Skip to comments.The Life and Ideas of Frédéric Bastiat
Posted on 12/29/2002 9:18:09 AM PST by freeforall
The Life and Ideas of Frédéric Bastiat Part 2: Bastiat Knew the Socialist Mind by Jim Peron
A century and a half ago the French parliamentarian Frédéric Bastiat wrote: "It is evident that the socialists set out in quest of an artificial social order only because they deemed the natural order to be either bad or inadequate; and they deemed it bad or inadequate only because they felt that men's interests are fundamentally antagonistic, for otherwise they would not have recourse to coercion. It is not necessary to force into harmony things that are inherently harmonious."
Nobel Laureate F. A. Hayek made a very similar point: "Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective co-ordination of human activities without deliberate organization by commanding intelligence. One of the achievements of economic theory has been to explain how such a mutual adjustment of the spontaneous activities of individuals is brought about by the market, provided that there is a known delimitation of the sphere of control of each individual."
Bastiat spoke of a "natural harmony" between men, a "natural and wise order that operates without our knowledge." Again this is similar to Hayek's observation that social order is the result of "human action but not of human design." And while Hayek praised Bastiat's writing ability he paid scant attention to him as a theorist. Professor Norman Barry says this was because Bastiat's theory of spontaneous order is "rather different from others in the tradition that Hayek admires." The main difference was: "...Bastiat was a rationalist; he deduced his theory of limited government and economic harmony directly from an abstract theory of natural law and natural rights. When he was indefatigable in his demonstrations of the beneficial consequences that inevitably flow from freedom and exposure of the dis-coordinating actions of government, his ultimate justification for liberty lay in an essentialist concept of man abstracted from time and place."
For Hayek, man's knowledge is so limited that he cannot easily encapsulate the ideas of human social structure. Barry wrote: "the evolutionary approach suggests that the ideal working of a social system is too complex to be captured in a simple formula, that no abstract system of rules can be rationally devised which can accommodate all future unknown cases."
For Bastiat, the fundamentals of social order are knowable. "For if there are general laws that act independently of written laws, and whose action needs merely to be regularized by the latter, we must study these general laws; they can be the object of scientific investigation, and therefore there is such a thing as the science of political economy."
Bastiat argued that his views were based on reality and not on some ideological view of how man ought to be. The major difference between economistsby which he meant liberal market economistsand socialists was: "The economists observe man, the laws of his nature and the social relations that derive from these laws. The socialists conjure up a society out of their imagination and then conceive of a human heart to fit this society."
The ability to imagine a perfect world inspires the Left. During the presidential campaign of Robert Kennedy a poster showed him walking along a beach and quoted a speech of his: "Some people see things as they are and ask 'why?'; I dream of things that never were and ask 'why not?'" Yet the quote, now commonly attributed to Kennedy, was borrowed from the British Fabian socialist George Bernard Shaw.
This "dream making" helps explain the phenomenon of the Left: while advocating love and peace they end up promoting hatred and war. Bastiat said: "And this explains how it happens that, although they have a kind of sentimental love for humanity in their hearts, hate flows from their lips. Each of them reserves all his love for the society that he has dreamed up; but the natural society in which it is our lot to live cannot be destroyed soon enough to suit them, so that from its ruins may rise the New Jerusalem." Aldous Huxley made the same point when he pointed out that "faith in the bigger and better future is one of the most potent enemies to present liberty: for rulers feel themselves justified in imposing the most monstrous tyranny on their subjects for the sake of the wholly imaginary fruits which these tyrannies are expected to bear some time in the distant future."
Considering that Bastiat, unlike Huxley, was in the grave before Hitler, Mao or Stalin were born his comment is extraordinarily perceptive. Many on the Left could not even recognize this truth long after the bodies had already been piled high. The New Jerusalem required revolutionary destruction and genocide to mould man into the image that the social engineers had envisioned.
