Frederic Bastiat Essay The Law

1801 - 1850


Historical Period:
The 19th Century


Frédéric Bastiat (1801-1850) was one of the leading advocates of free markets and free trade in the mid-19 century. He was inspired by the activities of Richard Cobden and the organization of the Anti-Corn Law League in Britain in the 1840s and tried to mimic their success in France. Bastiat was an elected member of various French political bodies and opposed both protection and the rise of socialist ideas in these forums. His writings for a broader audience were very popular and were quickly translated and republished in the U.S. and throughout Europe. His incomplete magnum opus, Economic Harmonies, is full of insights into the operation of the market and is still of great interest to economists. He died at a young age from cancer of the throat. [The image comes from “The Warren J. Samuels Portrait Collection at Duke University.”]

See the Liberty Matters online discussion of Bastiat and Political Economy.

For additional information about Frédéric Bastiat see the following:

For tables of contents of Bastiat’s Works:

See the Timeline of the Life and Work of Frédéric Bastiat:


  • Author: The Best of Bastiat
  • Author: The Best of Bastiat 1.1: A Life in Letters
  • Author: The Best of Bastiat 1.2: Bastiat the Revolutionary Part 1
  • Author: The Best of Bastiat1.3: Bastiat the Revolutionary Part 2
  • Author: The Best of Bastiat 2.1: The State
  • Author: The Best of Bastiat 2.2: Property Plunder
  • Author: The Best of Bastiat 2.3: The Law
  • Author: The Best of Bastiat 3.1: Petition of the Manufacturers of Candles
  • Author: The Best of Bastiat 3.2: The Broken Window
  • Author: The Best of Bastiat 3.3: The Utopian
  • Author: Armonias Economicas
  • Author: The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat, in 6 Vols.
  • Author: The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 1: The Man and the Statesman: The Correspondence and Articles on Politics
  • Author: The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 2: The Law, The State, and Other Political Writings, 1843-1850
  • Author: Economic Harmonies (Boyers trans.)
  • Author: Economic Sophisms
  • Author: The Law
  • Author: Lettres d’un habitant des Landes
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 1st ed. 6 vols.
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 1st ed. vol 1 Correspondance. Mélanges
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 1st ed. vol. 2 Le libre-échange
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 1st ed. vol. 3 Cobden et la ligue
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 1st ed. vol. 4 Sophismes économiques. Petits pamphlets I
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 1st ed. vol. 5 Sophismes économiques. Petits pamphlets II
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 1st ed. vol. 6 Harmonies économiques
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 2nd ed. 7 vols.
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 2nd ed. vol. 1 Correspondance et mélanges
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 2nd ed. vol. 2 le Libre-Échange
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 2nd ed. vol. 3 Cobden et La Ligue
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 2nd ed. vol. 4 Sophismes Économiques. Petits pamphlets I
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 2nd ed. vol. 5: Sophismes économiques. Petits pamphlets II
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 2nd ed. vol. 6: Harmonies économiques
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 2nd ed. vol. 7 Essais, Ébauches, Correspondance
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 3rd ed. 7 vols
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 3rd ed. vol. 4 Sophismes économiques et Petits pamphlets I
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 3rd ed. vol. 5 Sophismes économiques et Petits pamphlets II
  • Author: Oeuvres complètes de Frédéric Bastiat, 3rd ed. vol. 6 Harmonies économiques
  • Author: Selected Essays on Political Economy
  • Author: The Collected Works of Frédéric Bastiat. Vol. 3: Economic Sophisms and “What is Seen and What is Not Seen”


View All People


by Walter E. Williams


I must have been forty years old before reading Frederic Bastiat's classic The Law. An anonymous person, to whom I shall eternally be in debt, mailed me an unsolicited copy. After reading the book I was convinced that a liberal-arts education without an encounter with Bastiat is incomplete. Reading Bastiat made me keenly aware of all the time wasted, along with the frustrations of going down one blind alley after another, organizing my philosophy of life. The Law did not produce a philosophical conversion for me as much as it created order in my thinking about liberty and just human conduct.


Many philosophers have made important contributions to the discourse on liberty, Bastiat among them. But Bastiat's greatest contribution is that he took the discourse out of the ivory tower and made ideas on liberty so clear that even the unlettered can understand them and statists cannot obfuscate them. Clarity is crucial to persuading our fellowman of the moral superiority of personal liberty.


Like others, Bastiat recognized the greatest single threat to liberty is government. Notice the clarity he employs to help us identify and understand evil government acts such as legalized plunder. Bastiat says, "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." With such an accurate description of legalized plunder, we cannot deny the conclusion that most government activities, including ours, are legalized plunder, or for the sake of modernity, legalized theft.


