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!
Frederic Bastiat was a nineteenth century economist and politician in France. His little known work The Law may contain the most coherent defense of freedom ever written. Simple to read, but not simplistic; filled with powerful prose, and inviting; Bastiat’s book is a short, weekend read.
Everything in philosophy comes down to your assumptions, because the rules of logic will necessarily bring results based upon your first principles. With The Law there is only one assumption; that each person is endowed by God with personal value which is indivisible from him. Essentially, Bastiat believed that everyone owns himself, or cannot be owned by another person at any rate. For various reasons, even this basic principle is challenged by other notions, and perhaps it is a reflection of man’s sinful nature that self-ownership could die the death of a thousand qualifications in order to be fully understood and defined.
Don’t worry about any of that. Bastiat is much clearer than I can be on this topic. Indeed he’s much clearer than everyone else who has written throughout history.
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.
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.
What, then, is law? It is the collective organization of the individual right to lawful defense.
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.
Bastiat argues that government is a creation of man, and as such it cannot be endowed with powers the individual man does not morally posses. Just as the individual cannot be morally just in stealing his neighbor’s property, so too he cannot be just if he gets a Congressional majority to do it for him. As Walter E. Williams frequently says, “The Bible says “Thou shalt not steal.” It does not say ‘Thou shalt not steal unless you get a majority vote in Congress.'”
Therefore, self-ownership is the basis for property rights, and property rights are the basis for law, and law is the extent to which government can act. Law is created by a society of men to protect those things which each man could protect individually.
On the other hand, written law can be perverted to do the complete opposite of its moral function. Bastiat calls this legalized plunder.
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 defense.
Everyone should take note that legality is not necessarily synonymous with morality. That something is legal does mean it is wise or virtuous. That something is illegal does not mean that it is depraved or damnable. Quite a few of history’s worst moral atrocities were committed without legal trouble. Bastiat makes clear that the proper role for law limits the actions government may take, as morality limits the actions man may take. Force and fraud are the chief concerns, and no others are the domain for government, because government is defined as collective force for defense.
The Capitol in The Hunger Games is a wonderful fictional example of what Bastiat calls the Complete Perversion of the Law. The government takes from people as it pleases and drives them as slaves. It executes anyone who is seen to be an antagonist to the will of the state, and it revels in merciless butchery in order to maintain the despotic order. It holds the state as the principle dispenser of all things, including rights and even the right to breathe.
As I wrote in Capitalism, Communism, and The Hunger Games, there is no overwhelming political message to these books, but if there were, it would have to boil down to ‘Beware strong government.’ And in Occupy Panem? I pointed out that the best governmental limitation in history, happened under the American Constitution.
So many are drawing political conclusions that lack coherence given the circumstances in Collins’ books, reiterating and emphasizing the tremendous clarity in The Law is worth a few minutes.
It is crucial to understand the self-ownership principle, because that precludes the existence of any form of tyranny, even those powerful states that attempt benevolence. In order to relinquish the right to the state to care for someone, the self-ownership rights of many people must be damaged.
First, the person who is dependent upon government is subject to government’s authority, because he has no other option.
Second, the person who funds the dependency is subject to governmental authority, because government forces that person to pay for someone else.
Third, a great bureaucracy must be formed in order to administer the transfer of payment, thus removing people from productive work and placing them in wealth-redistribution which is profoundly disruptive to productivity. Also, it is a general dilution of the rights of all men, as some are picked by bureaucrats to be winners and others are held up as victims, meanwhile the bureaucrats are infinitely preserved from any of the conditions that affect those they label. The preservation from market forces can even tumble the whole lot into a suicide pact. For more on this, see modern Greece.
The solution to Panem’s tyrannical state was not that the state become benevolent and fairer in how it distributes resources. The solution to tyranny of all sorts is to reset the understanding of who owns whom. Resources are not distributed, they are harvested with individual labor, and those people, owning themselves, have a right to own the product of their behavior, good or bad as it may be.
Logic denies the coexistence of a benevolent, all-powerful state where every citizen has ownership over himself. It’s one or the other, and cannot be both. Attempts to mix the two inevitably lead to an eventual draw toward a more and more robust state with less and less interest in flesh-and-blood people.
Incidentally, the self-ownership principle is why I refuse to accept the common notion that fascism is a right-wing political ideology. Nonsense, fascism is a religion of the state and the conservative position is that the state is best kept limited and balanced against its own power. To say that the right and the left simply express different absolute tyrannies of the state is absurd. Where would you graph Milton Friedman’s views? You couldn’t, unless you concede the point that the right wants less government, not just different government.
If ever there was a time when Bastiat’s book was needed on each nightstand, Kindle, and iPad, it’s now. Give it a read. Even ten minutes on the first few sections will do wonders to organize a real and defined understanding of liberty for you.