstrous legal plunder that results from such systems and
such efforts. But what do the socialists do? They cleverly disguise this
legal plunder from others -- and even from themselves -- under the
seductive names of fraternity, unity, organization, and association.
Because we ask so little from the law -- only justice -- the socialists
thereby assume that we reject fraternity, unity, organization, and
association. The socialists brand us with the name individualist.
But we assure the socialists that we repudiate only forced
organization, not natural organization. We repudiate the forms of
association that are forced upon us, not free association. We repudiate
forced fraternity, not true fraternity. We repudiate the artificial unity
that does nothing more than deprive persons of individual responsibility.
We do not repudiate the natural unity of mankind under Providence.
A Confusion of Terms
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.
We disapprove of state education. Then the socialists say that we are
opposed to any education. We object to a state 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 Influence of Socialist Writers
How did politicians ever come to believe this weird idea that the law
could be made to produce what it does not contain -- the wealth, science,
and religion that, in a positive sense, constitute prosperity? Is it due
to the influence of our modern writers on public affairs?
Present-day writers -- especially those of the socialist school of
thought -- base their various theories upon one common hypothesis: They
divide mankind into two parts. People in general -- with the exception of
the writer himself -- from the first group. The writer, all alone, forms
the second and most important group. Surely this is the weirdest and most
conceited notion that ever entered a human brain!
In fact, these writers on public affairs begin by supposing that people
have within themselves no means of discernment; no motivation to action.
The writers assume that people are inert matter, passive particles,
motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own
manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being
shaped -- by the will and hand of another person -- into an infinite
variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected.
Moreover, not one of these writers on governmental affairs hesitates to
imagine that he himself -- under the title of organizer, discoverer,
legislator, or founder -- is this will and hand, this universal motivating
force, this creative power whose sublime mission is to mold these
scattered materials -- persons -- into a society.
These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the
gardener views his trees. Just as the gardener capriciously shapes the
trees into pyramids, parasols, cubes, vases, fans, and other forms, just
so does the socialist writer whimsically shape human beings into groups,
series, centers, sub-centers, honeycombs, labor corps, and other
variations. And just as the gardener needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and
shears to shape his trees, just so does the socialist writer need the
force that he can find only in law to shape human beings. For this
purpose, he devises tariff laws, tax laws, relief laws, and school laws.
The Socialists Wish to Play God
Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social
combinations. This is so true that, if by chance, the socialists have any
doubts about the success of these combinations, they will demand that a
small portion of mankind be set aside to experiment upon. The popular idea
of trying all systems is well known. And one socialist leader has been
known seriously to demand that the Constituent Assembly give him a small
district with all its inhabitants, to try his experiments upon.
In the same manner, an inventor makes a model before he constructs the
full-sized machine; the chemist wastes some chemicals -- the farmer wastes
some seeds and land -- to try out an idea.
But what a difference there is between the gardener and his trees,
between the inventor and his machine, between the chemist and his
elements, between the farmer and his seeds! And in all sincerity, the
socialist thinks that there is the same difference between him and
It is no wonder that the writers of the nineteenth century look upon
society as an artificial creation of the legislator's genius. This idea --
the fruit of classical education -- has taken possession of all the
intellectuals and famous writers of our country. To these intellectuals
and writers, the relationship between persons and the legislator appears
to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter.
Moreover, even where they have consented to recognize a principle of
action in the heart of man -- and a principle of discernment in man's
intellect -- they have considered these gifts from God to be fatal gifts.
They have thought that persons, under the impulse of these two gifts,
would fatally tend to ruin themselves. They assume that if the legislators
left persons free to follow their own inclinations, they would arrive at
atheism instead of religion, ignorance instead of knowledge, poverty
instead of production and exchange.
The Socialists Despise Mankind
According to these writers, it is indeed fortunate that Heaven has
bestowed upon certain men -- governors and legislators -- the exact
opposite inclinations, not only for their own sake but also for the sake
of the rest of the world! While mankind tends toward evil, the legislators
yearn for good; while mankind advances toward darkness, the legislators
aspire for enlightenment; while mankind is drawn toward vice, the
legislators are attracted toward virtue. Since they have decided that this
is the true state of affairs, they then demand the use of force in order
to substitute their own inclinations for those of the human race.
Open at random any book on philosophy, politics, or history, and you
will probably see how deeply rooted in our country is this idea -- the
child of classical studies, the mother of socialism. In all of them, you
will probably find this idea that mankind is merely inert matter,
receiving life, organization, morality, and prosperity from the power of
the state. And even worse, it will be stated that mankind tends toward
degeneration, and is stopped from this downward course only by the
mysterious hand of the legislator. Conventional classical thought
everywhere says that behind passive society there is a concealed power
called law or legislator (or called by some other terminology that
designates some unnamed person or persons of undisputed influence and
authority) which moves, controls, benefits, and improves mankind.