Frederic Bastiat could have easily been a fellow traveler of the signers of our Declaration of Independence. The signers' vision of liberty and the proper role of government was captured in the immortal words: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain Unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness. That to secure these rights, governments are instituted among Men...." Bastiat echoes the identical vision, saying, "Life, faculties, production—in other words individuality, liberty, property—that 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." Bastiat gave the same rationale for government as did our Founders, saying, "Life, liberty and property do not exist because men have made laws. On the contrary, it is the fact that life, liberty and property existed beforehand that caused men to make laws in the first place." No finer statements of natural or God-given rights have been made than those found in our Declaration of Independence and The Law.


Bastiat pinned his hopes for liberty on the United States saying, "...look at the United States. 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." Writing in 1850, Bastiat noted two areas where the United States fell short: "Slavery is a violation, by law, of liberty. The protective tariff is a violation, by law, of property."


If Bastiat were alive today, he would be disappointed with our failure to keep the law within its proper domain. Over the course of a century and a half, we have created more than 50,000 laws. Most of them permit the state to initiate violence against those who have not initiated violence against others. These laws range from anti-smoking laws for private establishments and Social Security "contributions" to licensure laws and minimum wage laws. In each case, the person who resolutely demands and defends his God-given right to be left alone can ultimately suffer death at the hands of our government.


Bastiat explains the call for laws that restrict peaceable, voluntary exchange and punish the desire to be left alone by saying that socialists want to play God. Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations. To them—the elite—"the relationship between persons and the legislator appears to be the same as the relationship between the clay and the potter." And for people who have this vision, Bastiat displays the only anger I find in The Law when he lashes out at do-gooders and would-be rulers of mankind, "Ah, you miserable creatures! You who think that you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don't you reform yourselves? That task would be sufficient enough."


Bastiat was an optimist who thought that eloquent arguments in defense of liberty might save the day; but history is not on his side. Mankind's history is one of systematic, arbitrary abuse and control by the elite acting privately, through the church, but mostly through government. It is a tragic history where hundreds of millions of unfortunate souls have been slaughtered, mostly by their own government. A historian writing 200 or 300 years from now might view the liberties that existed for a tiny portion of mankind's population, mostly in the western world, for only a tiny portion of its history, the last century or two, as a historical curiosity that defies explanation. That historian might also observe that the curiosity was only a temporary phenomenon and mankind reverted back to the traditional state of affairs—arbitrary control and abuse.


Hopefully, history will prove that pessimistic assessment false. The worldwide collapse of the respectability of the ideas of socialism and communism suggests that there is a glimmer of hope. Another hopeful sign is the technological innovations that make it more difficult for government to gain information on and control its citizens. Innovations such as information access, communication and electronic monetary transactions will make government attempts at control more costly and less probable. These technological innovations will increasingly make it possible for world citizens to communicate and exchange with one another without government knowledge, sanction or permission.


Collapse of communism, technological innovations, accompanied by robust free-market organizations promoting Bastiat's ideas, are the most optimistic things I can say about the future of liberty in the United States. Americans share an awesome burden and moral responsibility. If liberty dies in the United States, it is destined to die everywhere. A greater familiarity with Bastiat's clear ideas about liberty would be an important step in rekindling respect and love, and allowing the resuscitation of the spirit of liberty among our fellow Americans.


by Sheldon Richman


The state is that great fiction by which everyone tries to live at the expense of everyone else.

—Frederic Bastiat


Frederic Bastiat (1801-1850) holds a special place in the hearts and minds of the friends of liberty. There is no mystery here to be solved. The key to Bastiat's appeal is the integrity and elegance of his message. His writing exhibits a purity and a reasoned passion that are rare in the modern world. He always wrote to be understood, to persuade, not to impress or to obfuscate.


Through the device of the fable, Bastiat deftly shattered the misconceptions about economics for his French contemporaries. When today, in modern America, we continue to be told, by intellectuals as well as by politicians, that the free entry of foreign-made products impoverishes us or that destructive earthquakes and hurricanes create prosperity by creating demand for rebuilding, we are seeing the results of a culture ignorant of Frederic Bastiat.


But to think of Bastiat as just an economist is to insufficiently appreciate him. Bastiat was a legal philosopher of the first rank. What made him so is The Law. Writing as France was being seduced by the false promises of socialism, Bastiat was concerned with law in the classical sense; he directs his reason to the discovery of the principles of social organization best suited to human beings.


He begins by recognizing that individuals must act to maintain their lives. They do so by applying their faculties to the natural world and transforming its components into useful products. "Life, faculties, production—in other words, individuality, liberty, property—this is man," Bastiat writes. And since they are at the very core of human nature, they "precede all human legislation, and are superior to it." Too few people understand that point. Legal positivism, the notion that there is no right and wrong prior to the enactment of legislation, sadly afflicts even some advocates of individual liberty (the utilitarian descendants of Bentham, for example). But, Bastiat reminds us, "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."


