Ignorance of “The Law” is No Excuse

A few years ago I was reading a collection of essays by economist Walter Williams in a book titled Liberty Versus the Tyranny of Socialism. At the time Williams and his fellow free-market economist Thomas Sowell held the biggest sway over my political opinions, so I was intrigued when I came across an essay titled “Liberty’s Greatest Advocate” in which Williams named one of the key influences on his thinking, 19th century “French philosopher-economist Frederic Bastiat.”

Bastiat’s name was foreign to me, but Williams made the case that “If one were to list the top ten advocates of liberty, Bastiat would rank high on that list. He’d easily outrank any one of the Founders of our nation.” A Frenchman who was a greater advocate for liberty than America’s founding fathers? How could this be?

Williams would go on to later write that his introduction to Bastiat was an 1850 essay, The Law. On the recommendation of a writer I so highly respected I decided it was time to read it myself. Williams’ praise of Bastiat and this essay were immediately vindicated as The Law became, and has remained, one of the most influential works I have ever read.

In the few years that have passed I have come to the belief that if this work were more widely known there would be a significant shift in Americans’ political attitudes. In it, Bastiat argues against all of the government interventions in society and the economy that were prevalent in 19th century France and which bear striking similarities to what has since become the most prevalent political policies in the United States.

In arguing against the state, Bastiat laid out the most concise, philosophically consistent illustration of what government should be that I have ever read. Combating the socialists of his day, and anticipating those of ours, Bastiat argued that government can only morally perform one function, defending what he calls the “three basic requirements of life” – individuality, liberty and property. In defining what the law is, Bastiat stated,

“Each of us has a natural right — from God — to defend his person, his liberty, and his property. (And) 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.

“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.”

Since the law is merely this right to the collective defense of life and liberty, Bastiat argued that government is confined by the same moral code as individuals. He writes,

“Force has been given to us to defend our own individual rights. 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?”

In other words, whatever is immoral for one person to do to is likewise immoral for a government, a mere collection of individuals, to do. Having detailed the proper limits of government – that of defending life, liberty and property – Bastiat then observed two fundamental features of man.

“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 plunder.”

But Bastiat noted that the law is often used for the reverse purpose, for what he calls legal plunder.

“…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.”

Bastiat then observed the perverse effects of the law being used in this manner, stating that

“…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. 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.”

How are we to determine if a law is immoral and liable to cause man to choose between respecting morality or the law? And what are we to do once such a law is identified? Bastiat answers,

“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 is not abolished immediately, it will spread, multiply, and develop into a system.”

With this foundation, Bastiat laid out the three options for government.

“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.”

Of these Bastiat chose the third, stating that “This is the principle of justice, peace, order, stability, harmony, and logic.”

Up to this point, Bastiat had argued against economic socialism and on these points modern social conservatives are likely in agreement. But he didn’t stop there, for he next turned his attention to social issues and, interestingly, labels government intervention in man’s social life socialism as well.

“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.

“(But) 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 force.”

This is a critical point, because we today like to think of the law as a way of promoting morality or virtue. But the question must be asked, may I legally or morally fine you, assault you or imprison you for being immoral or unvirtuous? If the answer is no, then what gives the government the authority to do these things? For remember, government is merely collective force in defense of life, liberty and property.

As simple and logical as this conception of government is, it is rejected by most Americans today, and those who do not reject it are considered odd and crankish. The argument against this form of government is always the charge that if government does not promote morality and virtue (or charity, or agriculture or education) then nobody will.

Anticipating this accusation, Bastiat brilliantly responded,

“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.”

He continued,

“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 worshippers of government who believe that the law is mankind.

“Nonsense! Do those worshippers of government believe that free persons will 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?”

Thus, Bastiat convincingly argued that those who favor government-enforced morality fall into the same socialist trap as those who favor government-enforced charity or government-planned education. They believe that government can morally and effectively regulate men’s actions without fundamentally attacking their liberties.

From economic issues to social issues, Bastiat tied together a consistent vision of government, on in which the state exists solely to protect our basic liberties. With these principles in mind, Bastiat closed his essay with a fantastic, impassioned call for liberty, concluding,

“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 the whims of governmental administrators, their socialized projects, their centralization, their tariffs, their government schools, their state religions, their free credit, their bank monopolies, their regulations, 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.”