Book Review: Frederic Bastiat’s The Law

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“David A. Pendleton Image”

Not every good idea is a new one. Many good ideas are old ideas that have simply been forgotten — or are intentionally overlooked.


One wonderful source of good and important ideas is a very old but prescient book by Frederic Bastiat. In his slim volume which is succinctly entitled The Law, we find an impassioned, sustained, and persuasive reminder of the purpose of law and the legitimate use of government. It may have been written back in the early 19th century, but its truths speak to us today in the 21st century.

We would all — elected officials included — benefit from this man’s ideas. Bastiat believed that the greatest single threat to liberty is government. And he calls all to recognize that might does not make right. That is to say, simply legalizing a particular undertaking does not change that undertaking’s morally problematic nature. An legalized taking from another may still be wrong, whatever ink on paper may say.

Here are a few examples. He decries the government’s penchant for “plunder”: “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.” What Bastiat called legalized plunder we call progressive taxation, necessary fee increases, and much-needed regulation.

Bastiat reminds us that good intentions are not enough to justify the pervasive and intrusive acts of the government to take from the fruits of labor of one person to give to another person. He calls such governmental actions “false philanthropy.” He argues that the unintended consequences of such social engineering cannot be justified and often can be far worse than the intended good.

Bastiat’s position is that wealth redistribution is not the same thing as wealth creation and that government’s frequent and relentless intrusions into the market can actually diminish the ability of market actors to efficiently create wealth from which we all benefit.

“The present-day delusion is an attempt to enrich everyone at the expense of everyone else,” Bastiat argues. His point is that risk takers, entrepreneurs, and business owners who undertake ventures to create services and products to meet the needs of others cannot be counted on to continue doing what they do if they are not permitted to benefit from their labors. There are incentives and there are disincentives. Regardless of intentions, decision makers must examine the consequences of their actions.

Such legalized “plunder,” Bastiat further points out, will tend to invite people to take advantage of the laws to their own benefit and the detriment of the public welfare: “Under the pretense of organization, regulation, protection, or encouragement, the law takes property from one person and gives it to another; the law takes the wealth of all and gives it to a few — whether farmers, manufacturers, shipowners, artists, or comedians. Under these circumstances, then certainly every class will aspire to grasp the law, and logically so.”

The purpose of the law, writes this man who was well aware of the anarchy of the French Revolution, should be to “protect the free exercise of these rights” — and elsewhere in the book he makes clear that he shares the ideal that humankind is endowed with unalienable rights, including life, liberty, and property.

“It is not true that the function of law is to regulate our consciences, our ideas, our wills, our education, our opinions, our work, our trade, our talents, or our pleasures. The function of law is to protect the free exercise of these rights, and to prevent any person from interfering with the free exercise of these same rights by any other person.”

The upshot of is clear: when officials regulate, legislate, and add red tape to the lives of citizens, they must think carefully and act cautiously. Whether it is the United States Congress or the Hawaii State Legislature, we cannot justify the exercise of lawmaking authority simply because our intentions are good and noble. We must respect the lives, liberty, and property of our citizens, to whom we owe the privilege of service and to whom we are ultimately responsible.

One may question how relevant a book two hundred years old is to us here in Hawaii today. But truth is always relevant. I commend this book to all citizens, including and perhaps especially my legislative colleagues, for their close study. We can always learn something new