Frederic Bastiat, Voluntaryist

Presidential elections are always a good time time for personal reflection. As silly as it seems, our opinions of presidential candidates offer a lot of insight into our political philosophies. My votes for president, for instance, offer a rough timeline of my conversion from a die hard neoconservative to a hard core libertarian.

In 2000 and 2004, I fervently supported George W. Bush. By the time 2008 rolled around, my skepticism of government in general and the GOP in particular led me to oppose Bush’s would-be successor, John McCain, in the Republican primary. Unfortunately, my rebellion took the shameful form of voting for Mitt Romney. What’s worse, whatever skepticism I had begun to develop was chucked out the window that November, when I voted for McCain.

But by the time of the 2012 primaries, I was an ardent supporter of Ron Paul. After Paul lost the Republican primary to Romney, I switched my vote to the Libertarian Party candidate in the general election. Thus, in the span of four short years, I had gone from a slightly disenchanted neoconservative to a full-fledged libertarian.

The most significant event in my journey to libertarianism was my reading of a short book titled The Law, written by a largely unknown nineteenth century economist named Frederic Bastiat. Bastiat’s work, highly acclaimed by libertarians and unceremoniously ignored by the rest of the world, tore down the facade of government before my eyes and opened them to the full scope of the rights of men.

The Law is predicated on a single premise, that the laws that govern interpersonal relationships apply to the state as well. Just as it is illegal for one person to steal from or attack another, so too is it morally impermissible for the state to do the same, even if it substitutes words like “taxation” for its acts of theft. Just as it is only in the defense of life, liberty and property that individuals may use force, so too may the government only use force in the collective preservation of these rights.

As I read The Law in 2011, Frederic Bastiat, a man who had been dead for 161 years, was turning me, page by page, into a libertarian.

However, I would soon discover that there are variations of libertarianism. Some libertarians believe in the potentiality of the modern state while others believe that there should be no state at all.  Some see within the state’s mechanisms the possibility of tearing down barriers to freedom while others believe that the state’s mechanisms are themselves the highest barriers to true freedom.

Relying on Bastiat’s work, I found myself somewhere in the middle of these groups. I certainly had to reject the positive views of the state, and yet I had sympathy for Bastiat’s allowance for the “collective defense” of life, liberty and property. For a while this resulted in a belief in the legitimate role of the state in protecting individuals. But some libertarians kept poking holes in parts of this theory. “If the state cannot morally steal from you and give that money to someone else” they asked, “how can it steal from you and give it to themselves in order ‘protect’ you from those who would steal your property?” I came to realize that all taxation is essentially theft, because it is the forceful taking of money from one group of people by another.

So even if I accepted Bastiat’s theory of collective defense, I had to reject the idea that the government could take money without consent. Aided by the philosophy of Englishman Auberon Herbert, I eventually came to embrace voluntaryism, a system which accepts the collective defense idea but requires that it be funded and submitted to voluntarily.

The only problem with this was that it seemed to contradict some of the conclusions of the person who had made me a libertarian in the first place, Frederic Bastiat. If Bastiat, who’s grasp of history, economics and philosophy all exceeded my own, allowed for the existence of the government, how could I justify my conclusions that appeared to oppose his?

Upon closer examination, however, Bastiat seems to have embraced voluntaryist principles himself. As I was recently reading his Economic Sophisms, I was delighted to find the following sentiments on the voluntary nature of collective security.

“The members of society have certain needs that are so general, so universal, that provision is made for them by organizing government services. Among these requirements is the need for security. People agree to tax themselves in order to pay those who perform the service of seeing to the common security.

“This arrangement in no way conflicts with the principle of exchange as formulated in political economy: Do this for me, and I will do that for you. The essence of the transaction is the same; only the method of payment is different; but this fact is very important.

“In ordinary, private transactions each party remains the sole judge both of the service he receives and of the service he performs. He can always either decline the exchange or make it elsewhere; hence the need of offering in the market only such services as will find voluntary acceptance.

“This has not been true of the state… Whether or not we need its services, whether they are real or spurious, we are always obliged to accept what it provides and to pay the price that it sets.

“Now, it is the tendency of all men to exaggerate the services that they render and to minimize the services they receive; and chaos would reign if we did not have, in private transactions, the assurance of a negotiated price.

“This assurance is completely, or almost completely, lacking in our transactions with the government. And yet the state, which, after all, is composed of men obeys the universal tendency. It wants to serve us a great deal—more, indeed, than we desire—and to make us accept as real services what are often far from being such, and all this for the purpose of exacting some services from us in return in the form of taxes.”

Bastiat thus appears to be embracing a voluntaryist position. His observation that government taxation is robbery, when combined with his acknowledgment that the state’s services are “spurious” and “exaggerated” and that the state is able to compel men to accept these services, logically leads only to voluntaryism. In writing all of this, Bastiat is essentially acknowledging the evil of state taxation, the uselessness of state services and the immorality of state compulsion.

Whether or not Bastiat fully realized these implications is unclear. He died a full 35 years before Herbert fully expounded his theory of voluntaryism. But regardless, Bastiat’s piercing insights into the nature of the state continue to reveal themselves to be radical in their implications.

Unsurprisingly, it is the work of Frederic Bastiat that has confirmed the principles of radical libertarianism in my own mind.