This conflict between Bastiat and the Left is readily apparent. For him man was born in a world with specific needs. Nature endowed him with certain faculties and only by the application of such faculties is man able to sustain himself. Nature had determined what man is and what his faculties are, and what he must do to survive. For the Left man is merely, as Steven Pinker puts it, a "Blank Slate" which can be manipulated to achieve the New Jerusalem. Pinker says that Marx and Engels "were adamant that human nature has no enduring properties. It consists only in the interactions of groups of people with their material environments in a historical period, and constantly changes as people change their environment and are simultaneously changed by it. The mind therefore has no innate structure but emerges from the dialectical process of history and social interaction."
Mao wrote: "A blank sheet of paper has no blotches, and so the newest and most beautiful words can be written on it, the newest and most beautiful pictures can be painted on it." Maxim Gorky said that the working classes, to Lenin, are "what minerals are to the metallurgist." Bastiat, in his last work The Law, wrote: "Socialists look upon people as raw material to be formed into social combinations." Pinker wrote: "Nazism and Marxism shared a desire to reshape humanity. 'The alteration of men on a mass scale is necessary,' wrote Marx; 'the will to create mankind anew' is the core of National Socialism, wrote Hitler." Shaw took the typical Left view: "There is nothing that can be changed more completely than human nature when the job is taken in hand early enough."
This desire to recreate the world according one's own wishes and dreams has been at the root of Left-wing thinking right from the start. Rousseau, seen by many as the founding father of the Left admitted that this tendency existed inside himself. "I withdrew more and more from human society and created, for myself, a society in my imagination, a society that charmed me all the more in that I could cultivate it without peril or effort... I peopled nature with beings according to my heart.... I created for myself a golden age to suit my fancy." But it is one thing to dream of a new world where you people it with beings according to your own heart and quite another to actually start doing so. Bastiat was quite correct in noting that such a tendency reveals a hatred of man as he actually is.
Leon Trotsky argued that under communism "man will become incomparably stronger, wiser, finer. His body more harmonious, his movements more rhythmical, his voice more musical... The human average will rise to the level of an Aristotle, a Goethe, a Marx. Above these other heights new peaks will arise."
Robert Owen, the man many attribute with inventing the term "socialism", was clearly an advocate of remaking humanity to create Utopia. "Any general character, from the best to the worst, from the most ignorant to the most enlightened, may be given to any community, even to the world at large, by the application of the proper means; which means are, to a great extent, at the command and under the control of those who have influence in the affairs of men." This Utopia, said Owen, "could be attained only the scientific arrangement of the people."
Owen believed in the Blank Slate. For him no human "is responsible for his will and his own actions." Instead "his whole characterphysical, mental and moralis formed independently of himself." According to Joshua Muravchik this lead Owen to conclude "it is futile to call individuals to account for their behavior. Instead, society should recognize its power to shape each of its members into a person of high character." If Owen were allowed to "scientifically" arrange people he felt, "There will be no cruelty in man's nature, the animal creation will also become different in character." The result would be a "terrestrial paradise... in which harmony will pervade all that will exist upon earth."
Like many of the utopian dreameres Owen spent many hours planning how he could manipulate humans into being a super race. He used his vaste fortune to build a community along socialist lines. He promised that once his social engineering was put into place the result would be "men and women of a new race, physically, intellectually and morally; beings far superior to any yet known to have lived upon the earth." Of course Owen's experiment in socialism failed as dismally. Men and women of ability avoided his community which instead was plagued by those seeking a handout. His community, New Harmony, revealed little harmony and a geat deal of conflict and eventually collapsed after Owen could no longer subsidise it with his own wealth. In spite of socialism's record of failure true believers have still dreamed of making man anew.
Hard-core Marxists simply dismissed nature. In the Soviet Union the study of genetics was banned as a fascist enterprise. Instead science, interpreted through Marxist-Leninist lenses was imposed. "Marxism claims, above all, to be a 'scientific' philosophy, one which applies the principles of science to politics and science." More importantly Marxists believed their ideas were the one true "science" and the core science at that. Any other science would then be interpreted in accordance with political ideology. Trofim Lysenko, the Marxist who determined Soviet science for decades "rejected the 'fascist' theories that plants and animals inherited characteristics which selective breeding can develop. Lysenkoists believed that, on the contrary, environmental factors determine the characteristics of plants and animals. Just as Communists thought that people could be changed by altering their surroundings, so Lysenko held that plants acquired new characteristics when their environment is changed..."
