1902 Encyclopedia > Frédéric Bastiat

Frédéric Bastiat
French classical liberal theorist and political economist

FREDERIC BASTIAT, the son of a merchant of Bayonne, was born in that town on the 19th of June 1801. After being educated at the Colleges of Saint-Sever and of Sorèze, he entered in 1818 the counting-house of his uncle at Bayonne. Here his intensely active mind soon began to interest itself in the study of the principles of commerce, but he felt no enjoyment in the practical routine of mercantile life, and in 1825 retired to a property at Mugrón, of which he became possessor on the death of his grandfather. Thus withdrawn from society, he devoted himself with eagerness to meditation and study, mastering the English and Italian languages and literatures, speculat-ing on the problems of philosophy and religion, digesting the doctrines of Adam Smith and Say, of Charles Comte and Dunoyer, cultivating music, experimenting in farming, and talking over all that he read, thought, and desired, with his able, dearly loved, and life-long friend, M. Felix Coudroy. He welcomed with enthusiasm the Revolution of 1830. In 1831 he became a justice of peace of Mugrón, and in 1832, a member of the Council-General of the Landes. In 1834 he published his first pamphlet. In 1840 he visited Spain and Portugal, and spent a few weeks in London. Between 1841-44 three pamphlets appeared from his pen, all, like his first brochure, on questions of taxation affecting local interests. During this period an accidental circumstance led him to become a subscriber to an English newspaper, the Globe and Traveller, through which he was made acquainted with the nature and pro-gress of the crusade so vigorously and skilfully carried on by the Anti-Corn-Law League against Protectionist doctrines and practices. After closely studying the move-ment for two years he resolved to make his countrymen aware of its history and significance, and to inaugurate, if possible, a similar movement in France. To prepare the way he contributed in 1844 to the Journal des Écono-mistes an article " Sur l'influence des tarifs Anglais et Français," which attracted great attention, and which he followed up by others, including the first series of his brilliant Sophismes Économiques.

In 1845 he came to Paris in order to superintend the publication of his Cobden et la Ligue, ou l'agitation Anglaise pour la liberté des échanges, and was very cordially received by the economists of the capital ; from Paris he went to London and Manchester, and made the personal acquaint-ance of Cobden, Bright, and other leaders of the league. When he returned to France he found that his writings had been exerting a powerful influence ; and in 1846 he assisted in organizing at Bordeaux the first French Free Trade Association. The rapid spread of the movement soon required him to abandon the sweet and fruitful leisure of his beloved Mugrón for the feverish and consuming activity of Paris. During the eighteen months which followed this change his labours were prodigious. He acted as secretary of the central committee of the associa-tion, organized and corresponded with branch societies, waited on ministers, procured subscriptions, edited a weekly paper, the Libre-Échange, contributed to the Journal des Economistes, and to three other periodicals, addressed meetings in Paris and the provinces, and delivered a course of lectures on the principles of political economy to students of the schools of law and of medicine. The cause to which he thus devoted himself, with a zeal and a self-denial most admirable in themselves, but fatal to his own health and Ufe, appeared for a time as if it would be as successful in France as in England ; but the forces in its favour were much weaker and those opposed to it were much stronger in the former country than in the latter, and this became always the more apparent as the struggle proceeded, until it was brought to an abrupt end by the Revolution of February 1848. This event allowed the socialism and communism which had been gathering and spreading in secret during the previous thirty years to show themselvea openly and boldly in singularly favourable circumstances. Louis Blanc, Victor Considérant, Pierre Leroux, J. P. Proudhon, and other representatives of these theories laboured zealously and effectively to gain to them the needy and uneducated masses of their countrymen, and to discredit as utterly evil the existing order of society. In this grave crisis Bastiat nobly performed his duty. Although exhausted by the far too heavy labours in which he had been engaged, although robbed of his voice by the malady which was preying upon him, so that he could do but little to defend the truth from the tribune of the Con-stituent Assembly, he could still suggest wise counsels in the Committee of Finance of which he was vice-president, and he could still use his pen with avigour and dexterity which made him capable of combating single-handed many opponents.

He wrote in rapid succession a series of brilliant and effective pamphlets and essays, showing how socialism was connected with protection, and exposing the delusions on which it rested. Thus within the space of two years there appeared Propriété et Loi, Justice et Fraternité, Propriété et Spoliation, L'État, Baccalauriet et Socialisme, Protec-tionisme et Communisme, Capital et Rente, Maudit Argent, Spoliation et Loi, Gratuité du Credit, and Ce qu'on voit et ce qu'on ne voit pas. While thus occupied he was meditating the composition of a great constructive work, meant to renovate economical science by basing it on the principle that " interests, left to themselves, tend to harmonious combinations, and to the progressive preponderance of the general good." The first volume of this work Les Harmonies Economiques was published in the beginning of 1850. In the autumn of that year, when working on the second volume, the increase of his malady compelled him to repair to Italy. After lingering at Pisa and Florence he reached Borne, but only to die there on the 24th of December 1850, in the fiftieth year of his age. An affecting account of the last days of this illustrious martyr to the cause of economical science and political justice was published by his friend, M. Paillottet.