A Defense of Compulsory Labor
Let us first consider a quotation from Bossuet [tutor to the Dauphin in
the Court of Louis XIV]:*
"One of the things most strongly impressed (by whom?) upon
the minds of the Egyptians was patriotism.... No one was permitted to be
useless to the state. The law assigned to each one his work, which was
handed down from father to son. No one was permitted to have two
professions. Nor could a person change from one job to another.... But
there was one task to which all were forced to conform: the study of the
laws and of wisdom. Ignorance of religion and of the political regulations
of the country was not excused under any circumstances. Moreover, each
occupation was assigned (by whom?) to a certain district.... Among the
good laws, one of the best was that everyone was trained (by whom?) to
obey them. As a result of this, Egypt was filled with wonderful
inventions, and nothing was neglected that could make life easy and
*Translator's note: The parenthetical expressions and the
italicized words throughout this book were supplied by Mr. Bastiat. All
subheads and bracketed material were supplied by the translator.
Thus, according to Bossuet, persons derive nothing from themselves.
Patriotism, prosperity, inventions, husbandry, science -- all of these are
given to the people by the operation of the laws, the rulers. All that the
people have to do is to bow to leadership.
A Defense of Paternal Government
Bossuet carries this idea of the state as the source of all progress
even so far as to defend the Egyptians against the charge that they
rejected wrestling and music. He said:
"How is that possible? These arts were invented by
Trismegistus [who was alleged to have been Chancellor to the Egyptian god
And again among the Persians, Bossuet claims that all comes from above:
"One of the first responsibilities of the prince was to
encourage agriculture.... Just as there were offices established for the
regulation of armies, just so were there offices for the direction of farm
work.... The Persian people were inspired with an overwhelming respect for
And according to Bossuet, the Greek people, although exceedingly
intelligent, had no sense of personal responsibility; like dogs and
horses, they themselves could not have invented the most simple games:
"The Greeks, naturally intelligent and courageous, had been
early cultivated by the kings and settlers who had come from Egypt. From
these Egyptian rulers, the Greek people had learned bodily exercises, foot
races, and horse and chariot races.... But the best thing that the
Egyptians had taught the Greeks was to become docile, and to permit
themselves to be formed by the law for the public good."
The Idea of Passive Mankind
It cannot be disputed that these classical theories [advanced by these
latter-day teachers, writers, legislators, economists, and philosophers]
held that everything came to the people from a source outside themselves.
As another example, take Fenelon [archbishop, author, and instructor to
the Duke of Burgundy].
He was a witness to the power of Louis XIV. This, plus the fact that he
was nurtured in the classical studies and the admiration of antiquity,
naturally caused Fenelon to accept the idea that mankind should be
passive; that the misfortunes and the prosperity -- vices and virtues --
of people are caused by the external influence exercised upon them by the
law and the legislators. Thus, in his Utopia of Salentum, he puts men --
with all their interests, faculties, desires, and possessions -- under the
absolute discretion of the legislator. Whatever the issue may be, persons
do not decide it for themselves; the prince decides for them. The prince
is depicted as the soul of this shapeless mass of people who form the
nation. In the prince resides the thought, the foresight, all progress,
and the principle of all organization. Thus all responsibility rests with
The whole of the tenth book of Fenelon's Telemachus proves this. I
refer the reader to it, and content myself with quoting at random from
this celebrated work to which, in every other respect, I am the first to
Socialists Ignore Reason and Facts
With the amazing credulity which is typical of the classicists, Fenelon
ignores the authority of reason and facts when he attributes the general
happiness of the Egyptians, not to their own wisdom but to the wisdom of
"We could not turn our eyes to either shore without seeing
rich towns and country estates most agreeably located; fields, never
fallowed, covered with golden crops every year; meadows full of flocks;
workers bending under the weight of the fruit which the earth lavished
upon its cultivators; shepherds who made the echoes resound with the soft
notes from their pipes and flutes. "Happy," said Mentor,
"is the people governed by a wise king.". . ."
Later, Mentor desired that I observe the contentment and abundance
which covered all Egypt, where twenty-two thousand cities could be
counted. He admired the good police regulations in the cities; the justice
rendered in favor of the poor against the rich; the sound education of the
children in obedience, labor, sobriety, and the love of the arts and
letters; the exactness with which all religious ceremonies were performed;
the unselfishness, the high regard for honor, the faithfulness to men, and
the fear of the gods which every father taught his children. He never
stopped admiring the prosperity of the country. "Happy," said
he, "is the people ruled by a wise king in such a manner."
Socialists Want to Regiment People
Fenelon's idyll on Crete is even more alluring. Mentor is made to say:
"All that you see in this wonderful island results from the
laws of Minos. The education which he ordained for the children makes
their bodies strong and robust. From the very beginning, one accustoms the
children to a life of frugality and labor, because one assumes that all
pleasures of the senses weaken both body and mind. Thus one allows them no
pleasure except that of becoming invincible by virtue, and of acquiring
glory.... Here one punishes three vices that go unpunished among other
people: ingratitude, hypocrisy, and greed. There is no need to punish
persons for pomp and dissipation, for they are unknown in Crete.... No
costly furniture, no magnificent clothing, no delicious feasts, no gilded
palaces are permitted."
Thus does Mentor prepare his student to mold and to manipulate --
doubtless with the best of intentions -- the people of Ithaca. And to
convince the student of the wisdom of these ideas, Mentor recites to him
the example of Salentum.
It is from this sort of philosophy that we receive our first political
ideas! We are taught to treat persons much as an instructor in agriculture
teaches farmers to prepare and tend the soil.
A Famous Name and an Evil Idea