In Heaven on Earth Muravchik noted that the belief that nature, manipulated according to socialist political theory, could create a new paradise was widespread. "These musings about transforming wildlife were fanciful, not to mention ecologically unsound, but they were not unique to Owen. In fact, Charles Fourier went further, predicting the domestication of the lions and whales whose strength would free humans from most work."
Many have assumed that Marxists and socialists have treated humans the way farmers treat cattle. This is not strictly true. Instead they treated animals and plants the way they treated people. They adopted their view of how to manipulate mankind long before they applied that theory to the non-human world. "[T]he idea of a new man, dimly foreseen by Babeuf but sketched sharply by Owen, became the enduring centerpiece of the socialist vision. Socialism promised a surfeit of material goods and brotherly harmony among people, but its ultimate reward would be the transformation of humans, if not into gods, then into supermen able to transcend the pains and limits of life as it had been known."
Reality to be commanded must be obeyed. For the Marxist reality was what one dreamed not what actually existed. The entire world was theirs to remake, in their own image, according to their own whims. This truth has become obvious to us today. But had the world listened to Bastiat a century and a half ago much human misery and genocide could have been avoided. Bastiat knew the mind of the socialist. He said that socialists "assume that people are inert matter, passive particles, motionless atoms, at best a kind of vegetation indifferent to its own manner of existence. They assume that people are susceptible to being shapedby the will and hand of another personinto an infinite variety of forms, more or less symmetrical, artistic, and perfected."
"These socialist writers look upon people in the same manner that the gardener views his trees. Just as the gardener capriciously shapes the trees into pyramids, parasols, cubes, vases, fans, and other forms, just so does the socialist writer whimsically shape human beings into groups, series, centers, sub-centers, honeycombs, labor corps, and other variations. And just as the gardener needs axes, pruning hooks, saws, and shears to shape his trees, just so does the socialist writer need the force that he can find only in law to shape human beings."
Jim Peron is the owner of Aristotle's Books in Auckland, New Zealand. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
from The Laissez Faire Electronic Times, Vol 1, No 46, December 30, 2002 Editor: Emile Zola Publisher: Digital Monetary Trust
The bodies had already been piled high during the French Revolution (the murder of the Vendee region of France for example).
Bastiat was merely recognizing reality that had already occurred.
And while Hayek praised Bastiat's writing ability he paid scant attention to him as a theorist. Professor Norman Barry says this was because Bastiat's theory of spontaneous order is "rather different from others in the tradition that Hayek admires." The main difference was: "...Bastiat was a rationalist; he deduced his theory of limited government and economic harmony directly from an abstract theory of natural law and natural rights.
This jumped out at me. I've been reading Ludwig Von Mises' Socialism, and one thing that surprised me is that Mises, a contemporary of Hayek and fellow Austrian schooler, starts his argument for capitalism and individual liberty not from natural law or some other transcendent conception of man's rights, but instead from the standpoint that capitalism is the best system for facilitating social cooperation, wealth creation, and peace. It's an argument based on outcomes rather than means. In fact, I don't recall that he ever mentions an inherency of rights in man established by a Creator or by nature.
What I like about Mises' reasoning is that it doesn't rest upon an individual right to the ownership of property, something which is impossible to prove, and which can be an unfortunate achille's heel when sparring with a perceptive socialist/liberal/leftist. At the very least, it can be tough to get a socialist to agree to some foundational set of premises regarding the rights of man upon which an argument may be built. But with Mises' theory (or any theory which focuses on outcomes -- it sounds like Hayek's theories may work the same way), no such foundation is required.*
* which isn't to say that Mises doesn't favor the individual ownership of property -- he does, big time. It's just that he doesn't use it as a starting point. For Mises, it's not so much that an individual right to property requires capitalism; it's that capitalism requires an individual right to property. At least that's how it looks to me from what I've read so far...