The life-work of Bastiat, in order to be fairly appreciated, requires to be considered in three aspects. (1.) He was the advocate of free trade, the opponent of protection. The general theory of free trade had, of course, been clearly stated and solidly established before he was born, and his desire to see its principles acted on in France was quickened and confirmed by the agitation of the Anti-Corn-Law League for their realization in England, but as no one denies it to have been a great merit in Cobden to have seen so distinctly and comprehensively the bearing of economical truths which he did not discover, no one should deny it to have been also a great merit in Bastiat. He did far more than merely restate the already familiar truths of free trade. He showed as no one before him had done how they were applicable in the various spheres of French agriculture, trade, and commerce. Now, the abstract theory of free trade is of comparatively little value ; its elaboration so as to cover details, its concrete application, and its varied illustration are equally essential. And in these respects it owes more, perhaps, to,Bastiat than to any other economist. In the Sophismes Economiques we have the completest and most effective, the wisest and the wittiest exposure of protectionism in its principles, reason-ings, and consequences which exists in anylanguage. (2). He was the opponent of socialism. In this respect also ho had no equal among the economists of France. He alone fought socialism hand to hand, body to body, as it were, not caricaturing it, not denouncing it, not criticizing under its name some merely abstract theory, but taking it as actually presented by its most popular representatives, considering patiently their proposals and arguments, and proving conclusively that they proceeded on false principles, reasoned badly, and sought to realize generous aims by foolish and harmful means. Nowhere will reason find a richer armoury of weapons available against socialism than in the pamphlets published by Bastiat between 1848 and 1850. These pamphlets will live, it is to be hoped, at least as long as the errors which they expose. (3). He attempted to expound in an original and independent manner political economy as a science. In combating, first, the Protec- tionists, and, afterwards, the Socialists, there gradually rose on his mind a conception which seemed to him to shed a flood of light over the whole of economical doctrine, and, indeed, over the whole theory of society, viz., the harmony of the essential tendencies of human nature. The radical error, he became always more convinced, both of protec- tionism and socialism, was the assumption that human interests, if left to themselves, would inevitably provo antagonistic and anti-social, capital robbing labour, manu- factures ruining agriculture, the foreigner injuring th6 native, the consumer the producer, &c; and the chief weakness of the various schools of political economy, he believed he had discovered in their imperfect apprehension of the truth that human interests, when left to themselves, when not arbitrarily and forcibly interfered with, tend to harmonious combination, to the general good. Such was the point of view from which Bastiat sought to expound the whole of economical* science. The sphere of that science he limited to exchange, and he drew a sharp distinc- tion between utility and value. Political economy he defined as the theory of value, and value as " the relation of two services exchanged." The latter definition he deemed of supreme importance. It appeared to him to correct what was defective or erroneous in the conflicting definitions of value given by Adam Smith, Say, Bicardo, Senior, Storch, &c, to preserve and combine what was true in them, and to afford a basis for a more consistent and developed economical theory than had previously been presented. It has, however, found little acceptance, and Roscher, Cairnes, and others seem to have shown it to be ambiguous and misleading. A consequence of it on which he laid great stress was that the gratuitous gifts of nature, whatever be their utility, are incapable of acquiring value,—what is gratuitous for man in an isolated state remaining gratuitous for him in a social condition. Thus, land, according to Bastiat, is as gratuitous to men at the present day as to their first parents, the rent which is paid for it—its so- called value—being merely the return for the labour and capital which have been expended on its improvement. In the general opinion of economists he has failed to establish this doctrine, failed to show that the properties and forces of nature cannot be so appropriated as to acquire value. His theory of rent is nearly the same as Mr Carey's, i.e., decidedly anti-Ricardian. His views on the growth of capital and interest, on landed property, competition, con- sumption, wages, and population, are independent, and, if not unqualifiedly true, at least richly suggestive. His Œuvres Completes are in 7 vols. The first contains an interesting Memoir by M. Paillottet. The following articles on Bastiat may be specified,—Reybaud's in the Revue de» Deux Mondes, Sept. 1, 1858; Macleod's in his Dictionary of Political Economy ; and that of Cairnes in tho Fortnightly Review, Oct. 1, 1870. There is a good state- ment of his distinctive views in Kautz, Geschichle der National-Oekonomik, ii. 578-584. His Harmonies have been well translated by Dr P. J. Stirling. (K. F.)

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