For Bastiat, law is a negative. He agreed with a friend who pointed out that it is imprecise to say that law should create justice. In truth, the law should prevent injustice. "Justice is achieved only when injustice is absent." That may strike some readers as dubious. But on reflection, one can see that a free and just society is what results when forcible intervention against individuals does not occur; when they are left alone.


The purpose of law is the defense of life, liberty, and property. It is, says Bastiat, "the collective organization of the individual right of lawful defense." Each individual has the right to defend his life, liberty, and property. A group of individuals, therefore, may be said to have "collective right" to pool their resources to defend themselves. "Thus the principle of collective right—its reason for existing, its lawfulness—is based on individual right. And this 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." If the very purpose of law is the protection of individual rights, then law may not be used—without contradiction—to accomplish what individuals have no right to do. "Such a perversion of force would be... contrary to our premise." The result would be unlawful law.


A society based on a proper conception of law would be orderly and prosperous. But unfortunately, some will choose plunder over production if the former requires less effort than the latter. A grave danger arises when the class of people who make the law (legislation) turns to plunder. The result, Bastiat writes, is "lawful plunder." At first, only the small group of lawmakers practices legal plunder. But that may set in motion a process in which the plundered classes, rather than seeking to abolish the perversion of law, instead strive to get in on it. "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 result of generalized legal plunder is moral chaos precisely because law and morality have been set at odds. "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." Bastiat points out that for many people, what is legal is legitimate. So they are plunged into confusion. And 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.


Sound familiar?


Bastiat finds another motive—besides the desire for booty—behind legal plunder: "false philanthropy." Again, he sees a contradiction. If philanthropy is not voluntary, it destroys liberty and justice. The law can give nothing that has not first been taken from its owner. He applies that analysis to all forms of government intervention, from tariffs to so-called public education.


Bastiat's words are as fresh as if they were written today. He explains that one can identify legal plunder by looking for laws that authorize that one person's property be given to someone else. Such laws should be abolished "without delay." But, he warns, "the person who profits from such law will complain bitterly, defending his acquired rights," his entitlements. Bastiat's advice is direct: "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."


The world view that underlies the distortion of law, Bastiat writes, holds man as a passive entity, lacking a motor of his own and awaiting the hand and plan of the wise legislator. He quotes Rousseau: "The legislator is the mechanic who invents the machine." Saint-Just: "The legislator commands the future. It is for him to will the good of mankind. It is for him to make men what he wills them to be." And the razor-sharp Robespierre: "The function of government is to direct the physical and morale powers of the nation toward the end for which the commonwealth has come into being."


Bastiat echoes Adam Smith's condemnation of the "man of system," who sees people as mere pieces to be moved about a chessboard. To accomplish his objectives, the legislator must stamp out human differences, for they impede the plan. Forced conformity (is there any other kind?) is the order of the day. Bastiat quotes several writers in this vein, then replies:

Oh, sublime writers! Please remember sometimes that this clay, this sand, and this manure which you so arbitrarily dispose of, are men! They are your equals! They are intelligent and free human beings like yourselves! As you have, they too have received from God the faculty to observe, to plan ahead, to think, and to judge for themselves!


After quoting several of those writers who are so willing to devote themselves to reinventing people, Bastiat can no longer control his outrage: "Ah, you miserable creatures! You think you are so great! You who judge humanity to be so small! You who wish to reform everything! Why don't you reform yourselves? That would be sufficient enough."


Nor does Bastiat allow unrestrained democracy to escape his grasp. With his usual elegance, he goes right to the core of the issue. The democrat hails the people's wisdom. In what does that wisdom consist? The ability to pick all-powerful legislators—and that is all. "The people who, during the election, were so wise, so moral, so perfect, now have no tendencies whatever; or if they have any, they are tendencies that lead downward to degradation .... If people are as incapable, as immoral, and as ignorant as the politicians indicate, then why is the right of these same people to vote defended with such passionate insistence?" And "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?"


Bastiat closes his volume with a clarion call for freedom and a rejection of all proposals to impose unnatural social arrangements on people. He implores all "legislators and do-gooders [to] reject all systems, and try liberty."


In the years since The Law was first published, little has been written in the classical liberal tradition that can approach its purity, its power, its nearly poetic quality. Alas, the world is far from having learned the lessons of The Law. Bastiat would be saddened by what America has become. He warned us. He identified the principles indispensable for proper human society and made them accessible to all. In the struggle to end the legalized plunder of statism and to defend individual liberty, how much more could be asked of one man?

November 1995

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