Bastiat, Socialism, and the Blank Slate

Article excerpt

It is evident," the French economist and parliamentarian Frederic Bastiat wrote a century and a half ago, "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."1

Nobel Laureate F. A. Hayek made a similar point: "Much of the opposition to a system of freedom under general laws arises from the inability to conceive of an effective coordination 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."2

Bastiat spoke of a "natural harmony" between men, a "natural and wise order that operates without our knowledge."3 Again this is similar to Hayek's observation, drawn from the Scottish Enlightenment thinker Adam Ferguson, that social order is the result of "human action but not of human design."

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 economists-by which he meant liberal market economists-and 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."4

This is the crux of difference between advocates of the freedom philosophy and advocates of socialism. The ability to imagine a perfect world inspires the socialists and their sympathizers. During Robert F. Kennedy's 1968 presidential campaign, a poster quoted him: "Some people see things as they are and ask 'why?'; I dream of things that never were and ask 'why not?'" The quote, commonly attributed to Kennedy, was borrowed from the British playwright George Bernard Shaw, a leading Fabian socialist.5

Dream-making helps explain a striking feature on the left-while advocating love and peace it promotes hatred and war. Bastiat said that while collectivists "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."6 Aldous Huxley made the same point when he noted 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."7

This conflict between Bastiat and the socialists couldn't be more stark. For him, man was born with specific needs. Nature endowed him with certain faculties, and only by the application of such faculties is man able to sustain himself. For the socialist, man is merely, as Steven Pinker titles his new book, a "blank slate," which can be written on as the planners wish in order to achieve the New Jerusalem. Pinker notes 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."8

Mao Zedong 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. …