There he joins the long lines of classical liberalism, headed by the Old Whig Burke, through R. Kirk. Hayek appends his volume with the distinction as to why he is not an old world conservative, or libertarian, but instead is best described and styles himself "an old Whig".
I like that so well I think I'll bump it a bit. True not only of socialists, but of neo-anarchists as well, in fact, of all utopians. Fact is, these folks are merely reserving for themselves the easy and fun part, destruction. Construction is a mere technical detail left for the duller followers-on.
Hey, what ever happenned to my LFC warrants, anyway?
For Mises, it's not so much that an individual right to property requires capitalism; it's that capitalism requires an individual right to property. At least that's how it looks to me from what I've read so far...
There is a synthesis of these ideas that might interest you, part of which is discussed here with a chapter that opens an anti-thesis to socialized commons. The book then presents a solution to the problem of commons from first principles here.
The essential problem is one of boundary conditions. To the socialist, there is no such thing as a boundary; i.e., there is nothing to which there is not some form of public claim. This is because there is supposedly no discontinuity with those mobile and continuous goods that are assumed held in common whose state is transformed by individual behavior. The problem with that idea is that in a democracy, all citizens become subject to an array of overlapping and contradictory majority claims, subject to manipulation by those who control education and mass media; effectively misallocating every resource in the interests of the politically dominant.
From the same source:
When people talk about protecting the environment, it is usually about the air they breathe, the emissions exiting the smokestack, the sewage at the end of the pipe, or encroaching development on the edge of a forest. Most political conflict over what we call the environment centers upon the conduct of human economic activities and their influence on the Natural surroundings at the boundaries of that human influence.
Deep ecologists would dismiss this concept, asserting that "everything is connected", and that therefore, everything must be considered as a whole. Few seem to notice just what a destructively nebulous concept that is.
Any system is interactive with its surroundings. One must however, limit study of interactions to yield useful data. Drop a brick on the ground and it's easy to know, within reasonable tolerances, the velocity upon impact and that you should have your feet in a safe place, when that is all that is of interest. However, if everything is connected and interactive, the "equal and oppositely directed" reactions of dropping a brick mathematically extend to the ends of the universe. Planetary orbits are theoretically distorted and relativistic time shells are altered. To measure and characterize them all is of course, a preposterous thing to do. It is therefore, essential to limit the scope of the experiment and analysis such that inputs are controllable and outputs measurable. Engineers and scientists define such a system envelope as a control boundary.
A control boundary is analogous to a balloon around the system under test. It is a way of containing a problem to those inputs and outputs that move across that boundary. Make the envelope too big and the effects will be so small or mixed with other events, that the scientist will either fail to observe them, or have to purchase expensive equipment and go through numerous repetitions and calculations to manage minute tolerances. Make the envelope too small and one risks missing effects outside the boundary.
In the case of our brick, the control boundary is typically drawn immediately around the brick and its path to the ground. Let go, it hits a barrier assumed to be infinitely rigid (the earth) and stops. Newton's elegant laws of motion can then deliver a solution, telling us how far it will fall and how fast it will be going when it hits the ground. It is now possible to learn about dropping bricks. If the engineer tried to measure the brick from a mile away, he or she would be fired (the scientist, on the other hand, gets a Ph.D.).
Infinite problems are a bummer, unless they guarantee a future paycheck, because selection of an infinite control boundary is a choice that renders even simple problems practically insoluble.
The advocate of private property starts with the indissoluble unit, literally the in-dividual, and therefore individual property. Even overlapping claims are resolved by pricing discrete units of stock or other contracts for the use of pooled risk capital. As shares and control thereof become more individual, all overlapping and interdependent claims become resolvable as long as the transaction overhead doesn't become too burdensome.
As computing and communications technology advances, we might even start to see automated contracts and trades on a continuous basis, thus reducing that cost to the point where the regulatory funciton disappears into a free market managing assets capable of offesetting the cost of pooled risks.
Sorry to be so terse and abstract. It's a big book.
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