Skip to comments.The Primacy of Property
Posted on 06/25/2005 5:07:09 PM PDT by musanon
Frédéric Bastiat, although best known as an economic journalist, was also a pioneer in what has become known as constitutional political economy. He derives the principles of a liberal social order from a theory of rights in which individuals have a fundamental right to be left alone to pursue their own interests provided they do not violate the equal rights of others.
The primary duty of government is to serve the people by protecting their basic rights to life, liberty, and property. In his system of natural libertycharacterized by free trade and the rule of lawa spontaneous order emerges that enhances individual well-being through the process of free choice and wealth creation.
Bastiat recognized that a shift away from a minimal state to a redistributive state would undermine private property rights, attenuate individual freedom, and turn the true meaning of justice on its head. Bastiat saw consent as the only legitimate measure of justice, in both the private and the public sector.
Starting with the nature and rights of man and then proceeding to the role of government, the meaning of justice, and the legitimate function of the law, Bastiat laid the foundation for a constitution of liberty that would narrowly limit the power of government and maximize individual freedom.
Bastiat showed that when government steps beyond its proper function of protecting persons and property, there will be an incentive for special-interest groups to seek privileged positions and use the power of government to capture benefits at the expense of taxpayers and consumers. Income and wealth will be redistributed and resources will be wasted in the process.
On the 200th anniversary of Bastiat's birth, it is appropriate to reconsider his work from the perspective of constitutional political economy. The essential issue is how to solve the so-called social problem, that is, how to coordinate self-interested individuals so as to achieve economic, social, and political harmony. In addressing that issue, Bastiat takes individuals as they are and asks, What institutions (rules) are best suited to the perfectibility of imperfect man?
Pursuit of Self-Interest
A basic postulate of Bastiat's economic approach to politics is that all individuals pursue their own self-interest, by which he simply meant that individuals are born with an "instinct of self-preservation." It is a universal characteristic of human nature that individuals tend "to seek happiness and to shun misery." Individuals, no doubt, will make mistakes, but if they are free to choose and are held responsible for their actions, they will learn. "In the last analysis," writes Bastiat, "we must look to the law of responsibility to find the means to achieve human perfectibility."
Bastiat is critical of certain political theorists for their attempt to change the nature of man by asserting that self-interest is socially destructive and should be replaced by the motive of "self-sacrifice" for the "common good."
Such a "complete transformation of the human heart" is unrealistic and dangerous, according to Bastiat. Any attempt to destroy self-interest will, in his opinion, destroy mankind. Virtue cannot be forced on individuals by government; it must be spontaneous and consistent with self-preservation.
In his famous 1848 essay, "Property and Law," Bastiat argued that it is futile to try to "suppress self-interest by decree." Government and the law cannot change human nature. Moreover, when individuals enter the public sector, they do not abandon their desire for personal gainself-interest does not die, rather the so-called new motives (such as working for the honor of one's country or for the common good) become "self-interest of another sort."
Thus Bastiat was consistent in applying the self-interest postulate to both private and public choice. His starting point is always the individual and the natural motive to improve one's condition to achieve greater happiness.
The pursuit of happiness, however, cannot take place constructively without constraints on human action. Those constraintsin the form of rules against theft, fraud, murder, and so onare both practical and consistent with the natural rights of each person to be free from coercion, except when it is used to protect life, liberty, and property.
For Bastiat, as for other classical liberals, the individual and his liberty and property precede government, and it is the duty of government to secure each individual's pre-existing natural rights. Such rights are not a convention or a creation of government and the law; the law's function is to protect, not to take, one's justly (that is, freely) acquired property.
The American system is broken, transformed into a completely different thing than first envisioned. We need a fresh start, but that will not happen. The best that we can hope for is to stave off the inevitable for our lifetimes. I pray for it all to come quickly, with a swift a fair judgement for all.
I think a State could still turn the system around, using the 'free state' idea.
Free State Project; Liberty in Our Lifetime
one minor quibble: "...as clearly seen by Bastiat over two hundred years ago."
Bastiat was BORN @200 years ago.
we fall down so as to learn to rise again.
Let's not quibble about it. :) -- Thanks for the bump.
I agree that there are better ways to pay for government. I like the 'Fair Tax' idea.